The Manchester premiere of James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater: sacred music concerned with the suffering of humanity

The Manchester premiere of James MacMillan’s <em>Stabat Mater</em>: sacred music concerned with the suffering of humanity

Can a medieval poem meditating on the suffering of Mary, the mother of Christ, as she stands at the foot of the cross have any relevance to these times, or to someone like me who adheres to no faith? The answer given by the performance of James Macmillan’s new setting of Stabat Mater at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall was a resounding yes.

The singers of Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen and the strings of the Britten Sinfonia combined to produce an electrifying performance of Macmillan’s elegiac, angry and often discordant cry of grief and personal commitment in the face of tragedy. I don’t think I’ve attended a more enthralling concert of contemporary music in the classical tradition. Continue reading “The Manchester premiere of James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater: sacred music concerned with the suffering of humanity”

Stories of exile: Queens of Syria, Exodus and the Very Quiet Foreign Girls’ Poetry Group

Stories of exile: <em>Queens of Syria, Exodus</em> and the Very Quiet Foreign Girls’ Poetry Group

Another day, yet another atrocity hurled from the maelstrom of conflict in the Middle East, the turmoil which has also resulted in over half of Syria’s people being killed or forced to flee their homes to become refugees. In the evening I attend a performance at the Liverpool Everyman of Queens of Syria, a remarkable touring production, performed by Syrian women from a refugee camp in Amman, which weaves the women’s own stories of exile and war into passages from the ancient Greek play The Trojan Women, theatre’s earliest dramatisation of the plight of women in war.

Earlier this week I watched the BBC documentary trilogy, Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, which told the stories of some of the refugees in last year’s huge movement of people fleeing disaster – on dinghies crossing from Turkey to Greece, along the migrant trail through the Balkans, and in the Jungle at Calais – filmed along the way by those same people on mobile phones.

After a referendum campaign which seemed to establish the expression of racist or anti-immigrant sentiment as respectable once more, these three films gave voice to those who have truly lost their homeland, in stark contrast  to those in this country who, having ‘wanted to get their country back’, now truly believe that’s what they have achieved. Continue reading “Stories of exile: Queens of Syria, Exodus and the Very Quiet Foreign Girls’ Poetry Group”

We walk together? Europe’s failure on refugees echoes the moral collapse of the 1930s

We walk together? Europe’s failure on refugees echoes the moral collapse of the 1930s

Europe is facing a wave of migration unmatched since the end of World War II – and no one has reported on this crisis in more depth or breadth than the Guardian’s migration correspondent, Patrick Kingsley. In today’s Guardian, Kingsley offers an impassioned overview of Europe’s collective response to the refugee crisis. This is how he begins: Continue reading “We walk together? Europe’s failure on refugees echoes the moral collapse of the 1930s”

The Museum of Lost Objects: radio series documenting an assault on humanity

The Museum of Lost Objects: radio series documenting an assault on humanity

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee;
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.
– Ezra Pound

When Islamic State captured the Unesco world heritage site of ancient Palmyra in May last year and then proceeded to destroy antiquities such as the Temple of Bel, a wave of revulsion swept across the world. But in the last few years those of us who have been horrified each time ISIS has wiped another ancient artefact from the face of the earth have, in the next moment, asked ourselves why we should mourn the loss of a building or stone carving when so many human beings have lost their lives in the conflicts that have devastated Syria and Iraq.

The dilemma of whether it can be appropriate to mourn the loss of material objects when human beings are suffering and dying was confronted in a superb BBC Radio 4 series broadcast in the past two weeks. The Museum of Lost Objects traced the histories of ten antiquities or cultural sites that have been destroyed or looted in Iraq and Syria. Continue reading “The Museum of Lost Objects: radio series documenting an assault on humanity”

Refugees: Europe did more in 1945

Refugees: Europe did more in 1945

This year’s Guardian charity appeal has already raised over a million pounds for six charities that provide emergency aid, food and shelter for refugees on their ‘unarmed road of flight’ from violence and persecution. Today, Zoe Williams’ report from Lesbos included this: Continue reading “Refugees: Europe did more in 1945”

Like a war zone … ‘A cemetery of souls’ on Lesbos

Like a war zone … ‘A cemetery of souls’ on Lesbos

A warning from the United Nations special representative for international migration and two photo essays by photographers covering the refugee crisis on Lesbos alert to the scale and tragic nature of a disaster unprecedented in its size and scope. Continue reading “Like a war zone … ‘A cemetery of souls’ on Lesbos”

An Afghan child’s odyssey to sanctuary in Britain

An Afghan child’s odyssey to sanctuary in Britain

Gulwali Passarlay was 12 when his mother paid people smugglers to take him from Afghanistan to Europe. After the US invasion, the Taliban had put pressure on them to become suicide bombers. For his mother, flight to Europe was the only way to keep her children alive.

Passarlay tells his story in an article in today’s Guardian that I think merits being reproduced here. Continue reading “An Afghan child’s odyssey to sanctuary in Britain”

From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story

From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story

Last week, at Budapest’s Keleti station, the Observer’s Emma Graham-Harrison mingled with the refugees hunkered down on the concourse there. In today’s paper she retells eight of the stories she heard from those fleeing persecution and war. This is one of them. Continue reading “From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story”

no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark

no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark

During the last few days a poem has been cropping up frequently in Facebook posts.  Written by the young British-Somali poet, Warsan Shire, Home speaks with the utmost clarity of the reasons why the many, many thousands now risking their lives on the Mediterranean, tramping through the Balkans, or along inhospitable roads in Hungary leave their homes: Continue reading “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”

This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees

This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees

This must be what it was like in the 1930s when Jews fleeing Nazi Germany created a major refugee crisis to which the response of Britain, the USA and other potential safe haven countries was a collective shoulder shrug of indifference – or outright hostility. This summer we have witnessed an unfolding crisis on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War, as desperate people risk their lives fleeing the civil war in Syria and the murderous advance of ISIS. With some noble exceptions, the prevailing response, especially here in the UK, has been once again to demonise fellow human beings. Continue reading “This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees”

Angela Merkel denounces those who ‘have prejudice, a chilliness, even hatred in their hearts’

Angela Merkel denounces those who ‘have prejudice, a chilliness, even hatred in their hearts’

In the UK, with UKIP in the ascendant stoking up its anti-immigration message, we hear both Labour and Conservative politicians, running scared of a section of the electorate, tacking daily towards UKIP’s positions. But what if our politicians were brave enough to take on the racists and the narrow-minded?  That’s what the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has done in her new year address to the nation. Continue reading “Angela Merkel denounces those who ‘have prejudice, a chilliness, even hatred in their hearts’”

Horror in Homs: speaking truth to power

One of those moments tonight when, following the daily routine of watching the night’s TV news, you are pulled up short.  Channel 4 News broadcast outstanding video footage, filmed by an anonymous French photojournalist, that revealed graphically what is happening in the Syrian city of Homs, under siege for days now from shelling by government forces.

We’ve seen a lot of low quality footage, filmed on mobile phones and the like, beamed out of Syria on YouTube and other internet channels.  But this film, shot by ‘Mani’, a photographer who has been to Homs several times,was crystal clear.  The  incredible footage a vivid and  frightening account of what Homs has been like for the past three weeks.   The massive Syrian government bombardment and assault on opposition districts in Homs began on February 3.   ‘Mani’ filmed the beginning of the assault, the effects on the population, and the response of the Free Syrian Army to the massacre, on the first day, of over 140 people.

It was an awful coincidence that Mani’s film was broadcast on what has been the worst day in the Syrian conflict for journalism. The dangers of reporting from Homs have been tragically highlighted by the deaths of Marie Colvin (of the Sunday Times) and award-winning French photographer Remi Ohlik.  His image, ‘Battle for Libya’ (below), won first prize in the general news section of the 2011 World Press Photo awards. It shows rebel forces outside Ras Lanouf, Libya, in March 2011.

Marie Colvin was a foreign correspondent with more than 30 years of experience in conflict zones.  In 2010, she spoke of the importance of war reporting:

Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you. […]

Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice. We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?  Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price. … I lost my eye in an ambush in the Sri Lankan civil war. I had gone to the northern Tamil area from which journalists were banned and found an unreported humanitarian disaster. As I was smuggled back across the internal border, a soldier launched a grenade at me and the shrapnel sliced into my face and chest. He knew what he was doing.

We go to remote war zones to report what is happening. The public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name. Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.

Also dead is the citizen journalist Rami al-Sayed, who provided live video streams from Homs and posted more than 800 videos on YouTube.  He was also hit during the shelling of Baba Amr on Tuesday and died some hours later.  His YouTube channel, Syria Pioneer provided many of the online videos showing the Syrian government’s bombardment of Homs that were used by news organisations like ITN and the BBC.

Tonight, Channel 4 News concluded with the grim news that there are now no remaining channels for news out of Homs.