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.”

Foreign Secretary William Hague issues response to Faith Leaders’ open letter on Bahá’ís in Iran

To mark the fifth anniversary of the incarceration of the seven former leaders of the Bahá’í Faith in Iran, fifty UK faith leaders signed a letter addressed to the Foreign Secretary William Hague MP, asking him to call on Iran to cease its persecution of the Bahá’ís in that country.

The letter was presented to Foreign Officer Minister Alistair Burt MP at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 14 May 2013. The Foreign Secretary’s response is reproduced below.

From the Secretary of State 

Thank you for your open letter about the incarceration of the seven Bahá’í leaders by Iran, which was presented to Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt on 14 May by a delegation of faith leaders led by His Grace Bishop Angaelos.

As you will know, I very much share the concerns in your letter. I have made clear many times that I do not believe that there is any justification for the arrest and imprisonment of the seven Bahá’í leaders. That they have remained in prison for five years on baseless charges following an unfair trial is a terrible reflection of how the Iranian regime chooses to treat its religious minorities. The UK fully supports the call for their immediate release, and will continue to work with the international community to highlight Iran’s violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief as well as of its other international obligations. In this context, we strongly support the work of the UN Special Rapporteur and urge Iran to allow him access to Iran to further his important work.

I commend the Bahá’í Community of the UK for this cross-faith initiative to highlight the plight of their seven community leaders and the wider persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran. I should like to thank the many signatories for giving such strong support. Through this kind of co-operation, you underline your common resolve to defend the rights of all to freedom of religion or belief, whatever their faith or belief, in Iran or elsewhere. This is something which I wholeheartedly support.

SIGNED: WILLIAM HAGUE

Faith leaders urge William Hague to call for release of imprisoned Bahá’ís in Iran

LONDON, 14 May — Fifty leaders of faith communities in the United Kingdom have signed an open letter, addressed to the Rt Hon William Hague MP, the Foreign Secretary, calling on him to renew the UK Government’s support for the seven imprisoned leaders of the long-suffering Bahá’í community in Iran, the country’s largest religious minority.

May 14th marks the day that these seven innocent Bahá’í leaders have been behind bars for five years, imprisoned solely because of their religious beliefs.

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His Grace Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church Centre with Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt

The letter was received on the Foreign Secretary’s behalf, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, by Alistair Burt MP, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa.

“I am happy to accept this open letter calling for the release of seven Bahá’í leaders currently in prison in Iran,” he said. “It is a fine example of interfaith co-operation from across the many faith groups in the UK.”

Minister Burt renewed the UK government’s call for the immediate release of the seven Bahá’í leaders – and he condemned Iran’s wider human rights record.

“The continued persecution of the Baha’i is but one example of the intolerance that many religious minorities face in Iran. I urge Iran to release the seven Baha’i leaders and to take immediate steps to stop the systematic persecution of the Baha’i community. Iran should stop the repression of any group on the grounds of their religion or belief, should respect the human rights of all its citizens, and engage seriously with the international community on improving its human rights record,” he said.

The faith leaders, representing the Bahá’í, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh communities; and including Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi, Barry Morgan,Archbishop of Wales and Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, said: “Iran has abandoned every legal, moral, spiritual and humanitarian standard, routinely violating the human rights of its citizens. The government’s shocking treatment of its religious minorities is of particular concern to us as people of faith.”

Nine faith leaders were part of the delegation to present the open letter to Minister Burt – these included Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church Centre; Acharya Modgala Duguid of the Amida London Buddhist Centre; Dr Don Horrocks of the Evangelical Alliance; Fidelma Meehan of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United Kingdom; Dr Charles Reed of the Church of England; Imam Mufti Dr Abduljalil Sajid of the Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony UK; Lord Singh of Wimbledon, of the Network of Sikh Organisations; Swaminathan Vaidyanathan of the Hindu Forum of Britain; and Vivian Wineman of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Bishop Angaelos presented the letter to Minister Burt on behalf of the 50 signatories.

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Front row: Ms Fidelma Meehan, National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the UK, Acharya Modgala Duguid, Amida London Buddhist Centre; His Grace Bishop Angaelos, The Coptic Orthodox Church Centre; Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt; Naomi Long MP; Mr Swaminathan Vaidyanathan, Acting Secretary-General, Hindu Forum of Britain; Lord Avebury, Chair, All Party Parliamentary Friends of the Bahá’ís Group. Second row: Mr Vivian Wineman, President, Board of Deputies of British Jews; Dr Don Horrocks, Head of Public Affairs, Evangelical Alliance; Dr Charles Reed, Foreign Policy Advisor, The Church of England; Lord Singh of Wimbledon CBE, Network of Sikh Organisations; Imam Mufti Dr Abduljalil Sajid, Chairman Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony UK.

“I am honoured to have been asked to hand over the letter on behalf of the Bahá’í community,” he said. “Religious freedom is very close to our hearts,” he added, referring to the 50 faith leaders who signed the letter.

The open letter cites a report by Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, which found that members of religious minorities in Iran suffer arbitrary arrests, unlawful trials, imprisonment and torture. Places of worship, businesses and homes are ransacked; students are barred from university because of their faith; cemeteries are desecrated. The persecution affects Bahá’ís; Gonabadi Dervishes, who are themselves Shia Muslims; the Yarsan, a Kurdish religious minority; and Christians, despite that faith’s constitutional protection.

The faith leaders’ open letter is part of a global campaign, running from 5 May to 15 May, under the title “Five Years Too Many”. Bahá’í communities and others around the world are holding public events that focus on the plight of the seven, who face 15 more years in prison, and whose 20-year sentences are the longest of any current prisoners of conscience in Iran.

Dr Kishan Manocha, spokesperson for the UK Bahá’í community, said: “Their arrest on false charges, their wrongful imprisonment and severe mistreatment while in detention, are emblematic of the suffering of the entire Iranian Bahá’í community – and the situation of the hundreds of other innocent prisoners of conscience who have been incarcerated for their beliefs.”

“The long prison sentences of the seven reflects the Iranian Government’s determination to completely oppress the Iranian Bahá’í community,” he added.
Calling for the freedom of the seven Bahá’ís, the faith leaders wrote: “The Bahá’ís wish to serve their country, the land in which their faith was born, and they have the right to work for its betterment without fear of reprisal. Emancipation for the Bahá’ís is long overdue.”