Syrian Poet Najib al-Rayyes: ‘Ode to the Prison Shadows’

A poem that featured in the film “3000 Nights” stayed with Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah until she had to translate it:

By Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah

Dedication: To obsessively needing to translate a song that remained with me after curtain call.

From the film "3000 Nights."
From the film “3000 Nights.”

On Monday, 25 April 2016, I heard a hauntingly beautiful rendition of verses from Najib al-Rayyes in Mai Masri’s new feature film 3000 Nights. I quickly jotted down the verses during the screening on the paperback cover of the Song of Solomon in my purse.  That Wednesday, I googled the verses and not only found various musical renditions, including the one by Macadi Nahhas used in the film, but also the larger poem to which they belonged.  I proceeded to translate the entire poem text after midnight.

I found the final verses confusing, so before going to bed, around 3:30 a.m., I impulsively sent my translation to a mentor.  He suggested what I have kept in a footnote.  The poem text differs slightly from the verses sung in the audio clip in the movie, so I have also included the variation mentioned in the movie in a footnote.


Ode to the Prison Shadows

by Najib al-Rayyes


This poem was written in 1922 by the Syrian journalist Najib al-Rayyes when he was exiled by the French and imprisoned on Arwad Island, a small island off the Syrian coast, for resisting French colonial occupation during the Mandate period. 

Oh, Prison Shadows, stay a while
Indeed, we yearn for darkness[1]
It won’t be long before the night
Is overcome by glorious dawn

Oh, Land of Pride
Oh, Abode of the Steadfast
We descended upon you while in our prime
Unafraid of death

We made a promise
The day we took the oath:
We would never betray the promise
And have taken integrity as our religion

Oh, Prison Guards, we beg your pardon
Listen to our words
Grant us some air
Forbidding it was (always) forbidden

By God, I will not forget
The long-suffering of my country
Bear witness, Heavenly Star
That I am of the loyal and loving

Oh, Rattling Chains, grant me
A melody that grieves my heart
For in your voice[2] are meanings
Of sorrow and persecution

I was never a sinner
I never betrayed the order[3]
Rather the love of my country
Has taken residence in my heart.


[1] In Mai Masri’s film, the verse sung by Macadi Nahhas translates as “We are not afraid of the darkness,” rather than “Indeed, we yearn for the darkness.” Another variation in Nahhas’s rendition in that the verse “And we have taken integrity as our religion” is sung as “And we have taken love as our religion.”

[2] That is, the noise of the chains.

[3]  This verse confused me at first.  One explanation I received is that the poet is saying he was not a criminal or a rabble-rouser or a provocateur.

Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah is a PhD Candidate of Arabic and Comparative Literature and a Literature Humanities Preceptor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. She is currently completing her dissertation on the poetics of the amatory prelude in post-classical Arabic-Islamic encomia.