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Assyrian Poetry

Translated by William Warda

A patriatic song written in 1917 is still remembered. 
by  Fraydune Atouraya (1891-1925)

Ya Nishra D Tkhumee 

O' Eagle of Tkhumee ruler of the sky
Spread out your wings to Tyarri fly

From Urmi to Mosul and both of Barvarri
Let's honor Assyria our ancient nation

Then land in Mosul offer our prayer
For our people and their salvation

O! mighty traveler come fly away
Glide forth don't waiver nor delay

Let's honor our martyrs
who sacrificed their life on Ashour's altar

Respect their ways and deed
Swear allegiance to their creed

When we reach our final destination
O! eagle of Assyria and the greater Zab

Drop me on the cliffs, merciless rocks
To Atour my nation sacrifice my life

On shores of Zab old as Ashur, let me fall
Bury me as one who sacrificed all

By Addei Alkhas

In front of the house where I was born
A grapevine had grown with thousand fingers adorned
It had hugged the door and reached up to the window
As pretty a tree I haven’t seen to grow

During summer when the grapes were ripe
My mother loved to sit at its shadow side
We jumped up and down and ran all around
Little we were, but growing up, it warmed her heart

With her slender hand she would reach to a bough
Filled with sweet red grapes hanging above
She would bring to our mouth a cluster of grapes
With it the hand of our mother filled with love

Us from below chirping birds from above
Had our mouths open begging for the fruit
We were nourished by our mother’s hand
Birds took to their nest to feed their young

The winter came, withered the grapevine
Frightened by the cold the birds took to flight
My mother died her children scattered, I don’t know where
Tears swell  in my eyes When I remember her

When Eagels Don't Fly

by Givargis Aghasi

Pity the ankles that are used to chain
And wrists accustomed to handcuffs pain

Pity the fish removed from the river
Living in a glass bowl without shame

Let's break our yoke! shatter our chain
like the freemen, our dignity attain

Pity those with cross around their neck
Who fail to live by what christ says

Pity those who disdain our people
But pretend to be their leader

Listen to the echoes as people pray
No power is greater than nation, they say

Eagles that are content to live in cage
Have forgotten the ways to fly

Soaring high requires flying to the sky
Wings are wasted when birds don't try

Liberty requires soaring up high
Wings are wasted when chickens won't fly

Let's break our yoke! shatter our chain
like the freemen, our dignity attain


A Red Zero;
The dreadful years of the Eighties

Givargis Aghasi
Written during the ten years war between Iran and Iraq

The winter breeze started to blow
Again the days grew shorter

The school bell that day were tolled
But the young boys did not show

Classes are all but empty
The blackboards are void of text

Young boys instead of pens
Hold weapons in their arms

Their hands are stained not by ink
But are soaked in red with blood

Their shoulders not bent by books
But are burdened by the guns

On the first day of the school
They raised the flag on the pole

But on that early morning
The anthem they did not sing

The classes began once more
But the young boys did not come

Instead of A, B, C and D
They learned lessons of martyrdom

The blackboards are void of writing
The pens are empty of ink

The classes are all deserted
During the day as on fridays

It did not take long for the boys
To stumble and fail their test

A red zero they earned as score
On the innocent board of their chest

The dreadful years of the eighties
People homeless in the streets

Young boys walked to war on foot
But were brought back held in arms

"Ktee-vakh eiven" (I have written you)

poem by Givargis Agghassi.

"I have written you upon the green leaves,
On the wings of the doves,
to sit on the roof and send you my love
with tears, I have baptized my eyes
So no one else but you, my eyes can see ,
That they shall not see anyone but you
You are purer than the rainfall
As a wellspring, pure as it can be
With your pureness christen this love
If you had not gone but stayed
Even the desert would have bloomed as glade
I have written you in my songs...
To hold you in my heart,
To send you life with every breath" 

Qateeni Gabbara: A William Daniel's Legacy

By: Wiliam Warda

Qateeni Gabbara is William Daniel's most important contribution to the Assyrian literature, in the tradition of Homer and the Persian Poet Ferdosi he has saved an important literary heritage of his people. It was one of the many legends narrated for centuries by the story tellers in the highlands of Hakkari, and towns in the plain of Nineveh which since then most have been forgotten because they were not written down.

According to William Daniel, in the Assyrian highlands of Hakkari located on the borders between Turkey and Iran story tellers traveled from one village to another to tell tales of love, courage, betrayal and incredible bravery, epics such as Qateeni's poetry that recounted the exploits of national super heroes, especially during the winter months when their inhabitants who had toiled during the summer and autumn to grow and harvest crops of cereals such as barley and wheat were then homebound because of deep snow and freezing whether.

This form of literature predates even the art of writing, the oldest of such epics is the story of Gilgamesh written at the earliest days of writing but has continued to fascinate humanity to this day, because it deals with issues of life and death, compassion and adventure which still fascinate us thousands of years later. William Daniel’s Qateeni consist of 7000 verses rich with fascinating imagery, metaphors and innovative poetic techniques in various forms.

It was not until 1946 when Daniel became aware of the heroic story of Qateeni Gabbara, and decided to retell it in his own poetry. In doing so he introduced new forms of verse rich with fascinating imagery and innovative poetic techniques in various forms which attest to his deep knowledge of the language, extensive vocabulary, grammar, and technical knowledge necessary to write delightful poetry by using rhyme, rhythm, melody and majestic choice of words to describe physical and spiritual concept that otherwise are difficult to communicate.

Although Daniel was not the first writer or poet of the vernacular Assyrian language but he has shown how to write stories in verse that are captivating and fun to read. The contemporary Assyrian language was not used as literary language until the 19th century. Before then the classical Assyrian language known as Syriac was the literary language of the church. It’s grand masters were primarily concerned with verses related to religion and the praise of the divine icons. Due to constant depredation against Assyrians there were no educational institutions where the ordinary people could learn to read and write their own language.

Starting in 1961 William Daniel’s Qateeni Gabbara was published in three books by the Assyrian Youth Literary Society of Iran along with writings of other unpublished Assyrian writers. Unfortunately very little of the pre-William Daniel original folkloric legend has survived, because most of the Hakkari Assyrians were massacred during World War One and the survivors were forced to abandon their homes in the highlands and escape to Urmia in northwest Iran where another equally persecuted Assyrian community lived.

According to Yonan Hozayya, from Iraq, some segments of the legend are still being sung by the Assyrian villagers living in the plain of Nineveh in places such as Algush. Tilkeep, Baghdida, and others. Comparison between the random example provided by Yonan Hozayya versus what William Daniel wrote indicates that perhaps with certain exceptions he has preserved the basic elements of the original story which is evident in the following original example:

Qateeni the Mountain Splicer
His width the length of poplar
Day and night he is on the move
He is the great of the greatest
Jumps from roof to roof
Walks from one plain to the next
And drinks the vine from barrel

Retold by William Daniel as follows:

Behold the Assyrian,
Coming down from the highland
Each of his shoulders is a yard
The earth sinks beneath his stride (92)
Qateeni the Mountain Splicer
His chest is strong as stone
He drinks wine by barrels
Is there one among the braves
Who will fight with Qateeni,
Qateeni the Mountain splicer?. (book one chapter seven page 98)

And another example of the Original:
He Ascends to the Lillita's orchard
The most frightful Lilitha
To picks an armful of the scented plant
To hold in his wide hands
Its smell gives the blind eye sight
Resurrect from grave those who died

William Daniel’s version:

To ascend the frightful mountain
His head wrapped in gloom
Find the Shidda as she sleeps
With his arrows cause her doom (207)
Pick from its garden and bring
An armful of the plant of life
Which restores the blindman’s sight
It’s smell revives those who died. (book one chapter seven page 215)

Like most Assyrian poets of the 20th century William Daniel was driven by nationalism. His epic hero is willing to sacrifice all he has to liberate his people from the evil forces determent to destroy them. In other words Qateeni symbolically represents the Messiah that every Assyrian undoubtedly has hoped to come and save his people from the eventual extinction. In many ways Qateeni is similar to the popular American super heroes such as Superman, Spiderman, Batman, the X-Men and a host of others who are dedicated to ensuring social justice.

Throughout Daniel's Qateeni the message of deliverance is repeated in different forms. Such sentiments may sound a bit melodramatic to the contemporary reader but William Daniel like Fraidon Atouraya, John Alkhas, Addi Alkhas, Baba Bet Lachin and other Assyrian poets of his generation had witnessed the horrors inflicted on his people during World War One.

Though Assyrians have suffered countless persecutions, the massacres of World War One have had greater enduring influence on their psyche, because not only two third of their population was lost, the surviving population was driven out its homeland and scattered around the world. If not for the presence of the American and the French missionaries in Urmia who provided refuge for the unfortunate people the entire Assyrian population of that region would have been wiped out. It should be noted that Assyrians of the Chaldean Church and Syriac Orthodox Church i.e. Suryoyee suffered similar fate in the cities and the villages of Turkey.

William Daniel born in 1903 lost hi
s mother when he was only three years old. His father a prominent physician died from a malignant disease while caring for others who were dying form typhus, typhoid and other contagious infirmities while taking refuge in crowded and unsanitary quarters at the American and the French missions in rmia.

His three sisters disappeared along with thousands of other young Assyrian maidens who were forced into Islam. Some were sold as slaves in lands as far away as Lebanon. He was fifteen years old when the entire terrorized Assyrian population in Urmia left behind all it had and fled in disarray toward Mesopotamia later known as Iraq. But even then they were hunted down and killed by the military forces of their predators.

It is natural that these tragic events will lead to a desire by him to exact revenge in writing for the injustices inflicted on his people, throughout the Epic of the Qateeni. If there is one thing which sets this epic apart from other super hero legends is the symbolic fusing of a heroic tale with real life struggles of an oppressed and persecuted people.

William Daniel's Nationalism was evident long before his work on Qateeni Gabbara. In spite of all the hardship he was able to travel to Europe and receive a valuable education in the classical music. Unlike thousands who had gone to the Western countries and had stayed he returned to Iran to enrich the cultural heritage of his people. In the early nineteen forties he organized the first Assyrian musical group which preformed Assyrian folkloric dances along with songs and music composed by the master. He published a music book in 1944 titled "Zahrirah D' Umanuta" or "Sun-rays of Art" which contained the music and the songs of his performances

In translating to another language one can easily duplicate the meaning of the words and sentences but recreating the rhyme, rhythm, the mood and the music orchestrating in the reader's mind is something else. This translator does not pretend to be a poet. However, he has made a limited attempt at translating it for the sole purpose of offering those who cannot read the Assyrian language a rough idea of what Qateeni is all about.

To truly enjoy the beauty of William Daniel's poetry, one has to read it in Assyrian language. National awakening of Qateeni begins when his mother inspires him to use his wisdom and his super power to liberate his people from the evil of the tyrannical forces bent on destroying it .

In a tender moment she tells him:

There are select people
Chosen for great deeds
The good book has told
A prophecy uttered
On such 'n such peak
Since the days of old.
Who is a great man
You or another,
I don't know for sure
With leading foresight
The weak and the strong
Their pains he shall cure
Are tearing my heart
Two opposing wants
Of motherhood and care
To remain by my side
Or for you to dare
Helping our people in despair ( volume 1, book 1, p.33)

From then on it was the realization that his people have been brutally oppressed and enslaved which made Qateeni even more determent to push forward. Soon the enslaved learned that Qateeni is on his way to liberate them:

The angel of God, on her wings of cloud
Delivered the song to the Satan's land
Kindled the hope of the enslaved crowd
Their message arrived. promptly n' loud
Song of the enslaved toiling under the yoke
Was heard by Qateeni, as they spoke
"Alas the burden is heavy no end is in sight
Shouldn't on our life shine some light?
Where is the one' to free us will come?
To cut the shackles form our legs and arm
O brave for whom we have waited for long
Destroy this tyrant may your might grow strong"
(volume 1, book 1, p. 71)

In a moment of despair Qateeni seeks God's help.

O! Ashur of Nineveh and Marduk of Babylon
Known by other names equally divine
Yahweh hear our plea let this evil decline
Stop this anguish, let your blessing shine
My mighty arms are from you
A heart strained with my folks pain
Help me set down the devil's sun
Or take away the gifts I gained
No joy is greater than saving my nation
Even if I die while setting her free
Give me death but avert the ruin
Of the core and shoots of this holy tree

(book 2, volume 1 page 30)
William M. Warda wmwarda@yahoo.com 




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