Poem: Yā ẓalām as-siǧn (O dark of prison shade us) by Najīb ar-Rayyis

A couple of weeks ago I heard about a classic Arabic poem by the poet Najīb ar-Rayyis. I want to share with you in the following post the poem (in an English translation), its background and how I heard about it.

O dark of prison, shade us,
for we dearly love the darkness.
After night there is nothing unless
a dawn of glory rises up.

Alas, o place of fame,
o dwelling of our faithful ones,
we offered young men to you
who have no fear of death

and we all gave our word to each other,
on that day we swore the oath.
We shall never break our word,
for we took righteousness as our faith.

O you guards, be lenient,
and hear the words we speak:
Let us enjoy the air,
to withhold it would be a sin.

By God, I shall never forget
the ills my nation is suffering.
I call you to witness, o stars,
that I have loyalty and love within me.

O clanking fetters, give me more
of that sound which saddens my heart,
for your voice gives a meaning
to mourning and oppression.

I was never an evildoer,
I never betrayed the regime;
far rather, the love of my country
holds fast a place in my heart.

1. The poem “Yā ẓalām as-siǧn” (O dark of prison shade us) was written by the Syrian Poet Najīb ar-Rayyis in 1922.

Najīb ar-Rayyis was born in 1898 in Hama, Syria. Hama belonged at that time to the Ottoman Empire. He was a journalist, editor and activist against the French mandate for Syria and Lebanon.

In 1919 Najīb ar-Rayyis went to Damascus and worked as journalist for several Syrian newspapers and a number of Lebanese newspapers. From 1928 onwards he was editor of the newspaper al-Qabas / ‏القبس‎ / ‚The fervour‘. This newspaper became soon a major publication for the Syrian national movement for independence and was highly regarded by the Syrian people.

Even before he became editor of al-Qabas he was famous for his articles which supported the national movement of Syria. His editorials for al-Qabas were respected for their strong criticism of the French colonial ruler. As a consequence the publication of al-Qabas was often forbidden or at least interrupted. Najīb ar-Rayyis paid a high price for his activism and his clear advocacy for Syrian independence. Between 1920 and 1943 he was several times in different prisons, penal camps and banished. Altogether he spent eight years of his life in prison.

After the end of the French mandate in 1946 Najīb ar-Rayyis was highly regarded. He was soon elected as a member of parliament under the president Shukri al-Quwatli. In parliament he was known to be a eloquent and courageous orator and defender of all matters of his country and the well-being of its people. After his service in the parliament he went back to his work as a journalist and wrote many further articles. He died in 1952 in Damascus.

2. The poem Yā ẓalām as-siǧn has to be seen in the same context as his work for several newspapers. It is one of the most famous works of Najīb ar-Rayyis. He wrote it 1922 during his banishment to Arwad – a Syrian island close to Tartus, Syria’s second largest port.

a) The 1920s were a significant time for Syria. After the First World War the Ottoman Empire was dissolved and there were two distinct developments. The colonial powers France and Britain divided the former Ottoman Empire 1918 between them. The French controlled parts of Ottoman Syria (mainly modern Syria and Lebanon) and parts of south-eastern Turkey. At the same time Faisal established the first Arab government in Damascus. In May 1919, elections were held for the Syrian National Congress who declared the independence of Syria in 1920. An independent Syria would conflict with the French idea of a colonial mandate over Syria (and Lebanon). On 23 July 1920 the Battle of Maysalun was fought between the Syrian and the French forces. The better equipped and trained French forces defeated the Syrian forces decisively. In the aftermath of the battle France divided the whole mandate territory in six parts and established between 1920 and 1922 six states. The poem was therefore written after this decisive defeat in Maysalun, when Syria was in the process of being divided  into different parts and Najīb ar-Rayyis’ dreams of an independent Syria were shattered.

b) The poem follows the pattern of a classical Arabic Qaṣīda, even so it is shorter than many Qaṣīdas. In the Arabic version every half-line has three stresses and there is a rhyme at the end of every second half-line.

Also the contents and structure follows a Qaṣīda.This form of poetry consists of three parts. The first part contains the introduction. It is usually a nostalgic opening in which the poet reflects on the past. This part is known as nasib. Very often this past situation is a sad or tragic one. A common concept is e.g. that the poet reaches the camp-site, but the caravan of the beloved has already moved on. The second part can be described as release or disengagement (takhallus). It often describes a transition from the nostalgia of the first part to the second section. Typically the poet contemplates in this section the harshness of the land and life alone away from the tribe. The third part of a Qaṣīda contains the message of the poem. The message can take several forms, e.g. some moral maxim (hikam) or in our case the self-praise of the poet.

3. I heard the first time about this poem at the beginning of April. Asma Darwish, the wife of the Bahraini human rights activist Hussain Jawad mentioned it in a tweet. She wrote on 8 April in her tweet after her visit in prison the following: “@HussainMJawad kept repeating in visit today a verse of an Arabic poem: “Oh darkness of prison, approach. We do not fear the dark”. I was immediately intrigued by this tweet. I love poetry and was very curious to know the complete poem. However, one line of a poem in translation without any further information is not enough to find a poem.

Hussain Jawad was released on 19 May 2015 (conditional release). Within a week after his release he tweeted a picture of an Arabic text which was obviously a poem. I assumed that this text was the poem he was quoting in prison. I was now even more curious. I do not speak Arabic, but I definitely wanted to know the translation of this poem which seemed to be so important to him that it accompanied him in prison and that he wanted to share it with everyone a very short time after his release.

So how did I get the translation? I use very frequently a language forum (for English and German). Over the years I had learned that the participants in this forum are very resourceful. I thought it was worth asking for ideas how I could find a translation of a poem which I cannot read and of which I know neither title nor author. I was not disappointed – to the contrary the reactions exceeded all my expectations by far. Within a short time, someone contacted me and told me that he speaks Arabic and that he would be happy to make a translation of the poem. He is German, therefore he translated the poem into German. We then put the German translation on the forum. Together with another participant of the forum who is an English native speaker we made the translation into English. For each question or uncertainty of the English translation our translator from Arabic gave feedback and tried to explain the structure of the original Arabic sentence and the meaning of the words which are used with the aim to get an English translation which is as close as possible to the Arabic original.

I love the result and I am delighted that I have now a translation of this poem which I can share with you.

4. I would like to finish my post with saying thank you to both people who helped so heavily with the translation of this poem. Both do not want to be named, but I am really very grateful for their help. Both did far more for the translation than I.

The person who translated the poem into German wrote afterwards a Wikipedia article about it for the German Wikipedia. You can find this article here. Everything I wrote here about the poem and the background heavily depends on this article. There is also an article about the poet and the poem in the Arabic Wikipedia. If you are interested in the original Arabic version of the poem please have a look here.

If you had read my earlier posts you know that I mentioned Asma Darwish and Hussain Jawad before. In case you have not read it, please have a look here.

I  want to ask every reader of this blog to take action for him. Please have a look at the urgent appeal for Hussain Jawad on the Strictly Legal Law blog of a friend of mine. You will find there more information about his case and a link to the Amnesty International urgent action for him which asks you to write to Bahrain and demand that all charges against him are dropped and that the allegations of torture are investigated. The next hearing in his trial is on 2 September and the charges against him are based on a forced confession.

Twitter is great!

During the past weeks and months a lot of friends were surprised about my current enthusiasm for Twitter. They found it hard to understand why it can be exciting to post and read messages with no apparent addressee which cannot have more than 140 characters.

I want to explain and give some examples in the following post, why I think Twitter is great. I am writing this post in particular for those friends who are puzzled by my excitement.

1. I have had a Twitter account since June 2009, but I did not really use it. I was hardly following anyone and I tweeted or retweeted not more than five tweets in all these years. I started using Twitter earlier this year in February, because I wanted to help and support Raif Badawi. I wrote more about that in my post Why I do care about Raif Badawi.

I signed up for Twitter in 2009, because so many newspaper articles about the Arab Spring mentioned that Twitter was an important means of communication during this time. I thought it was exciting to get first hand information via Twitter. However, I did not really get into it, because I was not sure what I should look for and whom I should follow. I find this an interesting coincidence, because I use Twitter now so heavily for prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders who were active during the Arab Spring or who are in any case from the MENA region (Middle East & Northern Africa) and stand for the ideas and values which played an important role during that movement.

2. During the past weeks and months I told a lot of my friends and colleagues about my current enthusiastic use of Twitter and I got almost always one of the following two reactions: Either people replied that they do not have a Twitter account and also do not really understand it or they replied that they have a Twitter account, but hardly ever use it. I want to explain why I am fascinated by Twitter. I think, it is an easy way to communicate in an informal manner with people all over the world and it is brilliant to spread news very quickly. The following two examples shall illustrate my statement: (a) my collection of translations of a phrase of support for Raif Badawi via Twitter and (b) the tweets by Asma Darwish (@eagertobefree), Hussain Jawad’s wife, over the whole period from his arrest in February 2015 until his (conditional) release on 19 May 2015.

3. A few months ago @VeraSScott who campaigns a lot for Raif Badawi came up with a phrase of support for him. The phrase is: “We will hold Raif Badawi in our hearts and minds until his family can hold him in their arms”. This phrase became very popular and many people used it. I liked it as well and suggested to her that it would be great to have it not only in English, but in many different languages. I collected over the past months translations in almost 60 different languages. I put each translation in a picture of Raif Badawi and his three children and you can find all languages and pictures here.

I got all translations by asking people on Twitter for it. I first asked all those who frequently campaign for Raif Badawi. I got a translation into French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, German, Hindi and Malayalam, but I wanted to have more translations. Therefore I sent tweets to the different Amnesty sections all over the world and to people who used the hashtag #FreeRaif or #RaifBadawi. Very often these were people who had only signed a petition for him. If they were in a country from which I did not have the language, I asked them for a translation. Finally I wanted to have some specific languages and just looked for people who posted in that language or where I found another indication that they might speak the language I wanted to have. The reactions I got to my tweets were great. The vast majority of people I asked for a translation were extremely friendly and helped very quickly.

I asked for example @rlamsfuss for a translation of the phrase into Persian. He told me that he could not translate the phrase, because he did not speak the language well enough. When I explained why I wanted to have the translation, he asked a friend @shary20 whether she could help. She sent me immediately a translation into Persian. Both were so friendly and helpful that I decided to follow them. I saw for which prisoners of conscience they mainly campaign and their kindness is one of the reasons why I campaign now for Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki and Saeed Malekpour as well.

I used the translations during the past months and sent it to several people mainly to raise awareness for Raif Badawi. Again, the reactions were great and I got a lot of positive feedback. I sent a tweet with a picture of the phrase in Maltese to @mmic78. The tweet mentioned the number of days Raif Badawi had spent in prison and asked King Salman for mercy. @mmic78 translated my tweet spontaneously into Maltese and we exchanged a couple of tweets. We now follow each other. He is mainly interested in migration as well as Libya and Malta. He occasionally retweets my Raif Badawi tweets and other human rights tweets and I am happy to retweet his tweets on migration topics.

Without Twitter I would not have had any possibility to get all these translations so easy and I would not have learned about new interesting topics and people I have not been aware of before.

4. On 16 February 2015 the Bahraini Human Rights activist, founder and chairman of the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights (EBOHR) Hussain Jawad was arrested in a night raid of his house. He was brought to Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID). Over the next days he was tortured by physical and psychological means to get him to sign a confession of crimes he has not committed. He was targeted because of his work as a human rights defender. He was then transferred to Dry Dock prison. Over the next months a number of hearings took place. On 19 May he was finally released, but it is just a conditional release and the trial based on the forced confession will take place in September.

His wife Asma Darwish who is also active in EBOHR tweeted about each step after his arrest until the news about his conditional release. I did not follow these tweets from the very beginning, because I think probably just started following Asma Darwish in March, but I read her earlier tweets later. She tweeted about everything which was significant in relation to her husband – beginning with the arrest, the uncertainty, because she could not reach anyone to inform her about his whereabouts and his well-being, the call in which he spoke only a few words which she could hardly understand and in which he confirmed that he was hurt.  She tweeted about each of her visits in prison (before she left and after she was back), she tweeted about each court hearing – every time with the hope that he would be released and always – apart from the last hearing –  with the disappointment when the court extended the detention again. Between her visits and the hearings she asked people to join tweet storms for her husband or to send photos of support for him. She tweeted the articles which were published about him during this time and tweeted pictures of him, but also of their son and herself. Even so a tweet has only 140 characters you can see all her determination and her love for her husband in these tweets; in some tweets you can sense her anger, her disappointment and also her hope. For me these tweets are a remarkable testimony of that story and I would love use the tweets in a later post to share this story with you.

I do not know any other way how she could have informed people worldwide as quickly and as easy about everything what happened. I think Twitter proved to be in this case an excellent means of communication across borders and irrespective of the difficult circumstances.

5. I could give many more examples how Twitter enabled me to get in contact with people and organisations very easily and how it helped to campaign for human rights causes and made it possible to interest people who campaign for certain prisoners to include others in their tweets as well.

Thanks to Twitter the times are over when it was easy for repressive regimes to keep things hidden and it is no surprise to me that human rights activists like Nabeel Rajab are in prison for their tweets. Countries like Bahrain have long realised what a powerful tool Twitter can be and how difficult it is to control. And thanks to Twitter it is easy for each of us to let prisoners of conscience via their friends and family members know that they are not alone and not forgotten.

Opera composers go Sacred … about Puccini’s Messa di Gloria and Rossini’s Stabat Mater

HCS Puccini + RossiniOne of my choirs Highgate Choral Society sings next Saturday, 4 July at 7 pm at All Hallows Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP a concert of Puccini’s Messa di Gloria and Rossini’s Stabat Mater.

I love both works and I am also intrigued by them, because – irrespective of their differences – they have striking similarities and both are wonderful dramatic pieces. You can find my thoughts about both pieces below and maybe some of you are even interested to come to our concert.

1. Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) wrote his Messa di Gloria very early in his career – in fact before he really had a career. He composed the mass in 1876 and he was just 18 years old. Puccini was born into a musical family. For generations his family occupied the post of the organist and chapel master at the Duomo San Martino in his home town Lucca. This was also his destiny since he started his musical education as a boy soprano in the church choir of San Martino. However, something significant had happened to him the year before he composed his mass. He went to the theatre in Pisa (about 20 km from Lucca) and saw his first opera: Verdi’s Aida. From this moment on it was clear for Puccini that he wanted to become a composer of operas. He wanted to write for the theatre and not for the church.

In a sense his Messa di Gloria has a place between both genres – between music for the church and music for the theatre. It follows the classical structure of a mass with five movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei). It is written for two soloists (tenor and bass), mixed chorus and orchestra. But it is not the kind of piece you would expect to hear on Sunday during a service. The whole piece lasts roughly 45 minutes and the lengths of the five movements are very different. You might be able to imagine the Kyrie, Sanctus or Agnus Dei in a liturgical context, but certainly not the Gloria and Credo. The Gloria last about 20 minutes and the Credo about 15 minutes. If nothing else, they would be far too long for an ordinary Sunday mass. The whole treatment of the choir and the soloists and the wonderful melodies give already a foretaste of all the operas which Puccini will write later. You have the impression that Puccini did not so much want to write church music with this piece, he rather used the traditional well know texts and tried to express every emotion which the text encompasses. There is exuberant joy in his setting of the Gloria and singing the “qui tollis peccata mundi suscipe deprecationem nostram” (“you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer”) feels like singing the famous chorus of the slaves of Verdi’s Nabucco. In the setting of the Credo each part of the text gets its own emotional expression. For the “et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto ex Maria virgine, et homo factus est” (“he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man”) the tenor joins the choir and the text is sung with great tenderness. The orchestra is not playing at all or very subdued and you have almost the feeling of intimacy. The next part of the credo about the crucifixion is sung only be the bass soloist and is dark and full of anguish. In the following part of the resurrection the orchestra and the choir constantly raise and you can hear the triumph that Christ has conquered death. Another part I really like is the part “et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam” (“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church”). It is celebratory and the voices sing in unison (all voices sing the same melody). By this Puccini almost seems to evoke the “catholic” in sense of universal and all-inclusive. 

The Messa di Gloria had its premiere in 1880 and was enthusiastically received by the first audience. Strangely Puccini never published the work, but he used parts of the mass in his operas. The work was finally published in 1951 and received then its second performance.

2. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote the Stabat Mater between 1831 and 1841. He was not an old man at this point and he lived for more than 25 years after the first performance of the work in its current form. Nevertheless, this work is the work of someone at the end of his career.

As Puccini Rossini is primarily known as an opera composer. He was hugely successful and wrote between 1806 and 1829 almost forty operas. In his middle years – between 1815 and 1823 – Rossini produced 20 operas (including his most famous opera “The barber of Seville”). He wrote his last opera William Tell in 1828 which had its premiere on 3 August 1829 and retired from writing operas with only 37 years.

Rossini got the commission to compose the Stabat Mater during a trip to Spain in 1831 by Father Manuel Fernandez Varela, general commissioner of the Santa Cruzada. As with Puccini’s Messa di Gloria Rossini used a well know text. The Stabat Mater is a medieval poem by the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi (1230 – 1306) which evokes the sorrows of the Virgin Mary for her crucified son Jesus. Initially Rossini was only able so set part of the poem (no. 1 and no. 5 -9). His ill health prevented him from finishing the work and he asked a friend Giovanni Tadolini to compose the other movements. This Rossini-Tadolini version was performed for the first time in Madrid in 1833. Rossini did not want this version to be printed. Therefore he wrote later the “Cujus animam”, “Quis est homo”, “Pro peccatis” and also the Amen for the end.

The Stabat mater is set for four soloists (soprano, mezzosoprano, tenor, bass), mixed chorus and orchestra. Rossini divided the poem into 10 movements and he used various combinations of forces for each movement. This means that the character of each movement is very different. Whatever forces Rossini uses, you get the impression that his interest lies mainly in the drama and in the human emotions of the text.

The first movement is for choir and four soloists and it is dark and beautiful. It is followed by an aria for tenor which follows the tradition of dramatic opera arias and is often performed separately as a demonstration of the singer’s bravura technique. But there are also movements like the “Eia mater fons amoris” (movement 5) or the “Quando corpus morietur” (movement 9) which are fully or partially a capella (for singers only without orchestra). The movement 5 feels like an intimate prayer of the bass soloist (who is accompanied by the choir) to the Virgin Mary. These movements stand more in the tradition of Palestrina’s settings of sacred music than a setting for an opera. The last movement is again for the choir and the four soloists. It repeats the sombre start of the first movement, but finishes in a triumphant end. It is a wonderful idea to connect thereby the beginning and the end of the piece and give the piece a greater unity.

The premiere of the Stabat Mater in the current form took place in 1841 and it was a triumph. There is another performance worth mentioning. On the day of Rossini’s funeral in Paris on 21 November 1868, Giulia Grisi arranged that the Stabat Mater was performed in the Duomo at Florence. Giulia sang the soprano solo in the performance of the piece in 1841. In 1868 she was at the end of her career. Since her debut with 14 years when she sung a small part in Rossini’s Zelmira, she had a close relationship with Rossini, because he had predicted that she would have brilliant career. With this performance of the Stabat Mater in 1868 she wanted to pay a final homage to him.

3. What is final verdict on the foray of these two composers into sacred music? In both pieces you can clearly see and feel that you have an opera composer (or a future opera composer) writing sacred music. Both composers write wonderful tunes and are able to express in their music all human emotions. But are these pieces really sacred music? Critics (in particular from Northern Europe) said in relation to Rossini’s Stabat Mater that it is “too worldly, sensuous, too playful for a religious subject, too light, too pleasing, too entertaining”.

Do I agree with them? No, I think I rather agree with the German poet Heinrich Heine. He wrote about the Paris premiere of Rossini’s Stabat Mater in his Lutetia, Art. XLIII, the following: “Nicht die äußerliche Dürre und Blässe ist ein Kennzeichen des wahrhaft Christlichen, in der Kunst, sondern eine gewisse innere Überschwenglichkeit, die weder angetauft noch anstudiert werden kann”. (“Not external meagreness and paleness is an indicator for the truly Christian in art, but rather a certain internal exuberance which can neither be acquired by baptism nor by study”). There is no doubt that you can feel the exuberance in both pieces. I think we should relish this exuberance and enjoy the music and not try to judge the inner motivation of the composers who wrote it, because we will never know with which feelings and beliefs Puccini and Rossini wrote their pieces.