Sunday, July 5, 2009

Qateeni Gabbara: A William Daniel's Legacy

Mr. William Warda who has been helping us with translation of Qateeni poems in the following article give us a deep insight into the story of Qateeni Gabbara. We appreciate Mr. Warda's commitment and dedication to help us push the Qateeni Opera project ahead. We are hoping in the coming years we would be able to bring this fascinating story on stage as a full opera.

About William Warda

William Warda was born in Iran. In 1963 he arrived in the U.S. and continued his education at the Roosevelt University in Chicago. For many years he has been active member of various Assyrian organizations. For the last three and a half years he has served as the president of the Assyrian American Association of Southern California. He has written a number of articles about various aspects of the Assyrian history and the plight of the Assyrians in Iraq. Since 2004 he has managed the website which is an archive of articles about the plight of the Assyrians in Iraq. He became interested in William Daniel's Qateeni Gabbara when it was first published in 1961, he enjoyed reading it more than any other book he had read in the Persian language or English. To acclimate Assyrians who can not read this book because they are not able to read the Assyrian Language, in 2004, he translated into English the chapter seven of the first book , titled “In Tuma's Castle”. That year it was published in the Journal of the Assyrian Academic Studies. The pdf file of that translation is available for download at

Since then has translated in English most of the other chapters. He plans to publish translation of the entire book in the future.

The Story of Qateeni Gabbara

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. Qateeni Gabbara is 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 lost from memory because they were not written down.

According to William Daniel, in the mountains of Hakkari, story tellers traveled from one Assyrian village to another especially in the winter months when the inhabitants of these villages were homebound because of deep snow and freezing whether to tell stories of love, courage, betrayal and incredible bravery,.

Epics such as Qateeni are narrative poetry which recount the exploits of national super hero. 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 a story in verse which is 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. Because of constant depredation against Assyrians there were no educational institutions where the ordinary people could learn to read and write their own language, William Daniel’s Qateeni Gabbara was published in three books by the Assyrian Youth Literary Society of Iran starting in 1961, 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 as can be seen in the following versus:

The original

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

William Daniel’s version:

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?. (98) (book one chapter seven)


He Ascends to the Lillita's orchard
The most frightful Lilitha
To picks an armful of the scented plant
Holding it 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 a blindman’s sight
It’s smell revives those who died. (215) (book one chapter seven)

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 bent on destroying them. In other words Qateeni symbolically represents the Messiah that every Assyrian undoubtedly has hoped would come to 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 first hand knowledge of the horrors inflicted on his nation 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 also known as Suryoyee suffered similar fate in the cities and the villages of Turkey.

William Daniel born in 1903 lost his mother when he was only three years old. His father a prominent physician died from a malignant disease while caring for others dying form typhus, typhoid and other contagious infirmities resulted from taking refuge in crowded and unsanitary quarters. 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 dispirited Assyrian nation left behind all they 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 translation 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 came back. promptly n' loud
Song of the enslaved toiling under 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


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