Mohammed Assaf, age 12, on his mother

Aleppo, Syria in December 2016

The Word Ummī— My Mother

My beloved mother.
When I go to my house, the pain of missing her
Arrives before me.

Mohammed Assaf of Syria, age 12 when he wrote this.
Mohammed lives in England now and his poem is in
England: Poems from a School (2018), edited by Kate Clanchy

King Xerxes grieves that all his men will be dead in a hundred years

Crossing_the_Hellespont_by_Xerxes_with_his_huge_armyXerxes watches his army cross the Hellespont

When Xerxes [Cyrus] had come into the midst of Abydos, he had a desire to see all the army; and there had been made purposely for him beforehand upon a hill in this place a raised seat of white stone, which the people of Abydos had built at the command of the king given beforehand. There he took his seat, and looking down upon the shore he gazed both upon the land-army and the ships; and gazing upon them he had a longing to see a contest take place between the ships; and when it had taken place and the Phenicians of Sidon were victorious, he was delighted both with the contest and with the whole armament.

And seeing all the Hellespont covered over with the ships, and all the shores and the plains of Abydos full of men, then Xerxes pronounced himself a happy man, and after that he fell to weeping.

Artabanos his uncle therefore perceiving him,–the same who at first boldly declared his opinion advising Xerxes not to march against Hellas [Greece],– this man, I say, having observed that Xerxes wept, asked as follows: "O king, how far different from one another are the things which thou hast done now and a short while before now! for having pronounced thyself a happy man, thou art now shedding tears." He said: "Yea, for after I had reckoned up, it came into my mind to feel pity at the thought how brief was the whole life of man, seeing that of these multitudes not one will be alive when a hundred years have gone by."

Herodotus (ca 484 BCE-425 BCE) in his Histories, Ch. VII, 44-46

ἐπεὶ δ᾽ ἐγένετο ἐν Ἀβύδῳ μέσῃ, ἠθέλησε Ξέρξης ἰδέσθαι πάντα τὸν στρατόν· καὶ προεπεποίητο γὰρ ἐπὶ κολωνοῦ ἐπίτηδες αὐτῷ ταύτῃ προεξέδρη λίθου λευκοῦ, ἐποίησαν δὲ Ἀβυδηνοὶ ἐντειλαμένου πρότερον βασιλέος, ἐνθαῦτα ὡς ἵζετο, κατορῶν ἐπὶ τῆς ἠιόνος ἐθηεῖτο καὶ τὸν πεζὸν καὶ τὰς νέας, θηεύμενος δὲ ἱμέρθη τῶν νεῶν ἅμιλλαν γινομένην ἰδέσθαι. ἐπεὶ δὲ ἐγένετό τε καὶ ἐνίκων Φοίνικες Σιδώνιοι, ἥσθη τε τῇ ἁμίλλῃ καὶ τῇ στρατιῇ.

ὡς δὲ ὥρα πάντα μὲν τὸν Ἑλλήσποντον ὑπὸ τῶν νεῶν ἀποκεκρυμμένον, πάσας δὲ τὰς ἀκτὰς καὶ τὰ Ἀβυδηνῶν πεδία ἐπίπλεα ἀνθρώπων, ἐνθαῦτα ὁ Ξέρξης ἑωυτὸν ἐμακάρισε, μετὰ δὲ τοῦτο ἐδάκρυσε.

μαθὼν δέ μιν Ἀρτάβανος ὁ πάτρως, ὃς τὸ πρῶτον γνώμην ἀπεδέξατο ἐλευθέρως οὐ συμβουλεύων Ξέρξῃ στρατεύεσθαι ἐπὶ τὴν Ἑλλάδα, οὗτος ὡνὴρ φρασθεὶς Ξέρξην δακρύσαντα εἴρετο τάδε. «ὦ βασιλεῦ, ὡς πολλὸν ἀλλήλων κεχωρισμένα ἐργάσαο νῦν τε καὶ ὀλίγῳ πρότερον· μακαρίσας γὰρ σεωυτὸν δακρύεις.» ὁ δὲ εἶπε «ἐσῆλθε γάρ με λογισάμενον κατοικτεῖραι ὡς βραχὺς εἴη ὁ πᾶς ἀνθρώπινος βίος, εἰ τούτων γε ἐόντων τοσούτων οὐδεὶς ἐς ἑκατοστὸν ἔτος περιέσται.»

Ancient Egyptian: Death is before me today


Death is before me today:
  like the recovery of a sick man,
  like going forth into a garden after sickness.
Death is before me today:
  like the odor of myrrh,
  like sitting under a sail in a good wind.
Death is before me today:
  like the course of a stream;
  like the return of a man from the war-galley to his house.
Death is before me today:
  like the home that a man longs to see,
  after years spent as a captive.

            --From "Dialogue of a Misanthrope with His Soul" (ca 2000 BC), now called "Dispute between a man and his Ba," from a papyrus of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. Cited in The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (1962), p. 138, by Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), who slightly changed the original quotation in Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt (1912) p. 195, by James Henry Breasted (1865-1935). Breasted himself had translated a German translation of the papyrus by Adolf Erman (1854-1937) in 1896, Gespräch eines Lebensmüden mit seiner Seele (Conversation of a life-weary person with his soul), in the Abhandl. der königl. Preuss. Akad. (Papers of the Royal Prussian Academy) Berlin, 1896. Originally from Lepsius' book Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethopien (Monuments from Egypt and Ethiopia), VI, Taf., 111-112.

A papyrus of the Middle Kingdom in Berlin (P. 3024), first published by Karl Richard Lepsius (1810-1884) in 1859; Lepsius had bought the papyrus in Egypt in 1843. It is now in the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection of the Berlin Museum, no. 3024.

It is one of the oldest documents in the world to speak of a state of mind. This is only a small part of it.

Georges Moustaki: Grandfathers


It's for you that I play Grandfather-- it's for you.
All the others hear me but you, you listen.
We're made of the same wood, we have the same blood,
and I carry your name and you are a little bit me.

Exiled from Corfu and Constantinople,
Ulysses who never retraced his steps,
I am from your country, a métèque like you,
a child of the child that Penelope bore you.

You were already old when I was just born,
arriving just in time to take up the relay.
And I will end up one day resembling
the photo where you posed as an ancestor.


It's for you that I play Grandfather, it's for you
that I slide my fingers along my six strings
to awaken a tranquil single-chord tune
that's all that I know to do with my ten fingers.

Master of laziness, expert at poaching,
like you I have lived in the shadow of boats
and to make a feast I would steal birds
that the sea wind brought me from the deep

Like you I ran after girls and dreams
drinking at each stream I crossed
and without ever really quenching my thirst
without ever tiring of sowing my seed.

It's for you that I play Grandfather, it's for you.
To put back in the present all that has passed
since I began to speak only French
and I write songs you don't understand

It's for you I play Grandfather, it's for you.
All the others surround me but you wait for me
even though you are far off in space and in time
when it's time to die we'll find each other again.

      --Georges Moustaki (1934- ), written in 1969. He was born to Greek Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, and became a famous singer in French.


C'est pour toi que je joue Grandpère c'est pour toi
Tous les autres m'écoutent mais toi tu m'entends
On est du même bois on est du même sang
Et je porte ton nom et tu es un peu moi

Exilé de Corfou et de Constantinople
Ulysse qui jamais ne revint sur ses pas
Je suis de ton pays, métèque comme toi
Un enfant de l'enfant que te fit Pénélope

Tu étais déjà vieux quand je venais de naître
Arrivé juste à temps pour prendre le relais
Et je finirai bien un jour par ressembler
A la photo où tu as posé à l'ancêtre

C'est pour toi que je joue Grand-père c'est pour toi
Que je glisse mes doigts le long de mes six cordes
Pour réveiller un air tranquille et monocorde
C'est tout ce que je sais faire de mes dix doigts

Maître en oisiveté expert en braconnage
Comme toi j'ai vécu à l'ombre des bateaux
Et pour faire un festin je volais les oiseaux
Que le vent de la mer me ramenait du large

Comme toi j'ai couru les filles et les rêves
Buvant à chaque source que je rencontrais
Et sans être jamais vraiment désaltéré
Sans jamais être las de répandre ma sève

C'est pour toi que je joue Grand-père c'est pour toi
Pour remettre au présent tout ce qui est passé
Depuis que je ne parle plus que le français
Et j'écris des chansons que tu ne comprends pas

C'est pour toi que je joue Grand-père c'est pour toi
Tous les autres m'entourent mais toi tu m'attends
Même si tu es loin dans l'espace et le temps
Quand il faudra mourir on se retrouvera.

David Grossman: It's like hell in slow motion, all the time


It's a painful life, now. It's like hell in slow motion, all the time. I don't try to escape grief. I face grief in an intense way in my writing, but not only in my writing. If I have to suffer, I want to understand my situation thoroughly. It's not an easy place to be, but so be it. If I'm doomed to it, I want-- it's a human predicament, and I want to experience it....

Anything that is calm and safe seems to me like an illusion.

            --David Grossman (1954- ), Israeli novelist, in an interview with Jonathan Shainin in the Paris Review, Fall 2007. His youngest son, Uri, was killed in August 2006 during the Israeli offensive in Lebanon.

David's Lament for Saul and Jonathan


The beauty of Israel is slain  upon thy high places: how are the mighty  fallen! 

Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.

Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil.
From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty.
Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights, who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel.
How  are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! O  Jonathan, thou was slain in thine high places. 
I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.
How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of  war perished!

         --Book of Samuel, 2 Samuel i, King James Bible