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25th January

Static is the sound of distance

As a young boy and teenager, I didn’t do well in school. Most of the time I paid no attention and was lost in fantasies of travelling to other countries. But in order to qualify for the level of secondary school that gives access to university, I had to take an entrance exam. Tutors were hired to prepare me through countless hours of arithmetic practice, spelling, and learning the dates of important Dutch battles by heart. I passed the exam. 

To celebrate my success, my parents bought me a sleek black transistor radio. I carried it by its handle and turned its round dial to receive short and long wave stations. With the Nordmende Mambino I was now able to travel the world from my room.

From my childhood bedroom, I listened to the Dutch stations in Hilversum; twenty years later I’d work for one of them as a correspondent in Mexico.

I also listened to the illegal commercial station, Radio Veronica, which broadcasted pop music from a ship in the North Sea. Listening to Veronica was frowned upon by my parents, not so much because it was illegal but because they considered advertising on radio and television intrusive and common. My father had heard that in the United States and did not approve. I enjoyed the music, though, and danced by myself to The Supremes, The Four Tops, and Stevie Wonder.

But most of all, I was interested in foreign stations. I spoke English, German, and some French but I particularly liked languages I didn’t understand: Spanish, Italian, Arabic.

Sometimes the interference made it difficult to hear these faraway stations clearly but that made them even more alluring. Static was the sound of distance.

I mimicked the hard and fast Spanish that sounded like a machine gun going off, the soft and melodious Italian, the masculine and guttural Arabic. It didn’t make any difference that I had no idea what was being said; the rhythm, the accent, and the tone of voice gave me a feeling for the people who spoke it.

Not too long ago I looked at the work of candidates for our production award for emerging video artists from the Arab world and Central Asia. Several of the videos did not yet have subtitles. I saw ancient buildings with elaborately carved walls in Azerbaijan while a voice recited what I imagined to be a poem. In another video, men were sitting at a long table in a field in Georgia. They were having a lively conversation while eating a copious range of lunch of meats, fish, salads, nuts, and grapes. An artist from Kuwait showed a young man who danced with swirling movements to the singing and clapping of colorfully dressed women.  

I felt the same excitement as when l listened to my little transistor radio. For a moment I was a boy again, back in my room in Rotterdam in 1966.

Static is the sound of distance
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