Human Rights Lawyer in Jail – Dr. Mohammed al-Roken, Waleed Abulkhair and Abdolfattah Soltani

On 10 December is Human Rights Day. The date was chosen to honour the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. Human Rights Day was established in 1950. The United Nations and many human rights organisations mark this day with conferences, meetings, cultural events and exhibitions dealing with human rights issues. Also Amnesty International “Write for Rights” campaign is in December around Human Rights Day.

On the occasion of Human Rights Day, I want to highlight the fate of three men whose profession and passion are the defence of human rights. All three are human rights lawyers and all three are currently in prison for their work: Dr. Mohammed al-Roken (UAE), Waleed Abulkhair (Saudi Arabia) and Abdolfattah Soltani (Iran).

1. Dr. Mohammed al-Roken

img_3231Date of birth: 26 November 1962

Country: Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Profession: Academic, former professor of constitutional law, former president of UAE Jurists Association, member of many further legal associations and human rights lawyer. Dr. Al-Roken holds an PhD in Constitutional Law from the University of Warwick, Coventry, UK.

Arrest: 17 July 2012, only hours after his son and his son-in law were arrested.

Trial: The trial against Dr. Al-Roken began in March 2013. It was a mass trial against 94 people, therefore it is also know as UAE94. The group of defendants included human rights lawyers, academics, judges, teachers and students. Many belonged to the Reform and Social Guidance Association (Al-Islah) which had called for more democracy in UAE.

There were altogether 14 hearings which took place on various dates between 4 March and 2 July 2013. 86 defendants pleaded non guilty and 8 were tried in absentia.

The trial and the pretrial detention were unfair and affected by several human rights violations, including

  • Rights on arrest: Most detainees were not informed about the reason for their arrest and did not have prompt access to a lawyer.
  • Right to liberty: All defendants were held in solidary confinement at secret places and were denied contact with their family and their lawyers. The family of the defendants were not informed and sometimes did not know their whereabouts for months.
  • Prohibition against torture: Many defendants said that they were tortured to get them to confess “their crimes” and some said that signatures on confessions were forged
  • Right to fair trial: The hearings were not held in public. Several defendants did not have access to defence lawyers. There were only seven defence lawyers in the case and they did not get the evidence in time to prepare appropriately. Dr. Al-Roken handed in a paper on 26 March in which he requested the defendants to be allowed to access the case papers. This application was declined. The defendants did not have the right to call and examine witnesses.
  • Right to appeal: All defendants were denied the right to appeal the judgement.

Charges: Founding and administrating an institution aimed at overthrowing the government pursuant to Art. 180 Federal Penal Code (UAE)

Sentence: The highest court of the United Arab Emirates sentenced Dr. Al-Roken on 2 July 2013 to a 10 year prison sentence. 55 other defendants were also sentenced to 10 years in prison, 5 others were sentenced to 7 years in prison and the 8 who were tried in absentia were sentenced to 15 years in prison. 25 accused were acquitted.

Background: Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken has acted as a human rights lawyer for individuals but also for organisations like Amnesty International for around two decades. For years he was targeted for his human rights activities. Since 2006 he was arrested and detained several times, his passport was confiscated and he was placed on travel ban. In March 2011 113 UAE citizens signed a petition which asked the government for more democracy in line with the constitutional provisions. The signatories included Dr. Al-Roken and also Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent human rights activist. In April 2011 Ahmed Mansoor and four other persons were arrested. Dr. Al-Roken served as one of the defence lawyers in this trial (UAE 5) and was also defence lawyer in other important trials.

Current situation: Dr. Al-Roken is in Abu Dhabi’s al-Rezin prison. Amnesty International reports an incident in November 2015 when the prison authorities installed loud speakers in each block and played extremely loud propaganda music for hours. Dr. Al-Roken had a panic attack, high blood pressure and an ear infection. Amnesty International says that his health has now improved. He and other prisoners are still subject to insults and degrading treatment and his family members are harassed. img_1207

Further information: Amnesty International issued on 23 September 2016 an appeal with further information about Dr. Al-Roken and other UAE activists who were tried in the UAE 94 trial. Please read and share this appeal and take action for them. More information about the UAE 94 trial and details about the human rights violations can be found in a report by FIDH, Gulf Centre for Human Rights and other organisations and a report by International Commission of Jurists.

2. Waleed Abulkhair

img_0121Date of birth: 17 June 1979

Country: Saudi Arabia

Profession: Human rights lawyer and human rights activists, head of “Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia” (MHRSA), an organisation he founded in 2008.

Arrest: Waleed Abulkhair was arrested on  15 April 2014 when he attended the fifth hearing in his trial. He was taken to al-Ha’ir prison, kept in solitary confinement and deprived of sleep. Waleed said he was beaten and denied food. He also did not have access to his lawyer and his family.

Trial: The trial against Waleed Abulkhair began on 6 October 2013 before the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh which deals with terrorism cases. Waleed Abulkhair did not defend himself because he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court. In February 2014 a new terrorism law came into force. Saudi Arabia applied this new law retroactively to Waleed’s case. The law labels free speech as “terrorism” and its aim is to persecute and punish human rights activists. He was the first human rights activist who was tried and sentenced under this new law.

Charges: There were numerous charges against Waleed Abulkhair, including (1) seeking to disarm the state legitimacy, (2) abuse of public order in the state and its officials, (3) inciting public opinion and insulting the judiciary, (4) publicly defaming the judiciary and discrediting Saudi Arabia through alienating international organizations against the Kingdom and make statements and documents to harm the reputation of the Kingdom to incite and alienate them, (5) adopting an unauthorized association and being its chairman speaking on its behalf and issuing statements and communicating through it and (6) preparing, storing and sending what would prejudice public order.

Sentence: On 6 July 2014 Waleed Abulkhair was sentenced to 15 years in prison (10 years executed and 5 years suspended), a 15-year travel ban starting from the end of his imprisonment and a fine of 200,000 Saudi Arabian riyals (over GBP 35,000). The sentence was upheld in appeal court on 12 January 2015. The judge in the appeal court told Waleed Abukhair that he will serve the full 15 years and not a reduced sentence of 10 years, because he had refused to apologise for the alleged offences.

Background: Waleed Abulkhair has dedicated his life to human rights and their defence. He began to practice law in 2007. He represented many victims of human rights violations and reformers. He advocated for democracy and reforms in Saudi Arabia. In 2009 the authorities banned him from representing certain defendants. Waleed did not obey and continued to defend human rights activists in court. One of the people he represented was Raif Badawi. Waleed Abulkhair was arrested several times and banned from travelling since March 2012 to prevent him from attending to human rights conferences or receiving international human rights prizes. While the trial in Riyadh was ongoing another criminal court in Jeddah sentenced Waleed to three months in prison for similar charges (29 October 2013). Part of the evidence in both trials was a petition Waleed Abulkhair signed in support of 16 Saudi reformists. He wrote over 300 articles in Arabic, he also wrote articles for Western newspapers and received several prizes. img_2411

Current situation: Waleed Abulkhair was transferred several times and was in different prisons. He is currently in prison in Jeddah (Dhahban). On 7 June 2016 Waleed started a hunger strike to protest against harassment, denial of reading material, ongoing ill-treatment and a refusal to provide him with medical care. On 12 June 2016 he ended his hunger strike after gaining concessions from the prison administration.

Further information: You can find more information about him on a blog in his support. Also the Wikipedia article about him is very detailed. The United Nations (UN) Working Group for Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) adopted in their session in September 2015 an opinion in which they request the release of Waleed Abulkhair and eight other human rights defenders who are arbitrarily detained in Saudi Arabia.

3. Abdolfattah Soltani

img_3200Date of birth: 2 November 1953

Country: Iran

Profession: Human rights lawyer and spokesman of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran. He is also co-founder of this group together with Mohammed Seifzahdeh und Nobel Peach Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. He was a member of the Arbitrary Detention Investigation Committee.

Arrest: On 10 September 2011 security forces entered his offices and confiscated files, his briefcase, his computer and also several personal and family documents. Abdolfattah Soltani was arrested at the Revolutionary Court where he was to review the files of one of his clients.

Trial: The trial against Abdolfattah Soltani started on 8 January 2012 at Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court. On 1 January 2012 he was allowed to see his file the first time for 3 hours per day. Abdolfattah Soltani did not defend himself, because he did not belief the court to be qualified. The rights of Abdolfattah Soltani were violated in several ways, in particular through an illegal extension of his imprisonment (after the pre-trail detention expired). He was not released on bail until the court of appeal issued his final ruling, even so he should have been released. He did not have access to records or law books and could not properly prepare his defence. In addition personal items which were confiscated at his arrest were not returned. His family were not allowed to visit him.

Charges: There were four charges against Abdolfattah Soltani: “propagating against the regime” (in particular interviews with media about his client’s cases), “establishing the Defenders of Human Rights Centre (founding an illegal group)”, “assembly and collusion against national security” and “accepting an unlawful prize”. The “unlawful prize” was the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award which he received in 2009.

Sentence: On 4 March 2012, Branch 26 of Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced Abdolfattah Soltani to 18 years in Borazjan prison and a 20-year ban on his legal practice.

  • 10 years for founding the Defenders of Human Rights Center
  • 5 years for gathering and colluding with intent to harm the national security
  • 2 years for accepting an illegal award
  • 1 year for spreading propaganda against the system.

In June 2012 an appeal court reduced his prison sentence to 13 years.

Background: Abdolfattah Soltani has been a human rights lawyer for many years and represented many political and human rights activists and their families as well as Nationalist-Religous figures and Iranian union activists. In 2005 he represented the family of the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi who was allegedly tortured and murdered in Evin Prison in 2003. In the context of this trial Soltani criticised the fairness of the trial brought by Kazami’s family. Two days later, his house and office was searched and on 30 July 2005 he was arrested for espionage charges. In prison he was kept incommunicado. On 6 March 2006 Abdolfattah Soltani was released on bail.

During the unrest after the disputed president elections in 2009, Soltani and many other political figures, human rights activists and journalists were arrested – without an arrest warrant. He was arrested on 16 June 2009 and on 26 August 2009 after 72 days released on bail secured by property deeds. During this time his access to his family was limited; he was in solitary confinement for 17 days and lost 15 pounds in prison.

After his arrest in 2011, the Iranian conservative politician, Chief Justice of Iran and Iran’s highest human rights official Mohammad Javad Larijani made false allegations against Abdolfattah Soltani and claimed he was “connected with a  terrorist group” even so there were no such charges against him.

Current situation: Even so the judgement stated that Abdolfattah Soltani should serve his sentence in Borazjan prison which his almost 1,000 km from Tehran, he was not transferred to Borazjan. He has served his sentence up to now in Evin prison in Tehran. He spent several months in solitary confinement in the Intelligence Ministry’s Ward 209 in Evin prison. He went on hunger strikes to protest against inadequate health care and prison conditions. Abdolfattah Soltani has several health problems, in particular heart problems. The authorities prevented hospitalisation and treatments several times. He was also refused necessary medication. So far he was given once furlough on medical grounds on 17 January 2016 and had to return to prison before he had fully recovered. On all other occasions furlough was denied. On 17 May 2016 he was granted temporary leave on compassionate grounds, because his mother had passed away on the same days a few img_3201hours earlier. It was only the second time that he was granted furlough. He had applied for it several times to spend time with his dying mother, but the authorities delayed their decision until it was too late.

In addition also his family is harassed and was denied the right to visit him in prison on several occasions. His daughter stated in November 2016 that there are currently serious concerns about his health. She hopes that he will be released soon, because he has served half of his sentence and therefore qualifies for conditional release. So far none of their requests was answered.

Further Information: There is detailed article about Abdolfattah Soltani on Tavaana homepage. Also the homepage of the City of Nuremberg which gave him in 2009 their human rights contains a lot of information. Finally there were a number of articles on the website International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and HRANA (Human Rights Activists News Agency) which are worth reading.

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Filmmaker Keywan Karimi in prison!

4c08417c-d235-42ca-b68b-bc8bb8e636b51. Keywan Karimi is an Iranian filmmaker with Kurdish origins. He is 31 years old and has directed more than 10 films. Initially he directed short documentaries, but now his work includes documentaries and feature films. He received several prices for his films. His documentary “The Broken Border” was awarded a prize for the best short documentary at the 2013 Beirut International Film Festival. His film “Drum”, a fictional film, was produced in 2016. It was premiered at the competition section of the Venice International Film Festival.

2. In 2012 Keywan Karimi began to produce the film “Writing in the City”. It is a 60 minute long documentary film about Graffiti on the walls in the streets of Tehran. On 14 December 2013 Keywan Karimi was arrested by the Revolutionary Guards. One of the charges against him was  “spreading propaganda against the system” with this film. At the time of these accusations no one had seen the film and only a trailer on YouTube was known to the public.

After Keywan Karimi’s arrest he was brought to Tehran’s Evin prison and was held in solitary confinement for 12 days. One week after his arrest he could briefly call his family. He was not allowed to disclose to his family that he was arrested and he could not speak with a lawyer. He was then released on bail.

3. His trial started on 11 May 2014 and ended on 13 October 2015. Each of the seven hearings only lasted 15 to 20 minutes. His lawyer was present during the hearings but he could not present his defence properly. There were generally many irregularities in his trial and several human rights organisations consider it an unfair trial.

On 13 October 2015 Keywan Karimi was sentenced to six years in prison for “insulting the Islamic sanctities” and 223 lashes for “illicit relations short adultery”. The court saw “illicit relations” in “shaking hands” and “being under one roof” with a woman “who had not covered her head and neck”. In addition he has to pay a fine.

4. Keywan Karimi filed an appeal against this decision on 23 December 2015. In February 2016 he was informed that the appeal court upheld the sentence against him, but suspended five of his six-year punishment for a period of five years. This means that he will have to spend one year in prison. The appeal court also upheld the lashes.

A few days ago Keywan Karimi was  summoned to start his prison sentence on Wednesday, 23 November. He is now required to serve a one-year prison term and it is expected that he will receive the 223 lashes in prison.

5. Please take action for Keywan Karimi. Use social media and other media to spread his story and show your support.

Write to Iran and ask them to quash this harsh sentence and release him. You can find more information about actions you can take and addresses at the EnglishPen website and the Pen International website. There is also an interview with Keywan Karimi with Times of India from February 2016 which is well worth reading: “Keywan Karimi: I am not scared of the 223 lashes”.

“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.