Shut out the light

Sometimes I find myself singing a short refrain from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Falsely accused and languishing in prison, Joseph sings,

If my life were important I
Would ask will I live or die
But I know the answers
Lie far from this world

There’s a dramatic irony in these words, for we know that Joseph has been chosen by God to become prime minister of Egypt and save the Egyptians from an impending famine. But of course, Joseph can’t see the broader context of his imprisonment. Andrew Lloyd Webber has the stage-Joseph utter words which reflect a very modern, existential uncertainty: is one’s life important? Is there a meaning in our suffering and adversity? Does God see us?

The words I sang as a 10 year old in England have a very different meaning for me now: they have expanded, deepened, morphed, they have accreted countless additional layers of meaning, accumulated stories. Their context is no longer the confines of a 70’s stage show but seem rather a prayer for a world without an answer to its alienation and pain.

Having written these few reflections, I found myself reading in The New Nation about Sandra Bland, the african-american who died in a Texas police cell in 2015, allegedly by suicide.

http://bit.ly/1qIHuNT

 Her story is a tragic one of dashed hopes and relentless adversity – some perhaps of her own making but much as a result of institutionalised racism and a society callously indifferent to suffering. Her life could be seen as a microcosm of the deeply entrenched prejudices and violence to which black Americans are still subject. 

… if my life

At this point my thoughts begin to splinter into multiple, disparate shards. I think of other prisoners – prisoners of conscience, known and unknown, the innocent, the guilty, political prisoners or common criminals; remembered, loved, hated, forgotten. The victims of political and religious repression; prisoners of war. The millions who went through the gulags of the Soviet Union. The accused who faced the Inquisition. The women and children of the Boer War camps. Chile’s “disappeared ones”. The thousands of tortured and murdered “desaparecidos” – victims of the Argentine military during “The Dirty War” of 1974-1983. Biko’s death in police custody. Socrates death in prison. John the Baptist. Jesus.

I think of Oscar Wilde’s cruel imprisonment, and his deeply moving “Ballad of Reading Gaol”.

A shard of memory:
When I was 15 and struggling to come to terms with what was happening in my newly adopted country, I kept under my bed a copy of The Star newspaper that had published in long dense columns of print the names of literally hundreds of people detained under apartheid’s draconian security laws…

A shard of memory:
At age 13 hearing the groaning, pleading and screams of a prisoner at a police station in Pietermaritzburg.

A shard of memory:
As a boy visiting the “chamber of horrors” in London’s Madame Tussauds, and seeing in effigy the crouching figure of an old man who’d been confined to a tiny cage his entire life for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread.

A shard of memory:
At age 21, attending a vigil outside the Soviet embassy in London to protest the incarceration in a mental asylum of a Russian orthodox priest for his “anti-Soviet views”.

… will I live or die

Notorious prisons: For every one named, a thousand others exist. Chikurubi. Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Devil’s Island. Al Catraz. Penetanguishene. Robben Island … but I must stop: it is not the places of incarceration and torture which occupy my thoughts but the human stories they represent. Stories told, and left untold. It is the invisible ones that trouble me the most. Who were they?

The terrible silence: the absence of their stories.

the answers lie far from this world


Close every door to me
Hide all the world from me
Bar all the windows
and shut out the light
Do what you want with me
Hate me and laugh at me
darken my daytime
and torture my night
If my life were important I
Would ask will I live or die
But I know the answers
Lie far from this world

Close every door to me
Keep those I love from me
Children of Israel are never alone
For I know I shall find
my own peace of mind
for I have been promised
A land of my own

(Choir)
Close every door to me
Hide All the world from me
Bar all the windows
and shut out the light

(Joseph)
Just give me a number
Instead of my name
forget all about me
and let me decay

I do not matter
I’m only one person
Destroy me completely
Then throw me away
If my life were important I
Would ask will I live or die
But I know the answers
Lie far from this world

Close every door to me
Keep those I love from me
Children of Israel
Are never alone
For we know we shall find
Our own piece of mind
For we have been promised
A land of our own


http://bit.ly/1YQrCUG 

bit.ly/1SNUy1vbit.ly/1SNUy1v

The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde: 

http://bit.ly/1ryhfLb

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