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PB ISBN: 978-1-913043-29-2 • E-ISBN: 978-1-913043-30-8
Nouri Al-Jarrah in Fort Arbeia at Regina's tombstone,
on 12 October 2022, when the book is published
Syrian poet Nouri al-Jarrah brings to life a story that can never again be lost in time after a single line in Aramaic on a tombstone fired his imagination. This inspiring epic poem awakens two extraordinary lovers, Barates, a Syrian from Palmyra, and Regina, the Celtic slave he freed and married, from where they have lain at rest beside Hadrian’s Wall for eighteen centuries, and tells their unique story. Barates’ elegy to his beloved wife, who died young at 30, is, however, not about mythologising history.
With the poet himself an exile in Britain for nearly 40 years from his birthplace of Damascus, the poem forges new connections with today, linking al-Jarrah’s personal journey with that of his ancient forebear Barates, who resisted slavery with love.
Barates’ Eastern Serenade also questions whether the young Celtic fighters, the Tattooed Ones, were really barbarians, as they emerged from forest mists to defend their hills and rivers and their way of life from the Romans, and died or lay wounded at the twisting stone serpent that was Hadrian’s Wall.
Introducing the work, the poet writes:
“Who is this adventurer who came from the East to liberate a woman from the West and name her Regina, provocatively, as a challenge to the system of slavery that existed in the Roman Empire? Who is Barates from Palmyra and who is Regina the Celt? A farm worker was turning over the earth in the remains of a Roman fort in the heart of the British Isles, and produced these two names for us. How did a young man tanned by the sun of Palmyra come to put his arm around the waist of a Celtic girl with a red plait, and wander with her over the lush green hills by Hadrian’s Wall, down to the River Tyne, where brown men from Nineveh rowed in small boats carrying cargo from the big ships, chanting in sad voices songs that sounded like strange prayers. It is strange too that these men with their strong muscles and brown faces had left behind their boats in the warm waters of the Euphrates and joined the fleets of Septimius Severus, arriving in this cold water in the North, to become labourers and oarsmen in the shadow of a Roman wall that twists like a stone serpent.
“Who is Regina, and who is Barates? Archaeologists found the Celtic woman’s tombstone in the Roman fort of Arbeia. She had died young, in her thirties, and a few miles away they found the grave of Barates. Everything we know about Barates is also everything we know about Regina, contained in one line that the shattered lover had engraved in Aramaic, his native language, on the Palmyrene-style tomb of the beloved woman. So we know that he freed her from slavery, named her Regina (‘Queen’), and she became his lover and his wife, and then he lost her. The hero of this poem did not forget to include his Syrian identity on the tombstone. A single line fired my imagination, and I, and this poem, are indebted to it.”
After translating the poems Catherine Cobham wrote:
"These poems say so much in such concentrated lyrical ways about exile, empire, migration, borders – not to mention the visceral evocation of northern English weather."
While Nouri Al-Jarrah has commented:
“Mythologies can no longer be reproduced as they are without a reinterpretation. The poet must range between the epic text, in its own time, and today”
Professor of Arabic at Rome's LUISS Guido Carli Francesca Maria Corrao writes:
“Nouri Al-Jarrah is not an antihero but a modern hero representative of a new generation in search of space to create a future in a world filled with the overwhelming presence of the fathers”
And writing about an earlier collection, Abdo Wazen, cultural editor of Independent Arabia says:
"Nouri Jarrah’s poem, A Boat to Lesbos, immediately found its place at the vanguard of the tragic poetry that has been written within Syria, in the Syrian exile and in the Arab world. The work has become part of world poetry, not just through the medium of translation but through its poetic lexicon, which fuses the universal, as expressed through the legacy of ancient Greece, with the Syrian and Arab dimension."
In addition to the main epic dramatic poem An Eastern Serenade, that is Barates’ elegy to his beloved wife Regina who died young, aged 30, nine further poems – all set at Hadrian's Wall during Barates’ time there – take readers even deeper into individual experiences of those living with Roman occupation and empire, of Celts enslaved by the Romans or fighting for their lands and freedoms, and of exiles conscripted into the Roman army from far-off lands. They are: Regina’s Song by the River, The Archer from Palmyra, The Birth of the Painted Warrior, News of Boudicca, A Roman Elegy, The Tongue of Fire: The Ruin, Julia Domna’s Missing Fingers, and The Edict of Caracalla.
In the course of the poems, the poet creates an enthralling spiritual and mythological atmosphere for that ancient time, introducing readers to many ancient gods such as Baal, a Syrian deity known well and worshipped across many parts of the ancient world in different ways, sometimes as god of the son, patron of sailors and seafaring merchants, or as god of weather, of rain and fertility; and El, god of mankind and all creatures, god of gods; and the virgin godess Anat, Baal’s older sister and his wife; to symbols such as the eagle – the emblem of the armies of the Roman Empire, who were inspired by ancient Syrians for whom the eagle was considered a great symbol; the rainbow, considered by Aramaeans to be a god; the snake, considered in ancient Eastern mythology as guardian of the waters.
Nouri Al-Jarrah reading at
Regina's tombstone on 12 October 2022
Nouri Al-Jarrah was born in Damascus in 1956. He attracted attention with his debut collection of poems, The Boy, published in Beirut in 1982 and has become an influential poetic voice on the Arab literary scene. Since 1986 he has lived in London, publishing 16 further collections, and founding and editing a number of Arabic literary magazines. His poetry draws on diverse cultural sources, and is marked by a special focus on mythology, folk tales and legends. Selected poems have been translated into a number of Asian and European languages. A Boat to Lesbos and other Poems (Banipal Books, 2018) was his first collection in English translation, joining the original Arabic book’s editions in French, Spanish, Turkish, Italian, Greek and Farsi. For more about Nouri Al-Jarrah click here.
Translator Catherine Cobham taught Arabic language and literature at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, for many years, and has translated works of a number of Arab writers, including poetry by Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, Ghayath Almadhoun and Tammam Hunaidy, and novels and short stories by Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris, Hanan al-Shaykh and Fuad al-Takarli.
Nouri Al-Jarrah examining the tombstone of Regina at the Roman Fort Arbeia in South Shields
The Stone Serpent is published during the year-long cultural project, the 1900 Hadrian's Wall Festival.
We are pleased to have the book listed as one of the Festival's activities,
along with Nouri Al-Jarrah's participation with The Stone Serpent at
Banipal's Celebration of 25 years publishing Arab literature
on 30 November at the Lit & Phil Library in Newcastle