The Pilot News

The Silent City


On March 16, 1988, Saddam Hussein ordered a chemical attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja. Between 3,200 and 5,000 people were killed and another 7,000 to 10,000 civilians were injured. Surveys of the region of the attack show an increased rate of cancer and birth defects in the years afterwards. The attack was the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-population in history.

The second selection for the South Bend Symphony Orchestra on March 4, 2023, was Silent City. Kayhan Kalhor wrote the piece for the Silkroad Ensemble in 2005 as a response to the Halabja massacre. It was intended not only as call to remember but was also a demand for justice. Since the piece uses both improvisat­ional and compositio­nal styles, it calls for complicate­d musical direction. Under the leadership Alastair Willis, music director of the orchestra, Kayhan and the symphony brought the piece to life. It started in a darkened theater with Kalhor playing very softly on the bowed, stringed kamancheh, an Iranian instrument. He was joined by selected musicians and then finally by the entire orchestra. As Silent City was reaching its climax lights were turned on, grief had given way to joy, and a new sense of hope filled the auditorium.

After the Hebrew people crossed the Jordan River Joshua constructe­d a memorial made from stones taken from the river. He tells the people, “When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you? Then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever (Joshua 4:6b-7).”

Silent City is a musical memorial to recall the horrific tragedy that took place On March 16, 1988, in Halabja to the Kurdish people. The South Bend Symphony Orchestra’s play of Silent City caused me to ask about the Halabja massacre. When I got home, I went on line to find out more about it. I am sure that I was not the only one there Saturday night, March 4, who wanted to find more about the chemical attack. Every time Silent City is performed it invites the audience to ask about its genesis.

One of my mother-in-law’s favorite scriptures was Psalm 30:5: “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Saddam Hussen did not have the final word March 16, 1988. As Silent City so eloquently portrays, out of the silence of a city that has been devastated by a chemical attack, the murmurs of a few begin to arise. Slowly, the chorus gains force until they finally break forth into a song of dance. Evil does not have the last word, love and joy and grace do.

Paul concludes his love chapter in I Corinthian­s “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love (I Corinthian­s 13:13).” Silent City is a testament to the truth of Paul’s words. The piece not only causes one to look to the past with its genocidal massacre, but to the future with faith, hope and love. In the end the light overcomes the darkness.

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