Poetess and a prisoner of conscience – Bahá’ís publish Prison Poems from Iran

An anthology of poems written inside Evin prison, Iran’s infamous and brutal detention block, was launched on 4 June at the National Bahá’í Centre in London by comedian Omid Djaili, writer Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and literary professor Farzaneh Milani. 

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The poems are the work of Mahvash Sabet, 55, a teacher and former school principal. Ms Sabet is a member of the Bahá’í Faith – Iran’s largest religious minority and the target of decades of official persecution. She is a prisoner of conscience.

Ms Sabet is also one of seven former leaders of the Bahá’í community in Iran. She was arrested in 2008 alongside her six colleagues. They endured three years of show trials for a litany of trumped-up charges – manifestly untrue allegations such as espionage, political subversion and “spreading corruption on earth”. The charges were denounced by international observers and the Nobel laureate, Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi. But the seven were nevertheless each sentenced to 20 years behind bars.

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, who adapted the poems from their original translations from Persian into English

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, who adapted the poems from their original translations from Persian into English

Roxana Saberi, the American-Iranian journalist who was imprisoned in Iran with Ms Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi – the other female member of the detained seven former Bahá’í leaders – was able to voice her support at the booklaunch by way of a recorded video message. “They tried to make the most out of their situation,” said Ms Saberi. “Among the many lessons my cellmates taught me, was overcoming the hatred I had towards my captors.” According to Ms Saberi, Fariba and Mahvash didn’t hate their captors. Rather, “they had compassion for all of humanity, even for those who wronged them.”

Prison Poems is published on the fifth anniversary of the incarceration of Ms Sabet and the six other former leaders.

Mr Djalili, who is also an advocate for the human rights of Bahá’ís and other minorities in Iran, hosted the book’s launch. “Iran clearly has control issues,” he told the assembled guests. “There are over a hundred Bahá’ís imprisoned in Iran simply for their faith. Iranian Bahá’ís just want to serve the homeland they love.”

Ms Sabet was dismissed from her teaching position after the 1979 Islamic revolution. She spent 15 years informally instructing Bahá’í students who were barred from university for their own beliefs. But she was also known for her love of poetry. And Iran itself is the land of the legendary poets Ferdowsi, Sa’adi, Rumi, and Hafez.

The poems, composed on scraps of paper in her Evin cell, were smuggled out of prison and out of Iran by the help of intermediaries. These samizdat pieces were sent to France, to the home of Ms Nakhjavani, the author of the bestselling The Saddlebag: A Fable for Doubters and Seekers. Ms Nakhjavani also wrote The Woman Who Read Too Much, a novel based on the life of Tahirih, the celebrated19th century Iranian poetess, a herald of women’s liberation, an early Bahá’í and source of inspiration for Ms Sabet.

Ms Nakhjavani adapted the initial translations of the poems into an English that echoes the tone of the original works. Speaking at the book’s launch, Ms Nakhjavani said that Ms Sabet and her six imprisoned co-religionists are “not victims but witnesses, not prisoners drawing attention to their own plight but representatives of other peoples’ suffering, not individuals demanding their rights but servants of humanity.”

Ms Sabet’s uncompromising faith and devotion to other people is present across the work. Her spiritual strength unifies poems that move from homesickness, to mourning for a lost Iran, to pieces that bear witness to the suffering of her fellow prisoners.

“And when a woman is forced to stamp / the death warrant with her own thumb / I forget my own shames, choke at hers, / Humiliated and heart-wrung.”

But Ms Sabet’s poetry does not vilify the Islamic Republic of Iran; indeed, the poems are unique for their defiant and confrontational optimism. Here is a woman of principle refusing to be a victim of her imprisonment. She has perhaps remembered the counsels of her faith, that “freedom is not a matter of place” – words spoken by a central Bahá’í figure, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of faith’s Founder, Bahá’u’lláh.

A final testament to Ms Sabet’s faith is that she does not use her poetry to dwell on her own suffering. The poet has hope for her situation and for her homeland – and yet she is not immune to the horror. Faith is the only response to their common plight.

“My heart aches, for you do not seem to know / The worth of that subtle inner star. / If only you could see the lovely one / Who lies prostrate in who you think you are.”