Tag Archives: leonard cohen

Take back Kenya

He wants to write a love song

An anthem of forgiving

A manual for living with defeat

A cry above the suffering

A sacrifice recovering

But that isn’t what I need him to complete

I want him to be certain

That he doesn’t have a burden

That he doesn’t need a vision

That he only has permission

To do my instant bidding

Which is to say what I have told him to repeat.[i]



I woke up today listening to these words by Leonard Cohen a man who once introduced a song by saying “Even though we have no religion we have an appetite for something which is like religion, so in honour of those deep feelings and those irreplaceable appetites I offer this song”. [ii]It’s written from the perspective of God peering down at the singer trying to compose a hymn to help mankind. And refusing him to do what he wants to do, what he thinks is the right way.


I also woke up to the news of the over 40 people dead in Naivasha. A truck carrying inflammable material got in an accident. A huge bomb barrelled out from point zero. In its wake it swallowed a matatu with 14 passengers, it engulfed a police land cruiser and extinguished the lives of over 40 people. This was day 5 of the doctor’s strike of 2016 because death and despair do not await the honouring of collective bargaining agreements and the successful mixing of ingredients of back to work formulas. Disease and accidents and injuries are implacable in the face of whatever us humans do. They move on relentlessly. We do not keep them at bay with marches or with shows of impunity. They do not stop because the doctors made a heartbreaking decision to demand what they had been promised. They do not slow in the face of a government that has broken the heart of every Kenyan over and over again. The agents of fate are not concerned with the petty machinations of human beings. They move on like a melting glacier or a rising sun, we can shield ourselves from them but the fact of who they are is undeniable. This world we live in it needs a cry above the suffering because otherwise this is all we can hear.


There is a pain in being here and in being Kenyan while we are here. Those 40 will never live to see what could become of our country, they will never see the promise or the breaking of the covenant that we made 53 years ago when our first president watched a flag of black and red, of white and green unfurl in the middle of the night and blow in the wind. In that moment a country was born. Even before it was born though it had been abused. At this point almost everyone knows that a foetus can be harmed by the toxins taken in by its mother while gestating but back then, in the sixties, these were just myths. And so before Kenya was born it was harmed. “They made us hate ourselves and love they wealth” said a famous poet whose name is  an anagram of our country’s.


The child was scarred before it had a chance to draw its breath. When delivered it already needed the doctors we have allowed to go on strike. It needed healers and did not get them. It was delivered to dogs waiting at the gates of the castle, cast down and allowed to suffer some more. It survives despite all this and later in the morning I heard more of Leonard Cohen a song that could be sang to god or to a country or to anything greater than us and to ourselves too. A song that when 40 people die in a flaming inferno in the dark of the night we need to hear:


Behold the gates of mercy

In arbitrary space

And none of us deserving

The cruelty or the grace

O solitude of longing

Where love has been confined

Come healing of the body

Come healing of the mind

O see the darkness yielding

That tore the light apart

Come healing of the reason

Come healing of the heart

O troubled dust concealing

An undivided love

The heart beneath

Is teaching to the broken heart above

Oh let the heavens falter

And let the earth proclaim

Come healing of the altar

Come healing of the name[iii]


Kenyans at 53 are sad and twisted, angry and full of hate, divided and we know not why, full of greed, destroyed by want, victims of apathy and base despair, purveyors of violence and putrid passions. We need healing. So does our country and we can heal because the same Kenyans will come together to save a life of a stranger donating money by m-pesa, raising awareness on social networks, extending compassion however we can. This is also a country where I have seen people agonise over the doctor’s strike because they know that it is fatal. They may not know the fatalities but the fact that they will cease to exist has been enough. This is a country bubbling over with warm laughter and true smiles. With shouts of joy, music that can barely contain the happiness of its people. People so forgiving that we will always wipe the slate clean.


Yes this is a country where a boy from the Lake can move into the shadow of the Mountain and live unmolested. Political disagreements have never flared into violent confrontations and from my time here I know that everyone, almost everyone, in this country knows that the way things are is not the way they should be. I’ve looked into the blue eyes of elderly Meru people (I don’t know how they got blue but they did) and heard them speak passionately, tiredly, dejectedly, hopefully about the things they want, things that we all want. Justice, happiness, peace. They want the unity of their families and they want what they believe they deserve. I’ve met a girl so beautiful that when she smiles it drives all thought from my mind. From my window I have looked out and seen hills in the distance covered by clouds or shrouded in mist. I have seen them with their bases in shadow and the sun upon their crests looking like a stairway to heaven has been opened up. I have quaffed drinks with a man who implores us all to call him “bloody fuckin” and refused to give any other name. Sat in posh hotels, nice bars, out in the sun, keg joints, holes in the wall, peeing on the street with a Kenyan by my side and not a Kenyan who I knew in childhood. Kenyans who I met in this place 300 kilometres from my real home (I’m sorry Nyanza but Nairobi’s my place.)


I have been guarded by an old man who lived in Mombasa from 1964 to 2011. A man who was so concerned about my incessant coughing that he gave me a remedy: take a lemon and squeeze the juice into a cup, take an egg (kienyeji) and crack it uncooked into the lemon juice. Drink this down. I have felt the magic of Kenya as I’m coughing less than I did while I was in high school. From here I have felt close to people through all the technologies that have been brought to help us communicate. I have disagreed with many and argued and argued and yet when I needed their help these disagreements were put away in the dark corner to which they belong. At that point the division of who is who and from where fell away like scales from an eye. I walked with a girl who laughed so loud and shared a matatu with another one who talked so loud that even I noticed. These two grabbed the life given them with both hands. A full moon has shone down on me like a flashlight on a dark and lonely night. Filling the earth with so much white that everything was a silhouette the trees shaking in the wind, the passing stranger, the grass shimmering as the air kissed it. I have heard the sounds of three churches making their entreaties to their deities for intervention, for happiness and for all of us every damn Sunday. Walked amongst trees standing so high they look like giants. Found a mini-valley ringed by these trees so that the sun only shines down it at high noon.


If it be your will

If there is a choice

Let the rivers fill

Let the hills rejoice

Let your mercies spill

On all these burning hearts in hell

If it be your will

To make us well

And draw us near

And bind us tight

All your children here

In their rags of light

In our rags of light

All dressed to kill

And end this night

If it be your will[iv]


Leonard Cohen prays this words so passionately that it didn’t matter my religious persuasion I closed my eyes and I prayed with him. We need to have hope because there is more to give us hope than to cause us despair. That’s not even the reason. We need to have hope because if we don’t the night wins. I remember I wondered about that rags of light line. There is a judeo-christian tradition that says Adam and Eve were originally clothed in garments of light, that all we have left are the rags. Despite that we need to put them on and dance and dance until the light comes back. All we have in Kenya are the rags. The torn apart fragments of our love for each other, our similarity, our pain at each other’s suffering, our hope for a better tomorrow, our resolve to do something for it. All we have are the rags of these lights but even with this we can end this night we find ourselves in.


It’s either that or this. This thing we have now. This thing that is not working. This thing where the news makes you so sad you want to crawl up in your bed, close up your eyes, and waken when it’s all over. It’s either that or this. And today on the anniversary of the day of our first independence people are marching down the streets in Nairobi. They protest everything wrong with our government: the corruption, the incompetence, the injustice. They endure teargas, the risk and reality of arrest, the risk and reality of physical harm. They do this to try and give us what we all need, let the government falter and let the people proclaim….


What God wants Leonard Cohen to repeat and for all of us to hear is a message of hope, hope for here and hope for there:


Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

[i] From the song Going Home.

[ii] Introduction to the song Show me the Place

[iii] From the song Come Healing

[iv] From the song If It Be Your Will



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hallelujah, fare thee well Leonard Cohen

On November 7th 2016 one of the greatest songwriters this world had left us. His soul went on to the next adventure and whatever awaits us all in the great beyond. Leonard Cohen was so good that his songs have been compared to the psalms of the bible. This is not just because he is Jewish it is also because of the amazing lyrical content of the songs, their thematic weight, and  philosophical leanings. There is a song about Abraham and Isaac that is a heartbreak to listen to. The story of Isaac is told through the perspective of this 9 year old boy whose father says he must die in the service of Yahweh. It raises for me a very interesting question: the moral of the story in the bible is that obedience is more important than compassion, what if they got it wrong? This very story must have comforted many a Nazi soldier who harboured Christian beliefs. He told himself that obedience to authority is more important than compassion to his fellow man. Abraham should have refused to sacrifice his son no matter what his faith told him. He should have said no and Yahweh would have loved him all the more telling him that compassion is more important. Telling him that compassion and love are really the most important things. Letting him know that an evil done in the name a god is still an evil. This version of the bible that perhaps exists in an alternate universe would not have been so easily corrupted to justify all the things that the bible has been forced to. At the end of that song Leonard Cohen sings:


“You who build these altars now to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore. A scheme is not a vision and you never have been tempted by a demon or a god.”


I am increasingly convinced that if there is a god and that if it is love, if it wasn’t why bother making us in the first place?, then that god is eternal and unchanging though looking at the world around us not omnipotent. But the love shines through because even in this hellish interregnum that he couldn’t stop from existing there is still love and beauty and compassion and happiness. And I believe he is eternal and unchanging not in the way Christians do which is to allow their capacity for contradictory narratives to co-exist simultaneously and take these contradictions as a sign of supreme will and power. I have sought an explanation for the death of Egypt’s first borns and the possibility of this lying side by side with Jesus’ teaching to no avail. It is not god that changes though, what changes is our understanding of it. The bible is a beautiful series of books chronicling the attempts of a people to understand god. And you can see their understanding changing. The god we find through genesis to the early prophets is one of war. He demands death and genocide. He glories in sacrifice. Do you remember the heartbreak in game of thrones when King Stannis burns his daughter to her death? The bible did it first. As it goes on the understanding of god becomes better. He becomes a god of peace  and Isaiah tells the children of Israel that their wicked ways of violence have condemned them he looks to a day when:


“He shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (truly, you must not do it anymore)


Then we get to the person who came closest to getting it all right in the Bible. Jesus of Nazareth taught love and lived love. He asked us to love one another. To love the lord our god with all our hearts and with all our minds and with all our souls. This must mean loving every single creation of his from the most exalted angel to the housefly to the fallen Lucifer. In the vision of love that Jesus drew, all nations and all people had a place in the heart of god. Being human he made some mistakes but when his reported words are taken, just his words not the stories and myths and legends that grew around him we see what he wanted. Love. The only prayer for material needs that Jesus makes is for his daily bread so when a prosperity gospel is preached it is not based on the words of Jesus. He said that his kingdom is not of this world, he said give unto Caesar, he turned down Lucifer’s offer for rule, Jesus was all about separation of church and state. So anyone who claims that they are serving his will by making something illegal only because the bible says its immoral is not following his words. Anybody who insists that the things that belong to Caesar like public schools should be used to spread the word  is wrong, or he is saying that Jesus is which is fine to say but not in while claiming to serve him.


Paul who a lot of Christianity is based on gets a lot more things wrong. Then John writes a book and the chapter is closed. Why was the chapter closed though? Humanity has been trying to understand god since the day we could understand anything. Trying to divine its will for us is an all important pursuit. So why would we close it off and say that all the writings from that day forth should be about the writings already written and not about god? Why would anyone demand such a thing? Why would any god want such a thing? It would not. And we did not. All this is written by way of prologue because what I really want to talk about is the song Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. Listen to it if you haven’t. It’s one of the great beauties of this world. The song has 7 verses though most versions of it leave out 2 of the verses. I feel that it should be considered in its entirety. The arrangement of the verses may not be how the man would have wanted it arranged but for me to explain the point I believe he was trying to make this is the best arrangement I could come up with:


Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift

The baffled king composing “Hallelujah”


This verse is pretty straightforward and steeped in the religious traditions and mythological stories of his people. David was a great musician according to the bible, he even played the harp for the king he would later betray, go into civil war with, and cause to kill himself. The story is that Yahweh would send a spirit to Saul and this “evil spirit of the Lord” would torment him causing him great pain. The only way that this evil spirit sent by Yahweh could be soothed would be for David to play on his harp. The King was once so overcome by the evil spirit and the things it would whisper into his ear, these seem to be prophecies of his death and the death of all his sons at the hands of his most trusted servant that he picked up a spear and hurled it at David.  Music and beauty please the lord as is clear from this chapter, they even soothe the evil spirits that he calls upon to do his work from time to time and despite this we don’t consider this a hallelujah. The works of man as he tries to understand his world, commune with it, and lift his fellow human beings out of misery are of great pleasure to god. Yet they are not as exalted as they should be. In a local context we have heard over and over  music being demonised, movies being demonised, books being demonised. There are certain Christian denominations that tell their followers not to listen to secular music, they even tell them not to listen to gospel music made by secular artists. The world is full of people who forgot that music, that beauty, that art are praising god’s name in their very creation. They forgot or they don’t really care for it.


Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah


Praise Jah!! Praise Jah!!! This reggae sounding phrase is actually just a translation of hallelujah. So in your churches, in your clubs, in your bars, praise Jah!!!!


Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah


I see three biblical stories here. Further steeping this psalm in that great tradition. It was written by a man cognizant of the law and the prophets and he who some say is the messiah. The first verse refers to doubting Thomas who needed to put his fingers in the holes caused by the nails before he believed that the Christ had risen again. Thomas would go on to be a great name in the church a great saint and one of Jesus’ fiercest knights. Love is important I personally believe. But that insistence on faith that sweeps most religions is not. We live in a world that begs us not to believe in the idea of a loving and all powerful god. It begs us all the time. Religion asks us to believe the impossible, well some of us need proof and for this small sin, this small sin of disbelief we are told that god would have us burn forever?


The next two lines are the story of David and Bathsheba. King David saw this beautiful woman bathing on a roof and he had to have her. He sent her husband, Uriah off to war with commands that he should be placed so as to die. Uriah died and David having committed this sin that seems unpardonable proceeded to marry her. The next line is about Samson. Samson was a bad man. A horrid man. He goes down as the first recorded suicide bomber he was that bad. Delilah (don’t these names, Delilah and Bathsheba, call beauty to your mind immediately? And that is the power of the word my friends that is the power of association) who was obviously a spy did all she could to find the source of his strength and sap it. When she finally did, she lovingly cut his hair, Bathsheba on her end lovingly brought to an end David’s intended throne with her son following him onto the throne. Though this last may have been a good thing because David’s original brood contained a man who raped his half-sister and a whole lot of sibling on sibling murder. These women no matter what they led these men to drew a hallelujah from their lips. No man can be this hopelessly in love and not offer it as a hallelujah. A happiness fills the world when you feel that way. A thank you to whoever sent this your way a big up to the big G.


Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor

I used to live alone before I knew ya
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a lonely Hallelujah


And we come out of the bible to something that many of  us can relate to. We have been here before each of us, at the end of love’s holy hallelujah we have been broken by it. We have cried nights and drank bottles and tried our best to fuck it out of us. When we enter the house of love now we know what we are getting into. We walked out into the cold or were forced out before and lived alone for a while. Then this person comes along but you remember Delilah cutting your hair no matter how many times you gave her your trust. Naivety has fled us. Things are clear. We can see the flag on the marble arch and it’s scary, it’s scary because love is not a victory march. We know that love is struggle and suffering and the capacity for heartbreak. That love is hard. That love is cold and that it’s lonely. That this hallelujah we sing is not like the ones before  it’s not joyful, it’s freezing and it’s shattered but in the act of love we still sing it.


There was a time you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do ya?

And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too

And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

This strikes me as a nostalgic verse. It is to a lover. There was a time when they shared everything. This is something else we all know. There was a girl I loved and she loved me and we talked about everything. Every little thing that she was she showed to me and I accepted it. The days with her passed in a blink, being with her was happiness. It’s not like that anymore. The 4th and 5th line are about sex. And I can remember the sex I had with her I still think about it. It was truly beautiful, the joining of flesh. We made love there is no other way to put it and while I moved in her the holy dove was moving too. God the Holy Spirit was with us in that moment of togetherness. We were a trinity and every moan and gasp that we let out, every single breath was hallelujah.


Maybe there’s a God above
All I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah


It’s entirely possible that there is a god above. Anybody who says different is preaching a different brand of fanaticism.  And we all hope that this god is love, that he is the purest distillation of love. Despite this all we have ever learned from love was how to hurt somebody first. The two verses before this show this sad education, or rather the results of this sad education. This is the worst result of it. In order to protect our fragile hearts we will break another person’s fragile heart.  This is nothing to be proud of. it’s not a cry you will ever hear at night. Nobody will ever claim that because they did this they saw the light. This pain we cause ourselves and others, this suffering , a suffering that only exists because we have loved and lost is still a hallelujah. A cold and a broken one.


You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to ya?

There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah


Who can claim to know the name of god. To understand what it means when we don’t understand the things we see, when we can’t even understand ourselves. Thomas Aquinas wrote:

“Yet since God is simple and subsisting, we attribute to Him simple and abstract names to signify His simplicity, and concrete names to signify His subsistence and perfection, although both these kind of names fail to express His mode of being, because our intellect does not know Him in this life as He is.”

There is a charge levelled against people that they have taken the name of the lord in vain. You can hear it if you listen close enough. It is considered blasphemy to continue in our attempts to understand him, to call for the bible to be opened up and allow more thinking about god in it. But how is it possible that my attempts to understand him can be called taking his name in vain. My failure and trials anyway for my intellect to “know Him in this life as He is.” And if it is, if it really is, that is between me and it. No man should stand there and condemn me for that, nobody has a right. This, if it’s a sin, is one of the few that does not involve human beings. So really what’s it to ya? And then he goes on to specify that every single word we say, every attempt to say his name, to understand him is filled with a blaze of light. All of it is a hallelujah. It may be the holy one that was sang before when the holy dove moved in us or the broken one that is the march of love but it’s a hallelujah. And when I say my hallelujah really what’s it to ya?


I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you

And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah


I am human and we all are. So our  best, our very best is never much. We can push as hard as we can and the only guarantee that we have is that we will still fail. It becomes more and more difficult to feel. To feel love as we get older, to feel faith as we think about the world. We can’t feel love so we try to touch and hope sex banishes the cold. We can’t feel faith so we try to touch the wounds on the hands of god if only to remind ourselves that it can relate to us. It knows what it is to be human and loves us for it. The third line is him saying that all that comes before comes from his heart. This is the truth according to Cohen and he has me convinced. When I write this, right now I believe it all. I’m not trying to fool you or mislead you. This is how I feel. And even though it all went wrong… I love these three lines. It all went wrong. It all went to shit. Things are bad. Things are horrible. Each of us failed ourselves, our loved ones and our god and were failed by each of them in turn. Despite all of this if the day comes when we shall stand before the lord of songs and understand finally what it was trying to do. Understand finally why this hell had to exist. Understand it all. When such a day comes when all of god’s children are gathered and we are standing next to Satan who has also made his way back to the love. There will be nothing on our tongues but hallelujah.


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