"Suffer the little children to come unto me. For of such is the Kingdom Heaven."
Eduard de Boer: Children of Gaza, on poems by Michael R. Burch. With background information
Published on 30 Apr 2017
World premiere, April 22, 2017, in the Oosterkerk in the Dutch town of Hoorn. Dima Bawab, soprano; Eduard de Boer, piano
In 1976, I was 19 years old when I spent my summer holidays in Israel. I very much enjoyed those weeks and have many beautiful memories of them. However, contrary to the expectations I had at the time, my fondest memories today have to do with Palestinians rather than Israelis. For instance: I remember hitchhiking somewhere, when someone shouted at me, inviting me to come into his house; which I did. I was welcomed by a group of very friendly Palestinians, who offered me food and drink, and even showed me where the key to the house was hidden, so I could enter it at any time, whenever I wished. I had never encountered such hospitality before. These experiences formed a contrast to what I had learned at the Christian schools I had attended, where I had been told that Arabs were stupid heathens and that it was a good thing that God had finally returned the 'Holy Land' to his 'chosen people'.
It was many years after my visit to this country, that I became aware of the plight of the Palestinians and the lack of attention by the mainstream media for their dire situation. Slowly the idea began to take shape in my mind 'to do something' with this, at some point in the future. Over the years, this idea developed to the point that I wished to compose a song cycle about Palestinian children in Gaza. I began to search the interner for poems having to do with this theme. In doing so, I came across the name of an American poet, Michael R. Burch. I found his e-mail address and decided to contact him about the idea of a song cycle.
And then a miracle happened, or rather: a series of miracles. Michael not only gave me permission to use any of his poems I wanted, but also offered to write any additional poems I needed for the cycle. Furthermore, I could feel free to instruct him not only about the subject of each poem, but also about its length, its meter and form, and about certain melodies I would like to use. He turned out to be just the ideal collaborator to make the wish of composing a cycle like this come true!
And it didn't stop there. I had proposed to Michael to make it a project extending over several years. But then, in February 2016, I received an e-mail from Nelly, the widow of Christoph, a dear friend of mine who had sadly died a few months earlier, informing me that in his will he had left me and my wife an amount of money.
And on top of all this, against my expectation, I couldn't start with any of both composition commissions I had at this time, because I had to wait for vital information. So, suddenly and unexpectedly, I had the collaboration of an ideal poet, the money necessary to write the cycle, and also an unexpected and perhaps provident amount of time!
Michael and I decided to go for it the cycle rapidly progressed, until 2½ months later we reached the point that it was ready. Luckily, inspiration came abundantly, and during the whole composing process I had the feeling that everything was just falling into place automatically. The whole experience felt to me as if 'it just had to be'.
The Palestinian folk songs that are quoted or alluded to in the cycle are: - Al-Yadil Yadi (My Carefree Ways). This melody appears right at the opening of the first song and it returns at various places throughout the cycle. - A so-called Dabka, a Palestinian folk song and dance, dealing with the occupation of Palestine in 1948. This theme, too, is heard for the first time in the first song, and it, too, returns a number of times, throughout the cycle. - Mouvasha Lamma Bada Yathanna, an ancient song of lament. Merely hinted at in the song For God's Sake, I'm only a Child, it is clearly alluded to in the songs In the Shelter and Among the Angels. - Hala Layya, a lullaby. The beginning of this melody appears for the first time in the song Mother's Smile, reappearing in In the Shelter and Among the Angels.
Happy as the story of this cycle's creation is, the plight of the Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank is far from happy. No parent would allow his or her own children to be subject to the circumstances under which the children who have had the misfortune to have been born there are living, and this alone ought to be enough reason for everyone to want to put an end to the atrocities that have been going on far too long in this troubled region. Everyone who has access to the Internet can now read about this, for instance on Michael Burch's website www.thehypertexts.com (search for the terms 'Palestine 'or 'Nakba') or can watch videos, for instance on Facebook pages like The Eye of Palestine or The Palestinian Information Center. No 'Holy Land' or text in Bible or Torah can justify how Palestinian children are treated on their native soil. Eduard de Boer, May 14th, 2016. Text I. Prologue: Where does the Butterfly go?
I'd love to sing about things of beauty, like a butterfly, fluttering amid flowers, but I can't, I can't …
Where does the butterfly go when lightning rails when thunder howls when hailstones scream while winter scowls and nights compound dark frosts with snow, where does the butterfly go?
Where does the rose hide its bloom when night descends oblique and chill beyond the power of moonlight to fill? When the only relief's a banked fire's glow, where does the butterfly go?
Where does the butterfly go when mothers cry while children die and politicians lie, politicians lie? When the darkness of grief blots out all that we know: when love and life are running low, where does the butterfly go?
And how shall the spirit take wing when life is harsh, too harsh to face, and hope is flown without a trace? When the light of life runs low, where does the butterfly go, where does the butterfly go?
II. The Raid
When the soldiers came to our house, I was quiet, quiet as a mouse… But when they beat down our door with a battering ram, and I heard their machine guns go "Blam! Blam! Blam!" I ran! I ran! I ran!
First I ran to the cupboard and crept inside; then I fled to my bed and crawled under, to hide. I could hear my mother shushing my sister… How I hoped and prayed that the bullets missed her! My sister! My sister! My sister! Then I ran next door, to my uncle's house, still quiet, quiet as a mouse... Young as I am, I did understand that they had come to take our land! Our land! Our land! Our land! They've come to take our land!
They shot my father, they shot my mother, they shot my dear sister, and my big brother! They shot down my hopes, they shot down my dreams! I still hear their screams! Their screams! Their screams!
Now I am here: small, and sad, and still ... no mother, no father, no family, no will. They took everything I ever had. Now how can I live, with no mom and no dad? How can I live, with no mom and no dad? How can I live? How can I live?
III. For God’s Sake, I'm only a Child
For God’s sake, ah, for God's sake, I’m only a child — and all you’ve allowed me to learn are these tears scalding my cheeks, this ache in my gut at the sight of so many corpses, so much horrifying blood!
For God’s sake, I’m only a child — you talk about your need for “security,” but what about my right to play in streets not piled with dead bodies still smoking with white phosphorous!
Ah, for God’s sake, I’m only a child — for me there's no beauty in the world and peace has become an impossible dream; destruction is all I know because of your deceptions.
For God’s sake, I’m only a child — fear and terror surround me stealing my breath as I lie shaking like a windblown leaf. For God’s sake, for God's sake, I'm only a child, I'm only a child, I'm only a child.
IV. King of the World
If I were King of the World, I would make every child free, for my people’s sake. And once I had freed them, they’d all run and scream straight to my palace, for free ice cream! [Directly to the audience, spoken:] Why are you laughing? Can’t a young king dream?
If I were King of the World, I would banish hatred and war, and make mean men vanish. Then, in their place, I’d bring in a circus with lions and tigers (but they’d never hurt us!)
If I were King of the World, I would teach the preachers to always do as they preach; and so they could practice being of good cheer, we’d have Christmas —and sweets—each day of the year! [Directly to the audience, spoken:] Why are you laughing? Some dreams do appear!
If I were King of the World, I would send my couns'lors of peace to the wide world’s end ...
[spoken:] But all this hard dreaming is making me thirsty! I proclaim lemonade; please [spoken] bring it in a hurry!
If I were King of the World, I would fire racists and bigots, with their message so dire. And we wouldn’t build walls, to shut people out. I would build amusement parks, have no doubt!
If I were King of the World, I would make every child blessed, for my people’s sake, and every child safe, and every child free, and every child happy, especially me! [Directly to the audience:] [spoken] Why are you laughing? Appoint me and see! V. Mother’s Smile
There never was a fonder smile than mother's smile, no softer touch than mother's touch. So sleep awhile and know she loves you more than "much".
So more than "much", much more than "all". Though tender words, these do not speak of love at all, nor how we fall and mother's there, nor how we reach from nightmares in the ticking night and she is there to hold us tight.
There never was a stronger back than father's back, that held our weight and lifted us, when we were small, and bore us till we reached the gate, then held our hands that first bright mile till we could run, and did, and flew. But, oh, a mother's tender smile will leap and follow after you ...
VI. In the Shelter
Mother: Hush my darling, please don’t cry.
The bombs will stop dropping, by and by. Hush, I'll sing you a lullaby…
Child: Mama, I know that I’m safe in your arms. Your sweet love protects me from all harms, but still I fear the sirens’ alarms!
Mother: Hush now my darling, don’t say a word. My love will protect you, whatever you heard. Hush now…
Child: But what about pappa, you loved him too.
Mother: My love will protect you. My love will protect you!
Child: I know that you love me, but pappa is gone!
Mother: Your pappa’s in heaven, where nothing goes wrong. Come, rest at my breast and I’ll sing you a song.
Child: But pappa was strong, and now he’s not here.
Mother: He’s where he must be, and yet ever-near. Now we both must be strong; there's nothing to fear.
Child: The bombs are still falling! Will this night never end?
Mother: The deep darkness hides us; the night is our friend. Hush, I'll sing you a lullaby.
Child: Yes, mama, I'm sure you are right. We will be safe under cover of night. [spoken] But what is that sound? [screamed] Mama! I am fri(ghtened)….!
VII. Frail Envelope of Flesh
Frail envelope of flesh, lying on the surgeon's table with anguished eyes like your mother's eyes and a heartbeat weak, unstable…
Frail crucible of dust, brief flower come to this– your tiny hand in your mother's hand for a last bewildered kiss…
Brief mayfly of a child, to live five artless years… Now your mother's lips seal up your lips from the Deluge of her tears…
VIII. Among the Angels
Child: There is peace where I am now, I reside in a heavenly land that rests safe in the palm of a loving Being’s hand; where the butterfly finds shelter and the white dove glides to rest in the bright and shining sands of those shores all men call Blessed.
Mother: My darling, how I long to touch your face, to see your smile, to hear your laughter’s grace. Great Allah, hear my plea. Return my child to me.
Child: My darling mother, here beyond the stars where I now live, I see and feel your tears, but here is peace and joy, and no more pain. Here is where I will remain.
Mother: My darling, do not leave me here alone! Come back to me! Why did you turn to stone? Great Allah, hear my plea. Please send my child back to me...
Child: Dear mother, to your wonderful love I bow. But I can't return... I am among the Angels now. Do not worry about me. Here is where I long to be.
Mother: My darling, it is as if I hear your voice consoling me. Oh, can this be your choice? Great Allah, hear my plea. Impart wisdom to me.
Child: Dear mother, I was born of your great love, a gentle spirit... I died a slaughtered dove, that I might bring this message from the stars: it is time to end earth’s wars.
Remember —in both Bible and Koran how many times each precious word is used— “Mercy. Compassion. Justice.” Let each man, each woman live by the Law that rules both below and above: reject all hate and embrace Love.
IX. Epilogue. I have a dream
I have a dream... that one day all the world will see me as I am: a small child, lonely and afraid, a small child, lonely and afraid.
Look at me... I am flesh... I laugh, I bleed, I cry. Look at me; I dare you to look me in the eye and tell me and my mother how I deserve to die.
I only ask to live in a world where things are fair; I only ask for love in a world where people share, I only ask for love in a world where people share.
Oh, I have a dream... that one day all the world will see me as I am: a small child, lonely and afraid, a small child, lonely and afraid.