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Speaking up for the forgotten soldiers

Nabihah Iqbal reveals how musicians, rappers, spoken-word artists and young filmmakers have come together to tell the untold stories of the First World War

08 November, 2018 — By Róisín Gadelrab

Nabihah Iqbal

IF I survive I will tell you everything” – the loaded promise of an Indian soldier in a letter penned from the frontline a century ago.

His haunting words have become the title of a specially commissioned piece by British-Pakistani musician Nabihah Iqbal, one of a selection of works highlighting the untold stories of the First World War.

The project, Cause and Effect, a collaboration between the Roundhouse and 14-18 NOW (an arts programme connecting people with WWI), brings musicians, rappers and spoken-word artists together with young filmmakers to create short audio-visual works bringing to life the stories of the past, while highlighting their relevance today.

Musicians and poets Awate, Lowkey, Hollie McNish, Akala, Gaika, Nabihah, Amy True and Bridget Minamore took guidance from historian David Olusoga to create the works, which were then turned into moving short films.

History graduate and Ninja Tunes musician Iqbal pieced together the words of forgotten soldiers from the colonies as they faced mortality on the frontline with her layered beats to create the hard-hitting piece brought to life by filmmaker Vivek Vidoliya.

“Vivek came up with the idea of having people now mouthing the words because the legacy of WWI and the effect it had on colonial territories around the world is absolutely intrinsic to the development of the history of those places around the world,” said Iqbal.

Key to the project was the idea that huge elements of the war effort have been overlooked throughout history.

“I wanted to create something that was based as much as possible on primary material because it’s those voices that have been silenced,” said Iqbal.

“We have a lot of war poetry – Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon – and when you think about the depiction of a soldier’s experience, immediately that western European war poetry springs to mind that’s so poignant in its words and evocative. So I wanted to look for what the African and Indian soldiers were saying.”

Iqbal researched a collection of 650 letters by Indian soldiers serving on the western front and oral testimonies from Senegalese soldiers fighting for the French army in WWI.

“I was looking at African and Asian soldiers who have been left out of the mainstream narrative. It’s so important to know about the contribution of those men. There were more than four million of them and so it was intrinsic to the war effort and the outcome of the war,” she said.

“In this day and age, when we’ve got Trump and Brexit and under the surface racism or xenophobia starting to come out across Europe and America, it kind of counters that because it makes you realise we’ve been working together for a lot longer, we’ve been living together for a lot longer, these soldiers were fighting together along the frontline, they probably weren’t thinking about race and difference because of race, because when you’re standing on the frontline being fired at and looking death in the face, you’re all the same.”

The title of her piece is striking.

“You can read into it on multiple layers: he’s sitting in the trench, shellfire all around him and he’s trying to get the message back to his family. He knows the letter’s going to be censored, he’s got a lot to say, so he just writes the line ‘If I survive, I will tell you everything’. He probably didn’t survive and whether he did or didn’t, it’s really that the testimonies of those soldiers didn’t really survive because we don’t know about them.

“So it’s not just about him as an individual, it’s about that voice as a collective voice of all those soldiers who fought during the war, whether that voice survived or not.”

Iqbal added: “I was looking at the numbers of brown and black soldiers fighting at the western front and their formation, and it turned out that the frontline was filled up with these soldiers because I guess by the field marshal standards their lives were valued a bit less, so they thought, let’s put them at the front.

“Then you think back to your GCSE history textbook, and the photos they show you of the western front, and there’s not a single ethnic face in those photos and you get the impression it was literally all allied soldiers fighting there and that was it.”

Iqbal pieced together extracts from different letters to create the work.

She said: “I thought there was no way from my imagination I could write words to reflect their experience without trivialising it because it’s something so huge that there’s no way of me understanding what they actually felt like, or went through.

“So in the end I decided I would write a war poem that used their words.”

Iqbal’s research also threw up a more personal angle, as she realised her granddad’s uncle fought as part of the Indian troops in Mesopotamia.

She said: “The Indian soldiers recruited by the British during WWI were first sent to the western front. But, by the end of 1916 and early 1917, the British government decided they didn’t want to have Indian soldiers based in Europe fighting against white faces, because they were getting more scared about uprising in India so they didn’t want people to get used to being able to fight against white people. So they moved all the Indian soldiers over to battlefields in the Middle East.”

• The other Cause and Effect films that can be found online include: Akala’s piece emphasising the powers of empires and how they shaped history for the next 100 years; Poet Hollie McNish focusing on the Maisons Toleree and uncovering the stories of sex workers erased from WWI’s history; Amy True’s look at the traumatic impact of colonial wars on the world today and on the soldiers who fought in these conflicts; Bridget Minamore‘s piece about women who have been left out of feminist narratives, exploring women of colour, working class women, and popular Suffragette narratives; Awate explores the untold history of WWI Askari soldiers; GAIKA’s short film looks at how maps drawn and deals made 100 years ago have impacted the lives of future generations and Lowkey’s track Refuse 2 Kill tells the story of anti-war heroes.


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