William Daniel 1903-1988
March 17 is an important date in the history of modern Assyrian literature and music because on that day 100 years ago, William Daniel was born. To celebrate the centennial of this great Assyrian poet, writer, and music composer, his students and fans are planning a daylong event in late July 2003 in the city of San Jose, where William Daniel spent the last years of his life. The street, where on a December eve in 1988 a car ran over him and ended the life of this precious Assyrian, still evokes bitter memories in the heart of the Assyrians of San Jose.
William Daniel belonged to the generation of Assyrians who witnessed the ravages of World War I in Urmia region first hand. At the age of 11 he was snatched away from the comfort of a home, from school, and from the games children play, and was thrust into the army of Assyrian refugees as they fled the region with the enemy forces in pursuit. Having lost his mother earlier, now he also lost his father, Dr. David Sayad Daniel. A dedicated Assyrian physician and a hero in his own right, Dr. David Daniel was the one who saved Guytapa from the Kurdish siege during WWI, and gave his life in serving the sick and dying Assyrians in the American mission yards. He also lost his eldest sister who was abducted by Muslims never to be found again. At this tender age he witnessed events that no child should. Neighbors being shot and killed in front of his eyes, others dying of hunger and exposure; little toddlers abandoned at the roadside, I asked him once: William, what is the worst memory you have of the flight of Assyrians from Urmia. His answer was surprising. No mention of dear ones dying, or grotesque scenes of people being eaten alive by swarms of lice. What had really troubled his young mind was the sight of poor oxen and other beasts of burden, yoked to heavy loads, deprived of feed and water, dying of thirst their tongue, caked in the sun, hanging from their mouth.
These childhood experiences molded William Daniel's personality in a special way. He developed a tremendous sense of compassion and pity for his orphaned people. He had an urge to protect and defend them. He used his God-given talents and his pen as a weapon to exonerate his people, and to engrave their rich language and culture forever in the pages of history. He fulfilled this mission in his masterpieces. Three volumes of Kateeni Gabbara that not only revive a dying Assyrian epic, but are also a flowerbed exposing the beauty and potentiality of the modern Assyrian languages as a medium of poetic and dramatic expression. His music book, William Daniel's Creations, contains the most beautiful melodies and lyrics in 20th century Assyrian music. His Assyrians of Today, their Problems and A Solution contains a most important message: the establishment of a national fund as a first step in nation building. Moreover, in this book William Daniel uses the Assyrian language as an effective medium of scholarly discourse. Today no respectable scholar of 20th century Near Easter literature and music can bypass the Assyrians in his/her research work. This is how effective William Daniel has been in putting the Assyrian language and literature back on the scoreboard.
William Daniel, And Assyrian Music:
The roots of authentic Assyrian music today lie in two ancient sources:
1. Popular melodies of the mountain Assyrians who have preserved their ancient literary and artistic lore in their mountain strongholds.
2. The liturgical chants of the Church of the East, that date back to the first century A.D. The ancient Assyrians had special prayer chants for their temple services. After their conversion to Christianity, they introduced this tradition in the form of liturgical chants in their church services. While Europe was still pagan, the Christian Assyrians used to end the mass with praises in the form of chants. After them the Greeks and Roman churches began to ornate their church services with chants accompanied by musical instruments.
William Daniel's songs are all inspired by these two ancient sources. Thus they embody the authentic Assyrian musical heritage. At the same time his songs are intended to communicate the spirit of Assyrian music of modern times: the germ motives, the figures, sometimes the antecedents and the consequents, i.e., the whole theme represents the Assyrian type. These in turn have been often worked out further within the characteristics of the Assyrian music by observing the turns, variations of figures and sequences common to the music of the Mountaineer Assyrians, who have conserved the originality more faithfully than the Assyrians of the plains.
In the development of the characteristic fundamentals the composer, profiting from his Western musical education, has added his own personality, almost always keeping the originality of the type in perspective.
These songs do not claim similarity to the Assyrian dance music that today's performers are accustomed to play. Their music is of mixed coloring, inclined in its directions or in treatment of passages to Arabic, Iranian or Turkish. That type of music is meant for dancing rather than for listening.
William Daniel's musical compositions are breathtaking and unparalleled. His melodies are as purely Assyrian as the spring waters of the Assyrian homeland, and his lyrics are a mosaic of Assyrian folkways and traditions. Among his many musical masterpieces, Shahra has been played by a Soviet symphonic orchestra. His L.P. record: Hoy Dalileh, which is a new interpretation of an old tune, in addition to several original creations, won the Biblis award in 1970.
William Daniel being also a poet wrote his own lyrics to his musical compositions. There is therefore a very effective fit between his melodies and the lyrics that go with them. The following is a list of his major L.Ps.:
1. Assyrian Mountain Melody
2. Assyria Sings
3. Hoy Dalileh
4. William Daniel's Creations
It is unfortunate that due to lack of ethnic schools, the younger generation of Assyrians cannot read or write their mother tongue. I have therefore attempted to translate some of his songs into English. Despite the fact that these translations are not in verse form and lack the poetic flavor of the originals, yet the force and passion of expression comes through even in translation. The following is an example:
Tears of the Beloved
Why are your eyes brimful of tears, tell me.
Did I not promise you? Open then, my heart and look
If you do not find there your own image,
Condemn me in public for my unfaithfulness.
Let me suffer the punishment I deserve, my beloved.
Did I not swear to you there is no one but you?
If I am tested by fire, may be you'll believe
That my idol beside God, is you.
Give me the true word, even if it costs life
More welcome to me that fire, than a life of bitterness.
Have pity on my tortured soul, with sorrow is replete my love
Say a kind word to soothe my heart.
Let me inhale like the morning breeze,
The dewdrop from your eyes; lean your head on my heart
Welcome is death then, my beloved, know that
My idol beside God, is you.
William Daniel, and the Epic of Kateeny Gabbara
Only William Daniel could take the shreds of an old tale, passed on by word of mouth in homes during the evening hours in front of a fire pit, and weave it into an epic tale which portrays the history of our people with all its tragedies and sorrows, the rise and fall of its national fortune, and its hopes for the future.
This epic is not only rich in rhythmic variation of its verses, but the verses are also replete with stunning imagery and similes. The allegorical passages make this epic tale a milestone in the Assyrian literature. To analyze the various aspects of this epic requires a lengthier discourse. Instead, here is a translation of a passage from Kateeny Gabbara, Book I. In spite of the loss of poetic beauty and force of the original; this passage still rouses in the reader the will to resist despair and fight for the revival of a forgotten legacy.
In this passage a widow whose sons are taken captive by Shidda, the symbol of the enemy in Kateeni Gabbara, has pity on the youthfulness of Kateeni the hero, and tries to dissuade him from his perilous mission to confront Shidda (a female monster):
Retreat from this path Kateeni,
Great is the power of the foe.
Let some years pass by
Until you grow in power.
On your face, that of a lad,
There is no trace of a beard yet.
The loss would be immeasurable,
If this valiant stature is cut down.
Innumerable are the brave and valiant ones
Who died on the black altar
The altar of the cruel Shidda.
In answer Kateeni shows his unwavering resolve:
Do not fear mother
Do not look at my age
Could be I'm not a famous brave
But it has never happened
That in the face of a challenge,
Kateeni to step back.
Listen to this promise,
that I make in the memory of my dead father.
The last day of Shidda is at hand.
Before the sun sets,
Before the moon rises,
Her death she'll meet by this hand.
By the truth of my soul,
By the light of this day,
I give you a sacred promise
Before the God of night,
Sets up his tent,
The enemy will lose its head.
No longer will it pass,
That Shidda seeps blood.
Wipe the tears off your eyes.
Before the sun sets,
Before the moon rises,
You'll embrace your sons in your arms.
Our men and maidens
She has stolen from us,
Their lives are entombed,
In mountain cliffs.
If Shamiram could hear,
Bitterly would she weep for her kids,
Captive in their own land.
Rage is swelling in my chest,
It enflames my body.
It burns me like a fire ablaze.
If I do not put an end to Shidda,
Then it's best to lie down and die
As I would not be,
The son of Gilgamish, the Ninevite.
William Daniel lived most of his life as a lonely, unappreciated artist. He was hurt deeply, but never wavered in his love for his people. His lifelong goal was to serve and uplift his people. In the dedication page of his publication William Daniel's Creations he writes:
I dedicate this publication to the altar of the glory of a nation that was. Many tears have been shed for its present predicament. The foremost yearning and hope is to return to an age of understanding, educational attainment, and intellectual revitalization. This hope is my only consolation (P.7).
Dr. Arianne Ishaya
In Memory of William Daniel.