“Beyond Caravaggio” at the National Gallery

“Beyond Caravaggio” is an exhibition at the National Gallery, London which I visited on Saturday. I want to give in this post an overview over the exhibition and my thoughts about it. 

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1. The exhibition “Beyond Caravaggio” opened at the National Gallery, London on 12 October 2016 and will close on 15 January 2017. From 11 February 2017 until 14 May 2017 the exhibition will be shown at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and from 17 June until 24 September 2017 at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. The exhibition is dedicated to Caravaggio and his influence on contemporaries and followers. It is the first major exhibition of this kind in the UK. The exhibition focusses on the interest in caravaggesque paintings in Britain and Ireland. Most of the paintings come from British or Irish collections (private and public).

2. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born on 29 September 1571 in Milan (or in Caravaggio). He was a difficult character and reacted with jealousy, if someone copied his paintings or his style. He therefore also did not establish a formal school. Nevertheless, his art became quickly famous and other artists in Italy and further afield were influenced by his subject matters, his composition and his style – so much so that the adjective “caravaggesque” was coined for paintings and artists who painted in a style which imitated Caravaggio’s stylistic innovations. Some of these artists knew Caravaggio personally, like Francesco Buoneri, called Cecco del Caravaggio, and Orazio Gentileschi. Others knew primarily his paintings mainly because they had travelled to Rome or they had only heard about him and his innovations.

3. The exhibition “Beyond Caravaggio” occupies seven rooms in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London and contains 50 paintings. 6 paintings are by Caravaggio. The 44 other paintings are by Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch and Flemish artist which were influenced by him.

Room 1 in the exhibition is called “Painting from Life. Caravaggio’s Early Years in Rome”. Caravaggio was about 20 years old when he arrived in Rome. The first room shows two of Caravaggio’s early paintings: (1) “Boy peeling a fruit” (1592-1593) which is now in the Royal Collection. It is the earliest known work by Caravaggio probably painted shortly after his arrival in Rome. (2) “Boy bitten by a Lizard” (about 1594-1594) which belongs to the National Gallery, London. Both paintings were presumably painted for sale on the open market. Caravaggio devoted his art to real life subjects which he considered to be worth painting. This is a characteristic which is evident in his early paintings of musicians and fortune tellers, but also in his later sacred paintings. He always paints nature and real people, particular the “Boy bitten by a Lizard” is a realistic and highly emotional painting. The boy’s face is distorted by surprise and pain and the fruits and the vase with flowers look so real that one might be tempted to touch them. The six other paintings in Room 1 are also paintings which show musicians, gamblers and fortune tellers. For me one of the most interesting paintings apart from the Caravaggios is the painting of a musician by Cecco del Caravaggio who was Caravaggio’s servant, model and presumably his lover. This painting shows that he was also a gifted artist in his own rights.

Room 2 is called “Success and Patronage: Caravaggio’s immediate Circle”. Caravaggio received his first commission in 1599. He painted “Calling of Saint Matthew” and “Conversion of Saint Matthew” for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesci, Rome. The unveiling of the paintings in July 1600 caused a sensation and these paintings were a turning point for Caravaggio. The Mattei brothers Ciriaco and Asdrubale commissioned in the following years three paintings: “Saint John the Baptist” (1602) which is today in the Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome, “The Supper at Emmaus” (1601) and “The Taking of Christ” (1602). “The Supper at Emmaus” belongs today to the National Gallery, London and “The Taking of Christ” to the Jesuit Community, Leeson St, Dublin, but is on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland. Both paintings are shown in the exhibition in Room 2. They are stunning paintings. In both cases Caravaggio decided to show exactly the moment which is the most dramatic and most emotional. In  “The Supper at Emmaus” Caravaggio depicts the moment in which the two disciples recognise that the “stranger” at their table is the risen Christ. The composition has great immediacy and the viewer of the painting becomes almost involved in the Biblical scene. Also in “The Taking of Christ” Caravaggio choose the most dramatic moment, immediately before or after the kiss with which Judas betrayed Jesus. There is a great emotional tension between Jesus and Judas and Jesus looks sad and disappointed about the betrayal through a friend. At the same time his face is calm and serene – ready to face suffering and death. A remarkable detail of this painting is that Caravaggio included a self portrait in it in which he holds a lantern and witnesses the whole incident. The five other paintings in this room include two paintings which were also in the Mattai collection and hung presumably close to Caravaggio’s paintings.

Room 3 is dedicated to “Caravaggio’s Close Followers”. Mancini, one of the first biographers of Caravaggio, described a few artists as Caravaggio’s schola (“school” or “following”). These include Bartolomeo Manfredi, Jusepe Ribera, Cecco del Caravaggio, Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino and Carlo Saraceni. Room 3 shows paintings by some of these artists, but also by Orazio Gentileschi and Orazio Borgianni. The most impressive painting in this room is for me Lo Spadarino’s “Christ displaying his Wounds” (about 1625-1635) which belongs now to the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland. The risen Christ is depicted presenting the wound in his side. The painting has a striking and almost disturbing immediacy and directness. It seems that  Jesus is directly looking at the spectator of the painting asking him to look at the wound and probably even to touch his wound. The viewer is not longer only an observer, but gets the role of the doubting Thomas who was not present when the risen Christ appeared the first time to his disciples. He only believed in the resurrection of Christ when Jesus appeared a second time and asked him to put his finger in his wound. This painting and all the other paintings in this room follow Caravaggio in their great realism and the use of chiaroscuro (effects of light and darkness in a painting).

Room 4 focusses on “Admirers and Imitators. Caravaggio and his Italian Followers”. Many painters during Caravaggio’s life and after his sudden early death in 1610 travelled to Rome to see his paintings. There was a great demand for paintings in his style and artists produced paintings with naturalistic depiction, strong darkness and light contrasts and subject matters he had painted himself. Room 4 contains six paintings: Guido Reni: “Lot and his Daughters leaving Sodom” (about 1615-1616), a painting by Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri with the same title and subject matter, Artemisia Gentileschi: “Susannah and the Elders” and three paintings showing Cupid asleep (by Giovanni Battista Caracciolo and Orazio Riminaldi) or victorious over Arts and Science (Rutilio Manetti). The sleeping Cupid and victorious Cupid are both clearly influenced by Caravaggio’s famous paintings with the same subjects.

Room 5 is called “In Pursuit of Caravaggio. Painting in Naples”. Caravaggio visited Naples twice: the first time in 1606 – 1607 when he had fled Rome following the murder of Ranuccio Thomassoni and in 1609 – 1610 when he was on his way back to Rome from Malta and Sicily. Artists in Naples would usually travel frequently to Rome and therefore know Caravaggio’s paintings.  In 1607 Caravaggio painted a work in Naples itself which made even easier for artists to see his work: “Seven Acts of Mercy” at Pio Monte della Misericordia. Room 5 shows Caravaggio’s “Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist” (1609-1610) which belongs to the National Gallery, London. Compared with his earlier paintings this is much darker and uses a restricted palette of colours. There are six other paintings in the room, including three paintings by the Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera who lived and worked in Naples. All three paintings by Rivera are stunning. “Saint Onuphrius” (probably 1630) and “The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew” (1634) show both an old saint. Both paintings are very naturalistic with strong contrasts between darkness and light. The also show how well Ribera could paint old people. The third painting is one of my favourites: “Lamentations over the Dead Christ” (early 1620s) which belongs to the National Gallery, London. It shows the dead body of Christ lying on a white shroud. Saint John the Evangelist is supporting the body. The Virgin Mary has joined her hand in prayer and looks full anguish at her dead son. Mary Magdalene is leaning over the feet of Christ with her face close to his feet as if she wants to see the wounds at his feet or probably kiss his feet. The whole painting is dark only the body of Christ and the white loincloth and white shroud are bright. The painting is fascinating through his naturalism and is striking in its directness and lack of idealisation.

Room 6 is dedicated to the “International Caravaggesque Movement: Darkness and Light”. Caravaggio did not only have followers and admirers in Italy but also across Europe. Room 6 contains seven paintings by Matthias Stom, Willem van der Vliet, Adam de Coster, George de la Tour, Henrik ter Bruggen and Nicole Tournier. Even so Caravaggio used strong darkness and light contrasts he usually did not paint the source of the light and never painted a candle. In contrast Caravaggio’s Northern followers depicted often candlelight and were good in showing the specific light of a candle and the effects. This becomes also evident at the paintings in this room, six out of seven contain a candle as source of light.

The Last Room, Room 7 deals with “Caravaggio’s Legacy. The Power of  Storytelling”. Caravaggio was famous for his use of live models, his dramatic lighting, his story telling and his blurring of the line between sacred and profane. His  naturalistic style got out of fashion in the middle of the 17th century and people preferred again idealised and classic depiction of reality and human beings. Room 7 contains nine paintings, including Caravaggio’s “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness” (about 1603-1604) which belongs to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. The paintings which impressed me most in Room 7 was Gerrit van Honthorst: “Christ before the High Priest” (about 1617). Gerrit van Honthorst who eventually received the nickname Gherardo delle Notti was a painter from Utrecht, The Netherlands, who painted many night scenes. In his painting “Christ before the High Priest” he shows Jesus Christ standing with downcast head before the High Priest. The Hight Priests sits at a table. An open book lies on the table and one finger is raised and points at Jesus. He looks intensely at Jesus. The whole scene is lit by a single candle. Jesus and the High Priest are painted lifelike and naturalistic, the figures in the back are hardly more than shadows. Even so the subject is dramatic, the depiction is calm. The candle light is warm and soft, but the picture still feels unsettling. I am very impressed by the atmosphere and intensity of this painting.

4. I enjoyed my visit to this exhibition very much. Most of the Caravaggio paintings were not new to me. I knew the three paintings which are in the National Gallery, London and the one which is the National Gallery of Ireland. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to see them in the context of other artists and to see who widespread Caravaggio’s influence was. It was also interesting to realise that these artists were influenced by Caravaggio and his work in many different ways. Some of them stayed quite close to Caravaggio’s example. The paintings are thematically and stylistically clearly influenced by his paintings. Other artists took certain aspects of his paintings as a starting point, in particular the naturalistic style or subject matters, but then develop it further and went in their own direction.

I am very tempted to visit the exhibition a second time and I can also highly recommend it to everyone who is interested in Caravaggio and generally Baroque paintings.

Brahms: A German Requiem – a Requiem for Humankind

brahmsThe first concert of the HCS concert season 2016/2017 will take place on Saturday 12 November 2016 at All Hallows Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP. It starts at 7 pm.

The programme has – appropriate for the season of the year – a sombre feeling. In the first half of the concert the New London Orchestra will play two orchestral pieces: Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow and Ronald Corp: The Somme – A Lament. Then HCS joins the New London Orchestra for Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music. Vaughan Williams set in this piece a text from Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice to music.  After the interval follows Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). 

The following blog post is about Brahms.

1. Johannes Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Op. 45 is Brahms’ longest and also most popular choral work. It is written for orchestra, baritone soloist, soprano soloist and chorus. It is comprised of seven movements. Movements 1, 2, 4 and 7 are for chorus only. Movement 3 and 6 are for baritone soloist and chorus and movement 5 is for soprano soloist and chorus. A performance of A German Requiem lasts about 70 minutes.

A requiem is traditionally a mass for the dead. It focusses on the repose of the souls of the deceased using a Latin text which is a particular form of the traditional mass in the Roman Catholic Church. Brahms’ requiem is different in many ways. He did not use the traditional Latin text, but rather compiled a German text. He used Luther’s translation of the Bible and combined parts of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Biblical Apocrypha. Brahms had a broad knowledge of the Bible and often put together passages from different sections of the Bible in one single movement. The title “A German Requiem” meant for Brahms only that the text of the requiem is in German. He probably chose it to distinguish his work from well-known traditional requiems, e.g. Mozart Requiem. Brahms mentioned in a letter to Karl Reinthaler, Director of Music of Bremen Cathedral, who was responsible for the first performance of the German Requiem in Bremen the following:

“Was den Text betrifft, so will ich bekennen, dass ich recht gerne auch das “Deutsch” fortließe und einfach den “Menschen” setzte.”
[“As far as the text is concerned, I will confess that I would very gladly omit the “German”, and simply put “of Humankind”.]

This focus on humankind or the human being becomes clear, when one looks at the texts Brahms chose for his requiem. It is not about the souls of the deceased, but rather about the consolation of the living who mourn the loss of loved one.

2. The earliest music material of the Requiem was written in 1854 as a funeral march which was a movement of a sonata for two pianos. 1854 was a difficult time in Brahms’ life. He had moved into the house of the Schumanns in the previous year and was a close friend of Robert and Clara Schumann. Robert Schumann had mental health issues which got worse over time. On 27 February 1854 Robert Schumann tried to commit suicide and was then taken to an asylum in which he died two years later on 29 July 1856. Brahms stayed with Clara during Robert’s illness and he and other friends supported her and tried to divert her mind from the tragedy. Brahms moved out after Robert’s death, but kept in close contact with Clara for all his life.

In 1861 Brahms put the text for the Requiem together and also started composing some of the movements, but then he seemed to have abandoned the work. In February 1865 Brahms’ mother died and he again took up the work on his Requiem. He worked on it through 1865 and 1866 and also sent parts to Clara Schumann and to other friends to get their opinion about it. For Christmas 1866 he sent the complete manuscript of A German Requiem (without the fifth movement which was not yet written) to Clara as a Christmas present.

One year later on 1 December 1867 the first three movements of A German Requiem were performed in Vienna by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (“Society of the friends of music”). It was not a good performance and it was not well received. On 12 April 1868 (Good Friday) Brahms conducted the whole work (still without the fifth movement) in Bremen cathedral. The cathedral was packed and it was an overwhelming success for Brahms. In May 1868 Brahms wrote the fifth movement which he called a “soprano solo with some measures of choir”. The first performance of the complete seven movement requiem took place in Leipzig Gewandhaus on 18 February 1869. It became immediately a very popular work which received 20 performances in 1869 alone. The London premiere took place in 1873 in St. James Hall.

3. The structure of A German Requiem is symmetrical with movement 4 as axis and heart of the work. Movement 4 describes the “lovely dwellings” of the Lord. Movement 1 and 7 share musical elements and also show a parallelism in the text which begins with “Selig sind” (blessed are). They unify the whole work. Movement 2 and 6 are both dramatic movements. The funeral march in movement 2 deals with the transient nature of life and is balanced with the triumphant theme of the resurrection of the dead in movement 6. Movement 3 and 5 are both movements which begin with a solo voice.

Movement 1 takes its text from the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.4) and Psalm 126. Brahms does not use the violins for this movement which means that the sound of the orchestra is warm and dark. The movement is divided in three parts (A – B – A). After an introduction by the orchestra the chorus sings hushed and subdued. The music stops each time when the chorus stars singing. The second part “They that sow in tears” is more agitated, but soon the serenity of the first motive returns. In a usual requiem the first movement asks for the souls of the deceased in Brahms Requiem it deals with the consolation of the living.

Movement 2 is in the form of a funeral march and the chorus proclaims the inevitability of man’s fate. The text is taken from different parts of the Old and the New Testament. As in the first movement the sombre funeral march is contrasted with a lighter middle section. After the return of the funeral march the music gets faster and joyful. It is a transformation from darkness to light and Brahms’ music enhances the text. When the choir sings about “Schmerz und Seufzen” (suffering and sighing) one can almost hear the pain and sighing in the music. The chorus ends this movement singing gloriously about “ewige Freude” (eternal joy).

The text of Movement 3 is taken from Psalm 39 and the Book of Wisdom. In this movement the baritone soloist and choir engage in a dialogue. The soloist asks “What is my hope?”. The question is full of grief and doubt. Everything comes to a stop and the chorus answers calm and confident “My hope is in you”. Also this movement ends joyfully in a fugue for the choir and the orchestra.

Movement 4 is one of only two movements which uses text from one source (Psalm 84). The movement is a serene pastoral and has the simplicity of a folk song. The movement provides rest and contemplation after the tumultuous and forceful movement 3. It is probably the most famous movement which is also sometimes used on its own as an anthem.

Movement 5 uses again text from different sections of the Bible. A soprano soloist is accompanied by woodwind, horns and muted strings. The chorus quietly provides a background of harmony for the soloist. The message of the soprano is maternal consolation and comfort. In movement 3 the soloist was the voice of the suffering and the one longing for consolation, in this movement the soloist is the voice of one who gives consolation.

Movement 6 is in clear contracts to movement 5. It has the most dramatic music of the whole requiem. The text is taken from different parts of the New Testament. At the beginning of the movement the chorus sings “Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt” (For here have we no abiding city). This sentiment of uncertainty and homelessness is reflected in the music. The tonality is unclear and in the same way as the chorus sings that it does not have a place to stay the music does not stay in a clearly defined key. The baritone soloist then announces the mystery of the resurrection. As he sings about the twinkling of an eye (“in einem Augenblick”) the music stops for a moment and the character of the movement changes. Similar to movement 2 the chorus then gives a passionate and dramatic commentary on the text and sings about the victory over death. Also this movement ends with an elaborate fugue for the chorus on the text “Herr, Du bist würdig zu nehmen Preis und Ehre” (Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour.)

The final movement (movement 7) is the other movement which uses only text from one source (Revelation 14.13). The chorus sings again “Selig sind …” (blessed are), but this time it does not refer to the mourners, but to the departed. Also the music takes up a motive from the beginning of the work. The Requiem ends with the same word with which it began “Selig” (blessed).

4. A German Requiem was a turning point for Brahms –  financially (he received a fee which was about five times larger than for any work he had sold before) and in relation to his reputation. The Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick compared A German Requiem with Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

But its importance goes far beyond money and fame. Even if Brahms was reticent about his reasons for composing A German Requiem, one has to notice the link of this work to two crucial and tragic events in his early life (his mother’s death and Schumann’s illness and death). Brahms confirms the link with Robert Schumann in a letter to Joseph Joachim more than 15 years after the first performance of A German Requiem. I want to finish with a quote from this letter which gives a glimpse of the huge personal importance of the Requiem for Brahms:

Dächtest du der Sache und mir gegenüber einfach, so wüsstest du, wie sehr und innig ein Stück wie das Requiem überhaupt Schumann gehört. Wie es mir also im geheimen Grund ganz selbstverständlich erscheinen musste, dass es ihm auch gesungen würde.
[“If you were to consider the situation and how it relates particularly to me, you wold know how much and how profoundly a piece like the Requiem is altogether Schumann’s and how, in the secret recesses of my mind, it therefore had to seem quite self-evident to me that it would indeed be sung to him.”]

Sky for Shawkan

In my last blog post, I wrote about the Egyptian photographer Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan). In this post, I want to give an update on his situation and report about a new campaign “Sky for Shawkan”.  It would great, if you could join the campaign.

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  1. The photographer Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan) has been in prison for more than three years. He is not convicted of any crimes; his trial is still ongoing. He is on trial together with 738 other defendants. You can read his whole story in my previous post. The last hearing in the trial took place on 6 September. There are sadly no new developments. The court resumed the examination of evidence. They will continue with this task on 8 October 2016. Shawkan will stay in detention.
    Shawkan’s family, friends and supporters had hoped that he would be included in Abdel Fattah al Sisi’s amnesty for Eid Al Adha (Feast of Sacrifice). Sadly no journalist or other political prisoner was pardoned.
  2. Shawkan said some time ago in a letter that he misses the sky in his prison cell. When he spoke with an AFP reporter during a break in a recent court session, he mentioned that his hopes diminish every day and reiterated that he misses being able to look at the sky. Kate (@Beerinwitsout) sent a tweet on 6 September in which she said: “@ShawkanZeid misses the sky. I took this photo 4him just in England but so want him to see real blue sky soon!”. The tweet included a photo of the sky.
    I thought this is a wonderful idea and it would be fantastic to have more photos of the sky for Shawkan. I put an Instagram post together in which I explained the idea and asked people to (1) take a photo of the sky, (2) share it on Twitter using the hashtag #SkyforShawkan and (3) invite others to join as well.
  3. I am delighted that a lot of people liked the idea and joined in. They sent beautiful photos of the sky from all over the world. Some sent their tweet to the main twitter account for the campaign for Shawkan’s release  (@ShawkanZeid) and only included the hashtag #SkyforShawkan. Others wrote words of support and encouragement for Shawkan or sent a tweet to the Official Twitter account of the President of Egypt Abdel Fattah al Sisi and the Foreign Ministry of Egypt and asked them to release Shawkan. Many also sent tweets in which they asked their followers to join the campaign as well.
  4. It is great to have the photos on Twitter, but I thought it would be wonderful to share some of the photos in a blog post as well.
    Here is a selection of photos which were tweeted in the last week. It is a picture gallery, if you click on one of the photos you can see them enlarged:

    Thank you to everyone  who tweeted a photo and thank you for allowing me to use your beautiful photos in this blog post.

  5. Please continue to support the campaign #SkyForShawkan and tweet your photo of the sky to @ShawkanZeid. Please also sign and share the petitions which ask for Shawkan’s release. You find the links to all three petitions in my previous post about him.
  6. It is fabulous to have all this photos of the sky for Shawkan, but I do hope that he soon will be free and will be able to see and enjoy the real sky.

 

Three years of injustice – Freedom for Mahmoud Abu Zeid “Shawkan”

bg_bild_ShawkanMahmoud Abu Zeid who is better known under the name “Shawkan” is a young Egyptian photographer. He is 28 years old and he worked as freelance photographer and contributed to the photo agencies Demotix and Corbis. His photographs were in many well-known and well-regarded newspapers and magazines like the German newspaper Die Zeit and the US Time magazine. He made photos of daily life in Egypt, including festivals and street life. With the beginning of the Arab Spring uprising he also covered political protests. You can find a sample of his amazing photos here.

Shawkan has been in prison for almost three years without a trial or a judgement. By his ongoing detention, Egypt violates International law, but also their own laws. Pursuant to Art. 134 Egyptian Code for Criminal Procedures the pre-trial detention must not exceed two years (if the alleged offence is punishable by life imprisonment or death, in other cases the permissible pre-trial detention is shorter). If two years have passed, the detainee must be released. Sunday 14 August will be the third anniversary of his arrest.

This is his story:

1. The Arrest

14 August 2013 will be remembered as a momentous day in the history of Egypt, but it was also a fateful day for the young photographer Shawkan, a day which changed his life.

To explain what happened on this day, I have to go further back in the recent history of Egypt: The weeks and months before 14 August 2013 were exceptional times. On 30 June 2012 Mohammed Morsi a candidate of the Muslim brotherhood was elected as president of Egypt. He was the first democratically elected head of state in Egypt. In November he issued a constitutional decree which extended his competences as president and meant that his actions could not be challenged by the courts. On 22 November 2012 millions began to protest against Mohammed Morsi. These protests continued for the rest of 2012 and the first half of 2013. There were soon complaints about the prosecution of journalists and non-violent protesters.

On 30 June 2013 widespread protests called for the resignation of Mohammed Morsi. Three days later on 3 July 2013 Mohammed Morsi was removed from office by a coalition under the leadership of the Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In the weeks after the 3 July 2013 the supporter of the ousted president protested and occupied two camps in Cairo: one at al-Nahda Square and a larger one at Rabaa al-Adwiya Mosque. They asked for the reinstatement of Mohammed Morsi as president. These camps were raided on 14 August 2013. The police opened fire on demonstrators and everyone else who happened to be there and killed presumably more than 1000 people. Thousands were wounded and thousands were arrested.

Shawkan worked on this day on an assignment for Demotix. He arrived at 9 a.m. at the police lines surrounding the Rabaa square. He identified himself as photojournalist to the police and was immediately arrested. Together with him the French freelance photojournalist Louis Jammes and the American journalist Mike Giglio were arrested. Their hands were shackled and they and others were brought to a Cairo stadium. Louis Jammes and Mike Giglio were released after a few hours, but Shawkan stayed in detention. He was brought to a police station and questioned.

Shawkan describes his arrest and also what happened in the police station in a letter which he wrote on 5 March 2015. He and others were severely beaten and kicked several times. He also describes the crowded and dirty cells and the hopelessness he feels. The letter is well worth reading.

2. Timeline of Injustice

To look at the events since Shawkan’s arrest means looking at ongoing injustice:

16 August 2013: Shawkan is questioned by the prosecutor without a lawyer present

20 August 2013: Transfer of Shawkan to Abu Zabaal Prison. He is punched, kicked and beaten by officers

December 2013: Transfer to Tora Prison. His detention is ongoing and is prolonged in regular intervals (every 45 days).

9 February 2015: Shawkan is questioned by the Minster of Interior about a letter he wrote which was posted on the Facebook page “Freedom for Shawkan”

11 August 2015: Public Prosecutor refers Shawkan and 400 others to the criminal courts. Shawkan’s lawyer is initially not informed about this development, but finds out later. He is then denied access to important documents and information about the charges, number of defendants and relevant provisions of the penal code.

12 December 2015: Trial against Shawkan together with 738 other defendants (including leaders of Muslim Brotherhood movement) is due to begin. Shakwan is the only journalist among the defendants. The trial is postponed, because the court room is not large enough for all defendants (postponed to 6 February 2016)

5 February 2016: Shawkan is put in solitary confinement for allegedly owning a mobile phone. One of the other detainees tells the officers that it is his, but the prison insists on punishing Shawkan. This is how the Twitter account in support of Shawkan described the solitary confinement:

6 February 2016: Trial is again postponed (to 26 March), because of a lack of space for all defendants.

26 March 2016: Trial against Shawkan (and 738 other defendants) starts. Shawkan faces now specific charges, including

“joining a criminal gang”, “murder”, “attempted murder”, “participating in a gathering with the purpose of intimidation and creating terror and exposing people’s life to danger”, “obstructing public utilities”, “overthrowing the regime through the use of force and violence, a show of strength and the threat of violence”, “resisting the authorities”, “obstructing the implementation of laws, surveillance” and “disturbing public peace”.

Shawkan denies all charges against him. If he is convicted, he risks the death penalty. The trial is adjourned to 23 April to allow the defence lawyers to get the files and prepare the defence.

23 April 2016: Trial is postponed (to 10 May), because one of the defendants is not brought to the court room.

10 May 2016: Trial is postponed (to 17 May) to allow the prosecution to bring physical evidence to the court room.

17 May 2016: Trial is again postponed to 21 May.

21 May 2016: Hearing takes place. Shawkan has a chance to address the judge and explains that he was only doing his job as photojournalist when he was arrested. The trial is adjourned to 28 June 2016 to allow the defence lawyer to look at further material the prosecutor presented (e.g. technical documents, but also videos and flash drives).

28 June 2016: Trial is postponed to 9 August, because Shawkan and other defendants are not in court. They were not transferred from prison for security reasons.

9 August 2016: During the hearing the defense lawyers of some defendants accuse the Deputy Minister of Interior of torturing them and demand investigations. Trial is again adjourned and will continue on 6 September.

3. Please take action for Shawkan

Amnesty International monitors the case of Shawkan and issued an urgent action (UA 243/14) with several updates over the past years. Shawkan is a prisoner of conscience. The charges against Shawkan are trumped-up and he is arrested and prosecuted for his journalistic work and for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.

Since his arrest, his health has deteriorated. He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, but he is denied medication. In addition he is depressed, barely eats, suffers from anaemia and insomnia. His family and his lawyers tried over and over again to get him released on medical grounds. So far this was not successful.

The cases of other journalists which were detained in Egypt (including the cases of Mohammed Fadel Fahmy, Baher Mohammed and Peter Greste who worked for Al-Jazeera) showed that public attention and pressure do lead to results.

There are currently three petitions for Shawkan. Please sign them and share them widely:

If you use Social Media, please support him on Facebook and Twitter and use the hashtag #FreeShawkan. Please do so in particular on Sunday to mark the third anniversary of his arrest.

In case you still have doubts whether your signature or activism changes anything, I want to end with a few lines from a letter Shawkan wrote on 1 December 2015:

I’m sorry to tell you that “I became a person of full of hopelessness.”

This is my new me. However, I keep resisting my new me because of you and only because all of you, all the people and all supporters who are standing by me.

You keep me feeling that I’m not alone. You all have become my power and my energy and without all of you I cannot go through this.

I want to send my deep love and respect and my appreciation of all what you are doing for me. I feel so lucky to have such kind people like you. And indeed it’s my honor to count you as my friends.

“KEEP SHOUTING, JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME”

 

Happy Birthday, Saeed Malekpour!

Today, on 5 June 2016, is Saeed Malekpour’s 41st Birthday. It is his 8th birthday he has spent in Evin prison in Iran. I write he “has spent” his birthday and not he “has celebrated”, because I cannot imagine that he would celebrate in Evin prison.

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1. Who is Saeed Malekpour?

Saeed Malekpour is an Iranian web designer and software engineer. He studied at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran where he got a degree in metallurgical engineering. In 2004 Saeed left Iran and moved to Canada to continue his studies and build a new life for himself in Canada.

In 2005 Saeed Malekpour became a permanent resident in Canada. He worked as a free lance web developer and lived in Victoria, British Columbia.

In October 2008, Saeed Malekpour’s father got very ill. Saeed went to Iran to see his dying father. On 4 October 2008 Saeed Malekpour was arrested near Vanak Square (in northern Tehran) by agents in plain clothes. He mentioned in a letter that they did not present an arrest warrant or any kind of identification. This “arrest” was rather an abduction. Saeed Malekpour was handcuffed and blindfolded. He was beaten and mistreated while he was brought to the place where he was questioned and detained.

2. What were the accusations against Saeed Malekpour?

Iran accused Saeed Malekpour of designing and moderating pornographic websites.

Maryam Nayeb Yazdi, a human rights activist and founder of @Persian2English, gave more details in her tweets over the last days. She explained that Saeed Malekpour run a website where he posted open source codes which he had written. Anyone could use these source codes and use it for whatever they want without his consent or without him even knowing about it. During his interrogation his interrogators claimed that they found a source code for uploading pornographic material to a website.

3. What was the evidence again Saeed Malekpour?

The only evidence which was presented during the trial was a confession by Saeed Malekpour.

After his arrest Saeed Malekpour was severely beaten and tortured in several ways. His interrogators claimed that they found Saeed’s source codes on a pornographic site. They forced him to sign a confession in which he acknowledged that his source codes were used to upload pornographic pictures and that he moderated these sites. He was blindfolded when he was asked to sign several papers and he did not see himself that his source codes were indeed used on such a website. He signed the papers and was also forced to make a confession in front of a camera. Contrary to the promises which were made to him this confession was broadcast by the Iranian state television several times which brought great distress to his family.

He made these confessions under severe pressure, physical and psychological torture, threats and false promises that he would be immediately released, if he confessed everything his interrogators wanted him to confess. During his first 18 months in prison, he spent more than 12 months in solitary confinement. He was blindfolded whenever he was allowed to leave his cell and was not allowed to contact his lawyer and for a long time he did not have any contact with his family.

Saeed Malekpour wrote a letter in March 2010 in which he describes the first 18 months of his detention and gave details about the torture and mistreatment he had to endure. You can find this letter here.

The only evidence used in the trial against Saeed Malekpour was a forced confession.

4. Which punishment was handed down against Saeed Malekpour?

The trial against Saeed Malekpour started on 16 March 2010. The charges against him were “conspiracy to commit crimes against national security”, “insulting Islam” and “insulting the Iranian Supreme Leader and the Iranian president, Mr. Ahmadinedjad”. In addition he was charged as “Corrupter of the Earth” which carries the death sentence. Saeed Malekpour did not know his case file and his lawyer was not allowed to discuss the case with his client and did not to attend the trial, because he was wrongly informed that the trial had been postponed.

In December 2010 Saeed Malekpour was sentenced to death. He was found guilty of “designing and moderating adult content websites”, “agitation against the regime” and “insulting the sanctity of Islam”. In June 2011 the Supreme Court annulled the verdict against him.

Despite this earlier decision the death sentence was upheld in January 2012 and the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from his lawyers. For one year this death sentence was open against Saeed Malekpour and he and his family feared that he could be executed at any time. In December 2012 his lawyer said that the death sentence was suspended.  His family reported later that his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Saeed Malekpour is still in Evin prison.

5. What can I do to help?

Saeed Malekpour’s sister Maryam Malekpour lives in Edmonton, Canada. She has been campaigning for his brother for years. Over the last two days there was again a tweet storm to mark Saeed Malekpour’s birthday and people all over the world were tweeting using the hashtags #FreeSaeedMalekpour #HBDSaeed and #CodingIsNotACrime.

If you use social media please follow her and support her fight for her brother. A few months ago she wrote a message to supporters and also suggested how people can help. Please have a look and sign and share the petition for her brother and generally make people aware of his fate.

6. Where can I find more information?

I used for my post the Wikipedia article about Saeed Malekpour and in particular information from the website Campaign for the Release of Saeed Malekpour. You will find a large amount of information on this website. It is set up on wordpress.com like my blog and you can also follow this website in the same way as you can follow my blog.

There were also a number of newspaper articles over the years. Here are links to four relatively recent articles:

Let us make sure that Saeed Malekpour is not forgotten and let us help his sister and his whole family in the campaign for this freedom.

I hope that this was Saeed Malekpour’s last birthday in Evin prison and I hope that he will be pardoned and that he can really celebrate his next birthday in freedom in Canada.

Bach: Mass in B Minor – a “Great Catholic Mass”?

Bach B MinorThe last concert of the HCS concert season 2015 / 2016 will take place on Saturday 25 June 2016. My choir Highgate Choral Society will perform one of the great choral masterworks by Johann Sebastian Bach, his Mass in B Minor. The concert will start at 7 pm and  the venue is again All Hallows Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP.

1. It is certainly surprising to read about a “Great Catholic Mass” by a composer like Johann Sebastian Bach who so much embodies Lutheran church music. However, when JS Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach put together a list of all works of JS Bach for publication in 1790 he referred to the work we now know as Mass in B Minor as “Große Katholische Messe” (Great Catholic Mass).

Bach’s Mass in B Minor raises a number of questions: Is it a Lutheran mass or a Catholic mass? Why did Bach compose it at all? Is it really one work or is it rather a compilation of several works which were not necessarily meant to be performed together?

The answers to a lot of these questions are uncertain, but I want to shed some light on thoughts and ideas about possible answers.

2. The Mass in B Minor, BWV 232, is a setting of the Latin text of the mass with its five traditional parts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus / Benedictus and Agnus Dei). It consists of 18 choruses and 9 arias (solo or duets). Bach sets the text for five soloists, chorus and orchestra. In our performance the soprano 2 in the duet Christe eleison will be sung by the countertenor soloist and the solo aria Laudamus te for soprano 2 will be sung by the soprano soloist. The performance of the piece lasts nearly 2 hours.

The material for the Mass in B Minor spans almost the whole of Johann Sebastian Bach’s professional career. The earliest musical material was composed in 1714 (originally for the cantata BWV 12 which Bach used for the Crucifixus). The latest part was composed in 1749. It was an afterthought to insert for Et incarnatus est a separate section and it is probably one of the last substantial pieces Bach composed before his death.

Unusually for a Latin mass, the Mass in B Minor is divided into four parts: (1) Missa (consisting of Kyrie and Gloria), (2) Symbolum Nicenum (Credo), (3) Sanctus and (4) Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Dona Nobis.

This division tells us something about the composition history, but also about a potential use of parts of the mass for a Lutheran service.

3. What is the history of the Mass in B Minor? The central year for the Mass in B Minor is 1733. Bach had been kantor in Leipzig for ten years, but there were problems and discussions about his role and responsibilities and Bach thought about a new job. Frederick Augustus I, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland had died in February 1733. His son Frederick Augustus II became the new Elector of Saxony. Frederick Augustus I had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1697 to be eligible as King of Poland. The Catholic Court in Dresden was one of the most prestigious in Europe and Bach hoped for the post of court composer in the new court of Frederick Augustus II. He composed the Missa (Kyrie and Gloria) in the months after the death of Frederick Augustus I when public mourning was ordered and no music was allowed to be performed. Once finished he presented it to the new elector. The style and scale of the Missa fitted a typical mass at the court in Dresden. At the same time the Missa with Kyrie and Gloria in Latin could also be used for a Lutheran service. Luther did not ban Latin altogether, he wanted to provide alternatives in the vernacular and the Kyrie and Gloria were still sung in Latin in services on high feast days. Bach was not promoted immediately, but he received at least the title as “court composer” three years later in 1736.

Bach used some parts of the Missa music for the cantata Gloria in excelsis Deo BWV 191 which was put together at short notice to celebrate the Peace of Dresden at the end of the Silesian War for a special service on Christmas Day 1745. It is likely that also the Sanctus which Bach had written for Christmas Day 1724 was performed at this occasion and some assume that this performance inspired Bach to complete the setting of the Latin Ordinary.

There are a number of uncertainties:

It is not entirely clear when the Credo was composed. Some scholars think it was in the early 1740s, others hold the opinion that the Credo and the fourth part of the mass were written in the period from August 1748 until September 1749 at the very end of Bach’s life.

There are also different theories why Bach decided to complete the setting of the full mass. Some speculate about a further commission (e.g. for the court in Dresden), but others think that he just wanted to set the whole mass as an abstract cycle similar to the Art of Fugue, the Musical Offering or other works of the last years. The Mass in B Minor would then be a kind of musical testament and culmination of his choral writing.

There are finally some speculations whether a (private) performance or at least a read-through of the full Mass in B Minor during Bach’s life time had taken place, because his son Carl Philipp Emanuel’s Magnificat contains allusions to parts of the Mass (including parts of the Credo). However many people think that JS Bach never heard a performance of the full work.

More than a hundred years after Bach’s death would pass before the Mass in B Minor would finally be performed in its entirety. Even if the piece was not known to the public, the world of music was certainly aware of Bach’s extraordinary achievement. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach inherited the manuscript of the full mass and performed the Credo (Symbolum Nicenum) at a charity concert in Hamburg in 1786. Haydn had acquired a score in old age and Beethoven tried – unsuccessfully – to get one. Felix Mendelssohn had a score and considered performing the full mass for the inauguration of a Bach monument in Leipzig in 1843. This did not happen, because of the lack of a reliable edition, and it took more than ten further years until a complete performance took place. The Riedel-Verein performed the complete work in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig in 1859 (in German).

4. Bach’s Mass in B Minor is a so-called “parody mess”. This means that Bach uses for many movements existing material, in particular from several cantatas which were written for special occasions or specific Sundays. He writes the movements in different styles. Some are written in stilo antico, a style that refers back to the Renaissance and Palestrina’s time. Other choral movements are influenced by a modern concerto grosso style, very often with independent solo instruments.

a) Missa (Kyrie and Gloria)

The Kyrie consists traditionally of three parts (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison). It is the plea to God for mercy.

Bach follows the traditional structure, but does not simply repeat the first Kyrie after the Christe eleison. He writes a very distinct different setting of the same text. The first Kyrie eleison is for chorus (5 parts, with divided soprano), Christe eleison is for two solo voices and the second Kyrie eleison is again for full chorus (4 parts). The whole section lasts approximately 20 minutes.

The beginning of Bach’s Kyrie is based on Luther’s own formulation of the Kyrie call in his Deutsche Messe (1526). The music for the two Kyrie movements is original material which was written by Bach specifically for this setting. There might be a model for the Christe eleison, but the origin is unknown. After a first section in which the whole chorus sings Kyrie eleison, a fugue follows which builds up starting with the tenors. Then a second fugue follows which starts with the basses. This movement is written in concerto style. Christe eleison is an intimate duet with two soprano soloists (in our performance a soprano and a countertenor soloist) accompanied by violins and continuo. It can be seen as a more human side of the appeal for mercy. The second Kyrie is written in an older style (stilo antico). The instruments play no independent part, but basically double the voices of the chorus.

The Gloria is divided into nine movements (Gloria, Et in terra pax, Laudamus te, Gratias agimus tibi, Domine Deus, Qui tollis, Qui sedes, Quoniam to solus sanctus and Cum sancto spirito). The Gloria is a celebratory part of mass which praises, lauds and glorifies God.

Gloria and Et in terra pax are both for chorus (5 parts with divided soprano). Other chorus movements are Gratia agimus (four part choir), Qui tollis (four part choir) and the final movement Cum sancto spirito which is again for 5 parts (divided sopranos). Bach uses for the arias all soloists. Dominus Deus is a duet for soprano and tenor, Laudamus te is for soprano solo, Qui sedes for alto solo and Quoniam for bass solo. The whole Gloria section lasts more than 30 minutes.

The Gloria starts with trumpets. It is a joyful and exuberant movement which is inspired by instrumental concertos. Et in terra pax is an original movement which is elegantly linked with the previous section. Each of the solo arias is accompanied by a different solo instrument. In the Laudamus te, the soprano is accompanied by strings and paired with a solo violin. In the Dominus Deus the duet for tenor and soprano becomes a trio by adding a solo flute. The alto solo is paired with an oboe d’amore for Qui sedes and the bass is accompanied in the Quoniam movement by two bassoons and a corno di caccia (hunting horn).

In the choral sections Bach uses again the new concerto style and the stilo antico. An example for the stilo antico is the fourth movement Gratia agimus. It is a four part fugue in which the voices are first doubled by the instruments until two trumpets enter with independent lines over the top of the vocal structure. The theme is based on Bach’s sacred cantata Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (We thank you, God, we thank you), BWV 29, which Bach composed for the inauguration of a new town council in Leipzig in 1731. This choice is particularly interesting, because Gratia agimus and the text of the cantata have the same meaning (to give thanks to God).

Also the following two movements of the Gloria are based on existing cantatas. Dominus Deus is based on a part of the secular cantata BWV 193a Ihr Häuser des Himmels, ihr scheinenden Lichter (Ye houses of heaven, ye radiant lights) and Qui tollis peccata mundi for chorus is based on the sacred cantata BWV 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei (Behold and see, if there be any sorrow) which was first performed in 1723. Bach made considerable changes to adapt this music of lament to depict the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Two flutes duet in this movement over the falling lines of the choral parts. The whole section closes with another glorious movement for chorus Cum sancto sprito which includes a fugue and finishes with the full orchestra including trumpets and timpani.

b) Symbolum Nicenum (Credo)

Also the Credo is divided into nine movements (Credo, Patrem omnipotentem, Et in unum Dominum, Et incarnatus est, Crucifixus, Et resurrexit, Et in spiritum sanctum, Confiteor and Ex expecto). The Credo sets the creed (Nicene Creed) to music, the summary of the Christian belief. Also this part lasts more than 30 minutes.

The chorus dominates this section of the mass. Seven of the nine movements are for chorus, only the Et in unum Dominum is a duet between solo soprano and solo alto and Et in spiritum sanctum is for solo bass. The section mixes again settings in old style (stilo antiquo) (Credo, Et incarnatus est, Cruxificus and Conifteor) and modern concerto style (Patrem omnipotentem and Et resurrexit). In the first movement (Credo) and the penultimate movement (Confiteor) Bach uses the traditional plain chant as a kind of cantus firmus.

The second movement Patrem omipotentem is again for chorus (four parts) and it is based on material from the church cantata BWV 171 Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm (God, as Your name is, so is also Your praise) which was written for New Year’s Day and probably first performed in 1729. A curious fact is that Bach wrote at the end of this movement the number 84 as number of bars in the movement. It seems that the number of bars was important for Bach. 84 is 14 times 6 which is in itself interesting, because 14 is the number symbolism for BACH (B+A+C+H -> 2+1+3+8) and 6 stands for the six days of the creation. The phrase “patrem omnipotentem” is repeated 84 times in this movement. If one wants to go down this route, one can find more symbolism in the Credo section. The number symbolism for Credo is 43 and the word “Credo” is repeated 43 times in the first movement. In addition one can note that the first two movements together have 129 bars (3 times 43). Also the third and fourth movement have together 129 bars as does the last movement Et expecto. Three times 43, interpreted as three times Credo (“I believe”), could be seen as an expression of the belief in the Trinity, the belief in one God in three Divine Persons (Father, Son, Holy Ghost).

Even if one does not follow this symbolism of the numbers, one has to notice a great symmetry in this section. This particularly applies after Bach had decided to include Et incarnatus est as a separate movement. The movements are now symmetrical with Crucifixus as axis and centre point. In the heart of the Credo are movements 4, 5 and 6 and therefore the three important statements of Christian faith (Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ). The music for the Crucifixus is based on the oldest music identified in the piece. It derives its motives from the first chorus of the cantata BWV 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing) which was written for the third Sunday after Easter and first performed in 1714. This also means that the oldest musical material stands next to the newest musical material in the Et incarnatus est. The beginning of the next movement Et resurrexit (“And he is risen”) could not be more different. It is an outburst of joy after the somber Cruxificus movement. The chorus (five parts, divided soprano) starts immediately without any introduction. Also the material for the final movement in this section Et expecto comes from one of Bach’s cantatas BWV 120 Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille (God, You are praised in the stillness) which was first performed in 1742 at a church service for the inauguration of a new town council in Leipzig.

c) Sanctus

The Sanctus consists traditionally of four parts: Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus and a repetition of the Osanna. The Sanctus is sung in the mass after the preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. It is the praise of God by the saints and angels.

Bach composed initially only the Sanctus itself in 1724. It was performed on Christmas Day in Leipzig. The Sanctus (without Osanna and Benedictus) is another part of the mass which was sung in a Lutheran service in Latin on high feast days. The Sanctus is for chorus (in six parts with divided sopranos and divided altos). It makes extensive use of triplets and pairs usually three voices together. The Pleni sunt coeli is an elaborate fugue which is written in triple time. These references to the number three can again be seen as symbol of the Trinity. The Sanctus is comparatively short and lasts about 5 minutes.

d) Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Dona Nobis Pacem

These last movements of the mass were added at its final compilation and the whole section lasts roughly 20 minutes.

The Osanna expands the voices even more and is scored for double choir (in eight parts). It is repeated after the Benedictus which is set for tenor solo. It is interesting that Bach did not specify a solo instrument for the Benedictus movement. Usually a flute or violin is given the solo part and also in our concert this part will be played by a solo flute.

The Agnus Dei consists, as the Kyrie, traditionally of three sections. The text “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” is repeated three times. The first two times the sentence finishes with the plea “have mercy on us”. The third time it ends with “give us peace” (Dona nobis pacem). Bach decides to set only the last part Dona nobis pacem separately.

The first movement, the Agnus Dei, is an aria for alto solo accompanied by a solo violin. The Dona nobis pacem at the end of the work is again for chorus (four parts). Bach uses his setting of the Gratia agimus from the Gloria with the new words Dona nobis pacem. This repetition of the music of this earlier movement has two effects. From a structural perspective it is an element of unity of the whole mass. In substance it links the plea for peace closely with the giving of thanks to God.

5. When the Hans Georg Nägli, the first publisher of the work, wrote his advertisement, he called Bach’s Mass in B Minor the “Greatest Musical Work of All Times and All People”. I want to leave it to the audience to decide whether they share Nägli’s assessment. Bach’s Mass in B Minor is certainly a remarkable choral piece which transcends time and place and may have a different meaning for every performer and every member of audience. I started my post with the question whether it is a Catholic mass or a Lutheran mass. I want to end with a quote by Albert Schweizer which seems to answer this question perfectly. He emphasises the duality of the work as

“…one in which the sublime and intimate co-exist side by side, as do the Catholic and Protestant elements, all being as enigmatic and unfathomable as the religious consciousness of the work’s creator”.

Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki is free!

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Good news from Iran! Yesterday, the blogger Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki was released. 

If you know my previous posts, you might remember that I wrote twice about him. You find my two other articles here and here. I am delighted that the third time it is a post with good news – even though it is currently only a conditional release.

I will recapitulate in this post a little bit of the background of his case and write about the developments which resulted in his release. 

1. Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki was arrested in December 2009. One of the reasons was his membership in Proxy Iran, a committee against censorship which helped Iranians to circumvent censorship in the Internet.

He was held in solitary confinement, tortured and forced to confess.

Hossein was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

  • 10 years for his membership in Proxy Iran
  • 4 years for insulting President Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader
  • 1 year for propanda against the regime

During his detention and as consequences of torture and medical neglect he developed multiple health problems which lead to the loss of one kidney.

2. On 17 June 2015 Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki was given furlough on medical grounds. In January he was ordered back to prison, against the recommendation of the doctors who said that he still required medical treatment outside of the prison. On 20 January 2016 Hossein returned to prison. He did so because otherwise a very large bail would have been confiscated.

3. After Hossein’s return to prison, the authorities refused to provide him with medication or to transfer him to a hospital, even so his health deteriorated further. His mother said in an interview that the prison doctors had stated that the prison hospital did not have the proper equipment for his treatment and that he had to be transferred to a hospital outside the prison. She also mentioned that he did not even receive the medication the family paid for and provided to the authorities.

As protest against his treatment, in particular the refusal to transfer him to a hospital and the unfair imprisonment Hossein started a hunger strike on 26 March 2016. His family and his friends were very worried about this development, because he said he would not stop until his situation changed. Laleh, a very close friend of him, warned him against the possible consequences of a hunger strike. She said to the website “Journalism is not a crime”:

“His response was that the status quo is a slow death sentence anyway. A hunger strike will speed things up, he said, but at least he wouldn’t go without a fight.”

4. On 4 May, after 105 nights in prison and 38 days of hunger strike Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki was released from prison.

Laleh mentioned in a tweet that he lost a lot of weight after his hunger strike in prison and will soon be taken to hospital. “Journalism is not a crime” reports that it was not an unconditional release, but he was released against a heavy bail pending a review of his case.

Laleh said to the website “Journalism is not a crime”:

“I hope authorities do the right thing and reduce his unjust 15-year sentence so he does not have to serve any more time. … According to the law, he is eligible for a pardon because of his health.”

5. The release of Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki is very good news indeed and I am happy and relieved about this development, but it is not yet time to stop campaigning for him.

Please continue to tweet for him and write to Iran, until they release him unconditionally and without the threat of calling him back whenever they decide to do so.

6. I want to add two additional information (on 17 May 2016):

Hossein clarified in the meantime in a tweet that he is not free, but that he was only released on a 30 day furlough until 4 June. Then he has to return to prison.

I also want to share a link to a post which was again translated by Laleh. The English translation is on her blog: “Hossein Ronaghi expresses concern for teacher Mahmoud Beheshti on hunger strike“. Hossein writes about the Iranian teacher Mahmoud Beheshti Langaroudi who was sentenced to several years in prison, because he tried to improve the conditions for teachers and students. He was sentenced after a trial which lasted less than eight minutes. He started a hunger strike on 20 April 2016 to protest against his sentence. Mahmoud Beheshti was in the meantime released (after 20 days of hunger strike), but Hossein’s post is still moving to read, because he describes in it also his own experience of a hunger strike.

Forbidden Poetry: The Poems

In the previous post “Forbidden Poetry: Ashraf Fayadh, Fatemeh Ekhtesari, Mohammed al-Ajami” I gave you some background information about the three poets and their punishments. In this post, I want to share examples of their poetry in English translation and give links to further poems in English translation.

1. Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia)

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The Name of a Masculine Dream

While you excel in worshipping anxiety –
didn’t you notice that your arteries have failed to pump your insomnia up to the eyes?
Didn’t you notice?
That the hearts of those abandoned on the pavements of the night
have split from your vision so many times?
The patterns of the night continue their work
until dawn appears on the edges of clouds gathering
on the ceiling of your imagination.
Didn’t you also notice –
how you enjoy interpreting the arteries of women
and the bodies tossed on the roofs of memories from long ago?

Your pages have been soaked with the sludge of exegesis
and not one word has been read
like you
these pages have exhausted all languages known to earth
in order to offer a name that matches your definition of self
your name – like an inkwell pregnant with possibilities
your build defies all definitions of its organs combined.

Come stand to where the thunder can see you so that your emaciated body may dissolve
and your soul be resurrected as a cloud followed by rain
pouring down life to where your name is not even a dream
that won’t come to pass as long as you’re unable to abandon the definitions
of dubious pleasures and drunken nights
and those who call out the sacred names of love.
Come – for the night is long for the beloved,
not long enough to write about pleasure
or bodies saturated in the smell of peaches
absorbed in all the forbidden pleasures of the night.
Come – to where the cloud chooses to shift your sickly form
and snatch your soul from its exile –
from a heart that had openly declared the absence of love
and from the mirages of the assumed homeland you thought you belonged
to every grit of its earth.

Since when does the wind honor traffic laws?
Since when?
Did the wind ever stop at your red light?
How long have you coaxed it to stop
so you could gather a few words
or find some news no longer fit for print?

Your eyes will confess that insomnia
has violated the secrets of the night
and the night too won’t keep silent for long.
Your heart is an idol to which your arteries have absconded
And they no longer offer your veins as sacrifice
as tribute to the throne of beautiful gods

Your name means nothing to me
it cannot deliver me of all the sins of drought
and it cannot supplicate the night so that I can walk free from its isolation
your name is a lost number –
a weight that has broken your back!

The poem “The Name of a Masculine Dream” is from the book “Instructions Within”. It was translated into English by Mona Zaki. It is published here with the consent of M Lynx Qualey, arablit.orga website for Arabic literature in English. This website has many more translations of Ashraf Fayadh’s poems into English, but also into other languages. Please click here for further translations.  M Lynx Qualey also mentioned in a post on 15 February 2016 that Ashraf Fayadh’s “Instructions Within” will soon be published in French and English translation.

2. Fatemeh Ekhtesari (Iran)

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I press my head down
It’s the result of insomnia oppressing me
I press my head to you and to my miserable memoirs
The night is pressing me too
But I’m so tough

Now it’s the sound of your scream coming
And there is blood
And there is the smell of tear and tear gas
A soldier is pressing my head down by his boots
Someone is pulling the trigger
Now there is a gun between my eyebrows
I feel the blood pressure in my head
The cowards have run
I press a cold hand in my cold hand

Someone was calling my name all the night
I feel the pressure of a lump in my throat
My throat is wounded
And I hear you screaming in the ear of someone who is all dead
I feel the pressure of life
And its wounds
And its marks
And I feel the pressure of the graves upon the solitude of dead
bodies

I press my fists to the wall and I swallow my cry
You are still screaming in the wild howls of the wind
I press my head down
A vessel is pressing a nerve
And I press a bottom to flash my life back
To go back to a scene where I’m opening a window towards light
Where everybody rise out of the graves
Where I hold a warm hand in my hand
And we are laughing in our homes and in our rooms
There I hear the sound of peace
And my heart beats normally
And that’s a better day with a green background

This poem is taken from a collection of poetry “When a breeze takes a shortcut” which includes poems by Iranian poets and by Radek Hasalik, a Czech poet. I am very grateful to Fatemeh Ekhtesari who allowed me to publish this poem in my blog. If you want to read another of her poems in English have a look at the Versopolis.com website.

3. Mohammed al Ajami (Qatar)

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Tunisian Jasmine

Prime Minister, Mohamed al-Ghannouchi:
If we measured your might
it wouldn’t hold a candle
to a constitution.
We shed no tears for Ben Ali,
nor any for his reign.
It was nothing more than a moment
in time for us,
historical
and dictatorial,
a system of oppression,
an era of autocracy.
Tunisia declared the people’s revolt:
When we lay blame
only the base and vile suffer from it;
and when we praise
we do so with all our hearts.
A revolution was kindled with the blood of the people:
their glory had worn away,
the glory of every living soul.
So, rebel, tell them,
tell them in a shrouded voice, a voice from the grave:
tell them that tragedies precede all victories.
A warning to the country whose ruler is ignorant,
whose ruler deems that power
comes from the American army.
A warning to the country
whose people starve
while the regime boasts of its prosperity.
A warning to the country whose citizens sleep:
one moment you have your rights,
the next they’re taken from you.
A warning to the system – inherited – of oppression.
How long have all of you been slaves
to one man’s selfish predilections?
How long will the people remain
ignorant of their own strength,
while a despot makes decrees and appointments,
the will of the people all but forgotten?
Why is it that a ruler’s decisions are carried out?
They’ll come back to haunt him
in a country willing
to rid itself of coercion.
Let him know, he
who pleases only himself, and does nothing
but vex his own people; let him know
that tomorrow
someone else will be seated on that throne,
someone who knows the nation’s not his own,
nor the property of his children.
It belongs to the people, and its glories
are the glories of the people.
They gave their reply, and their voice was one,
and their fate, too, was one.
All of us are Tunisia
in the face of these oppressors.
The Arab regimes and those who rule them
are all, without exception,
without a single exception,
shameful, thieves.
This question that keeps you up at night –
its answer won’t be found
on any of the official channels …
Why, why do these regimes
import everything from the West –
everything but the rule of law, that is,
and everything but freedom?

The poem “Tunisian Jasmine” was translated into English by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. It is also published here with the consent of M Lynx Qualey, arablit.org. Mohammed Al-Ajami also wrote a “poem from the prison cell” which English PEN published in an English translation for last year’s World Poetry Day. If you want to read it, then please click here.

Forbidden Poetry: Ashraf Fayadh, Fatemeh Ekhtesari, Mohammed al-Ajami

It is a dangerous undertaking to write poetry. Each of the three poets about whom I will write in this post will probably agree with this statement. For this year’s World Poetry Day on 21 March 2016, I want to raise awareness for three poets who were punished for their poetry: (1) Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia), (2) Fatemeh Ekhtesari (Iran) and (3) Mohammed al-Ajami (Qatar).

1. Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia)

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English PEN protest for Ashraf Fayadh at the Saudi Arabian Embassy, London

Ashraf Fayadh was born in 1980 in Saudi Arabia. He is a Palestinian poet and artist and a member of the Saudi-British group Edge of Arabia, a non-profit cultural initiative to connect artists and ideas between the Middle East and the Western World. Ashraf Fayadh curated a large art show in Jeddah in 2013 and was co-curator of the project RHIZOMA at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.

2013 was not only the year in which he was curator of significant exhibitions. It was also the year in which his ordeal started. On 6 August 2013 he was arrested following the accusation that he was “promoting atheism and spreading blasphemous ideas among young people”. Someone filed a complaint with the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice about his book “Instructions Within”, a collection of poetry which was published in 2008. He was released on the next day.

Ashraf Fayadh gave in an interview more background about the allegations: He said that the context was a personal dispute he had with another artist about contemporary art in a café in Abha, a city in the South-West of Saudi Arabia.

On 1 January 2014 he was rearrested. The exact charges against him were initially unclear, but his long hair was criticised and it was thought that his ideas contradict the values of the Saudi Arabian society. After his arrest he was detained in a police station for 27 days until he was transferred to prison.

His case went on trial in February 2014. The charges which were brought against him were very severe: apostasy (conscious abandonment of Islam) which carries the mandatory death sentence and in addition a violation of Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Cyber Crime Law by taking and storing photos of women on his phone. Ashraf Fayadh denied the accusations of blasphemy and apostasy and offered a formal apology to the court. In relation to the Anti-Cyber Crime charges he explained that he had only photos of fellow artists on his phone which were taken during the Jeddah art week. The prosecution had three witnesses: the man who had reported his allegedly blasphemous remarks and two officers of the Islamic religious police who had arrested him.

In May 2014 the General Court in Abha sentenced him to four years in prison and 800 lashes (for the charges relating to the imagines of women). He was cleared from the allegation of apostasy, because the court had accepted his apology. Ashraf Fayadh filed an appeal against the judgement, but the court of appeal dismissed it. To make things worse they also indicated that he should still be sentenced for apostasy. The case was then transferred back to the General Court.

The retrial took place in November 2015. On 17 November 2015, the General Court sentenced Ashraf Fayadh to death. This trial was unfair and violated International and Saudi-Arabian laws. Ashraf Fayadh did not have legal representation at court, because he could not mandate a lawyer without his passport which was seized by the police. The judge in the new trial did not even speak with him, but only gave the verdict: death sentence for apostasy.

Ashraf Fayadh’s arrest, trial and sentence were heavily criticised. Immediately after his arrest in January 2014 100 Arab writers and thinkers signed a petition and many others condemned his arrest in the social media.

The public outcry got obviously even louder after he was sentenced to death last November. Amnesty International and 60 other human rights groups and arts groups launched a campaign for him. In addition a large number of authors, artists and actors and also the director of Tate Modern joined the efforts for his release. Since January 2015 English PEN has been regularly protesting at the Saudi Arabian embassy in London for the release of Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair. Since 27 November they have also been calling for the release of Ashraf Fayadh. The international literature festival Berlin had called for worldwide readings on 14 January 2016 to highlight his case. This was very successful and readings in support of his case were held in 44 countries.

Ashraf Fayadh filed within 30 days an appeal against the court decision which sentenced him to death. He claimed that there is no legal basis for the judgement, because of a number of formal errors:

  • He was arrested by the Islamic religious police, even so the arrest should have been done by the state prosecutor.
  • The allegations of apostasy were only based on the witness statement of the one person with whom he had the dispute. They were not corroborated by other evidence as required under the laws of Saudi Arabia.

On 1 February 2016 the court of appeal reversed the decision of the General Court. They overturned the death-sentence and replaced it with the following verdict: eight years in prison, 800 lashes (to be carried out on 16 occasions with 50 lashes each time) and public repentance. Ashraf Fayadh’s lawyer said that they again filed an appeal against this sentence.

Ashraf Fayadh is currently in prison. Sofar he has not yet been flogged.

2. Fatemeh Ekhtesari (Iran)

hjFatemeh Ekhtesari was born in 1986. She is an Iranian poet and she is also a midwife. Her poems are often about women. On the one hand she writes poems about the female body with pregnancies, deliveries and abortions. On the other hand the poems are about the world of women including demonstrations and resistance. She also edited a modern poetry magazine.

Fatemeh Ekthesari belongs to the literary movement “Postmodern Ghazal”. Ghazal is a classic poetic form which consists of rhyming couplets and a refrain. Traditionally the theme of ghazals is unconditional superior love. Mehdi Mousavi who is a pre-eminent member of this literary movement explained that “ghazal” has a wider meaning in the term “Postmodern Ghazal”. It stands for all formal styles of classic poetry and is not restricted to the traditional ghazal. Poets who belong to this movement use classic poetic forms, but modernise them and write about contemporary themes in contemporary language.

Fatemeh Ekhtesari’s first book was published in 2010. She spoke in one article about her approach to deal with censorship. She put dots in her poems for all words which would not get past the authorities. After the book was approved and published, she added the missing words by hand before she sent copies to her friends.

In 2013 Fatemeh Ekhtesari took part in a literary exchange programme with Sweden with the title “A Resistance Movement on My Desk”. Six poets from Iran and six poets from Sweden collaborated in this project and translated together Persian poetry into Swedish. One of the highlights of the programme was the participation at the poetry festival in Stockholm and Gothenborg in September 2013.

On 6 December 2013 Fatemeh Ekthesari (and Mehdi Mousavi) wanted to travel to Turkey for a literary workshop. At the airport they were informed that they were banned from travelling and they were summoned for an interrogation.

Both of them did not go to the interrogation and two days later, on 8 December 2013, they were arrested by the intelligence branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp at their houses. They were transferred to solitary confinement and spent 38 days in the Guards’ Ward 2-A at Evin Prison. Both had to endure psychological pressure and repeated interrogations which finally led to forced confessions. These confessions were the main evidence in the following trial. On 13 January 2014 they were released on bail.

Fatemeh has not only been prosecuted personally, but also her poetry is under attack. One of her books which was published with the permission of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance was removed from the Tehran Book Fair in May 2015.

On 10 October 2015 the Tehran Revolutionary Court rendered their judgement. Fatemeh Ekhtesari was sentenced to 11 1/2 years in prison and 99 lashes (and Mehdi Mousavi was sentenced to 9 years in prison and 99 lashes). The charges against her were:

  • Insulting sanctities through her poetry (7 years)
  • Publishing unauthorised content in cyberspace (3 years)
  • Propaganda against the state (1 1/2 years)
  • Kissing (the cheeks) and shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex who was not related (99 lashes).

Her lawyer said that it is not entirely clear which of her poems were deemed to “insult the sacred”. The poems which were mentioned in court did not relate to sanctities. All her books were published with permits issued by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. It is therefore difficult to understand why the censors did not take offense and prohibited the publication in the first place, if some of the poems were really against the law. There is some indictation that she was accused to “insult sanctities” because she was previously in contact with the exiled Iranian rapper Shahin Najaif who used her poems for one of his songs. Iran sees in him an apostate. However, he sang the song which was based on her poems some years ago and a long time before the allegation of apostasy were made against him.

The charge of “propaganda against the state” has to be seen in the context with her trips to Sweden for the exchange project. The ruling claims that she cooperated in Sweden with the press and with “spies” and is responsible for “negative propaganda about Iran”.

Her lawyer sees severe violations of due process and a fair trial, because there are some indications that the decision was made before the court hearing.

Several human rights organisations heavily criticised the decision against Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi. On 30 October 2015 PEN America sent a letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The letter is signed by 116 poets and writers and urges him to grant pardon for both poets.

Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi filed an appeal against the judgement. The appeal is still pending. In January they fled Iran. For security resons they do not disclose in which country they are currently. They mentioned however that they have both applied for political asylum.

Fatemeh Ekhtesari shall have the final word. She explained in an article about a months ago her motivation for leaving Iran:

“Self-censorship was among the reasons I left Iran. I was becoming afraid of writing. I feared that anything I write would be used by IRGC interrogations against me.”

“I used to say I have to be in Iran, I need to be in close contact with my audience. I need to see their problems and feel their pain. But I was forced to leave behind the people that I love, the people for whom I’ve been writing poetry.”

 3.  Mohammed al-Ajami (Qatar)

IMG_2009Mohammed al-Ajami was born on 24 December 1975 in Qatar. He is married and has four children. He writes also under the name Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb.

The background of his arrest and his sentence are the following: In 2010 Mohammed al-Ajami recited one of his poems in his house in Cairo (“The Cairo poem”). The recitation was in front of a small private audience. However, one of the audience members made a recording of the performance and posted it without his consent or even his knowledge on YouTube.

On 16 November 2011 Mohammed al-Ajami was summoned to a meeting with state security officials in Doha. When he arrived he was arrested. About two weeks later he was transferred to the central prison. The laws of Qatar allow a pre-trial detention of up to six months, however his detention exceeded the legal maximum and his trial was postponed five times. He was held in solitary confinement for a long time. For several months he did not have access to books, television or writing material. Mohammed al-Ajami’s family and friends were initially not informed about his whereabouts and for months they were not given any right to visit him.

On 29 November 2012 Mohammed al-Ajami was sentenced to life in prison. The charges against him were “incitement to overthrow the government” and “criticising the ruling emir.” The charge of “incitement to overthrow the government” could have even lead to the death sentence.

The whole trial was unfair. It was a trial behind closed doors. Al-Ajami was not allowed to defend himself and his lawyer was not allowed to plead or defend his client. His lawyer also says that the evidence was tampered with. The court heard as expert witnesses three “poetry experts” from the ministry of culture and education. They gave almost identical evidence and asserted that the poem insulted the emir and his son. Al-Ajami never denied that he was author of the poem, but always emphasised that he did not intend to insult anyone. In addition the offence of “incitement to overthrow the government” requires a public action. Because of the private nature of the reading this requirement was not fulfilled. During his interrogations Al-Ajami was forced to sign a false confession which stated that the poem was read in public in the presence of the press. In the final hearing in October 2012 Al-Ajami was expelled from court (for being unruly) and was not brought to court when the judgement was handed down.

It is not entirely clear for which poem Mohammed al-Ajami was punished. A lot of people think that the reason for his punishment is not “The Cairo poem”, but rather “Tunisian Jasmine”. In this poem he praises the Tunisian revolution and denounces corruption and oppression by Arab rulers:

All of us are Tunesia
in the face of these oppressors.
The Arab regimes and those who rule them
are all, without exception,
without a single exception,
shameful thieves.”

Excerpt of “Tunisian Jasmine”

If you want to read the whole poem “Tunisian Jasmine”, you find it in the following post. There is also a link to another poem which al-Ajami wrote in prison.

The judgement against Mohammed al-Ajami was heavily criticised by Amnesty International and many other human rights organisations and also in the social media.

Mohammed al-Ajami filed an appeal against the judgement. On 25 February 2013 the court of appeal reduced the sentence to 15 years in prison.

Another appeal to the Court of Cassation was not successful. The Court of Cassation upheld on 20 October 2013 15 year prison sentence. The court made his decision to uphold the decision in less than three hours.

Several human rights organisation continously called for his release and there were readings of poetry in solidarity for Mohammed al-Ajami. On 20 October 2015 the UN Special Rapporteur raised his case and declared that his arrest, detention and sentencing “seem to be solely related to the peaceful exercise of his fundamental human rights”. He added that the charges are “clearly incompatible with international standard, which protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including in the form of arts, and the take part in cultural life.” English PEN held a protest in support of al-Ajami on 25 February 2016 and delivered a petition to the Qatari Embassy in London.

After the decision of the Court of Cassation in October 2013 there were no further ways to challenge the judgement. The only hope which was left for Mohammed al-Ajami was a pardon by the Emir.

Two days ago, on 15 March 2016, there was surprising good news reported via social media: Qatar has granted Mohammed al-Ajami a royal pardon and English PEN reported yesterday that he has been released.

I have decided to include him nevertheless in my post as acknowledgment of his suffering and the unfair imprisonment for more than four years. His story and story of every other poet who is punished for their poetry shall be heard and shared.

Please read also the following post in which you find examples of Ashraf Fayadh’s, Fatemeh Ekhtesari’s and Mohammed Al-Ajami’s poetry. 

I want to thank English PEN which allowed me to use the photo of their protest for Ashraf Fayadh and the pictures of Mohammed Al-Ajami in this post and of Ashraf Fayadh in the next post. I also want to thank M Lynx Qualey, arablit.org, who allowed me to use translations of the poems of Ashraf Fayadh and Mohammed Al-Ajami in the next post. Finally I want to thank especially Fatemeh Ekhtesari. She sent me the two photos I used in this and the next post, English translations of some of her poems and was patient enough to answer my questions.

“Raif Badawi in books” – thoughts about two books by and about Raif Badawi

I want to share in this post some thoughts about two books which were published last year: Ensaf Haidar’s book: “Freiheit für Raif Badawi, die Liebe meines Lebens” (“Freedom for Raif Badawi, the love of my life”) and a collection of Raif Badawi’s blog posts “1000 Lashes because I say what I think”. Both are great sources, if you want to know more about Raif Badawi and Ensaf Haidar’s struggle for her husband. 

1. I wrote my last post about Raif Badawi about a year ago. It was published on 24 March 2015 on the Raif Badawi website and you can also find it here in my blog.  I asked myself in it

Why do I think every day of Raif Badawi, even so I do not really know a lot about him?”

I still think about and tweet for Raif Badawi every day, but the basis of information about him has luckily changed. A year ago you could only find one or two of his blog posts in an English translation. In addition the Guardian had published an article with a couple of excerpts of his posts. Also the personal information about him was sparse. There were a number of articles and the information on the Amnesty website, but nothing more comprehensive.

The situation has completely changed, because of the publication of two books since my last post:

a) The first publication was in April 2015. Ullstein Verlag, a German publishing house, published the book “1000 Peitschenhiebe, weil ich sage, was ich denke”. It is a collection of 15 blog posts by Raif Badawi in German translation. During the course of the following months also an English translation of the book followed and now it is available in addition in French, Italian and Dutch. This book enables us to finally read the posts which led to Raif Badawi’s severe punishment.

b) The second book is by Raif Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar and was published in October 2015. The book is so far only available in German under the title “Freiheit für Raif Badawi, die Liebe meines Lebens”, but the English translation will follow in the next days (on 16 March 2016). The book is a biography about Raif Badawi and tells the story of Raif and Ensaf’s love, their live together and her struggle for his freedom and his life.

2. Ensaf Haidar: “Freiheit für Raif Badawi, die Liebe meines Lebens” (Freedom for Raif Badawi, the love of my life)

a) The book “Freiheit für Raif Badawi, die Liebe meines Lebens” starts with a short chapter about Ensaf Haidar’s current life in Sherbrooke, Canada and her involvement in campaigns for Raif. The following chapters tell chronologically their story from their first encounter until the presence.

It was chance that Ensaf Haidar and Raif Badawi got to know each other. Ensaf’s sister Hanan receiRB 2ved a mobile phone as a present for her wedding. However, she thought that she would not really need it as a married woman and passed it on to her younger sister Ensaf. Ensaf was at the end of her Koran studies at university and her sister thought she could use the phone when the driver is late picking her up from university. One evening she saw that someone had tried to reach her. She had registered her number with the job centre because another sister Egbal had urged her to do so. She called back after business hours and expected to leave a message on the answering machine. However this was not the job centre who had tried to reach her, but Raif Badawi whom she did not know. Apparently also one of her brothers had used the phone and Raif Badawi dialed the wrong number. Initially she was very hesitant and did not want to speak with him, because to speak with a man who does not belong to the family is not accepted behaviour in Saudi Arabia and actually even dangerous because they could be punished for it. Raif was very persistent and in the end they spent the whole night on the phone speaking about their favourite music and their lives. It is very poignant to read how they saw each other the first time. On a Friday when her brothers were at the mosque, Ensaf went to their room which had windows to the street. Raif came to the house as arranged and was standing in front of the house looking up to the window to see at least a glimpse of her. Ensaf threw down a carnation which Raif picked up and kept like a treasure.

After this first opportunity to see each other briefly and from afar a period of secrecy and many more calls followed. Two months later they decided that they could only be together, if they got married. Raif spoke with her father and proposed marriage. For her father Raif was not a suitable husband. He did not come from a respectable family and her father outright ignored Raif ‘s proposal. He did not even considered him worthy to receive an answer. It took 18 months for Ensaf to convince her family that they should accept the marriage proposal and it seems they only finally accepted because she threatened to do something forbidden and bring shame over family.

Ensaf Haidar tells about her wedding and their honeymoon in Syria and in Lebanon and how she enjoyed the freedom in these countries. She also tells about their first flat together in her home town Jazan in southern Saudi Arabia. The relationship between the newly-wed couple and her family remained difficult and after their first child Nedschua was born they decided to move to Jeddah to escape the constant interference from her family. Raif started an institute to teach women English and the use of computers. Ensaf Haidar is very open when she tells how lonely she felt in this city in which she did not know anyone and that she was even jealous, because Raif spent so much time in the institute and did not seem to be very interested in her any more. During this time he also started his Internet forum in which he discussed liberal thoughts. He did not speak with Ensaf about it, but she saw one day his computer and decided to sign up for the forum herself under a pseudonym. She even wrote comments to some articles. She was very fascinated by this other side of Raif which she did not know. At the end of the year 2007 after the birth of the third child Miriam the police came the first time and seized his books and computers. This was the first incident in which they realised that the authorities did not like the liberal thoughts which were discussed in the forum and much worse should happen. They even thought at that time about leaving Saudi Arabia and stayed for some weeks in Malaysia. None of them spoke Malaysian and everything was more difficult than expected, therefore they went back to Saudi Arabia.

Ensaf Haidar describes in some detail the persecution and harassment by the police which got worse and worse over time. Raif was interrogated by the police and the court and they even froze his accounts and all his assets and withdraw all his citizen rights. One important factor was that Raif Badawi’s father Mohammed Raif Badawi hates his son. He made videos and put them online and later also gave interviews on the Saudi Arabian television in which he claimed that his son had abandoned Islam and was an apostate. Conservative clerics shared this opinion and declared a fatwa against him. Life got more and more difficult and the threats against him and his family got more and more severe. On one evening he was attacked by someone with a knife who tried to kill him. After this assassination attempt they knew that they were not any longer safe in Saudi Arabia. Ensaf Haidar first went with their three children to Egypt, but then decided to go rather to Lebanon because of the uncertain political situation in Egypt. Between Egypt and Lebanon Ensaf and the children went briefly back to Jeddah for one week. This was the last time they saw Raif. They stayed in Lebanon and still  hoped that Raif would be able to follow them soon. Sadly this was not the case because he was not allowed to travel any more and then on 17 June 2012, he was arrested on the charge of “insulting Islam through electronic channels”, later also apostasy (conscious abandonment of Islam) was added which carries a mandatory death sentence in Saudi Arabia. Ensaf and Raif realised quickly that the family would also not be safe in Lebanon. Ensaf got calls from unknown persons who threatened her. In addition her family started on her behalf (and against her will) proceedings to get her divorced from Raif Badawi. When she did not agreed to these divorce proceedings, her family disowned her. Ensaf  and Raif decided it would be best, if she applied for political asylum at the United Nations. Finally they got the information that Canada had offered them political asylum. This decision come just in time, because Raif’s father tried to get custody for the three children.

In the last two chapters of the book Ensaf Haidar tells about her journey from Lebanon to Canada and her first impressions of Canada. Again she is very open about her feelings. She is relieved to be in safety and to know that her children are not at risk anymore to be taken from her. On the other hand the culture is very different from anything she knew. They arrived in November and it was winter and much colder than they were used to. But she also speaks about all the people who help her to take care of all formalities and her first contacts with Amnesty International in Sherbrooke. Things were even more difficult, because she hesitated for a long time to tell the children that their father is in prison. She occasionally had a chance to speak with Raif and he urged her not to inform their children about his current situation. Only when the pressure on her got greater and greater and also the newspapers started to report about Raif Badawi’s fate, she could not conceal the truth any longer. She was in a similar dilemma when Raif Badawi was flogged on 9 January 2015. She did not want to tell their children, but had to realise that everyone else knew about it (including all their class mates).

The book finishes in a positive tone. Ensaf Haidar emphasises how grateful she and also Raif are for all the support they receive from people all over the world and all the prices he was awarded. She ends with the hope that King Salman will grant mercy in and will pardon Raif Badawi and she imagines what they would do when they are finally reunited again.

b) I can highly recommend Ensaf Haidar’s book. It gives an interesting insight in her life with Raif and their story. I am particularly impressed how she describes her own development and also Raif Badawi’s development.

At the beginning of the book Ensaf seems to be reasonably happy with her life. She had studied, but she knew that she would probably never work. She was even reluctant whether she should register with the job centre at all. She was looking forward to long holidays where she would live with her family, stay up late and sleep long until her family decided that she should get married and then she would take over the duties of a wife. Her attitude to life changed after she got to know Raif Badawi and fall in love with him. She decided to fight for a future together with him and also finally got the consent to marry him. After her marriage it took time for her to make her own decisions and become more independent. It was for her a gradual process and you get an understanding how this inexperienced girl from the beginning becomes a woman who organises her life and the life of their children and now even speaks with the press, the public and politicians about her husband and leads the campaign for his freedom.

Also Raif Badawi changed a lot over time. He was certainly in love with Ensaf when the first got to know each other and made her many presents, but his idea of a relationship was a rather traditional one. He did not tell anything about his work at home and also made all decisions by himself without even consulting Ensaf. This changed slowly when he starting writing in the forum. Ensaf describes that she read his posts in which he spoke about women’s rights, but that he still behaved at home as always and she did not really see him to put his words into practice. She challenged his behaviour and slowly he really also did change his behaviour, spent more time at home with their children and with her. He also started to discuss his thoughts and his articles with her and was interesting in her ideas.

An other aspect which I found interesting was her remarks about the relationship of the house of Saud and the Wahhabism which goes back almost 300 years to an agreement between Muhammed ibn Saud, the head of the family at that time, and Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. In this agreement Abd al-Wahhab provided the house of Saud with a religious legitimation for their claim to the throne of Saudi Arabia and the Saud family promised to spread and support the extremely conservative ideas of Abd al-Wahhab. That is what they are doing until today and this extreme conservatism is also a reason for Raif Badawi’s medieval punishment.

Finally it was intriguing to read all the background information about Raif Badawi and his father. I knew before that it was a troubled relationship and that the father condoned the punishment of Raif and even asked for the death penalty for Raif, but I was not aware how long back this hostility went. His father beat Raif and his sister and when Raif was 13 he was even sued by his father for disobedience and spent six months in a prison for children. I think this information puts a lot of slander and claims you occasionally read on Twitter in perspective.

3. Raif Badawi: “1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I think”

The second book is a collection of 15 of Raif Badawi’s blog posts. All posts were chosen by Ensaf Haidar and were originally published between 2010 and 2012. They had to be reconstructed with her help, because it is apparently difficult to find Raif’s posts still online.

RB 1The articles cover a great variety of different topics. There are some articles which focus on Saudi Arabia and its laws and customs. One of these articles is “Let’s Lash Some Astronomers”. Islamic scholars claim that the view of astronomers about the earth and the universe are not compatible with the Sharia view of the world and argue that astronomers are therefore heretics. Raif Badawi praises sarcastically the “Sharia  Astronomy” and suggests that the USA abolish NASA. He recommends also scientists in other fields to stop their studies and learn from the “glorious preachers” in Saudi Arabia who always have the final word in everything. Other articles like “A Male Escort for Every Female Scholar”, “Mixed or Divided” and “The Book” all deal with the role of women in Saudi Arabia. In each of these articles Raif Badawi argues passionately for equal rights for women and men. I thought it was particularly interesting to read his arguments in “The Book”. The article is about the International Book Fair in Riyadh. For the first time it was open for men and women at the same time without segregation. Raif Badawi applauds this decision and also argues that the mixing of genders is not forbidden under Islamic law. He explains further that historical documents show that also at the time of the prophet Mohammed men and woman worked, prayed and lived side by side. I find it remarkable that he does not seem to criticise in such articles Islam as such, but rather the – from his perspective – wrong interpretation of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

Another group of articles are about specific themes and topics which go beyond Saudi Arabia. Interesting are “No to Building a Mosque in New York City” and  “Yes! I Will Fight Theists and Religious Thoughts”. In the first article “No to Building a Mosque in New York City” he criticises the intention of the New York Muslims who wanted to build a mosque on the area where the World Trade Centre stood. He tries to put himself in the shoes of an “ordinary American” and argues that Saudi Arabia would certainly not build a church or synagogue, if a Christian or Jewish person had attacked Saudi Arabia. He then continues to explain that Saudi Arabia refuses to build churches altogether. He uses this example to call for freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia and more religious tolerance from Muslims and sees this as a prerequisite for a positive relationship with everyone irrespective of the religion.

To respect the opinions of those who stand against you is nothing short of courageous. We need to be champions in accepting the beliefs of others and their right to make their own decisions and believe in their own religions“.

(Raif Badawi)

Also the article “Yes! I Will Fight Theists and Religious Thoughts” is remarkable. It starts with the statement that he would be the first person to fight against Hamas, if they would ever “liberate Palestine” and “wipe Israel off the face of the earth”.  He clarifies that he is against the Israeli occupation but at the same time declares that  he is also against an Islamic religious state which might replace Israel in such a scenario. He uses this article to argue against any state which is based on religion and emphasises instead the importance of the individual and of individualism.

There are also general article about freedom of speech and liberalism. In “Let’s Talk about Enlightenment” and “Is Liberalism Against Religion?” Raif Badawi defends and champions liberalism. He strongly advocates a free society in which all ideas, believe systems and philosphies are in competition with each other. He also defends liberalism against the critisism that liberalism is against religion. Raif Badawi argues that one element of liberalism is to provide indidual freedom including freedom of religion. In a liberal society religion is a personal choice which everyone can make, but no one is forced to make.

Liberalism means to simply live and let live. We should all acknowledge our respect for traditions and personal behaviour of others, as long as they don’t cross the line for others and invade their personal space … your freedom ends on the outskirts of the freedom of others.

In summary also Raif Badawi’s book “1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I think” is definitely worth reading to understand Raif’s motivation and his thoughts. In addition to Raif’s 15 articles, there are in the English translation three “prefaces” in the book which are well worth reading. The “foreword” is by Lawrence M. Krauss, the “preface” by Constantin Schreiber and an “introduction” by Raif Badawi himself. He dictated this introduction to Ensaf Haidar in several calls. My only criticism against the book is that it is too short. The book has only about 60 pages and I would definitley love to read far more of Raif’s articles.

4. Finally I would like to provide you with the bibliographic information for both books (in German and English):

Raif Badawi’s book is a non-profit project and all proceeds from the book will be donated to Raif Badawi’s family in aid of their efforts to free Raif. Therefore if you buy the book you will not only get an insight in his thoughts, but also directly support the campaign for his freedom.