Handel: Israel in Egypt

img_2416Highgate Choral Society’s March Concert features one of the great oratorios by George Frederick Handel “Israel in Egypt”.

The concert takes place on Saturday, 10 March 2018 at 7pm at All Hallow’s Church, Savernake Road, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP. 

Highgate Choral Society will be joined by five wonderful soloists and the New London Orchestra. The concert will be conducted by Ronald Corp. 

1. Israel in Egypt (HWV 54) is an oratorio by George Frederick Handel. It is scored for six soloists (2 sopranos, alto, tenor and 2 bass soli), chorus and orchestra. In our performance the mezzo soprano soloist will sing the alto and the second soprano solo parts.

2. Handel was a very prolific composer of operas. His first opera Almira was premiered on 8 January 1705 in Hamburg. During his life he wrote 42 operas. Typically the libretto of an opera was in Italian and there was great emphasis on virtuoso solo arias and elaborate staging and costumes. When Handel visited London the first time (in 1711), it was mainly because his opera Rinaldo was to be performed there. But opera was not the only genre in which Handel set a dramatic libretto to music. As early as 1707 / 1708 Handel wrote two works which he called “oratorios” in Italy: Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707) and La Resurrectione (1708). Both were written for Rome and both were oratorios and not operas, because operas were forbidden in Rome since Pope Innocence XI papal edict in 1681. These works did not have staging, costumes and acting, but were otherwise operas in everything but name. Handel returned to writing oratorios in London with the oratorio Esther. It was probably first performed in 1718 in a private performance and then in a heavily revised form in 1732 in the King’s Theatre at the Haymarket in London. Esther was the first oratorio based on a story taken from the Old Testament of the Bible and written to an English libretto.

In the 1730s Handel found it more and more difficult to be successful with Italian opera in London. From 1733 the situation became worse because of the competition by a second opera company, the rival “Opera of the Nobility” which was supported by a group of nobles (including Frederick, Prince of Wales). This competition and the declining interest of the public in operas resulted in the bankruptcy of Handel’s opera company in 1737. In the season 1738 / 1739 it was impossible to attract enough subscriptions to mount an opera season. Handel decided that if he could not afford an opera season then he would try an oratorio season with oratorios in English. Oratorios were cheaper to put on, because they did not need costumes and staging. They also had two additional advantages: The religious authorities in England did not allow stage productions of biblical stories and did not allow any stage productions during Lent. A concert style oratorio was the solution to all these problems.

3. Handel wrote the oratorio Saul which was premiered on 16 January 1739 for the beginning of the 1738 / 1739 oratorio season. Israel in Egypt was the second oratorio in this season. The premiere was on 4 April 1739 in the King’s Theatre at the Haymarket, London.  Handel wrote Israel in Egypt in an incredible short time of only one month (1 October – 1 November 1738). Initially the oratorio had three parts. Handel started work on the third part first (“Moses’ Song“) and wrote it between 1 October and 11 October 1738, then he wrote the second part (“Exodus”) between 15 and 20 October 1738. The time until 28 October 1738 he used for instrumentation of the work. Two years earlier he had written an anthem for the funeral of George II’s consort, Queen Caroline. It had the title The Ways of Zion Do Morn and Handel used the work (with only small changes in the words) as the first part of Israel in Egypt which he called “The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph“.  For a revival of the work about twenty years later in 1756 Part one was removed and substituted with music from other works. In later performances a two part version (with only the original parts two and three) was generally preferred. We will perform the two part version of Israel in Egypt. This version does not have an overture and starts immediately with a short recitative. Our performance will start with the overture from the oratorio Susanna which Handel composed in summer 1748 and which had its premiere on 10 February 1749 in Covent Garden Theatre, London.

4. Israel in Egypt is in many ways an exceptional oratorio. It is one of only two oratorios which uses text exclusively from the Bible (without any paraphrases and interpolation). The other oratorio is Messiah. The text for the libretto is taken from the book Exodus and some passages from Psalms 78, 105 and 106 which retell and reflect the story in Exodus. It is not entirely clear whether Handel chose the text himself or whether Charles Jennens who wrote the libretto for Saul and who put the text together for Messiah also helped with the libretto of Israel in Egypt. 

The other reason why it is an exceptional oratorio is that it does not tell the story of one specific individual hero. It rather celebrates the story of the Israelite people, starting with their oppression in Egypt, their exodus and a celebration of their victory and their salvation. For that reason the choir is the main protagonist of the oratorio and the choruses clearly dominate the work. There are only very few recitatives, arias and duetts. The first audience was not expecting this extensive use of the chorus and that was one of the main objections to the work in Handel’s lifetime.

5. Part one consists of only two recitatives (for tenor soloist) and one aria (for alto soloist). The other 13 movements are choruses. Part two has 23 movements. The majority of these movements are again choruses (15), but part two contrasts the choruses with two recitatives (for tenor soloist), three duets (one for two sopranos, one for two basses and one for alto and tenor) and three solo arias (one for tenor, one for soprano and one for alto).

a) Part one (“Exodus”) starts with a short recitative in which a tenor soloist sets the scene: a new king reigns in Egypt and this leads to the oppression of the Israelites. The first chorus (double choir) gives a voice to the people and describes the burdens and bondage of the Israelite people. The next recitative (again sung by a tenor soloist) introduces Moses and Aaron who will rescue the Israelites and lead them out of Egypt. The next five choruses and the only aria in Part one (for alto soloist) speak about the ten biblical plagues: God turns water into blood (chorus), sends frogs – even to the king’s chamber in the palace, brings disease over the cattle and other livestock and boils over the Egyptians (aria for alto). The following chorus (for double choir) speaks about three plagues: flies, lice and locusts which devour the fruits of the ground. Next follows the hailstorm which brings hail and lightening (chorus – double choir), a darkness for three days (chorus) and finally the death of all the firstborns (chorus).

After all these plagues the Israelites are finally allowed to leave (chorus) and the Egyptians are glad that they do so (chorus). However the Egyptians change their mind and go after the Israelites. The culmination of part one comes in the following two choruses (both for double choir): God gives Moses the power to divide the Red Sea and lead the Israelite people safely through dry ground with a wall of water on both sides. When the Egyptian king and his army follow, the water returns and kills everyone (chorus). Part one closes with two choruses (one for double choir) which acknowledge the greatness and power of God.

b) Part two (“Moses’ Song“) is primarily a celebration of the victory described in part one.  It sets Chapter 15 of the book Exodus almost completely. The part starts with two choruses (both for double choir) which celebrate God’s triumph. The following duet for two sopranos is more contemplative and sets the text “the Lord is my strength and my song, he is become my salvation”. Solemn and joyful choruses follow in this part and arias and duets – some are prayerful, other are martial like the duet for two bass soloists “the Lord is a man of war”.

The last movements round off the whole work in an affirmative way. The double choir sings “the Lord shall reign for ever and ever” after a short tenor recitative another setting of the same text follows. It is again for double choir. The final chorus which is again preceded by a short tenor recitative has a more elaborate version of the same sentiment and sets an extended version of the text. This chorus brings the work to a triumphant and celebratory end.

6.  Prehaps because of the haste in which it was written Israel in Egypt contains only comparatively little original music by Handel. Examples of completely original pieces are the chorus “And I will exalt him” and the tenor aria “The enemy said”. Both are in part two. There is a high proportion of borrowings from other composer. Altogether ten movements across both parts contain music taken from the Magnificat by Milanese composer Dionigi Erba (1692-1730). Five movements include music borrowed from a cantata by another Italian composer Alessandro Stradella (1639-1682). In addition Handel used music from an instrumental piece by Stradella for the choruses “He spake the word” and “He gave them hailstones”. The chorus “Egypt was glad” is based on an organ canzona by the German composer Johann Caspar Kerll (1627-1693). Other movements use music by Giovanni Gabrieli (1554/1557-1612) and Francesco Urio (1631-1719). To adapt and borrow music of other composers was not unusual in Handel’s time as there were no copyright protections. But it is remarkable how much Handel borrowed and how much he made it his own to produce a musical cohesive work which uses different technics of choral settings, including settings for double choir, elaborate fugues, cantus firmus themes and also choral settings were all voices sing in one thunderous block of sound.

Also remarkable is Handel’s extensive use of word painting in this oratorio. The descending phrases in the first chorus of part one depict the “sighing” which the text mentions. The music imitates the images in the text in particular in the movements about the plagues: the leaping figures in the violins for the frogs and the buzzing strings for the flies and lice. The movement about the “hailstones” start with only a few chords. Then the music becomes more agitated as if the hailstones get more frequent and the timpani sound like a thunderstorm. Similar word paintings occurs also in part two. A good example is the galloping rhythm in the two choruses which mention the “the horse and its rider”.

7. Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt was initially not very popular. It was only performed twice in 1739. Also when the oratorio was performed in 1756 in a revised version it was not a great success.

The reception of the work changed after Handel’s death. There was a revival performance in 1784 to celebrate the centenary of  Handel’s birth (one year early). The audience which included Joseph Haydn was very enthusiastic. During Victorian times the oratorio became one of the favourite pieces of choral societies. Thanks for Felix Mendelssohn, who got to know the manuscript on one of his visits to England, it was also performed in Germany with great success. He conducted Israel in Egypt on 26 May 1833 in Düsseldorf, 1836 in Leipzig and 1844 in Berlin. He performed it with a German text, wrote an overture, cut some of the movements and changed some of the instrumentation. In a letter he describes vividly the performance in Düsseldorf which even included costumes and a kind of staging.

One of the earliest recordings ever made was of a chorus of Israel in Egypt. It was made on 29 June 1888 during a performance at the Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace, London (with a choir of 4000 singers) and can be heard on YouTube.



2017 in Review: #SaveArash, Ahmed Mansoor and Bahrain

The old year is over and the new one has just started. This is the time of the year to look back to the previous year and think about the year to come. As twice before I want to do exactly that in this post. I want to give an overview over my blog in 2017 and want to share ideas and topics I would like to cover in 2018.

1. Writing a blog would not be much fun, if no one read my blog posts and shared them.

Therefore, I want to start this post again with saying thank you – to all who visited my blog, left a comment, liked my blog posts or even decided to reblog one of my posts on your own blog. I also want to thank you for retweeting my tweets in which I shared my blog posts and for sharing my posts on Twitter and Facebook.

I am really grateful for all these signs of your appreciation for my posts. It shows me that you share my passion for the topics I cover and makes what I am doing worthwhile.

It is great that many of you followed the links in my posts, in particular the links to Amnesty International petitions and urgent actions. Please continue to do so and take action for the prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders. I am also grateful to everyone who continued to contribute photos to the “Sky for Shawkan” campaign and to the many people who joined the Tweet Storm for Ahmed Mansoor in September.

2. I wrote last year 14 blog post. Most of my blog posts were about “Human Rights” (ten posts) – three posts were about prisoners of conscience in Bahrain, three about Iran, two about the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one about Egypt and one about Saudi Arabia. Four of these posts belong to two categories (two to “Human Rights” and “Twitter” and two to “Human Rights” and “Poetry“). In addition I wrote three blog posts about “Classical Music” and one post in the “General” category.

I like all my blog post, but some are just a little bit more special and closer to my heart than others. It is always a particular joy for me, if these blog posts are also the most popular ones. This was certainly true this year.

a) IMG_3541The most popular post in 2017 was my article about Arash Sadeghi and Golrokh Iraee: “A love story in Iran – #SaveArash” with 341 views. Sadly Arash Sadeghi and Golrokh Iraee are both still in prison and the situation is worse than it was in February, because Arash and Golrokh are not any longer in the same prison. On the 18 October 2017 Arash was transferred to Rajaee Shahr Prison. Golrokh is still in Evin Prison. You might have read the background for this transfer in my post “Poetry behind bars: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and fellow prisoners“. A few days ago Arash and Golrokh were allowed to visit each other briefly after a separation of two months. I fear that also in the coming months their situation will not improve and it would be great, if you could continue to share their story and raise awareness about their situation.

b) Another topic in 2017 which was very important for me was to arise awareness about the human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor (UAE) who was arrested on 20 March 2017.

9B9EB703-BE88-4E97-97C5-48329CD50417I am therefore delighted that my blogs posts about him received so many views. I wrote in May a post with the title “Arrested, sentenced, not released – human rights in the United Arab Emirates” about Ahmed Mansoor, Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith and Osama al-Najjar. This post received 253 views on my blog and was therefore the second most popular post on my blog. The article was also included in Issue #10 of The Wolfian. I am very grateful to the editor Jay Wolfe for asking me for a contribution to this magazine and for accepting this article. In addition my article was published on the websites of two human rights organisations which both focus on the UAE: International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates (ICFUAE) and Emirates Centre for Human Rights (ECHR). The article had on each website more than 500 views (597 views on the ICFUAE website and 540 views on the ECHR website).

To mark the day six months after Ahmed Mansoor’s arrest, I organised a Tweet Storm for him in September. I am extremely grateful to organisations like Amnesty International (Middle East and North Africa Programme), English PEN, ICFUAE and ECHR, but also individuals like Jonathan Emmett, Nicholas McGeehan, Joe Odell, Sina Watling and Drewery Dyke for supporting my idea and joining the tweet storm. I am obviously also grateful that many other Twitter users joined the tweet storm and showed their support for Ahmed Mansoor. My article “Tweet Storm for Ahmed Mansoor” received 195 views which makes it the fourth most popular article in 2017.

Sadly, Ahmed Mansoor’s situation is unchanged. He has spent in the meantime more than nine months in prison, in solitary confinement. He was only allowed two very short family visits and there is generally very little information available about him.

There is a fear that UAE will try to break Ahmed Mansoor or perhaps already has. Drewery Dyke’s statement about him is extremely worrying:

“He had lost a considerable amount of weight to the extent that he was looking gaunt, quite gaunt, that he was in a disorientated confused state. Repeatedly expressing his regret about the situation and seeking an end to it.”

Therefore, please do not forget Ahmed Mansoor, but continue to support him and make sure that people know about him and his situation.

c) If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I wrote several articles about the Bahraini human rights defender and Chairman of the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights (EBOHR) Hussain Jawad.


Hussain lives now with his wife Asma and their children Parweez and Maryam in France and they are safe. However Hussain’s father Mohammed Hassan Jawad who is called “Parweez Jawad” is in prison in Bahrain. I had planned for a long time to write about him. In January 2017 I met with Hussain in France and asked him a lot of questions about his father. In March 2017 I published two posts about Parweez Jawad: “Do you know Bahrain’s eldest prisoner of conscience?” and “Support EBOHR’s campaign to #Free_Parweez Jawad”. The first article who tells Parweez Jawad’s story was my third most popular article in 2017 (with 231 views).

Also Parweez Jawad is still in prison. His health has deteriorated further and he asked for a special meeting with his family in October. He informed his family about his last will and added that expects to die.

Again, the only thing I can do, is to ask you to share Parweez Jawad’s story and campaign for him. Please also join EBOHR’s campaign #Free_Parweez.

d) After so much devastating updates some good news about 2017 at the end of this section:

  • I wrote in 2016 several articles about the Iranian human rights defender Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki. Hossein was released in May 2016. Maybe you remember my article about his release. Hossein was only given furlough for a limited period of time. It seems that this was extended several times. I do not know what the current legal status is, but luckily he is still free in January 2018 and together with his family.
  • I wrote in November 2016 about the Iranian film maker Keywan Karimi. Originally he had been sentenced to six years in prison and 223 lashes. After the appeal the sentence was reduced to a one-year prison term, 223 lashes and a five-year suspended prison sentence. He was summoned on 23 November 2016 to start his prison sentence. After nearly five month in prison he was released on 19 April 2017. It is only a conditional release. This means that he was on probation until October 2017, that the flogging sentence could still be enforced and that the suspended prison sentence stayed in place, but at least he is not any longer in prison.
  • Finally many of you read my article about the Bahraini human rights defender Ebtisam Al-Saegh. She was released on 22 October 2017. However, the charges were not dropped and there is the risk that she can be rearrested or might face an unfair trial on unjustified terrorism charges.

3. As in previous years I am delighted and amazed by the numbers of visitors to my blog in 2017. 3213 people visited my blog and it got 5262 views. The visitors came from 98 countries. The most views came from the United Kingdom with 1421 views, followed by the USA with 1117 views. There are almost the same number of views from Germany (317 views) and from France (315 views). I hope for many visitors in 2018.

4. I want to close this post with some ideas for 2018:

a) I mentioned in my review article about 2016 that I would like to write about art and human rights. I did not have time for that last year, but I hope that I will be able to do so in 2018. I use very often on Twitter drawings and pictures of prisoners of conscience by several artists and more than once I asked one of them to support a particular cause and make a drawing for a particular prisoner. I would love to introduce you to some of the artists who use their art for human rights activism.

b) Another long time plan is to write a blog post about the Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. Nabeel is currently on trial for his tweets about the war in Yemen and about torture in Bahrain’s Jaw Prison. There are also other charges in the context of newspaper articles he wrote. He could face up to 15 years in prison, if he is convicted. The next hearing is on 15 January 2018. I thought it is better to wait until the end of the trial and write an article when the verdict is rendered.

c) I also would like to write further articles about Egypt. Azza Soliman is a prominent women’s right lawyer who is harassed by the Egyptian state. I would love to write about her. I am sure there will also be many more articles about human rights in Iran, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE in 2018.

d) Also in 2018 I plan to write about classical music. Highgate Choral Society has an exciting programme for 2018, which includes Handel: Israel in Egypt, Bernstein: Chicester Psalms and Britten: Saint Nicolas. I will therefore very likely write about these and other works. Another idea is to write about Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice. Some of you might remember my post about Monteverdi’s Orfeo. I mentioned at the end of that post that I would love to write about other opera versions of the myth. I did not manage to do so in 2015, but I will see Gluck’s opera twice in 2018 in different version and I am tempted to publish a blog post about it.

I hope you find my ideas interesting. If you do so, please visit my blog from time to time or follow my blog; you only need an e-mail address and you will get an e-mail each time I publish a new article.

I close this article with my best wishes to all of you for 2018. Again, I hope that the year 2018 will bring freedom to many prisoners of conscience, justice and peace.


Ongoing injustice for Shawkan

Two years ago, on 12 December 2015, a mass trial started in Cairo, Egypt against more than 700 defendants. It is the so-called “Rabaa Dispersal” trial. Among these defendant is a young photographer Mahmoud Abu Zeid who is known under the name “Shawkan”. He turned 30 in November 2017. This was his fourth birthday behind bars. Shawkan was only doing his job when he was arrested, but he still in prison.  

I want to write in this post about Shawkan and his current situation. I also want to share a selection of photos of the sky which activists from all over the world posted in support of the #SkyForShakwan campaign. 

1. An unjust trial with endless delays

Photo by Lobna Tarek

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you probably know that I wrote in August 2016, almost 16 months ago, the blog post Three years of injustice – Freedom for Mahmoud Abu Zeid “Shawkan”. This injustice is still ongoing. Shawkan has spent in the meantime almost four years and four months in prison.

Shawkan was arrested on 14 August 2013 at Rabaa Square. He worked as photographer and was on this day on an assignment for Demotix. He was arrested while he was making photos of the protest.

The trial against Shawkan and 738 other defendants started two years ago on 12 December 2015. Shawkan is the only journalist in the trial. Other defendants were participants in the protest, some belong to the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The trial is still ongoing. In 2016 14 hearings took place (6 February, 26 March, 23 April, 10 May, 17 May, 21 May, 28 June, 9 August, 6 September, 8 October, 1 November, 19 November, 10 December and 27 December 2016). In 2017 there were up to now 24 hearings and postponements (17 January, 7 February, 25 February, 21 March, 8 April, 9 May, 20 May, 30 May, 13 June, 4 July, 5 August, 12 August, 19 August, 12 September, 23 September, 7 October, 17 October, 24 October, 31 October, 7 November, 14 November, 21 November and 2 December 2017).

Photo by Ayman Aref Saad

The last hearing was a few days ago, on 5 December. The trial was again adjourned and will continue on 16 December. This will be the 25th hearing this year and the 40th hearing altogether in this trial. Not all of the defendants are present for every trial date. If they do attend, there are in a cage in the court room.

During the past two years a number of defendants were released on medical grounds. Shawkan was diagnosed with Hepatitis C before his arrest. He is now also suffering from anemia and his health deteriorated severely in prison over the years. Shawkan does not receive proper medical treatment and spent all his time a small, overcrowded and dirty cell.

Katia Roux from Amnesty International France spoke with FRANCE 24 about a months ago:

“The most urgent thing today is that medical care can be provided. …There is a real danger to his health. After a year of detention, he wrote saying he was confined 22 hours a day in a 2 metre by 4 metre cell with 12 other prisoners. These are extremely difficult detention conditions.”

His mother visits Shawkan every week. She said that her son is sometimes in a wheelchair and sometimes unable to sit for a longer time. Even so the evidence for his bad health is clear, the prosecutor claims that Shawkan is in “very good health” and that there is no basis for a release on medical grounds for him.

No one knows how many more hearings there will be. The court proceedings have not provided any evidence against him. But the trumped up charges against him, could lead to many years in prison or even the death penalty. You can find more about the charges, the background of the arrest and the trial in my blog post from August 2016.

The whole situation is also extremely difficult for Shawkan’s family. Their son and brother who loved live and photography is now in a state between despair and indifference. Leena El Deeb wrote a very moving portrait of his family and their situation. The article is called “Shawkan’s place: Between memory and hope” and is published on the website Madamasr. It is an article which is well worth reading.

2. Update on the Sky for Shawkan campaign

What can we do for Shawkan? I think the most important thing is to continue to campaign for him and make sure that he is not forgotten.

More than a year ago I started together with other activists the campaign #SkyForShakwan. Shawkan said in a letter from prison that he misses the sky. We felt that we should take photos of the sky and share them on social media to show support for him and raise awareness about his case. I have exchanged messages with a number of activists who have shared many photos over time. All of them told me that the campaign has changed the way how they looked at the sky. This is certainly also true for me. I took over the past 14 months many photos of the sky, some in London where I live, but also many on holiday. I certainly appreciate the sky and its beauty much more than before and I can understand why Shawkan misses it.

I wrote about this campaign in September 2016 and also included a selection of photos which were shared within the first week of the campaign.  Since then people from all over the world and from every continent have continued to tweet their photos of the sky using the hashtag #SkyForShawkan. France Culture even mentioned the #SkyForShakwan campaign in programme in March 2017.

The photos I have chosen can only give a small glimpse of all the photos which were tweeted over the past 14 months. My selection of photos includes many photos from different parts of Europe, but there are also photos of the sky in India and Iran, in the USA and in Canada. Nuria Tesón who is a journalist joined the campaign and tweeted a photo of the sky in Cairo, Egypt. The Amnesty Group in Caracas, Venezuela has been supporting the campaign for Shawkan’s release for quite some time. They took the opportunity and used their Write For Rights event last Saturday to take some photos of the sky in Caracas, Venezuela.

The photos show very different imagines of the sky. In some photos the sky is blue with almost no clouds, in other photos it is scattered with small white Cirrocumulus clouds or it is overcast with dark thunderclouds; some were taken at sunset and some at dawn. In each of the photos the sky has a different character, a different mood and almost seem to show different emotions.

Before I post the photos, I also have to mention @WhippetHaiku. She not only joined the campaign, but developed the idea a little bit further. She wrote wonderful haikus for Shawkan and put them in the photos of the sky. I have included some of her photos in the selection below and you can read on her photos also the haikus. She shared her thoughts about this project in her own blog and I invite you to read her post there.

3. A selection of photos for #SkyForShawkan

Here is my selection of photos. It is a picture gallery, if you click on one of the photos you can see it enlarged. You can also see where the photos were taken and who took them:

I hope you like the photos. If you do, then please join the #SkyForShawkan campaign and share your photos of the sky and make sure that Shawkan is not forgotten.

Poetry behind bars: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and fellow prisoners

In the previous post I shared with you poems which were written behind bars, in the Women’s Ward of Iran’s Evin Prison. In this blog post I want to introduce you to the five women who wrote the poetry: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Narges Mohammadi, Nasim Bagheri and Mahvash Sabet Shariari and I want to share their stories with you. 

1. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Nazanina) Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was born on 26 December 1978. She is a British-Iranian dual national and worked as project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a charitable arm of the news agency Thomson Reuters. She is married to Richard Ratcliffe. They have a daughter Gabriella who turned three on 11 June 2017. Richard and Gabriella are both British citizens.

b) Nazanin’s parents live in Tehran. In March 2016 Nazanin was on holiday visiting her family for Nowruz (Iranian New Year) together with her daughter Gabriella. On 3 April 2016 when Nazanin went to Tehran’s Iman Khomeini Airport with Gabriella, because they wanted to fly back to London, she was arrested by officials who were likely part of the Revolutionary Guards. Nazanin was allowed to leave her daughter in the care of her parents and was then taken by the officials. Gabriella’s British passport was confiscated.

After her arrest Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was held in solitary confinement for 45 days. She had during this time very limited contact with her daughter and parents and no contact with her husband. She was interrogated several times, but was not given access to a lawyer. On 15 June a unit of the Revolutionary Guards released a statement saying that she “participated in devising and carrying out media and cyber projects aimed at the soft overthrow of the government”. On 14 August 2016 the trial against her took place before Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran. On 6 September the judge announced that she was sentenced to five years in prison on unspecified “security charges”.

c) Nazanin was initially in Kerman prison, nearly 1000 km from Tehran. In mid June 2016 she was transferred to section 2-A of Evin Prison in Tehran. This section is under control of the Revolutionary Guards. She was held in isolation in this ward.  Altogether she spent 130 days in solitary confinement in different prisons. End of December 2016 / beginning of January 2017 she was transferred to the Women’s Ward in Evin Prison.

She is currently allowed to call her husband once a week for one hour. Her daughter Gabriella can visit Nazanin once a week, sometimes twice a week.

d) Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s health declined dramatically after her arrest. She suffered form heart palpitations, blurred visions and pains in her hands, arms and shoulders. She did not receive proper medical treatment. In autumn 2016 she was on a hunger strike for five or six days and she even considered committing suicide. There were also times when she felt better, but recently she discovered two lumps in her breast. She also feels a stabbing pain in her breast. Her husband says that there is a history of breast cancer in her family and she is afraid that the lumps might be breast cancer. She is therefore kept under “close surveillance” .

e) On 22 January 2017 a spokesman of the judiciary announced that the five year sentence against Nazanin had been upheld upon appeal. She was convicted of “membership of an illegal group” in connection with her work for BBC Media Action and Thomson Reuters Foundation. There were more absurd allegations including the allegation that she married a “British spy” and that the extent of media coverage shows that she is “an important person“. On 23 April 2017 she was informed that also the Supreme Court had upheld her five-year prison sentence. All trials violated the principle of due process, were held under unclear charges and denied her full and proper legal representation. Her husband Richard describes the lack of representation vividly in an interview with Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

On 28 September, the day after she was diagnosed with an advanced depression, her request for furlough, a temporary release, was denied. On 8 October 2017 Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had to appear again in court. The Revolutionary Courts had reopened her case and she was informed that she was now facing two new charges which could result in 16 more years in prison.

f) Richard Ratcliffe started campaigning for the release of his wife a few weeks after her arrest. Initially he thought and was told that it would be best to stay silent. He hoped that she would be released eventually. He has been campaigning tirelessly for now 18 months. He also had been urging the British government for a long time to condemn Nazanin’s treatment and her sentence and publicly call for her release. On 1 November 2017 Boris Johnson spoke at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. He was asked about Nazanin and condemned her detention by Iran at last. However, he also said the following: “When I look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism as I understand it.” This incorrect statement was taken by Iran as proof that Nazanin was not only visiting family, but was working in Iran to influence journalists. On 4 November she was again brought in front of the Revolutionary Guards and she had to answer a new charge “propaganda against the regime”. It took Boris Johnson a long time to apologise, but he had done so last Monday (13 November).

Boris Johnson’s wrong statement lead to a lot of press coverage about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case and Boris Johnson said that he is prepared to meet Richard Ratcliffe the first time and he also said that he is willing to travel to Iran. Richard hopes that Nazanin will be back home for Christmas, but this is not more than a hope. There are also discussions whether the UK could give Nazanin diplomatic protection and by that make stronger demands on her behalf. With so much information at the moment, I feel the best summary of Nazanin’s current situation is an open letter Richard wrote to Boris Johnson. The letter was published on 13 November 2017 in the Evening Standard.

g) If you want to know more about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the Free Nazanin  campaign, please have a look at the Free Nazanin Website. The petition at Change.org has in meantime more than 1 million signatures, but please sign, if you have not yet done so, and continue to share it. Also Amnesty International campaigns for Nazanin and published a few days ago a new petition for her. Please also sign and share this petition.

If you are inspired by the poems in the previous blog post and want to write poetry in form of Haikus yourself, then please join the new campaign #haikus4Naz. You find here more information.

2. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee

IMG_1110a) Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee was born on 30 July 1980. Golrokh is a writer and a human rights activist. She is married to Arash Sadeghi who is also a human rights activist. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you might already know both from my post “A love story in Iran – #SaveArash” which I published earlier this year.

b) Golrokh Iraee was arrested on 6 September 2014 together with her husband Arash Sadeghi and two friends (Navid Kamran and Behnam Mousivand) by men which likely belonged to the Revolutionary Guards. They searched their place and confiscated several items, including her computer. She was interrogated and threatened and could hear how her husband was beaten and kicked in the next cell. On 27 September 2014 she was released on bail.

The trial against her, Arash Sadeghi and their two friends took place in May and July 2015. Golrokh Iraee was sentenced to six years in prison for “insulting the sanctities of Islam” and “spreading propaganda against the system”. The charges against her were based on her Facebook posts about political prisoners and an unpublished story the authorities found in her house. The novel is about a woman who watches a film about a woman who is stoned to death for adultery. The protagonist of the novel is so angered by it that she burns a copy of the Quran.

In February 2016 a court of appeal confirmed her sentence.

c) Golrokh Iraee was arrested on 24 October 2016. Security officials broke through the front door of her house and arrested her without showing an arrest warrant. In protest of her arrest Arash Sadeghi started an hunger strike. After 72 days of hunger strike, the authorities finally yielded to his demands. On 3 January 2017 Golrokh Iraee was released from prison against bail and the Iranian prosecutor promised to review her case. Arash Sadeghi stopped his hunger strike.

Golrokh Iraee could only enjoy her freedom for a few days. On 23 January 2017  the Revolutionary Guards arrested Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee again while she was on the way to visit her husband. The Revolutionary Guards also block a review of her conviction by the courts. Arash Sadeghi started a new hunger strike to protest against her new arrest. On 6 February he ended his hunger strike after the prosecutor gave some promises.

In March 2017 30 months were reduced from her imprisonment as part of a Nowruz (Iranian New Year) pardon. Golrokh Iraee serves her sentence in the Women’s Ward of Evin Prison.

d) Her husband Arash Sadeghi was also in Evin Prison serving a sentence of 19 years. Golrokh and Arash could see each other in weekly visits and knew that they had just “a wall between us // As deep as a hand span” as Golrokh describes in her poem “Couples in Prison” which you find in the previous post. However on 18 October 2017 Arash Sadeghi was transferred to Rajaee Shahr Prison which is  about 50 km from Tehran. This was a punishment after photos of him and the political prisoner Soheil Arabi as well as him and the political prisoner Esmail Abdi were shared on Social Media in which they smiled. Rajaee Shahr Prison is a prison known for his inhuman conditions. This also means additional hardship for Arash and Golrokh, because they will not be able to see each other.

3. Narges Mohammadi

IMG_3581a) Narges Mohammadi was born on 21 April 1972 in Zanjan (Iran). She studied at Imam Khomeini University in Qazvin and got a major in applied physics. She began her career as journalist writing for a magazine which was dedicated to women issues. She wrote mainly about human rights and women rights.

Narges Mohammadi is one of the well-known human rights activist. She has been targeted by the Iranian authorities for years for her support for human rights and women rights as well as her activism against the death penalty and her membership in the group “Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” (LEGAM) .

In 2002 five lawyers (Shirin Ebadi, Mohammad Seifzadeh, Abdolfattah Soltani, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah and Mohammad Sharif) founded the Center for Defenders of Human Rights (CDHR). The purpose of CDHR was to report on human violations and to provide pro bono legal representations for political prisoners and their families. Narges Mohammadi become the vice president of the CDHR. In December 2008 the centre was forceably closed.

Narges Mohammadi is married to Taqi Rahmani. He is also a political activist and they have known each other since their time at the university. He spent 14 years in prison in Iran. After his release from prison he want to France in exile. Narges and Taqi have twins Kiana and Ali. They were born on 28 November 2006. After Narges’ last arrest the children joined their father in France.

b) Narges Mohammadi has a long history of activism and Iran has a long history of arresting and harassing her. She was arrested the first time in 1998 and spent one year in prison. Since then she had been summoned and questioned numerous time and was also arrested several times. Her passport was confiscated in 2009 and since that time she was banned from travelling.

The most recent arrest of Narges Mohammadi took place in the early hours of 5 May 2015 at her house in Tehran. The security forces had threatened to break down her front door, if she does not open. This arrest took place two days after she had appeared at court for a trail against her.

c) Narges Mohammadi’s general state of health is not good. Her health had been effected by years of harassment and intermittent periods of detention. After her arrest in May 2015 her health declined further. On 1 August 2015 she was transferred to hospital, because she had suffered a partial paralysis for eight hours that day. On the next day she was transferred back to prison and did not receive specialised medical care. On 11 October 2015 she was again transferred to hospital suffering a seizure. She was chained to the bed during the first days and was again transferred back to prison after a few day (on 28 October 2015) against her doctor’s advice.

d) After the first trial date on 3 May 2015, the trial was postponed four times and began at last on 20 April 2016 . The trial was before Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Courts. Narges Mohammadi was accused of several security related charges. The “evidence”‘ which was used against her were her participation in peaceful protests, vigils in front of the prison with families of prisoners who were sentenced to death, interviews she gave to international media,  several speeches at different ceremonies and a meeting between Narges Mohammadi and Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on the Women’s Day on 8 March 2014 at the Austrian Embassy in Tehran.

The trial against was unfair and violated the principles of due process. She did not have proper legal representation and she was not allowed to defend herself properly.

On 18 May 2016 Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to ten years in prison for “membership in the [now banned] Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty (LEGAM),” five years for “assembly and collusion against national security,” and one year for “propaganda against the state”. She will have to serve ten years of this sentence, because in accordance with Iranian law only the heaviest sentence has to be served if someone is convicted for several charges. In addition there is prison sentence of 6 years open from a conviction in 2011 for peaceful campaigning with CDHR and she faces charges for “insulting officers”, because she had filed a complain about the degrading and inhumane treatment she received by prison officers when she was transferred to hospital.

e) On 27 June 2016 Narges Mohammadi went on hunger strike to protest against the refusal of the Iranian authorities to let her speak with her children on the phone. Since her arrest in May 2015 a call of a few minutes on 2 April 2016 were her only contact with her children. She wrote an open letter on 27 June 2016 in which she explains her motivation and her feelings about not being able to speak with her children:

For a year now, my only contact with my two small children has been limited to me asking about them from my sister and brother. I always hear the same sentence back: “Don’t you worry. They are doing fine.” I have forgotten their voices. I don’t keep their photos by my bed anymore. I can’t look at them. My sister said: “Every time I want to come see you, Ali tells me to ask ‘Mommy Narge’ if she dreams of me?” My only way to connect with my children is in our dreams. How strange it is that they also see their mothers in their nightly, childish, sweet dreams and this is how they connect with me.

After thirteen days of hunger strike she was transferred to hospital, because her physical condition had deteriorated severely. On 16 July 2016 she ended her hunger strike after she was allowed a 30-minutes telephone call with her children. She also said in an open letter that she had received the permission to have one telephone call with her children every week.

f) On 19 September 2016, Narges Mohammadi and her lawyers appeared in front of Branch 36 of the Court of Appeal in Tehran to argue their case and present their evidence. However the Court of Appeal had already made their ruling. On 27 September 2016 the court refused to consider new evidence and upheld the sentence. In April 2017, Iran’s Supreme Court rejected her request for judicial review.

g) Narges Mohammadi is also in the Women’s Ward of Evin Prison. She is very ill and is has several serious health conditions. Please support the campaign for her release. You can support her on Social Media. Please use the hashtag #FreeNarges. A group of human rights activists started a campaign on social media which is called #Mountains4Narges. Please join the campaign. You can find more information here.

4. Nasim Bagheri

IMG_2144a) Nasim Bagheri was born in 1984 in Tehran. She has two sisters and a brother. After school she studied at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) general psychology and received her master degree. The BIHE was founded in 1985 when it was certain for Baha’is that their children were barred from higher education because of their faith. The university is effectively an “underground university” and many of its staff and students are in prison. Nasim Bagheri decide to become an associate professor at BIHE, because she had first hand experience of discrimination for being a Baha’i and wanted to help other students. She later did also administrative work at the university.

b) Nasim Bagheri’s persecution and harassment goes back to 2011. On 22 May 2011 the authorities raided the houses of several people who were associated with BIHE. Also Nasim Bagheri’s house was searched and she was questioned. On 12 March 2012 she and nine other people who taught at BIHE were summoned to the prosecutor’s office and questioned. They were all asked to sign a declaration that they would cease to teach at BIHE. They all refused to do so and were then charged with “propaganda against the state” and “acting against national security through membership in an illegal organisation” (the Baha’i Online University). On 8 October 2013 Nasim Bagheri was tried by Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran and then sentenced to four years in prison. Initially she was released on bail, but on 27 April 2014  four agents of the Ministry of Intelligence come to her house with search and arrest warrant in order to enforce the court sentence against her.

c) Nasim Bagheri serves her sentence in the Woman’s Ward of Evin Prison. She suffers from thyroid decease and does not receive proper treatment in prison. Online sources report in October 2015 and in September 2016 that she had been denied furlough at several occasions, even so she has a right under Iranian law to a temporary release from prison. She only received a 6 day temporary release in January 2016 for her sister’s wedding. Iranwire adds that also her family faces harassment.

5. Mahvash Sabet Shariari

IMG_2146a) Mahvash Sabet Shariari was born on 4 February 1953 in Ardestan (Iran).

Mahvash Sabet was a teacher and school principal who had been dismissed of public education for being a Baha’i after the Islamic revolution. She was one of the founders of BIHE and since 1993 the director of this institution for 15 years. Mahvash Sabet was one of the seven members of “Yaran”, an informal community leadership group for 300,000 Baha’is in Iran.

b) Mahvash Sabet was arrested on 5 March 2008 while she was on a trip to Mashhad (Iran). She was transferred to solitary confinement in ward 209 of Evin prison. On 14 May 2008 also the other six members of “Yaran” (Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaleddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezai, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm) were arrested. All of them were held incommunicado for weeks and did not have access to a lawyer for more than a year. Mahvash Sabet was not informed of her charges during the first 20 months of her imprisonment. On 11 February 2009 a security court announced the charges of all seven Yaran members: “espionage, insulting sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic”.

The trial against all seven Yaran members started on 12 January 2010. At the trial the Baha’i leaders had four lawyers Shirin Ebadi, Abdolfattah Soltani, Hadi Esmaeilzadeh and Mahnaz Parakand. The lawyers had only very limited access to their clients and soon ended up either in exile or in prison. Maybe you read my blog post last year about one of them, Abdolfattah Soltani. After six short sessions, all seven were sentenced on 14 June 2010 to 20 years imprisonment. The charges were “espionage, insulting sanctities, propaganda against the regime and spreading corruption on earth”. They were convicted even so all seven did not attend the last court hearing. In December 2015 sentence was reduced to 10 years in prison. Iranwire says that no formal verdict was issued to the seven prisoners or their lawyers.

c) Mahvash Sabet began writing poetry in prison. She composed the poetry on scraps of paper in her cell in Evin prison. Friends and family were able to bring them out of prison and eventually out of Iran. The writer Bahiyyih Nakhjavani got to know her poems and translated them into English. Her book “Prison Poems” was published in April 2013. Mahvash Sabet was selected as one of the 100 writers who featured in PEN International’s “Day of the Imprisoned Writer” in 2014.

The American-Iranian journalist Roxana Sabert who was imprisoned in Iran for 100 days in 2009 wrote a moving account about Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi, the other female member of Yaran in two articles in the Washington Post: “Two shining lights in an Iranian prison’s darkness” and “In Iran, shackling the Bahai torchbearers“. Both articles are well wort reading.

In August 2017 Mahvash Sabet was awared the Liu Xiaobo Courage to Write Award which was accepted on her behalf by English PEN’s director Antonia Byatt.

d) During Mahvash Sabet’s time in prison she spent two and half years in solitary confinement and served altogether time in seven security and general prison wards, including the Women’s Ward of Evin Prison. About two months ago, on 18 September 2017, Mahvash Sabet was released from prison, after having served almost 10 years in prison. You can find an exclusive interview with her on Iranwire.

In October 2017 Mahvash Sabet was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize which she shares with the Irish poet Michael Longley. The award was presented at an awards ceremony on 10 October in London. You can read here her acceptance speech which Bahiyyih Nakhjavani accepted on her behalf and watch a video of Mahvash Sabet in which she accepts the prize and also recites one of her poems. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani also wrote a moving article about her: “Loosened Locket: on Mahvash Sabet“.


Poetry behind bars: The Poems

15 November is the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. Marian Botsford Fraser, chair of PEN International’s Writer Committee said about this day: It’s a way of saying to all imprisoned writers: “You are not forgotten. We stand with you and fight for you”. This blog post and the next one want to deliver exactly this message. To mark this day I want to share with you in this blog post poetry which was written behind bars, in the Women’s Ward of Iran’s Evin Prison by five women: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Narges Mohammadi, Nasim Bagheri and Mahvash Sabet Shariari. In next blog post I will introduce you to these women and will share their stories. 

The poems were read at a Vigil for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in front of the Iranian Embassy in London on National Poetry Day (28 September 2017). All poems deal with the themes of prison and freedom and some of them were written for and about Nazanin, her husband Richard and their daughter Gabriella (Gisou). 

1. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe


Autumn Light

The diagonal light falling on my bed
Tells me that there is another autumn on the way
Without you
A child turned three
Without us
The bars of the prison grew around us
So unjustly and fearlessly
And we left our dreams behind them
We walked on the stairs that led to captivity
Our night time stories remained unfinished
And lost in the silence of the night
Nothing is the same here
And without you even fennel tea loses its odour.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

For Our Parents

I am sitting in a corner
Reviewing my dreams
And ploughing through my memories.
I think about my mum, who
Every time I touch Gabriella’s hair
Or kiss the back of her neck
Her eyes fill up with tears
I think of her safe hands, full of love,
And her longing look.

I think of my Dad
Whose hair has gone completely grey
Tired of walking up and down in the corridors
Of the courts
And the hope at the end of his eyes
That yet again reminds me
That these days will pass, however hard.

I think of your mum
That nothing would make her happier
Than seeing and embracing her granddaughter
After 19 months
To bring a smile on her lips and her pale face
And give her energy on her tired body
Flattened from illness.

I think of your dad
Who turned 68 this month without us
His silence is full of words for me.

I think of freedom, of return
Of that glorious moment of rolling into your arms
The arms I have longed for the past 500 days.

I think of my orchids and African violets
Have they bloomed without me?

It is true that the world in its great hugeness
Sometimes gets so small
As small as the eye in the needle
And unreachable like a dream
And I still
Am sitting in my corner
Reviewing my dreams
And ploughing through my memories.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

2. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee


Couples in Prison

You are under the sky of the same city
Just a little bit farther
And a wall between us
As deep as a hand span
We drink tea without each other
And shape clouds in our dreams together
We experience not being with each other
And together we watch the trace of migrating birds

Our date will be
kissing the first star
That twinkles at us every night

Golrokh Iraee


For Gisou

Mummy’s Lullaby
I can’t remember
The scent of daddy’s cuddle
I can’t remember
Gisou grows up
A stranger to her homeland
A stranger to her daddy
To mummy

Between moments
And a misty city
That leads to a building
And stairs
Which have devoured mummy
Gisou grows up
With a poem in her heart
And a story on her lips

Golrokh Iraee

3. Narges Mohammadi


Three Goodbyes

Three goodbyes and a separation, like dying three times

When Ali and Kiana were just three and a half years old
I was arrested by the security guards when attacking my home
Kiana had just had an operation and it was only a couple of hours I had come home.
She had a temperature
When the security guards were searching the house, they allowed me to put the kids to bed.
I put Ali on my feet, and rocked him, and patted him
And softly sang him a lullaby
He slept
Kiana was restless. She had a temperature, and was scared.
She’d felt the fear
She’d clung her arms around my neck
And I, as if gradually sinking,
Was separated from them
When I was going down the stairs, leaving the house
Kiana was left crying in her father’s cuddle
She called me back three times
Three times I came back to kiss her

When Ali and Kiana were five, and their father was away from us in France
The security guards attacked my father’s house
And arrested me
Ali took his yellow plastic gun
And held the hem of my shirt
And Kiana, in that pretty dress,
Ran towards me, and took the edge of my skirt
They wanted to come, with me
Not being able to resist looking into their innocent eyes
I took their little hands away from my skirt
And went into the car of the stone-hearted men

When Ali and Kiana were eight and a half, I got them ready for school in the morning
And they left
The security guards attacked my home again
This time Ali and Kiana were not home
I picked up their photo from the bookshelf
And kissed them goodbye
And was led to the car
With men who had no mercy

And now in September 2017
I have not seen them in two and a half years

My writing might not be correctly worded
But it has the certainty of feeling – the pain of mothers throughout history
The mothers who take pride in their convictions from one side, and feel the pain of conviction being away their children taken away.

Narges Mohammadi
September 2017, Evin

4. Nasim Bagheri


What Prison Means

Prison means tall walls
Prison means limitation
Prison is separation from what
Is precious to you
Prison means being kept in crisis

But a person with faith
Who believes in freedom
Looks for victory in that crisis
Looks beyond walls
Within the limitations and separations

Holding onto human dignity and values
And testing his soul
Be it in prison
Is being free.

Nasim Bagheri

5. Mahvash Sabet Shariari


Not Seeing You

Not seeing you was enough
All this torture
The dark and small cell
And the wall of stone
Is for what?

Not seeing you was enough
For the world to become a cage
And I
A lovebird alone
Breathless, with a broken heart

Mahvash Sabet Shariari
(for Richard from Nazanin)

Sitting Alone

Sitting alone
In a corner of the earth
With women murderers, thieves, drug addicts and prostitutes
She is only skin on bones
With worry and stress
Like a stranger
That Nazanin
With the dream of your arms
That she has hidden away
In her heart

Away from the interrogator
The dream of a man with a bird on his finger
And the woman is only skin on bones
As if
She is filled with dreams
Dreams of a man who has a bird on his finger

Mahvash Sabet Shariari

I would like to thank Richard Ratcliffe for allowing me to publish all the poems in this blog post.


Karol Szymanowski: Stabat Mater

IMG_1328The first concert of Highgate Choral Society in the concert season 2017 – 2018 will take place on Saturday 11 November 2017 at 7pm. The concert will begin with an orchestral piece: Karol Szymanowski: Etude, Op. 4 No. 3 (orchestrated by Ronald Corp). The main piece in first half is Karol Szymanowksi’s Stabat Mater, Op. 53.  In the second half of the concert Highgate Choral Society, solists and orchestra will perform Mozart’s Mass in C minor, K427. The concert takes place at All Hallows’ Church, Savernake Road, Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP.

This blog post is about one of the three pieces: Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater.  

1. Karol Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, Op. 53, is a work for three soloists (soprano, alto and baritone), mixed chorus and orchestra. It is scored a modest sized orchestra.

2. Karol Szymanowski sets the traditional medieval poem Stabat Mater which is part of the Roman Catholic liturgy. The poem was written in the 13th century and is usually ascribed to the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi (ca. 1230 – 1306). It has twenty verses with three lines each. The poem depicts the sorrows of the Virgin Mary for her crucified son Jesus.

Karol Szymanowski set the text both in Polish and in Latin. In the autograph version of the work which is now in the National Library of Poland, the Polish text is written in black ink and the Latin text in red ink, but the Polish version was the one in which he was really interested in. He used a contemporary Polish translation of the text by Jósef Jankowski (1865-1935). Szymanowski said in an interview that he liked the “unusually primitive, almost ‘folk like’ simplicity and naivety of the translation”. For him the emotional content was important. He said about his aims for this setting:

“In my view, it must have a directly emotional impact, and therefore must draw upon a universally comprehensible text: the emotional content of the word must be organically fused with its musical equivalent.”

For Karol Szymanowski this direct impact could only be achieved by setting the Polish version of the text. The score states that the work should always be sung in Polish when it is heard in Poland, but could be performed in Latin elsewhere. We will perform tonight the Latin version. For me personally there are a number of reasons to perform the Latin version of the work. The specific emotional impact Szymanowski wanted to achieve was closely connected to the fact that his Polish audience would understand the text. If the work is performed for an audience who does not speak Polish this cannot be achieved by a performance of the original version. For an audience outside Poland the Latin text may not have the same impact as the Polish text for Polish speaker, but it is at least the one which is more familiar. Audience members might even know one of the many other settings of the Latin text by other composers. Szymanowski’s version of the Stabat Mater stands then in direct comparisons to settings by Pergolesi, Vivaldi or Rossini.

3. The idea of writing a sacred choral work goes back to 1924. Karol Szymanowski was in Paris and Princesse de Polignac, who was great patron of early 20th century music, asked Szymanowski to write a sacred work for soloists, chorus and orchestra. She specifically wanted a setting of a Polish text to music. He was interested in this idea and thought about writing a “Peasant Requiem”, a piece which should be “peasant and ecclesiastical … naively devotional, a sort of prayer for souls”. Szymanowski and Pricesse de Polignac lost touch and the idea of a “peasant requiem” did not develop further.

There were two incidents which had the result that Szymanowski took up the idea to write a sacred work with a Polish text in 1925. Szymanowski mentioned in an interview:

“A whole series of motives induced me to compose the religious work Stabat Mater, ranging from inner, personal experiences to external circumstances of everyday life, which prompted me to lay aside other, already started, ‘secular’ works for the time being and devote myself exclusively to the Stabat Mater”.

The external circumstances he mentioned were the commission of a requiem by the Warsaw business man Bronsiław Krystall in memory of recently deceased wife Izabella. The inner, personal experience was the sudden death of his niece Alusia Barotszewiczówna, the only daughter of his sister Stanisława Szymanowska. This personal loss and the grief of a mother about the death of her child motivated Szymanowski to abandon the idea to write a requiem. He chose instead the text of the Stabat Mater, a text in which a suffering mother grieves the death of her child.

4. Karol Szymanowski divided the text into six sections. He stressed that these sections are “thematically unconnected and different in fundamental character”, but certain movements relates to each other through their mood.

Musically Szymanowski was influenced by that time by renaissance music, in particular from Poland, and also Polish folk music. There is thematic link with Demeter, another work for alto solo, (female) choir and orchestra, a short cantata, which was composed in 1917 / 1924 and which he called his “Greek Stabat Mater”. Musically he used motives from the third of his Word Songs (Słopiewnie) which has the title “St. Francis” in this Stabat Mater.

The first section (“Stabat mater”) is for soprano soloist accompanied by the female voices of the choir and orchestra. It is a quiet and rather slow movement with lyrical music which reminds one of the colours in Debussy’s and Ravel’s music. This movement sets the scene at the foot of the cross.

The second section (“Quis es homo qui no floetus”) is for baritone soloist, full choir and orchestra. It continues to describe the scene at the crucifixion, but the music is quicker and more agitated. It is almost accusatory and calls on the listener to have compassion with the grieving mother. The movement ends with the death of Christ on the cross.

The tone and atmosphere of the third section (“Eia mater, fons amoris”) is similar to the one in the first movement. It is for soprano solo, alto solo, the female voices of the choir and orchestra. The alto soloist starts with a lyrical melody, the soprano soloist and the choir follows. The movement starts largo (slow) and dulcissimo (very sweet). The text of this movement is a prayer to the Virgin Mary and shows the compassion which the music of the previous movement demanded.

The music in the fourth section (“Fac me tecum, pie flere”) is the most archaic one, the one which is probably closest to the Renaissance models Szymanowski studied. This section is for four-part chorus, soprano soloist and alto soloist. The voices sing a cappella (without accompaniment). In this movement the prayer of the previous section continues with all voices of the choir. The sound of the unaccompanied voices reminds me of Rachmaninoff setting of the vespers.

The penultimate fifth section (“Virgo virginum praeclara”) is for the same forces as the second section, for baritone soloist, four-part chorus and orchestra. Also, musically this fifth section and the second one are related. The music is powerful and menacing. At the climax of the work soloist and chorus petition the listener to join the pains of Christ and ask for the protection of the Virgin Mary on the Judgement Day.

The sixth and final section (“Christe cum sit hinc exire”) is the only one for all three soloists, full chorus and orchestra. The music is again lyrical and full of hope that the soul of the deceased might be granted the joys of Paradise.

5. Karol Szymanowski completed the sketch for his Stabat Mater in by November 1925. The full score was finished by 2 March 1926. The premiere of the work took place on 11 January 1929 at the Warsaw Philharmonic. His friend Grzegorz Fitelberg conducted the work and his sister Stanisława Szymanowska whose grief over the loss of her child was one of the motives for the work sang the soprano solo.

It did not take long for the work to be performed outside of Poland. It had its premiere in the United Kingdom in 1932 at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester with Elgar and George Bernard Shaw in the audience.

Tweet Storm for Ahmed Mansoor

If you have read my May blog post about human rights defenders in the United Arab Emirates (UAE): “Arrested, Sentenced, Not Released” you will know that Ahmed Mansoor was arrested on 20 March 2017. He is still in prison six months later.

We decided to organise a tweet storm for Ahmed Mansoor on 20 September 2017, six months after his arrest.  

Please join the tweet storm and share the information about the action. We want as many participants as possible. Please read the post and continue to support him even when the Tweet Storm is over.

Tweet storm Ahmed Mansoor Var1

1. Who is Ahmed Mansoor?

Ahmed Mansoor is a prominent human rights activist from the United Arab Emirates. In October 2015 he received the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. Ahmed Mansoor has been targeted and harassed for years for his human rights activism.  He was arrested six months ago on 20 March 2017. He is still in prison in solitary confinement. Ahmed is married and has four small boys. His family had a chance to meet him two weeks after his arrest for 15 minutes. They did not have any contact for months.

If you want to know more about Ahmed Mansoor have a look at Amnesty International Action page for him or read my blog post about him.

2. Why shall I participate in the tweet storm?

Ahmed Mansoor is a brave advocate for victims of human rights violations and prisoner of conscience. He always speaks out for others. Now he is a prisoner of conscience himself and needs our support.

Please join the tweet storm and mark the day 6 months after his arrest. Raise awareness for him and show the United Arab Emirates that you have not forgotten him, but will stand with him and campaign for him. 

3. When does the Tweet Storm take place?

The tweet storm will take place on Wednesday, 20 September at 8pm (UAE time).

This is equivalent to 5pm (London), 6pm (Paris), 12 noon (New York), 9am (Los Angeles).

If you cannot make it, then please let your followers know about the tweet storm and ask them to join.

English PEN also launched a Thunderclap in support of Ahmed Mansoor. Please follow the link and sign up to this action as well.

4. What shall I tweet?

  • Send tweets to raise your followers’ awareness for Ahmed Mansoor. Tell them about him and his courageous work defending human rights in the UAE. You can also send tweets to journalists and newspapers and ask them to report his case.
  • Send tweets to the United Arab Emirates, in particular to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum  @HHShkMohd, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and to Dr. Anwar Mohammed Gargash @AnwarGargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and ask them to release Ahmed Mansoor.
  • You can also tweet to politicians in Europe and the US, e.g. Federica Mogherini (@FedericaMog) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of your country. Feel free to tweet in your own language.
  • You can finally send tweets with words of support to @Ahmed_Mansoor. You can tweet that you stand with him and that you will campaign for him until he is released and similar messages.

5. Which hashtag shall I use?

Please use the hashtag #FreeAhmed for all your tweets (irrespective of the language in which you tweet). If everyone does, it is easy to find and retweet the tweets of others.

6. Suggested tweets

You can tweet whatever you want. Be inventive and tweet in whatever language you want. It would be great to have tweets in many different languages. Use pictures and graphics in your tweets to help them stand out. You can find some images you can use at the bottom of this post.

If you need some inspiration for tweets here are some examples:

  • Human rights defender @Ahmed_Mansoor has been in detention in Abu Dhabi without trial, or access to family for 6 months #FreeAhmed
  • UAE has detained human rights defender @Ahmed_Mansoor for last 6 months without access to the outside world for tweets #FreeAhmed #Emirates
  • Brave defender @Ahmed_Mansoor , arrested 6 months ago is detained in solitary confinement, all for his human rights activities #FreeAhmed
  • Harassed, given death threats, held in solitary confinement without access to the outside world for 6 months. @HHShkMohd must #FreeAhmed NOW
  • We call for the immediate and unconditional release of human rights defender @Ahmed_Mansoor. We urge @HHShkMohd @AnwarGargash to #FreeAhmed
  • .@Ahmed_Mansoor is a prisoner of conscience who is detained solely for peacefully exercising his rights to freedom of expression. #FreeAhmed
  • .@Ahmed_Mansoor has spent 6 months in solitary confinement for speaking up for others & defending #humanrights. Join our call to #FreeAhmed
  • Please @FedericaMog intercede for @Ahmed_Mansoor #UAE. He has spent 6 months in solitary confinement for defending #humanrights. #FreeAhmed
  • Please @guardian write about @Ahmed_Mansoor #UAE. He is a brave human rights defender in jail for speaking up for others. Help to #FreeAhmed

7.  Can I do anything after 20 September?

Please do not stop supporting Ahmed Mansoor when the Tweet Storm on 20 September 2017 is over.

There is still the Amnesty International petition “Free Ahmed Mansoor” available online which you can sign and share with family, friends and followers.

As always, if you are on Twitter or in other Social Media, please continue to raise his case and make other people aware of it. If you like the suggested tweets, just continue to use them.

8. Graphics you can use:



Ebtisam Al-Saegh – a fearless human rights defender in peril

The Bahraini human rights defender Ebtisam Al-Saegh was arrested on 3 July 2017. She is at risk of torture. Bahrain has announced that they investigate her for terrorism charges. This is her story.

1. Who is Ebtisam Al-Saegh?IMG_0935

Ebtisam Al-Saegh is a human rights activist who works for SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights. SALAM is an NGO whose aim is the promotion of democracy and human rights in the Middle East. They try to influence British, European and UN representatives to improve the situation in the Middle East.

Ebtisam Al-Saegh lives and works in Bahrain. She participated in several meetings of the UN Human Rights Council. Ebtisam documents human rights violations in Bahrain. She has a Twitter account and uses her account to raise awareness for the human rights situation in Bahrain.

2. Harassment of Ebtisam Al-Saegh in the past

Every human rights defender in Bahrain is familiar with interrogations, travel bans and harassment. This is also true for Ebtisam Al-Saegh.

a) Ebtisam Al-Saegh was among 13 women who were interrogated and detained in November 2014. The women were charged with “establishing and organising a public referendum, inciting hatred against the regime and disrupting elections”. The context was a referendum which was initiated on the topic whether Bahrain should introduce a new political system under the supervision of the United Nations. The women claimed that they were humilated, insulted and deprived of sleep, food and water.

b) In June 2016 Ebtisam Al-Saegh wanted to travel to Geneva from Bahrain International Airport to attend the United Nations Human Rights Council session and participate in side events about the human rights situation in Bahrain. Bahrain security forces prevented her (as well as Hussain Radhi and Ibrahim Al-Demistani) from travelling to this event.

c) On 23 November 2016 Ebtisam Al-Saegh was summoned by the Cyber-Crime Unit. She was questioned about Twitter posts and was accused of “inciting hatred against the Bahrain regime and threating the public safety and security”. She was banned from travelling for two months. Her interrogation has to be seen in the context of a general waive of judicial harassment against human rights defenders. According to Front Line Defenders at least 17 human rights activists were summoned and interrogated in November 2016. The interrogation are often used as a ground for imposing a travel ban to restrict their ability to advocate internationally for human rights in Bahrain.

d) Ebtisam Al-Saegh was questioned again on 22 January 2017 for about four hours. She was in particular asked about her statements against the death penalty and the execution of Abbas al-Samea, Ali Al-Singace and Sami Mushaima. There were threats against her children and she was warned that her citizenship could be revoked, if she continues to publish “fake news”.

e) In March 2017 Ebtisam Al-Saegh was able to participate in the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. While she was in Geneva her sister was summoned and questioned.  Upon Ebtisam’s return on 20 March 2017 she was detained for several hours at Bahrain International Airport. She was searched, her passport was confiscated and she was questioned for 5 hours. She was not allowed to contact her lawyer or her family who did not know her whereabouts. An interrogator accused her of delivering false statements about human rights in Bahrain in Geneva. She was warned “not to cross the red line“. She was also asked about her work generally, the attendance of conferences and her meeting with the High Commissioner of Human Rights. She was told that she could be taken away from her children and that also her children could face prosecution, if she continues her work.

f) On 21 April 2017 22 human rights defenders were summoned to appear before the General Prosecutor. They were interrogated on 24 and 25 April 2017. Each of them was only questioned for a few minutes. The allegations were that they had all  attended an illegal gathering in Diraz village. All denied the charges. Ebtisam Al-Saegh was among the human rights defenders who were questioned and she and others were informed about a travel ban against them.

g) Ebtisam Al-Saegh was summoned and interrogated by  National Security Agency (NSA) at Muharraq police station on 26 May 2017. She went to the police station at 4 pm. She was questioned about her human rights work in and outside of Bahrain and about her participation in the UN Human Rights Council two months earlier. She said that she was forced to stand during most of the interrogation, she was blindfolded, severely beaten and  sexually assaulted. Ebtisam also said that she was threatened with rape and that there were threats against her children and her husband if she does not stop her human rights activities. She described what happened in detail to Amnesty International. She was released and immediately taken to hospital, because she was under shock and unable to walk.

3. Current detention of Ebtisam Al-Saegh

a) Ebitsam Al-Saegh was arrested on 3 July 2017 at 11:45pm. About 25 masked officers in civilian clothes raided her house in Jid Ill (south of Manama). It is believed that these officers belonged to Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID). The officers did not present an arrest warrant. When they took Ebtisam Al-Saegh, they did not tell her the reason for her arrest. Amnesty International is convinced that she was arrested for her human rights work. She had retweeted tweets about the NSA’s ill-treatment of women the day before. These tweets claimed  that the King is responsible for their treatment.

On the next day (4 July) Ebtisam Al-Saegh had a chance to call her family. She told them that she was held in solitary confinement and that she was under great pressure to confess. According to Amnesty International Ebitsam suffers from irritabel bowel syndrome and other medical conditions. On 6 July the police raided her house again and seized all mobile phones. As explanation for their actions they told her family “your mother didn’t cooperate with us”.

Considering her previous experience, in particular her interrogation on the 25 May 2017, Ebitisam Al-Saegh is at high risk of torture including sexual assault.

b) Ebtisam Al-Saegh has been interrogated for 12 to 13 hours daily since her arrest. She went on hunger strike to protest her arrest, the lack of access to her family and the fact that her lawyer was not allowed to be present during her interrogations.

On 10 July in the evening her health deteriorated and she was taken to the Ministry of Interior hospital in al-Quala for treatment. Nabeel Rajab who was arrested more than a year ago and who is also ill, saw her in hospital. He told his son Adam Rajab about this encounter and his report is quite worrying:



On 11 July Ebtisam Al-Saegh called her family again from Isa Town detention centre where she is held between the interrogations in solitary confinement.

According to reports she was interrogated for 18 hours on 12 July. NSA took her from her cell at 9 am and did not return her to her cell until 3 am the following day. On 13 July she was taken for interrogation at 12 noon and was brought back at 3 am. The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) reports that inmates could hear her screaming. crying and banging on her door at solitary confinement.

Her husband was able to visit her on 16 July and said she was in a wheelchair during the visit.

c) On the 14 July the Embassy of Bahrain, London, published the following statement about Ebtisam Al-Saegh:



The embassy basically denies that  there was any sexual harassment against her and also denies that charges have “bearing on her views” or “political opinions”, but alleges that she is held on charges relating to terrorism.

Amnesty International and other human rights organisations see this as a smear campaign and Samah Hadid, Director of Campaigns for the Middle East at Amnesty International states the following:

“Ebtisam al-Saegh is a prisoner of conscience who must be immediately and unconditionally released. Her only ‘crime’, is her bravery in challenging the government’s appalling human rights record. By charging her with terrorism for her work on human rights, the Bahraini government is itself attempting to intimidate and silence civil society in Bahrain.”

Ebtisam Al-Saegh was charged on 18 July in the presence of a lawyer by the Terrorism Crimes Prosecution Office with “using human rights work as cover to communicate and cooperate with Al Karma Foundation to provide them with information and fake news about the situation in Bahrain to undermine its status abroad”. She will be detained for six months pending completion of the investigation.

After the recent change of the constitution of Bahrain in April 2017 it is likely that a potential trial against her will be in front of a military court.

d) The Spokesman for the US State Department was asked about Ebtisam Al-Saegh in the Press Briefing on the 13 July. The US State Department stated that they are concerned about her arrest, call for her release and also for independent investigations of the torture and mistreatment allegations.

Also the office of the United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner published a statement about Ebtisam Al-Saegh on 18 July: “UN experts urge Bahrain to investigate reports of torture and ill-treatment of rights defender Ebtisam Alsaegh“. They also call for her immediate release and urge the Bahraini government to investigate the torture allegations and to strictly abide by its obligations under international human rights.

4. Please take action for Ebtisam Al-Saegh #FreeEbtisam

Amnesty International has published two urgent action for Ebtisam Al-Saegh.  IMG_0703The first one was published on 6 July 2017 (Arrested Defender at Risk of Torture) and the second one on 14 July 2014 (Detained Defender Interrogated Continously).

Please take action for Ebtisam Al-Saegh. Write a letter to the King of Bahrain as well as to the Minister of Interior and send copies of your letters to the Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs. Tweet about her and send your tweets also to the address of the Minister of Interior (@moi_Bahrain) and the Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa (@Khaled_Bin_Ali). Use the hashtag #FreeEbtisam.

Please share her story and make sure that also others hear about her.

Amnesty International also launched an online petition for Ebtisam Al-Saegh and Nabeel Rajab. It is called “Stop the torture of human rights defenders in Bahrain“. Please sign and share this petition as well.

Let us stand with Ebtisam Al-Saegh a brave defender of human rights until she is released at last.

Arrested, sentenced, not released – human rights in the United Arab Emirates

March 2017 was a dismal month for human rights in the United Arab Emirates. Two months later the situation has not improved. I want to tell in this post the stories of three human rights defenders from the United Arab Emirates: Ahmed Mansoor, Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith and Osama al-Najjar and what happened to them in the previous months.

1. Arrested: Ahmed Mansoor

Ahmed Mansoor – (c) Martin Ennals Foundation

a) Ahmed Mansoor is a prominent blogger and human rights activist. He is an engineer and a member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Advisory Committee as well as the Advisory Board of the organisation Gulf Centre for Human Rights.

b) Ahmed Mansoor had been targeted by the UAE authorities for several years. On 8 April 2011 he was arrested and questioned. A months before his arrest, on 9 March 2011, he was one of 133 activists who had signed a petition to demand the introduction of universal direct elections for the Federal National Council, a quasi-parliamentary body, and give them full legislative power. Ahmed Mansoor had strongly supported this petition and had given interviews to the media in favour of  this initiative. Human rights organisations assumed at the time that his activism for political reform was the reason of his arrest.

He was charged under article 176 of the UAE Penal Code which makes it an offence to “publicly insult the State President, its flag or national emblem”. Art. 8 of the UAE Penal Code widens its application to other top officials. Another charge against him was “conspiracy against the safety and security of the state” by his participation in the online political discussion forum Hewar which had been banned in UAE in early 2010. Ahmed Mansoor was tried together with four other defendants (including Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith) who were charged with similar offences. The trial opened at the Abu Dhabi’s Federal Supreme Court on 14 June 2011 and is widely referred to as UAE5 trial. Amnesty International and other human rights organisations held that the trial was unfair and did violate basic rights of the defendants.  The first four hearings in the trial were held behind closed doors, the defendants were denied any meaningful opportunity to see the charges and evidence against them and to prepare a defence. The defendants also did not have a right to appeal the judgement, because the offences were tried subject to State Security criminal proceedings in which the Federal Supreme Court was the first and last instance. On 27 November 2011 Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced to three years in prison. The following day the President of the UAE pardoned Ahmed Mansoor and the four other defendants. However the charges were not dropped and Ahmed Mansoor was denied a passport and banned from travelling.

c) Since 2011 Ahmed Mansoor had been the target of numerous attacks via social media. He was targeted by spyware which enabled the government to track his movements and read his e-mails. He was generally under close physical and electronic surveillance. The authorities did not issue him with a “certificate of good conduct” which is necessary to obtain employment in the UAE. This meant that he could not work anymore as an engineer. Ahmed Mansoor started studying law in 2012. However, he was physically assaulted twice in university by government supporters and stopped his studies after the second assault.

d) On 6 October 2015 the Martin Ennals Foundation announced Ahmed Mansoor as the 2015 Laureate Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. The award is given to human rights defenders who have shown strong commitment and face great personal risk. The aim of the award is to provide protection through international recognition. Ahmed Mansoor was not able to attend the ceremony in Geneva to accept the award in person, because of the travel ban against him.

e) The constant harrassment of Ahmed Mansoor was just a prelude to what happened in March 2017. Around midnight of 20 March 2017 security forces entered Ahmed Mansoor’s home where he lives with his wife and their four small boys. They searched the place for three hours, confiscated all phones and electronic devices and took him around 3:15 am to an undisclosed location. According to an official news agency, he was arrested on orders of the Public Prosecution for Cybercrimes and accused of using social media to publish false and misleading information that harm the national unity and damage the reputation of the country. He was also accused of “promoting sectarian and hate-incited agenda”. Ahmed Mansoor had used his Twitter account to speak out for Osama al-Najjar and Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith and had criticised human rights violations in the region, in particular in Egypt and through the war in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition.

His family did not hear from him for the next two weeks. On 3 April he was allowed a short supervised family visit. He was being held in solitary confinement and had no access to a lawyer.

On 28 March 2017 a group of United Nations human rights experts called for his release and described the arrest as “a direct attack on the legitimate work of human rights defenders in the UAE“. Also the Subcommittee on Human Rights at the European Parliament urged the UAE government to release Ahmed Mansoor. A coalition of 20 human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Scholars at Risk, Gulf Centre for Human Rights and many others joined the call for his immediate and unconditional release. He is still in prison.

Please raise your voice for Ahmed Mansoor. He always stands up for others and we should now campaign for him in this time where he needs our support. Amnesty International launched two different online petitions for his release, the petition “Free activist detained for blogging in the UAE” and the petition “Free Ahmed Mansoor“. Sign the petitions, share them via e-mail and social media and raise awareness about his situation. You can also write a letter, fax or e-mail to the UAE authorities. Amnesty put together all relevant information.

2. Sentenced: Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith

Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith – (c) private

a) Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith is a well known economist, academic and human rights defenders. He is lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Sorbonne University, Paris. Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith had also been a target of harassment because of his advocacy for human rights and political reforms for a long time.

b) On 10 April 2011 he was arrested in Dubai. He had written online articles asking for political reform. As Ahmed Mansoor he had also signed the petition which asked for meaningful democratic reform of the Federal National Council. The authorities saw in his articles a threat for national security and an insult against government leaders and charged him under article 176  and article 8 of the UAE Penal Code, the same offence Ahmed Mansoor was charged with. Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith was also tried in the UAE5 trial. I have already mentioned the human rights violations in this trial in the context of Ahmed Mansoor. On 27 November 2011 the Federal Supreme Court of Abu Dhabi sentenced Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith to two years imprisonment for insulting the UAE government. As Ahmed Mansoor, Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith was pardoned on the following day, but the charges against him have not been dropped and the harassment and intimidations continued.

c) On 18 August 2015 Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith was arrested at 2 pm at his work place by State Security officers. He was brought to his home and the security officers searched his house between 4 pm and 8:30 pm and confiscated several items. Neither he nor his family were informed about the reasons for his arrest. For the next eight months Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith was disappeared. His family did not know about his whereabouts and he did not have any contact with his lawyer. On 4 April 2016 he appeared the first time in public after his arrest in front of the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi. The court session was also his first opportunity to speak briefly with his lawyer. Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith claimed that he had been held in solitary confinement and had been tortured by beating him and depriving him of sleep. The court did not order an independent investigation into the allegations of torture and ill-treatment and the judge switched off the microphone so that he could not continue to state his allegations.

Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith faced a number of charges, including “committing a hostile act against a foreign state”, because he had criticised on Twitter the Government of Egypt in the context of the massacre which happened at the camp of protesters against General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at Rabaa al-Adwiya Mosque (Cairo) in August 2013. Further charges were “posting false information in order to harm the reputation and stature of the State and one of its institutions” based on his comments that the UAE5 trial had not been fair. There were also charges on the basis of statements he had made and contacts he had had – including contacts to persons who were tried in the so-called UA94 trial in 2013 and with Amnesty International’s General Secretary in December 2011.

Further hearings in the trial against Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith took place on the 2 May, 23 May, 20 June and 26 September 2016. In the hearing on 5 December 2016 he was informed that the case had been transferred to the recently established Federal Appeal Court in Abu Dhabi. After two hearing at that court on 18 January and 22 February 2017, the court delivered a verdict on 29 March 2017. Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He can appeal the sentence within 30 days before the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court.

On 30 March 2017 he was transferred to a Al-Razeen Prison – a maximum security prison in the middle of the Abu Dhabi desert. The prison is often used to hold activists, government critics, and human rights defenders. Before his transfer he wrote a letter and announced that he would start on 2 April an open ended hunger strike until his release. He said in his letter:

“Unfortunately, I was forced to take such decisions as I have no choice but to go on hunger strike to restore my stolen freedom .”

Amnesty International has issued an urgent action and asks for the release of Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith. There is also a call for his immediate and unconditional release by 10 human rights organisations including Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and Scholars at Risk. Please take action for him, tweet about him and write letters and ask the UAE authorities to release him.

3. Not released: Osama al-Najjar

Osama al-Najjar – (c) private

a) Osama al-Najjar is a 28 years online activist. He is the son of Hussain Ali al-Najjar al-Hammadi, a science teacher.

b) His father was arrested on 16 July 2012 and was one of the defendants in the infamous mass trial UAE94 against 94 individuals, including government critics and advocates of reform. The human rights lawyer Dr. Mohammed al-Roken about whom I wrote a blog post in December last year was another defendant in the UAE94 trial. You can read more about the trial and the human rights violations during it,  in my post about Dr. Al-Roken. Hussain al-Najjar was sentenced to 10 years in prison (followed by a three years probation period) on the charges of “plotting to overthrow the government”. In a separate trial in January 2014 he was sentenced to 14 further months in prison which he will serve after the 10 years sentence is completed.

c) Osama al-Najjar was arrested on 17 March 2014. He had been campaigning on social media for his father. Three weeks before his arrest, he had tweeted to the Ministry of Interior and expressed concern about his father’s torture and ill-treatment during the detention, the conditions in Al-Razaan prison and the unfair UAE94 trial.

After his arrest Osama was brought in a secret detention place. For four days he was continuously questioned from morning to evening. During the questioning, he was tortured and ill-treated. Osama was beaten and threatened with electric shocks if he would not cooperate. There were also threats that his mother and his younger siblings would be detained. He had no contact with his lawyer or with his family. After four days he was transferred to Al-Wathba Prison in Abu Dhabi were his family could visit him. However, he still did not get an opportunity to speak with his lawyer.

The trial against Osama al-Najjar began on 23 September 2014. In this hearing he also had the first time the chance to speak with his lawyer. A second hearing took place on 14 October 2014. On 25 November 2014 the State Security Court at the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 Emirate Dirhams (about GBP 106,000) on the charges of “instigating hatred against the state”, “designing and running a website on social networks with the aim of publishing inaccurate, satirical and defamatory ideas and information that are harmful to the structure for State institutions”, “belonging to the al-Islah organisation” and “contacting foreign organisation and presenting inaccurate information”. Osama’s electronic devices were confiscated and his Twitter account and website were closed. No appeal was possible against this judgement.

d) After spending three years in prison, Osama al-Najjar was due for release two months ago, on 17 March 2017. The authorities did not release him. There is no indication for how long his detention will be extended. Apparently the prosecutor said that his release poses a threat to society and had applied for the continuous detention on the basis of anti-terror laws, even so he was not found guilty of a “terrorist offence”.  He is kept incommunicado in a “counselling centre”. International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates (ICFUAE) explains in a recent article how the UAE authorities generally misuse the “counselling centre” to extend the imprisonment on human rights defenders. Osama al-Najjar is not the only one whose detention is extended in this arbitrary way.  Amnesty International and other human rights organisations ask for his immediate release and state there is no basis for his ongoing arbitrary detention.

Please take action for Osama al-Najjar and join the urgent action of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. Join the campaign on Twitter and write letters to the UAE authorities to ask for his release.

Kodály: Missa Brevis – a mass “in tempore belli”

IMG_0146The next concert of Highgate Choral Society on Saturday, 6 May 2017 has a mixed programme. The first part of the concert features English and Italian music. We will sing music by Finzi, Mascagni, Puccini, Rossini, Vaughan Williams and Verdi. After the interval we will perform Kodály’s Missa brevis in a version for chorus and organ to mark the 50th anniversary of Kodály’s death. The concert will take place at St. Michael’s Church, South Grove, Highgate N6 6BJ and starts at 7 pm.

1. Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967) was born in Kecskemét, a city in the centre of Hungary. In 1900 he went to university in Budapest and studied Hungarian and German language and literature. In the same year he took the entry exam at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest and studied composition. Kodály met Béla Bartók at the Royal Academy of Music. Both became lifelong friends. After they finished university they travelled through Hungary and Romania with phonograph cylinders to collect folk music and folk songs in remote villages. Folk music and folk songs were of great influence for Kodály and his music. He was also very interested in musical education and developed his own method of teaching music to children. In this method, singing had a special role and also choral music was for Kodaly one of the most potent mediums, because he saw it rooted in the Hungarian musical and social tradition.

2. Zoltán Kodály wrote his Missa Brevis in dark times. Hungary joined the Triparte Pact between Germany, Japan and Italy in 1940 and fought as member of the Axis powers in Yugoslavia and Russia. In August 1943 Hungary decided to contact the US and their allies to start negotiations of a secret peace treaty. When Germany discovered this “betrayal” of Hungary, they made plans to occupy it. From March 1944 onwards Hungary was occupied by German troops and ruled by a government which was aided by a National Socialist military governor. In October 1944 the Red Army started its offensive against Budapest. The Russians were able to take Pest in December 1944, but besieged Buda for seven weeks until the city’s unconditional surrender on 13 February 1945. Kodály stayed in Hungary during the Second World War. The situation in the city was dire. Many civilians died during the siege, either from bombing and military action or from starvation and diseases. The houses were not safe anymore and many took refuge in cellars and air shelters. Zoltán Kodály and his wife first lived in a cellar of a Benedictine convent school, later they moved to the basement of Royal Opera House in Budapest.

Kodály started working on his Missa Brevis when he was in hiding in the cellar of the convent. In 1942 he had written an organ mass which was first performed in St. Stephen’s Basilica. While he was in the cellar of the convent he started reworking his mass into a choral work with organ. For Kodály the words of the mass were always of particular poetic significance and I think it is not surprising that he turned to them in such terrible times. The Missa Brevis was performed the first time early in 1945 in the cloakroom of the opera house which was used as improvised concert room, because the main opera house had been damaged by bombs. Kodály gave the mass the subtitle “in tempore belli” (“in times of war”). He made later another version of the Missa Brevis for chorus and orchestra. The first British performance of the Missa Brevis was a broadcast by the Belfast Co-operative Choir in October 1945. A further performance took place during the Three Choir Festival in Worcester in 1948 (conducted by the composer) and was repeated two years later at the Gloucester Festival.

3. The Missa Brevis is a setting of the Latin text of the mass with its five traditional parts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus / Benedictus and Agnus Dei). In addition Kodály started with a short Introitus for organ solo and ended the mass with an Ite, missa est which was in original version again for organ solo. He later also prepared a version for chorus and organ. We will use in the concert the original version.

The Kyrie consists traditionally of three parts (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison). It is the plea to God for mercy. The first Kyrie eleison in Kodály’s setting is austere and kept in the dark colours of the alto section and the bass section which sing a short melodic phrase in canon. The Christe eleison is brighter and is dominated by the higher voices. The soprano section is split in three parts which sing haughtingly beautiful chords juxtaposed with the three lower voices. In the second part of the Christe eleison the altos join the sopranos. For the second Kyrie eleison Kodály uses the same melodic phrase as for the first Kyrie for the altos and basses. This time they are joined by the sopranos and tenors who sing three long cries on eleison (“have mercy”).

The Gloria is a celebratory part of mass which praises, lauds and glorifies God. In the Missa Brevis the Gloria consists of three parts. The first part is filled with military fanfares. It is a fast section (Allegro) with many runs and raising lines for all voice parts. The second part is much slower (Adagio). It is again dominated by the lower voice parts. The altos start to sing “qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (that taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy”). The basses then join the altos with the same melodic line. Toward the end of this part, the tenors repeat “have mercy” several times. For the final part of the Gloria Kodály returns to the fast tempo of the first section and the military fanfares. The Gloria culminates in a glorious Amen which is once repeated.

The Credo sets the creed (Nicene Creed) to music, the summary of the Christian belief. The setting in the Missa Brevis is more episodic. It starts with the altos and basses in unison in a quiet march. The second part is slower and very quiet when the choir sings “et incarnatus est”. The music depicts  the mystery of the incarnation. The cruxificus starts with the three upper voices singing forte (loud) with great anguish. As this part progresses the music gets quieter and quieter and dies away. The “et sepultus est” (“and was buried”) is as quiet as possible, almost inaudible. For the joy of the resurrection Kodály chose a fast tempo and ascending choral lines which mirror the text. The choir starts soft and finishes this section in a fortissimo (very loud). The next section “et in spiritum sanctum” starts with the basses, soon the other voice parts join and sing in unison “qui cum patre et filio”. Also this part of the mass ends with a confident Amen.

The Sanctus consists traditionally of four parts: Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus and a repetition of the Osanna. The Sanctus / Benedictus is sung in the mass after the preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. It is the praise of God by the saints and angels. Kodály set the Sanctus (including Osanna) and the Benedictus (including Osanna) in two separate movements. Both parts are quite restraint. He decided not to repeat the same setting of the Osanna after the Benedictus, but to write a variant on it.

The Agnus Dei consists, as the Kyrie, traditionally of three sections. The text “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” is repeated three times. The first two times the sentence finishes with the plea “have mercy on us”. The third time it ends with “give us peace” (Dona nobis pacem). The Agnus Dei in the Missa Brevis recalls themes from the Gloria and the Kyrie. In particular by taking up motives of the Kyrie the music comes full circle and gives the piece unity. The movement builds towards a climax with the anguished “Dona nobis pacem” (grant us peace). Kodály uses for this last cry for peace the motives from his Christe eleison setting. The sopranos are again split in three parts soon the altos join. A few bars later also the tenors and basses join this plea for peace. Given the circumstances of the composition of the mass, it is not surprising that these words receive the longest treatment of any words of the Missa Brevis. The Agnus Dei is almost as long as the Credo which has far more words to set and the word “pacem” (peace) at the end is repeated over and over again.