What would happen if a group of Iraq War veterans from the Philly region sat down to dinner with Iraqi War refugees making new lives for themselves in Philly?
A great deal, it turns out.
That, in part, is the idea behind Radio Silence, a 10-part, weekly radio broadcast sponsored by Mural Arts Philadelphia, which will kick off with a free live sampler event featuring Iraqi food and music at 6 p.m. Saturday in front of Independence Mall.
Created and hosted by Iraqi American artist Michael Rakowitz, Radio Silence will premiere Aug. 6 on community radio stations across the country through Prometheus Radio Project and via podcast on the Mural Arts website.
“They had a lot to talk about” at the dinner, which was held in May at Amasi, an Iraqi restaurant near the Temple University campus in North Philly, said Rakowitz, an associate professor of art at Northwestern University in Chicago.
The evening was the culmination of five years of research and interviews Rakowitz conducted to amass material for the show.
The artist began working on the idea with former Iraqi journalist and news anchor Bahjat Abdulwahed. Dubbed “the Walter Cronkite of Iraq,” Abdulwahed moved to Philly in 2009.
“It was exciting to have him reclaim his place as an anchor and a reporter by developing stories about the Iraqi refugees who are becoming part of an emerging community of Iraqi Americans in Northeast Philly,” Rakowitz said.
A year after they began working together, Abdulwahed was struck ill.
“He lost his voice after undergoing a tracheotomy,” Rakowitz said. “The Voice of Iraq had gone silent. Sadly, he passed away in August 2015.”
Rakowitz will play excerpts from Abdulwahed’s reports each week before airing new stories about lives of local soldiers and Iraqis alike.
Once the program had gained its final shape, Rakowitz invited all the participants to share a meal.
Phoenixville’s Lawrence Davidson, who served in the Army from 2002 to 2008, was at that dinner.
“I sat down across from a young Iraqi immigrant who turned out to have been in Baqubah [about 30 miles northwest of Baghdad] on the same day I was there,” said Davidson, director of Veterans Affairs of Chester County.
Farouk Al Obaidi, the young immigrant, “now lives right here in the area.”
Davidson, 36, will be featured in a story about the Warrior Writers Project, an informal creative workshop and support group he founded for area veterans.
“We have been having discussions on the idea of silence,” a theme suggested by Rakowitz. “And the sessions were recorded for the show.”
Silence, the thematic rubric for much of the show, is a “powerful idea, because it touches on so many things soldiers immediately recognize. There’s the silence you need to impose on yourself during combat,” said Rakowitz. “But there’s also the silence of people with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], who fear that if they speak up about their trauma it means admitting it really happened.”
Silence also is a central element in the story of North Wales engineer Jawad al Amiri, who moved to America in 1981 as an 18-year-old college student.
He and Davidson will share their stories Saturday at the launch event.
“For Iraqis who lived under Saddam [Hussein] and opposed his regime, silence wasn’t just a poetic idea, but a way of life, a way to stay alive,” said al Amiri, who has lost most of family because of their anti-Ba’ath Party activism.
“You learn from childhood to keep your feelings to yourself, and not reveal them to your closest friend. It’s the same in every police state,” he said. “When you bring up kids like this, you’re teaching them that they need to be hypocrites to live.”
Before moving to America, al Amiri watched as his older sister died. “She was poisoned when she was held in detention and when she came home, I watched her die in pain,” he said. Around the same time, two of his brothers also were arrested.
“I didn’t find out what happened to them until all those mass graves were discovered in 2003,” he said.
“Between May 1980 and March 1991, I lost three more family members: another sister and both my parents.”
Rakowitz admits much of the radio show’s subject matter will be heavy
“But we also will have warmer, less mournful moments,” he said, “and people who share happier memories.”
That includes a segment about Iraq’s most famous professional wrestler Adnan Al-Kaissie, who has variously been known as Sheik Adnan Al-Kaissey, Billy White Wolf, or General Adnan.
“He and Saddam were in school together,” Rakowitz said.
“And when he returned to Iraq” after his career in America, “Saddam celebrated him as a hero and had him fight against André the Giant in Baghdad’s massive Al-Shaab Stadium.”
Guess who did the play-by-play commentary?
“It was Abdulwahed,” Rakowitz said.
Radio Silence launch event
6 p.m. Saturday in front of Independence Hall, 520 Chestnut St.