I write if only to stir faint memories of flight
in these wing-bound birds,
to open the cage of the heart for a moment
trapped without words.
For how can one not faint for these women,
beaten so brutally?
How can one not fear for them, suffering
such tyrannical cruelty.
Mahvash Sabet, ‘The Perfume of Poetry’, Prison Poems, p. 32
A woman sits in her prison cell in Iran, poetry flows from her pen. Of all Iran’s prisoners of conscience she and six fellow prisoners are serving the longest sentences of all. A member of a persecuted minority, the charges against them were patently false and their trial transgressed basic standards of legal procedure. The jail door has been slammed shut for a long time.
She is Mahvash Sabet and she ekes out her days in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Now sixty-two years old, Sabet has thirteen more years of her sentence to serve.
And this is where I stand sometimes
looking up at the sky
staring through that narrow gap
between two sheets of rusted steel
cutting me off from the heavy sky.
‘And This is Where I Stand Sometimes’, Prison Poems, p. 17
Yet her words have slipped through the narrow gap and are shared throughout the world in the leaves of her book, Prison Poems. While the poems convey the fragility of life in prison they also show a prisoner whose spirit is strong.
Mahvash Sabet is a Baha’i, a religion whose believers form Iran’s largest non-Islamic religious community. She is a member of an informal group of seven, the Yaran, who used to look after the needs of the Baha’is of Iran such as educating their children, supporting their youth who are barred from attending university, looking after the elderly and other assistance to the persecuted minority. After a trial that did not adhere to the most basic principles of justice each of the seven was sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Around the world there has been a chorus of criticism about the imprisonment of the Yaran. Last year the world-wide association of writers, PEN International highlighted the plight of Mahvash Sabet for the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. The imprisonment of the Yaran has been raised as a matter of concern at the United Nations by the Secretary-General as well as the Special Rapporteurs for human rights in Iran and the freedom of religion or belief. Prime Ministers and Presidents, professors and prominent advocates for human rights around the world have voiced their concerns about their treatment. The Australian government and members of parliament have also regularly highlighted the injustice of these sentences.
And something is stirring in Iran itself. In a significant development for the growth of a just and harmonious society for everyone, Iranians are increasingly voicing their support for the persecuted Baha’is. The most remarkable action is that by the prominent Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani. Last year he created an illuminated piece of calligraphy and publicly gifted it to the Baha’is. For the text he chose an excerpt from the Baha’i Holy Writings:
Consort with all religions with amity and concord…
Mahvash Sabet and the Yaran are still incarcerated in Tehran but the voices of their fellow citizens as well as those around the world on the anniversary of their imprisonment can surely give them some hope that one day justice will prevail.
The prison poet is heard around the world.