The Unheard World

Stephen Iliffe reviews Audiovisability’s stunning project to pull centuries-old classical music norms into new 21st century shapes.   

Some cynics say classical music is little more than a museum for dead composers, that it has exhausted its capacity for new ideas.

Refusing this stereotype are Audiovisability’s British Syrian composer Waseem Kotoub and flautist Ruth Montgomery. Their latest project The Unheard World tackles urgent middle east themes – home, displacement and migration – as war continues to tear traditional societies apart.


The initial concept was premiered last August at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Waseem’s Stories of Syria for solo piano. Performed at Stockbridge Church (above), the vaulted roof filled with swelling chords that blend sweet nostalgia with terrorism’s dark shadows.

Waseem’s skill lies in marshalling a huge dynamic range; he can playfully reel off mid-tempo folk dances; or pummel the keys into a maelstrom of dense harmonics; or brush them with the lightness of a dragonfly on the breeze.

Across five movements – Dawn, Dance, Pain, Hope, Damascus Rose – Waseem unfurls a psychological profile of his homeland, a tightrope-tension between innocence and fear, sorrow and hope for a better future. It was mesmerising 20-minute performance that left me wanting more.

And there was more to come: At the close, Waseem shared news of his commission by Audiovisability to rewrite Stories of Syria for a chamber ensemble. The result to be performed with synchronised live action painting, sign language and captions.

Ruth M 1

This was an intriguing prospect: Audiovisability is the brainchild of deaf flautist Ruth Montgomery (above). An ‘audio visual’ collective whose latest iteration blends Arabic and British cultures into dazzling multimedia events.

Four months later, 400 miles south, I’m at Brighton’s Fabrica to join a sell-out audience to see Stories of Syria emerge butterfly-like from its chrysalis.

To begin with, Dawn’s taut weave of dreamy folk nostalgia and sublimated war marches gains added dynamic from the interplay of Ruth’s melodic flute runs and a colouristic string section of violin (Thomas Leate), viola (Helen Sanders-Hewett) and cello (James Greenfield). The Arab-west fusion comes alive with Rihab Azar’s oud (an eastern version of the lute) and Jamal Al-Sakka’s supple percussives on Mazhar (frame drum) and Riq (similar to a tambourine).

Captions 1

Another innovation: live captions on a big screen (above) track the music’s evolving themes and moods. ‘Unstable’ – ‘Remember peace?’ – ‘A sudden unexpected shift’ – ‘Thick tension’. It’s a pleasing touch, like whispered asides to the audience. Additional cues flag up the ensemble’s techniques: ‘The flute returns to the original melody’ – ‘The oud reminds us of the march’. Scripted by Eloise Garland, the balance was spot on; not fussily detailed or overly prescriptive, empowering the audience to insert their own imaginations into the music.

Pushing the envelope further: on a slightly-raised stage just behind the ensemble, stands artist Rachel Gadsden with buckets of acrylic paint and five blank canvases – one for each movement.

Brighton Rachel 3

As Rachel’s paintings (above) evolve in real time to the music , they mind-map Stories of Syria’s physical and emotional impact. Using an abstract expressionist palette of daubed whites, splashed crimsons, bleeding turquoise. Applied with brushes and sticks or by fingertips, knuckles and palms. Improvised strokes that might evoke a throbbing heart or delicate flower, a torn limb or spilt wine.

It’s a perfect marriage with Waseem’s music which itself is never simply ‘picture music’ but takes us on a psychic journey from trauma to hope.

In the west, we’re often guilty of holding a two-dimensional view of Syria – framed by 24/7 media images of Kalashnikov-waving terrorists and concrete ruins. The 2nd movement ‘Dance’ reminds us it was not always so. Adapting the classical Rondo form (= ‘circle’), it nods to the Syrian Dabkeh tradition of dancing in circles). There’s a communal spirit as the ensemble plays in unison while allowing generous space for each individual musician to take turns in driving the melody forwards. A one-for-all, all-for-one Syria before factional divide-and-rule tore it apart.

Nadia 1

Audiovisability throws us another gambit: deaf actress Nadia Nadarajah (above with James Greenfield on cello) steps up to unfurl her British Sign Language (BSL) and ‘conduct’ and ‘interpret’ the music, using a deft mix of BSL storytelling and improvised gestures that signal the music’s repetition, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and metre.

This is something of a ‘research and development’ technique that has huge potential. As an experienced actress, Nadia is supersensitive to the role of facial expression and body language in theatre. Far from being just an interpreter, she dramatises Stories of Syria’s narrative and brings an added pulse to the music too.

As ‘Dance’ ends, an eerie silence falls. Then, one of the evening’s key moments;  James’ cello opens ‘Pain’ with a long-held cathartic moan, wringing every drop of emotion from his bow. A caption evokes ‘Mothers who have lost their children’. Rachel drags crimson-streaked fingers down the canvas, like a prisoner in solitary confinement gripping the cell walls. Nadia’s existential body language connects to all of us whatever language we speak or sign.

It’s a harrowing moment that stops the audience in its collective tracks – musicians, artist, BSL signer, captions, audience, all fused together in a universal cry of pain.

Over the next three minutes, ‘Pain’ leads us on a slow, hypnotic funereal march through a limbo of mourning strings and heartbeat rhythms from Helen’s plucked viola and Jamal’s gently finger-tapped heartbeat rhythms. During this passage, I recall the poet John Donne’s famous line on hearing a funeral bell: ‘Ask not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee’, reminding us that all of us in the west are diminished by this war and the suffering it causes.

Rihab 5

The tempo gathers once more with the 4th movement’s tentatively upbeat ‘Hope’ until Rihab’s solo tango (above) for oud introduces ‘Damascus Rose’. As Ruth’s flute takes its cue from a famous Syrian folk tune, to evoke a flower’s petals opening to a brighter future, James’s cello interjects a note of caution, reminding us that for many Syrians ‘home’ is a place of love and pride with an underlying sorrow that never entirely leaves.

After the interval, the ensemble returns to tackle a second theme – ‘migration’. In the three-movement ‘Belonging’, Waseem alludes to the life story of deaf textile artist Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings. It’s a sublime evocation; Omeima’s Sudanese-Arabic childhood beside the river Nile, her sudden deafness aged four by meningitis, and subsequent migration to deaf school in London.

Omeima 1

In the aisle, three of Omeima’s translucent textile panels (above) hang on display, backlit with spotlights until they glow like African sunshine in Brighton’s wintry darkness.  One could pass a whole evening scanning the details. Each panel a micro-world in itself. Intricate patterns and lines resemble Arabic script or audiogram charts, musical notation or childhood memories. A visual narrative that amplifies Waseem’s music (and vice versa).

In another technological twist, the accompanying photography and textile exhibition enabled visitors to use Signly’s new mobile phone app to display on-screen BSL translations of the exhibit captions.


The Unheard World ends on a third theme – displacement – reminding us of the ongoing cost of Syrian war; the trauma experienced by over three million of asylum seekers and refugees. This is bought to vivid life by a video short by deaf film-maker Ramon Woolfe of his 11-year old daughter Layla’s BSL poem – soundtracked by Rihab’s plaintive oud solo. Through her native sign language, Layla’s gives a voice to the dreams of a six-year old deaf asylum seeker Lawand Hamadamin. He’s currently safe and being temporarily schooled at Derby’s Royal School for the Deaf. Yet his family still await a high court judgement on their application to remain in the UK.

From an audio-visual perspective, The Unheard World is a lot to take in. Yet it consistently hits the spot for me, and judging by the rapturous applause, for the wider audience too (a mixture of Brighton’s general public and deaf community members). With thoughtful staging, Audiovisability empowers us to enjoy music on different levels. You can choose as and when to switch focus between musicians, painting, captions or BSL, each a standalone element while adding value to the overall performance.

Ask a random stranger in the street about “classical music” or “music and deaf people” and you’ll likely get some fumbling response about “posh music” and “shame that some can’t hear music”. Audiovisability not only challenges these tired assumptions, it alchemises a whole new way of enjoying music.

This project is surely only just beginning and deserves a far wider audience.

The Unheard World is funded by Arts Council England, Arab British Centre and Decibels / Sobell Foundation 

All text and photographs by Stephen Iliffe. Except top image by Tim Gadsen. 



Giving deaf refugees a voice

Everyone has an opinion about refugees.

But what about refugees themselves? Shouldn’t they have a voice too?  What of their experiences, hopes and fears?

This week, Audiovisability releases The Unheard World – a unique British Sign Language (BSL) video about six-year-old deaf asylum seeker Lawand Hamadamin.

It features a heart-wrenching poem by 11-year old British deaf girl Layla Fitzgerald-Woolfe of Lawand’s traumatic journey from Iraq to the infamous Dunkirk refugee camp in France.

After six weeks in makeshift tents and waterlogged fields with only scraps of food to live on, Lawand and his family were rescued by Deaf Kidz International volunteers and bought into the UK.

Lawand now lives temporarily in Derby, so he can attend the Royal School for Deaf Children and – crucially – acquire the language skills he desperately needs to express himself. By finding a new home in Derby’s deaf community, Lawand has made dramatic progress.

However, the family’s relief didn’t last long: the Hamadamins were given blunt notice by the Home Office that they are to be deported to Germany.

The decision makes no human sense: Lawand’s education would go back to square one. German and German Sign Language are completely different to English and British Sign Language (BSL). At a stroke, a year’s progress would be wiped out.

At the eleventh hour, a judge suspended Lawand’s deportation until the High Court considers their case to remain.

Last summer, Lawand was befriended by Layla Fitzgerald-Woolfe who spent a day conversing with him in BSL about his experiences. The result is unique: a British deaf child using BSL poetry to give a voice to an Iraqi deaf child. Telling his story, as he told it to her.

The video soundtrack was composed by deaf flautist Ruth Montgomery who uses minor keys and Arabic tones to express the BSL rhythms and to capture the story’s evolving moods. The music is performed by Syrian oud player, Rihab Azar.

To complete a deaf-led project, Stephen Iliffe’s photographs form a subtle backdrop to Layla’s sign language.

Do share the video, and also encourage your friends to sign the 38 Degrees petition that calls on the authorities to grant Lawand and his family permission to remain in the UK.

Thank you!


I have a dream…

“Hey, I’m Spiderman!”

Six-year-old Lawand climbs his bedroom walls.

Because, in their dreams, deaf children can do anything – except hear perfectly. 


As an asylum seeker, Lawand Hamadamin dreams of a future here in Derby – 3,230 miles from his birthplace in Chwarqurna, northern Iraq.

For 18 months ago, his family fled overnight from war-torn Iraq to seek safety here, with just passports and the clothes on their back.

As a reporter for the Audiovisability project, I meet the Hamadamins in temporary accommodation in a Derby backstreet. Naked light bulbs, bare walls, mattresses on the floor. But it’s home. For now.

Polite, smiling yet nervous, father Rebwar (35) and mother Golbahar (33) offer me a traditional welcome – a tray of black tea and baklava pastries. As we sit cross-legged on the floor, I promise the boys – Lawand (6) and brother Rawa (7) – that once I’ve finished interviewing their parents, we’ll play football in a local park. They agree, grab some toys, gifted by local volunteers, and race upstairs.


Rebwar stresses that refugees are ordinary people like you and me.

“Trust me,” he says. “No-one easily leaves their country, culture and language. My family lived in Chwarqurna for six generations. I had a tile fitting business. We had our own house, a car. We’d take the boys on day trips to the mountains (above). We were happy there.”

But then their lives were turned upside-down by the war. United Nations (UN) began to file reports of genocide, slavery, rape: “Just imagine,” says Rebwar, “no longer feeling safe in your own home. At nights, I’d hear a bang or noise and wonder what was about to happen? When I saw my kids asleep in their beds, I knew for their sakes that we had to leave.”

The Hamadamins made a dangerous trek through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Germany – arriving at France’s infamous Dunkirk refugee camp (below).


In Dunkirk, the Hamadamins swapped one hell for another: “Conditions were so bad you would not leave your dog there,” says Rebwar.

“Floods, disease, rats. It was bad enough for adults, imagine how frightening for kids. And all this when Lawand should have been starting school.”

“We had to wrap Lawand’s cochlear implant in a plastic bag to stop water getting inside,” adds Rebwar. “Then it ran out of batteries and later broke. It was so hard for me to communicate to Lawand why he wasn’t at home doing the normal things.”

Amid outbreaks of police brutality and typhoid disease, the Hamadamins were dramatically rescued by volunteers who bundled them to safety in the back of a lorry heading towards England.

Once safely in England, the family was put in contact with Deaf Kidz International who facilitated Lawand’s enrolment at Derby’s Royal School for Deaf Children. It was his first sustained exposure to sign language. He took to it like a fish to water.

“When Lawand arrived at school, he had no means of communicating with anyone, even his own family,” headteacher Helen Shepherd told the Daily Mail. “He’s now making exceptional progress here. He is signing incredibly well and has made good friends. He has grown physically and in confidence.”


“It’s my dream that when I’m older, I can play for my deaf school’s football team” says Lawand.

The family’s relief didn’t last long: the Hamadamins were given blunt notice by the British government’s Home Office that they are to be deported back to Germany.

The decision makes no human sense: Lawand’s education would go back to square one. German and German Sign Language are completely different to English and British Sign Language. At a stroke, a year’s progress would be wiped out.

There was an immediate public outcry with media headlines. A 38 Degrees petition gained over 12,000 signatures. At the 11th hour, a solicitor forced the Home Office to delay proceedings until a High Court judge considers their case.

“I fully understand that some British people feel asylum seekers have no place here,” says Rebwar. “Yet so many people have been welcoming to us too.”

That some feel the Hamadamins don’t belong here is illustrated in graphic terms in the comments thread below the Daily Mail article:

“Being deported to Germany is now a “devastating blow”? Really?”

 ‘I bet the kids getting all the benefits! They are living like kings!’

‘Hopefully the deaf boy didn’t hear the 11th hour reprieve and left for the airport……’

The online trolls are misinformed. Rebwar despairs: “If we return to Germany, the same thing could happen there too. Using the same EU rules, they might simply deport us back to Greece. Another country, another language, another education system. Every time, we get moved on, Lawand would suffer from the lack of continuity in our lives.”

And, contrary to popular myth, government benefits for refugees are modest: “Just £5 per person per day” says Rebwar. “I have to juggle food and transport costs within that. When you have a child with special needs, there are additional costs. We are deeply grateful to the support of the British Red Cross with donating things like toiletries. But if we go past an ice cream van and the boys ask, we simply can’t afford it.”

Home Office rules prevent asylum seekers from paid employment until their leave to remain is granted, so the family has no other means of supporting itself.








Why should Britain take Iraqi refugees?

Let’s rewind back to 2003, and the US-British invasion of Iraq. An Iraqi regime that had no “weapons of mass destruction” to threaten us was toppled by our armed forces with little thought to the longer-term consequences.

Arrogant US-British officials then installed puppet rulers who were predictably unable to govern Iraq. This unleashed a chain reaction that would eventually lead to extremists filling the political vacuum. Ten of thousands died, more than 3 million driven from their homes.

As The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins argues: “Britain broke Iraq. We can’t turn our back on its refugees.

“The reason given for the invasion was ‘humanitarian’,” says Jenkins. “Given the lack of military threat, humanity was all there was. Now humanity comes knocking on Britain’s door. It is hypocrisy for a British government to say “we declared war on your country for the sake of your humanity. Don’t come to our shores because we screwed up”.”

Yet still the Home Office shrugs its shoulders. EU rules state asylum be sought in the country of first refuge. For Iraqi refugees, this puts Turkey, Greece and Italy in the frontline – with Britain on the far side of the European continent. This is unfair and unenforceable. Turkey, Greece and Italy never went to war with Iraq yet they absorb by far the greater number of refugees.

Take a closer look at the statistics: Only 0.24% of the UK population are refugees, asylum seekers or stateless people – that is 168,978 people, around the same size as the population of Rochdale in Lancashire.

This is just a fraction of the 749,309 refugees and asylum seekers that Germany has taken in. British Red Cross confirms that roughly just 3% of asylum applications in Europe were lodged in the UK.

For Lawand’s sake, we can’t let him become just another statistic, a political football to be kicked around Europe?


A last chance for Lawand?

Ever since birth, Lawand had the odds stacked against him. In the Middle East, deaf children outside the major cities are often abandoned to their fate – a life without school or work – by families and officials lacking in positive adult role models for what deaf people can really achieve, if given support.

Lawand was already one before his deafness was identified: “I had my suspicions” says Rebwar (above, right). “While other children chattered away, Lawand had just two words, “Mum” and “Dad”.”

Nine out of ten deaf children are born into families with no prior experience of childhood deafness. All over the world, when parents are told their new born child is  deaf, the response is universal: “I was devastated,” says Rebwar. “I felt helpless.”

Yet Rebwar, a humble tile fitter, refused to accept the status quo. There are no audiologists in Chwarqurna. A two hour-drive to Erbil resulted in a hearing test that confirmed his deafness, but no hearing aids. So Rebwar dug deep into his savings and flew to New Delhi, India. Aged two, Lawand was fitted with his first hearing aids.

By British standards, where new-born babies are automatically screened for hearing loss and fitted with aids within weeks, this came late. Research indicates the first two years, as the child’s brain grows and forms neurological connections, are critical for establishing a working language. Postpone hearing aids, or sign language input, and the normal rate of development becomes progressively harder to achieve.

So, Lawand was in a race against time: On return from India, Rebwar was advised that for his son also needed a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT). Inevitably, Chwarqurna had none. Again, Rebwar made financial sacrifices and flew to neighbouring Iran. For two months, Lawand had daily appointments with an SLT using Iran’s national Farsi language.

However, Rebwar soon became aware of the futility of this: as the family’s own native language and Farsi are different languages. It was only then Rebwar understood the full benefits of SLT therapy are specific to the child’s own language: an obvious point to many of us in the west, but not so to people in a country lacking public information about deafness.

So, Rebwar conceded defeat. In what felt like a final throw of the dice, he made a second flight to New Delhi and made the case for Lawand to have a cochlear implant – a surgically-implanted device that gives profoundly deaf children access to a fuller spectrum of sounds than hearing aids can deliver.

On return to Chwarqurna, Lawand began nursery class, only for fate to take another twist as northern Iraq was thrown into turmoil once more. As the family fled in panic, Lawand’s education was halted even as it had barely started.

photo-15.jpegNew friends, new dreams

Northern Iraq’s future is dire. Many of its schools and hospitals are closed or barely function. Half of the region’s health workers have fled the country.

Even in peaceful times, Chwarqurna lacked the deaf community infrastructure that Derby enjoys – underpinned by the Royal School which brings together families of deaf children and young people into mutual support groups, all giving each emotional and practical support.


Indeed, Lawand’s many new deaf friends feel so attached to him, that one, 11-year old Layla (above), has uploaded to You Tube an eloquent sign language poem that captures Lawand’s hopes and fears.

The interview over, I keep my promise to Lawand and Rawa and we head out to a local park to play football. I’m struck by how Lawand’s communication skills have blossomed at deaf school. I ask who’s your favourite football team? As quick as a flash, Lawand fingerspells B-A-R-C-E-L-O-N-A. Favourite player? L-I-O-N-E-L  M-E-S-S-I. Who’s better Messi or Ronaldo? And we’re getting into the finer details. Ronaldo wins more trophies, but Messi gets more goals. And, so on and on.

Like so many deaf children starved of language and communication in the early years, and still without access to his broken cochlear implant, Lawand’s quick-witted thoughts, through the visual medium of British Sign Language, are now gushing out.

As Lawand signs the names of his school friends and their hobbies, it’s clear to me that, in additional to the political, legal and moral arguments, the human case for Lawand to remain in England is exceptional.

If Lawand is deported, he will have no further access to his newly acquired British Sign language. His communication will shut down. He will suffer the trauma of being unable to enjoy a shared language with family, friends and teachers.

photoAs we race to the playground climbing frames, Lawand resumes his Spiderman act once more. I sign to him: “Don’t you get dizzy hanging upside-down like that? “No,” he signs back. “I’m a superhero!”

Does nothing make him afraid, I wonder? Which leads me to the big question: “If you had the chance, would you like to go back to Chwarqurna?”

“No,” he shakes his head decisively. “I have nightmares about going back. I don’t want to go to a place with no deaf school, no-one I can talk to in my new British Sign Language.”

“It’s my dream to stay in Derby,” says Lawand. “This is my home. My friends are here. My heart is here.”


Please support the 38 Degrees petition by signing it and sharing Lawand’s story with your friends.