The Day Before



On 20 March 2003, USA and UK forces bombed Iraq despite there being no evidence of any weapons of mass destruction providing credible threat to either nation. The risk of death from violence in the period after the invasion has been assessed as 58 times higher than in the period before the war (The Lancet, 20 November 2004). In January 2006 the USA pulled the plug on reconstruction in Iraq (The Guardian, 3 January 2006).

At a straightforward level, this piece is simply my own small anti-war protest. It was written in the spring of 2003, during the build-up to, and immediately after, the US/UK attack on Iraq. It overlays a personal account of what it was like to be a peace activist in Baghdad the night before the attack (from Jo Wilding's diary) on an old and well-known Iraqi popular song (from a record by Salima Pasha). The new reality cuts across an increasingly obscured example of Iraq's own recent culture.

Structurally, this piece explores my continuing fascination with the spoken (or sung) word, with modes of communication, clarity of transmission, and levels of understanding.

This war was characterised by the use of sophisticated technologies - both in surveillance and armaments, and in carefully stage managed and edited "on-the-spot" reporting via satellite video-phone.

Jo Wilding spent some months in Iraq in 2002 and 2003 as an independent reporter. Her descriptions of everyday life in Baghdad in early 2003 were emailed to friends in the West, bypassing censorship, then published on the Web. Using the same technology as the military and the official reporters, her uncensored accounts were available to UK readers at the same time as more official statements.

Jo's 'voice' in her writing is clear and distinctive - but how can written text best be used in a sound work? An actress would not be Jo herself and, in any case, one of the most striking and shocking aspects of her diaries is the way that emotional events are recorded in plain language and rendered in plain text. My solution was to keep her voice in the computer - and to use speech synthesis software to read her words - with all the resulting lack of inflexion and emotion. The meaning is clear (hopefully!) but it is not a human speaking.

In contrast, the recording of Salima Pasha, despite its age, carries all the force of her personality but, for most English listeners, the arabic words will be incomprehensible. To add to this 'isolation' I have distorted the playing of the song as it progresses, obscuring it even as a purely sonic communication, as a metaphor for the unravelling of everyday life in Baghdad. When I chose the song I had no way of knowing that the invading forces would, indeed, abandon Iraq (though Afghanistan was by then rapidly falling out of headline news).

To these two interwoven layers, I have added my own smaller contribution. This sound layer has no text or melody, but hopefully serves to punctuate and emphasise certain aspects of the other two. Then, like an included graphic in an email, I have bundled the whole lot together and framed it within an email application - the sort that announces the arrival of new messages.

For those interested in the title of the song, the numerals represent sounds in Iraqi spoken Arabic that are not available in the English language. The 3 in "3adeh" is pronounced as a very strong A.

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