Ahmed Mansoor – 10 years in prison for defending human rights

If you are regular reader of my blog, you know the human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor from the United Arab Emirates. My last blog post about him was on 20 March to mark the anniversary of his arrest with a Twitter Day. I am writing this new blog post, because there is devastating news about him. Ahmed Mansoor was tried in the past months in a secret trial and sentenced on Tuesday to a harsh sentence for his human rights activism.

1. The Arrest

296More than one year ago, on the 20 March 2017, Ahmed Mansoor was arrested.

Around midnight security forces entered his home where he lives with his wife and their four small boys. They searched it for several hours. At the end they confiscated all phones and electronic devices and took him around 3:15 am to an undisclosed location.

This arrest was just the culmination of years of physical assaults, harassment, travel bans, death threats and different sorts of surveillance and hacking attacks against his phone and his computer. You find more information about all this in my blog post “Arrested, sentenced, not released” which I published one year ago.

2. Solitary Confinement and Torture

Ahmed Mansoor’s family was initially not informed about his whereabouts and his well-being. Nine days after his arrest, on 29 March 2017, the authorities stated that Ahmed Mansoor was at the Central Prison in Abu Dhabi (al-Wathba prison). They added that he has the “freedom to hire a lawyer” and that his family can visit him. On 3 April 2017 he was brought to the Public Prosecution building in Abu Dhabi for a short supervised family visit.

According to Amnesty International Ahmed Mansoor spent long periods in solitary confinement, maybe even all the time since his arrest. Despite the declaration of the authorities, Ahmed Mansoor had no access to a lawyer. He had no contact to the outside world and was not allowed to call his family.

On 17 September 2017 Ahmed Mansoor was again brought to the Public Prosecution building in Abu Dhabi for a second short family visit. He had lost a lot of weight and his physical and mental state of health at this visit gave reasons for grave concern.

For more than six months after this visit, the family had no contact with or news about Ahmed Mansoor. The place of his detention was unclear. On 26 February 2018 lawyers from Ireland approached the Ministry of Interior and wanted to gain access to Ahmed Mansoor. Neither the Ministry nor the police nor the prison were able or willing to give them information about his whereabouts.

About one month ago, International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates (ICFUAE) reported that they have indications that Ahmed Mansoor had been tortured in prison. Jaseem al-Shasimi, a former UAE government official, gave an interview to the al-Hiwar TV channel. He said that he had spoken with detainees in the UAE. They had confirmed that torture was frequently used in prisons in UAE and added that also Ahmed Mansoor had been tortured by security officials.

3. Trial

The trial against Ahmed Mansoor began in secret. International Centre for Justice and Human Rights published on 12 April 2018 a press release and confirmed that the first 2900hearing in the trial against him took place on 14 March 2018. The second hearing took place on 11 April 2018. The charges against him were unclear at that point in time.

There is also no definitive information about the third hearing on 9 May 2018.  Human rights organisations reported in the first week of May that local media articles mentioned that the next trial date was on 9 May. However there is no information whether the hearing took place on this day and about its contents, if it did.

4. Judgement

a) Two UAE newspapers (“Gulf News” and “The National“) reported yesterday in the late afternoon that the State Security Court had sentenced Ahmed Mansoor on Tuesday 29 May to 10 years in prison and a fine of 1 million Emirati Dirham (ca. GBP 200,000). Following the 10 year-sentence he will be put on probation for three years. The court ordered to confiscate all communication devices and delete statements, close websites and social media accounts. Gulf News only mentioned his initials, but The National published his full name. A short time after the publication of these two articles the international press followed with numerous articles and the accuracy of the information was confirmed by several human rights organisations.

Gulf News and The National report that there were a number of charges against Ahmed Mansoor. He was found guilty of publishing false information on social media which “insulted the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols” and “incited hatred and sectarian feelings”. In addition the reports claim that he tried to “damage the relationship of UAE with its neighbours” by publishing false information. He was cleared from the charge of “conspiring with a terrorist organisation”. According to the newspaper reports, he was defended by a court appointed lawyer who seemed to have spoken for him in a hearing earlier in May.

The article in The National mentions that the judgement can be appealed through the Federal Supreme Court.

b) I explained in my previous posts that Ahmed Mansoor used Twitter days before his arrest to speak out for Osama al-Najjar and Dr. Nasser bin-Ghaith. You find more information about both of them in my blog post from May 2017. Both are prisoners of conscience. He also had criticised human rights violations in the region, in particular in Egypt and through the war in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition.

Ahmed Mansoor is punished, because he decided not to be silent, but to speak out against human rights violations and for prisoners of conscience. The trial against him was conducted in secrecy and was not a fair trial.

After his arrest the United Nations rights experts said about him in a statement:

“We regard Mr. Mansoor’s arrest and detention as a direct attack on the legitimate work of human rights defenders in the UAE,” …  “Mr. Mansoor’s outstanding work in the protection of human rights and the advancement of democracy, as well as his transparent collaboration with UN mechanisms, is of great value not only for the UAE but for the whole region”.

c) Since the publication of the articles in Gulf News and The National yesterday, several human rights organisations, human rights activists and politicians commented on the court decision. They all echo the statement of the United Nations mentioned above:

Fadi Al-Qadi, a MENA human rights commentator, was one of the first who tweeted about the court decision. His verdict was “Horrible news: UAE court sentence prominent human rights advocate Ahmed Mansoor to 10-year prison term. For what? Contacting human rights groups. Appalling, shameful, unbelievable”.

David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion & expression, tweeted: “#UAE sentences Ahmed Mansoor to ten yrs prison for . . . using social media. Outrageous & shd be reversed”. Marietje Schaake who is an MEP and is a member of the committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament and the subcommittee on Human Rights quoted David Kaye’s tweet and said: “Ahmed Mansoor was the victim of targeted surveillance software attacks made by companies in the West, every aspect of this case is scandalous. #UAE showing true colors”.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director, Middle East and North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch, tweeted: “Shame on #UAE for this cowardly and despicable sentence of — Laureate of Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, advisory committee member, and my friend. The only defamation here is of his character”. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights sees in the judgement a “[t]otal disregard for fair trial standards & right to free expression”.

Amnesty International published a press release earlier today. Lynn Malouf, Middle East Research director for Amnesty International, says “his persecution is another nail in the coffin for human rights activism in the country”. Amnesty International sees him as a prisoner of conscience and urges the authorities to quash the sentence and release him immediately.

These are just a few examples of reactions to the judgement against Ahmed Mansoor. Many other organisations and individuals used social media today to condemn the judgement in a similar way.

5. What can we do?

Since yesterday evening I had several conversations on Social Media. The main question was “is there anything that can be done” to help Ahmed Mansoor?

I was earlier this months at a panel discussion “Human Rights in the UAE – Why Britain Should Care” at one of the Committee Rooms in the Palace of Westminster. It was organised by ICFUAE and Drewery Dyke, Bill Law and David Wearing were the speakers. I asked each of the speakers exactly that same question: What can each of us do to help prisoners of conscience in the UAE? I want to quote Bill Law’s answer. Bill Law is an award winning journalist with a focus on the Gulf states and spoke in the event about “three heroes”: Ahmed Mansoor, Dr. Nasser Bin-Ghaith and Tayseer al-Najjar. He recommended that we share and tell the stories of each individual human rights defender. He suggested that we could “adopt” these people as prisoner of conscience and then campaign for them.

I want to pass on Bill Law’s recommendation and would like to ask you: Please share Ahmed Mansoor’s story. Speak about him on social media. Tweet for and about him. Share information about him on Facebook, Instagram or other social media. Speak about him and his fate with your family and your friends, in particular if UAE, Dubai and Abu Dhabi come up in your conversations. Raise awareness for him. Write to your MP and urge them to raise his case with your government. Support the human rights organisations who campaign for Ahmed Mansoor and other prisoner of conscience and join their protests.

UAE wants to silence Ahmed Mansoor and wants the world to forget him. Please make sure that they do not succeed.

I want to end this post with a quote by Ahmed Mansoor himself (taken from an article by Bill Law in Middle East Eye) about how he sees this own role as a human rights activist:

“The only way to counter repression is by revealing it. And yes there is always that possibility that I will go back to jail. But if (activists) do not talk, who will?”


Bernstein: Chichester Psalms – Hebrew psalms with a “hint of West Side Story”

Chichester_Psalms2018 is the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. Highgate Choral Society celebrate this occasion with a performance of one of his most popular choral works “Chichester Psalms” in our next concert on Saturday 19 May 2018 at 7pm at St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London N6 6BJ. 

Highgate Choral Society will be joined by the countertenor James Hall, Milo Harper (harp), Molly Lopresti (percussion) and Edward Battling (organ) and will be conducted by Ronald Corp. 

Apart from the Chichester Psalms choir and soloists will perform a varied programme with music by Janácĕk, Lauridsen, Britten, Vaughan Williams and others. 

1. Chichester Psalms is a work by Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) for mixed choir, boy solo and orchestra. Initially the work was written for a male choir where the soprano and alto voice parts are sung by boys. Bernstein allowed and conducted performances with mixed choir, but stipulated that the alto solo part should always be sung by a boy or a countertenor, but not by a woman. Bernstein prepared later a version in which the orchestral forces are reduced to organ, harp and percussion. This is the version which Highgate Choral Society will perform in the concert. The solo part will be sung by a countertenor.

2. In 1958 Leonard Bernstein became Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic. In this position he conducted a large number of concerts, made many recordings and also commissioned a substantial amount of music. However, there was only very limited time for Bernstein to compose music himself. In the 1964-1965 season he took a sabbatical year in order to have to time to compose.

Leonard Bernstein’s main project at the beginning of this sabbatical year was the composition of a new musical based on Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth. This project was a collaboration with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, two of Bernstein’s close friends. However by January 1965 the project had collapsed and Bernstein wrote in a letter that he was now “suddenly a composer without a project, with half of a golden sabbatical down the drain”.

This situation changed quickly. Already one year earlier in December 1963 The Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral in England had written to Leonard Bernstein. He wanted to commission a work for the Southern Cathedrals Festival (held at Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester Cathedrals). It was not the first time that Rev. Hussey had commissioned a new work of art. As Dean of Chichester Cathedral and in his previous post as vicar of St. Matthew’s, Northampton he had commissioned choral works by Britten and Finzi as well as stained-glass windows by Chagall and Madonna and Child by Henry Moore.  Hussey had some ideas what he wanted from Bernstein:

The sort of thing that we had in mind was perhaps, say, a setting of Psalm 2, or some part of it, either unaccompanied or accompanied by orchestra or organ, or both

In a letter in August 1964 Hussey also shared with Bernstein his hopes how the music should sound like:

many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music“.

Bernstein agreed quickly after Hussey’s first letter in December 1963 to write something for the festival, but it took more than a year and the abandonment of the musical The Skin of our Teeth for the project to become clearer.

In February 1965 Bernstein suggested to Hussey that he would set a suite of psalms or selected verses from psalms under the a general title like Psalms of Youth. He wanted the music to be “all very forthright, songful, rhythmical, youthful“. The only reservation Bernstein had was that he wanted to set the psalms in the original Hebrew. Bernstein was aware that this would make the preparation more difficult and he was not sure whether there were any ecclesiastical difficulties about singing in Hebrew in an Anglican cathedral. Hussey replied quickly and confirmed that the language would not constitute any problems. Only three month later in May 1965 Bernstein confirmed that the work was finished. He changed the title to Chichester Psalms, because he had the impression that “Youth” in the title would indicate an easy work which the Chichester Psalms were not.

3. The Chichester Psalms consist of three movements. In each movement Bernstein set one complete psalm and one or more verses of another complementary psalm, “by way of contrast or amplification“.

a) The work starts with a setting of Psalm 108, verse 2 (Awake, psaltery and harp:
I will rouse the dawn!
). Bernstein describes it as a chorale setting “evocating praise”. This introduction is a wake-up call and an invitation to the following dance like scherzo. Bernstein sets the full Psalm 100 (Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands) in a 7/4 meter. The music illustrates the text and the whole setting is a “wild and joyful dance“. Bernstein used in this first movement music he had originally composed for the abandoned musical The Skin of Our Teeth.

b) The second movement starts with a complete setting of Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd). The soloist is accompanied by a harp and the whole atmosphere is calm and pastoral. Also the lyrical theme of this movement is taken from The Skin of Our Teeth.  After a few bars the soloist is joined by the sopranos and altos who take up the lyrical melody. This mood is savagely interrupted by the men with a “threat of war and violence“. Hussey got in this movement exactly what he had asked for. Bernstein set verses 1 – 4 of Psalm 2 (Why do the nations rage) which Hussey had suggested in his very first letter. He got also his “hint of West Side Story”, because Bernstein used music he had written for the prologue of the West Side Story, but which he had cut in the end. It is a fascinating thought that the music which is now sung by the men to the text “Lamah rag’shu goyim / Ul’umim yeh’gu rik?” (Why do the nations rage / And the people imagine a vain thing?) was originally conceived for a Manhattan street gang singing Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics “Mix – make a mass of ’em! Make the sons of bitches pay”. The movement ends in an unresolved way.

c) The third movement sets Psalm 131 in its entirety and in the coda Psalm 133, verse 1.  Bernstein described this movement in a letter to Hussey as follows:

Begins with an orchestral prelude based on the opening chorale, whose assertive harmonies have now turned to painful ones. There is a crisis; the tension is suddenly relieved, and the choir enters humbly and peacefully singing Ps. 131 complete, in what is almost a popular song (although in 10/4 time!). It is something like a love-duet between the men and the boys. In this atmosphere of humility, there is a final chorale coda (Ps. 133, v. 1)  – a prayer for peace“.

Bernstein used also for the main 10/4 theme in this third movement music he had written earlier (a sketch headed “Wartime Duet?”).

4. Even though the Chichester Psalms was a commission for the festival in Chichester, the work was first performed in New York (on 15 July 1965, Philharmonic Hall). Bernstein conducted a programme of his own music and was asked to include the Chichester Psalms. The first performance in England took place two weeks later on 31 July 1965 at Chichester Cathedral. The choirs of Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester Cathedral and the Philomusica of London were conducted by John Birch. Leonard Bernstein and his family went to Sussex for the UK premiere of the work.

The Chichester Psalms was generally very well received. Hussey conveyed to Bernstein also the gratitude of the Bishop of Chichester who said he could imagine “David dancing before the ark”. Less enthusiastic was the young composer John Adams who was in his early 20s. He wrote an angry letter to Bernstein. He asked him why Bernstein had decided to turn his back on new music and included the provocative question “What about Boulez?”. To Adams’ astonishment Bernstein replied to him and explained that one can only write what “one hears within one”. For Bernstein this was at that point in time tonal music.

The Chichester Psalms became quickly part of the choral repertoire. Significant performances of the work conducted by Bernstein took place in 1973 and 1989. In 1973 he conducted the Chichester Psalms at a concert for the Pope which was televised all over Europe. In 1989 Bernstein conducted the work in Warsaw at a concert which marked the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.

5. I want to end this blog post with an excerpt from a poem Bernstein wrote about his sabbatical year for the New York Times. It includes a witty and the same time touching description of his Chichester Psalms:

These psalms are a simple and modest affair
Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square
Certain to sicken a stout John Cager
With its tonics and triads in E flat major
But there it stands- the result of my pondering
Two long months of avant-garde wandering
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet
And he stands on his own two tonal feet


One year of solitary confinement – Join the Twitter Day for Ahmed Mansoor

If you are a regular reader of my blog you know that I wrote twice before about the human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor. Last May I wrote a blog post about him and two other human rights activist in the UAE. The second post about him was in September and I asked you to join a Twitter Storm for Ahmed Mansoor to mark the day six months after his arrest. Ahmed Mansoor is still in prison and the anniversary of his arrest will be on 20 March. I would like to invite you to mark the 20 March 2018 with a Twitter Day for Ahmed Mansoor. 

1. What is Ahmed Mansoor’s current situation?

Ahmed Mansoor was arrested one year ago on 20 March 2017.  Around midnight 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.

During the whole year Ahmed Mansoor’s family was only allowed two short family visits. One visit was shortly after his arrest on 3 April 2017. The second visit was on 17 September 2017. Drewery Dyke spoke with ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) about this family visit. He said that Ahmed Mansoor was not in a good condition. He continues:

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.

I understand that the family had no further contact with Ahmed Mansoor after this devastating visit. Ahmed Mansoor is not allowed to call his family and there were no further visits. They have not heard about him for almost six month and I am sure they are very worried about his health and his well being.

Amnesty International stated that Ahmed Mansoor spent the first six months in solitary confinement. This may still be the case a further six months on. I think it is likely that he is still in solitary confinement, but no one knows for certain, because he is held incommunicado at an unknown place.

According to Ahmed Benchemsi, the Middle East Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, it is also unclear whether Ahmed Mansoor had access to a lawyer. Mr. Benchemsi said to ABC that lawyers are afraid to defend Ahmed Mansoor because they fear repression and potential arrest themselves.

On 26 February 2018 lawyers from Ireland approached the Ministry of Interior of UAE and tried to get access to Ahmed Mansoor. The mission was mandated by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), the Martin Ennals Foundation, Front Line Defenders, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). They were not able to get any information about Ahmed Mansoor’s whereabout.

Amnesty International published on 16 March 2018 also an urgent action, because Ahmed Mansoor’s whereabout is unknown. Please take action for him – also after the Twitter Day.

2. What can I do to help Ahmed Mansoor?

To mark the day of Ahmed Mansoor’s arrest, we would like to invite you to join a Twitter Day for Ahmed Mansoor on 20 March 2018. Join us and show the United Arab Emirates that we have not forgotten Ahmed Mansoor, but will continue to demand his release until he is free at last. If you use other social media like Facebook or Instagram, please use also these accounts to raise awareness about him

You can start sending tweets on 20 March after midnight in your time zone and tweet during the whole Tuesday until midnight. Tweet as much as you can, if many people from different time zones take part, we will have hopefully tweets during the whole of Tuesday.

Please join in, even if you have only time for a few tweets at a specific time. It is a team effort and we will all work together.

Twitter Day for Ahmed Mansoor

3. 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. Tell them that he is held incommunicado and that his family had not contact with him for six months. You can also send tweets to journalists and newspapers and ask them to write about 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 Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan @SaifBZayed, the Minister of Interior of the United Arab Emirates. He is the authority who controls and runs prisons in UAE. Other accounts to address are Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan @ABZayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum @HamdanMohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan @MohamedBinZayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
  • In addition you can 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.

4. Is there a special hashtag?

Please use the hashtags #FreeAhmed and #WhereIsAhmed – irrespective of the language in which you tweet. If everyone does, it is easy to find and retweet the tweets of others.

5. Suggested tweets

You can write your own tweets, but if you need some inspiration here are some suggested tweets:

  • Human rights defender @Ahmed_Mansoor has been in detention in Abu Dhabi without trial, access to his lawyer and only very limited access to his family for one year. #FreeAhmed #WhereIsAhmed
  • The family of @Ahmed_Mansoor had no contact with him for more than 6 months. They do not know where he is and they do not know whether he is well. Show your support for Ahmed and his family. Ask @SaifBZayed #WhereIsAhmed and urge #UAE to #FreeAhmed immediately and unconditionally
  • . @Ahmed_Mansoor is a human rights defender who is honoured around the world for his courageous activism and for speaking up for prisoners of conscience. In UAE he is punished for it. He is now a prisoner of conscience himself. Be his voice. #FreeAhmed #WhereIsAhmed
  • Harassed, given death threats, held in solitary confinement without access to the outside world for one year. @HHShkMohd must release @Ahmed_Mansoor immediately and unconditionally. #FreeAhmed NOW

  • Urge @HHShkMohd @AnwarGargash @SaifBZayed to release @Ahmed_Mansoor immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience detained solely for peacefully exercising his human right to freedom of expression. #FreeAhmed #WhereIsAhmed
  • #UAE holds @Ahmed_Mansoor incommunicado with no information for more than 6 months. #UAE wants the world to forget Ahmed. Please speak out for him and make sure that UAE doesn’t succeed and that he is not forgotten. Help him & be his voice. #FreeAhmed #WhereIsAhmed
  • .@Ahmed_Mansoor was arrested one year ago. He is a highly regarded human rights defender who always speaks out against injustice and for prisoner of conscience. Until his arrest he was the last human rights defender who dared to criticise #UAE authorities in public. #FreeAhmed
  • Since @Ahmed_Mansoor arrest one year ago, he was only allowed two short family visits, but no calls and no one has any news about him since the last visit in September 2017. Join the call #FreeAhmed #WhereIsAhmed
  • Please @FedericaMog intercede for @Ahmed_Mansoor #UAE. He has spent one year in solitary confinement for defending #humanrights. #FreeAhmed #WhereIsAhmed
  • Please @guardian write about @Ahmed_Mansoor #UAE. He is a brave human rights defender in jail for speaking up for others. Ask #UAE #WhereIsAhmed and help to #FreeAhmed.

6. Where can I find more information about Ahmed Mansoor?

If you want to know more about Ahmed Mansoor or want to share articles about him to your followers, here are some useful websites:

  1. Amnesty International: “United Arab Emirates: Release Emirati Human Rights Defender Ahmed Mansoor!” (March 2017)
  2. Human Rights Watch: UAE: Free Prominent Rights Defender Ahmed Mansoor Held on Speech-Related Charges (April 2017)

  3. Ahmed Mansoor Discusses the Human Rights Abuse in the UAE (on YouTube) (June 2012)

  4. United Nations: UN rights experts urge UAE: “Immediately release Human Rights Defender Ahmed Mansoor” (March 2017)
  5. European Union: DROI Chair calls on the United Arab Emirates to unconditionally release Ahmed Mansoor (March 2017)
  6. Bill Law: Ahmed Mansoor: Why we must not allow a brave man to be silenced by the UAE, Middle East Eye (March 2017)
  7. Sophie McNeill: Ahmed Mansoor: NGOs fear world has forgotten arrest of UAE’s last human rights defender, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (November 2017)

7. Graphics you can use:

Tweets are always far more effective and get greater attention, if you include a picture. Here are some graphics which you can use during the Twitter Day and afterwards. I want to thank in particular Gianluca Costantini and Aseem Trivedi for their support through art:




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 people of Israel, 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 duets. 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 people of Israel. 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 people of Israel 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 a reprise of the same setting for double choir follows. 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.  Perhaps 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 music which Handel uses is 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 to 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: