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.

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