Caring for the Soul of Syria

Windows of the Soul, Damascus

I can’t write about Damascus without feeling jasmine climbing upon my fingers…

I can’t utter its name without tasting the juice of apricot, pomegranate, mulberry, and quince…

Can’t remember it without sensing a thousand doves perched on the wall of my memory, and another one thousand flying…

I am haunted by Damascus even when I am not residing there…

Its ancestors are buried inside me, its neighborhoods intersect above my body…
Its cats love, marry, and leave their kittens with me…

Do not ask for my identity card, I am a hundred percent Damascene, like wheat, plums, and pomegranates. Like brocade, Aghbani and Damasco. Like copper pitchers, and the armoires decorated with mother of pearl; all of which are part of my history and the trousseau of my mother…

A tree of Arabian jasmine that my mother left on my window, its white moons grow every year…

by Nizar Qabbani

The magnificent, deeply douching poem, Windows of the Soul, Damascus, was written by the great Syrian poet, Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998). The video in the above link is a reading in Arabic of the poem. The photography is truly uplifting.  It was published by a group of Syrian students on their website called Syrian Students for a better future studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

I heard part of this poem quoted by the inspiring Ghada Alatrash on the podcast, Saving Syria – Keeping War-torn Culture Alive by CBC Radio’s Ideas. This podcast was produced by Naheed Mustafa. I was hooked by the podcast’s introduction, featuring Maamoun Abdulkarim‘s heroic fight to save thousands of irreplaceable Palmyra treasures from Islamic State destroyers and moved to tears by the music, poetry and stories of tragedy and hope that followed, from contributors Ghada Alatrash, Alia Malek and the music of Aya Mhana.

Oh, how a special place like Syria, in so many present, ancient and artistic ways, shows the best we can be as a gifted, precarious, human “episode” of the history of Mother Earth – a true reason to keep hope alive.

Auschwitz

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The photo above, cropped from a much larger original, was taken at 10 A.M. on May 8, 2015. Our group was taken through Auschwitz, the largest WW II death camp. We went through the camp mostly in silence, listening to our local guide and looking at the sad, respectful, horrifying portrayal of what one German doctor, who observed two “special actions” there, called, in accurate, appropriate Latin, the anus mundi. Auschwitz is a place that stays in my system. Recording what I saw on camera and keeping to the schedule of movement set by the site officials kept me, mercifully, preoccupied.

We were on a fast-paced tour, headed for two nights in Warsaw following two in Kraków. We were to visit the Jasna Góra Monastery that afternoon on our way to Poland’s modern capital. I took a photo similar to this of a large display table piled with brushes important to the victims: hair brushes, tooth brushes, a shaving brush… In Warsaw I opened a large wardrobe cabinet in our hotel room. On a shelf just below eye level was a hair brush, pale bristles upturned, and the impact of what I’d witnessed came back instantly and un-beckoned. I knew then that the time spent there would remain with me. Continue reading “Auschwitz”

Vienna, May 17 – Sisi and So Much More

Sisi:

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O’er thee, like thine own sea birds

I’ll circle without rest

For me earth holds no corner

To build a lasting nest.

Sisi

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The Sisi Museum is a decade or so old, but still a huge attraction in Vienna. Publicity and souvenir shops are everywhere. No photos were permitted in the Sisi Museum, so the above two offerings are all I returned home with. But the good news: read further on in this post for beautiful photos the other museums we visited on the 17th let us take : treasures, weapons, art… But Sisi was fascinating, so I start with her…

As royal celebrity goes, long before our modern love affair with Lady Di, there was the very different, complicated Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known affectionately (to some) as Sisi. Sisi was a beautiful, brunette, Bavarian, royal teenager with long, long, long hair. The teenage Elizabeth’s china doll radiance swept  Emperor Franz Josef I off his feet, causing Franz to defy his mother, Sophie, for perhaps the only time. Sophie had selected Elizabeth’s sister. Both were Sophie’s nieces.

Franz stood firm for Sisi. Continue reading “Vienna, May 17 – Sisi and So Much More”

Lili Marlen 1915-2015

Photo Credit - Corey Padgett
Photo Credit – Corley Padgett

This video, Lili Marlen 1915-2015,  is my new, and lyrically different, English version of the hugely iconic song, originally recorded in German by Lale Andersen in 1939. Her recording was much loved by soldiers from both sides in World War II and became the sign-off song for Radio Belgrade in German-occupied Yugoslavia.

The song was originally a 1915 poem written by Hans Leip, a teacher who was conscripted into the German Imperial Army. It was set to music in 1938 by Norbert Schultze. It was so loved by soldiers from both sides that Andersen recorded it in English in 1942.  Soldiers relate deeply to this wistful, iconic song.

The version I offer here tries to be faithful to the original German lyric, though I have modified it slightly for poetic and other reasons. It is quite different from Vera Lynn’s English version and, I think, has a better resonance with what Hans Leip originally wrote 100 years ago. This version also tries to completely express a broader set of the subtle complexities associated with precarious, long-distance, wartime relationships.

I didn’t start out to write yet another version of this piece, already done by stars like Vera Lynn and Marlene Dietrich. It just happened. Here’s how…

I sing songs in different languages and just wanted to know the meaning of the German words. A patient in a local hospital sang it for me in German while I accompanied her on the guitar… M’s performance moved me very much and I wanted somehow to honour what she had felt. I had trouble finding a literal translation, and entering it whole left Google Translate, and me, thoroughly confused. After a long time “parsing” each individual word the stuff started to make sense and making it rhyme accidentally became part of the process. Listening to the German performance by Marlene Dietrich was very helpful, as I had not yet found Lale Anderson. Happy with the result, I recorded it and asked Corley Padgett (Flicker: hornedfrog4life) if she would let me use her superb, copyrighted photo as background for the lyrics. Corley immediately agreed to help, and the rest, as they say, is history.

And, speaking of history, 2015 is the 100th Anniversary of the writing of the poem.