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Prison Poems by Mahvash Sabet

December 3, 2013, in Articles > Books, by

I recently finished reading Prison Poems, a collection of poetry written by Mahvash Sabet on the fifth anniversary of her incarceration. She is a prisoner of conscience. She was arrested simply for being a Baha’i, along with six other members of the Yaran (the national level group that guided the affairs of the Baha’i community of Iran of which Mahvash served as secretary).

I often find myself sitting in my driveway, with my baby fast asleep in her carseat. I can be found just sitting and waiting. But this week, I read this anthology. It is difficult to imagine Mahvash’s situation today — still imprisoned —  and it is equally difficult to imagine that the words in my hands were written on scraps of paper and smuggled by intermediaries out of her cell until they made their way to French homes of Violette and Ali Nakhjavani and their author daughter, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. Their adaptation of these poems into English is a labour of love to Mahvash, and all those imprisoned without a voice.

Mahvash Sabet is a 60-year-old former teacher and school principal and a mother of two. After being dismissed from her work during the Revolution, she began informally teaching Baha’i youth who were denied the right to higher education.  She was arrested in 2008 and after three years of show trials on trumped up charges, she was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. She is being held in Evin prison, Iran’s infamous and brutal detention block.

These poems bear witness, in a way that no other news story has, to what Mahvash is experiencing. Surprisingly, her poems do not rage against the injustice she suffers. Some are soul-stirringly bleak, honest to the horror of her surroundings, but never in a complaining or whining manner. Roxana Saberi is an American journalist who was briefly imprisoned in Iran and who shared a cell with Mahvash and Fariba, the other female member of the Yaran. You can read her journalistic description of their cell and sleeping arrangements here and compare it to Mahvash’s poetic words:

Lights Out
Weary but wakeful, feverish but still
fixed on the evasive bulb that winks on the wall,
thinking surely it’s time for lights out,
longing for darkness, for the total black-out.

Trapped in distress, caught in this bad dream,
the dust under my feet untouchable as shame,
flat on the cold ground, a span for a bed,
lying side by side, with a blanket on my head.

And the female guards shift, keeping vigil till dawn,
eyes moving everywhere, watching everyone,
sounds of the rosary, the round of muttered words,
fish lips moving, the glance of a preying bird.

Till another hour passes in friendly chat,
in soft talk of secrets or a sudden spat,
with some snoring, others wheezing
some whispering, rustling, sneezing –
filled the space with coughs and groans,
suffocated sobs, incessant moans –
You can’t see the sorrow after lights out.
I long for the dark, total black-out.

Poetry written by Mahvash Sabet
Mrs. Mahvash Sabet

Through her poems we are given a very intimate picture of her condition. She does not tell us the logistics or the facts of her situation, but through her hopes, her dreams and her defiant optimism we can imagine what she isn’t telling us. For example, when she joyfully describes spotting a thistle growing through the cement of the prison yard, we are given an idea of her hunger for greenery, for the sun and for being outdoors – something so many of us take for granted. She ends a poem entitled “The Great Outdoors” with:

In fact, it is quite enough for me

just to look forward to that immensity

– of air –

even if I never reach it, never get there.

The anthology provides a heart-breaking view of Mahvash’s loving compassion for her fellow prisoners – drug addicts, prostitutes and women criminals of all kinds. In “The Perfume of Poetry”, she writes:

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?

She describes teaching a fellow inmate to read, her conversations of consolation with them, and small acts of kindness:

If you reach out to caress a head here, a hundred stars shine in the eyes; if you utter a single word of love here, it is like water quenching furious fires.

Many of the poems are composed prayers and written acts of supplication. She writes:

Remember me, for I am naught without you,
a beggar at your feet, dependent on you,
whose very life relies entirely on you.
You are the spirit and I, the body only:
and yet we are united and intact, in a single rhyme.

Mahvash ends her collection with several pieces dedicated to others such as Fariba, members of her family, and Violette Nakhjavani. Her tributes to Fariba moved me the most. While the two women shared a cell in the early years of their incarceration, they have been separated since 2011. Their separation is sadness upon sadness. Although the below poem begins as a tribute to her dear friend, it ends with a note of hope to the entire glorious country whose oppressive government keeps her captive.

To Fariba Kamalabadi
O my companion in the cage! How many cruelties we saw together;
how many favours too and blessings in our isolation.
[…] They tied your wings to mine, feather to feather,
and you rested your head beside mine every night.
[…] A hundred stones have bruised our breasts and lips, but they are sealed;
all the false charges which were hurled against us shall melt away.
O my companion in the cage! May your cup fill with faith and your breast brim with the remembrance of His loved ones.
May your land flourish, your heart leap in ecstasy forever, and your memory rebound with the jubilation of the people of Iran.

For more information about the Yaran and the ongoing persecution of Baha’is, please visit the website of the Baha’i International Community.

Lastly, you can also purchase copies of Prison Poems here.

Posted by

Sonjel Vreeland

In her innermost heart, Sonjel is a stay-at-home parent and a bookworm with a maxed out library card but professionally she is a museologist with a background in English Literature. She currently lives on Prince Edward Island, an isle in the shape of a smile on the eastern Canadian coast. Sonjel is a writer who loves to listen to jazz when she's driving at night.

Discussion 17 Comments

Sonjel,

Thank you for bringing this important work to our attention. I, for one, had no idea these poems had been written and smuggled, translated and published! I will seek out this book and, through reading it, pray for the members of the Yaran’s release.

Ryan (December 12, 2013 at 2:07 AM)

You’re most welcome, Ryan. It’s a heart-breaking read but it is good to be reminded of the plight of the Yaran so that we can, as you said, continue to pray for them.

Sonjel (December 12, 2013 at 1:14 PM)

“Blessed is the spot, and the house, and the place, and the city, and the heart, and the mountain, and the refuge,
and the cave, and the valley, and the land, and the sea, and the island, and the meadow where mention of God hath
been made, and His praise glorified.”
-Bahá’u’lláh

William M. danjon Dieudonné (December 12, 2013 at 10:32 AM)

I pray God for all Baha’is in prison, every day! For their liberation, for their families, for their love and endurance.They are not along.

Aleksandar (December 12, 2013 at 8:58 AM)

Heartbreaking but warming to know so many care. Pray for their release.

Don and Margaret Love (December 12, 2013 at 11:51 AM)

I have a copy of this book, given to me by a friend. It is the most beautiful book. I have recently returned from Pilgrimage to Haifa and I took the book with me and read it at the Shrine of Baha’u’llah. Mahvash is an amazing woman, we can learn a lot from her courage and compassion.

Alison (December 12, 2013 at 1:49 PM)

The beloved Yaran are in our prayers, morning and evening, until that day when their prison doors would be flung open. O God! Please make this happen soon!

Jamal & Somaya Hassan (December 12, 2013 at 5:46 PM)

My response to reading this blog was an immediate desire to respond to Mahvash’s poetry in the same language. Though she may never read these words I just wanted to say them out loud. Hers is such an amazing example of the resilience of the human spirit, transcending the circumstances surrounding it. It makes me proud, but I had to cry too.

Keep writing
Keep writing
Keep writing
Till the Word covers the Earth
As the waters cover the ocean
We are all prisoners here
We must break free
From this desolate cell
Where we linger alone
I love you my dear
We are all together here
Though separated by oceans
We are in the same cell
We long for the same fresh air
The same thoughts of a new earth
A new beginning
Are in my heart as in yours.
I marched for you the other day
With you in my heart i protested
The violence against women
Against us all
May He hasten the Kingdom
Where we can all breathe free.

Rhea Harmsen (December 12, 2013 at 8:48 PM)

Thank you for your poem, Rhea! I, too, long for that Kingdom “where we can all breathe free”.

Sonjel (December 12, 2013 at 12:31 AM)

exquisite! Thank you.

Pharan Akhtarkhavari (April 4, 2016 at 7:18 AM)

I would like to honor Mrs. Sabet with a public poetry reading of selections from her book but have no idea how to do this. If any of you have read her book and have suggestions, I would be grateful. The beauty and integrity of her writing combined with her anguish and suffering simply leave me speechless. Many thanks.

Gwen (December 12, 2013 at 3:51 PM)

Thank you for this most beautiful tribute, Sonjel. I pictured you sitting in your car with the baby asleep, tears rolling down your face as mine are now. Justice. Thank you for bringing Mahvash and Fariba, and all women suffering injustice and misfortune in that prison, into our fortunate daily lives.

beverley matthews (May 5, 2014 at 11:23 AM)

Your blog has touched my heart from the island of the smile. I just cannot conceive how the Yaran endure and shine from the trenches of despair.

Dawn DiBenedetto (November 11, 2014 at 11:35 AM)

Cèn chùis àr spèis I gcrè-earraì
agus seoda luachmhara inàr n-aice,
chomh luath is a cheanglaìonn said àr gcosa
scaoilfear Albatros na hintinne.
Scaoil leat Mahvash mar t

Dònal `SÒ Braonàin (September 9, 2015 at 10:30 AM)

I cannot wait to order and receive this precious book. As a poet myself, the energy and the flow of the lines of those excerpts touch the deepest and purest part of myself, and I so long to share them with others. My prayers for the Yaran and the teachers and other Baha’is in prison simply because they believe in Baha’u’llah, will never stop flowing, even after they are all released, because their journey so easily could be ours. We are prisoners of self, until we open our doors to allow the blessings of joy to flood outward and are willing to accept the consequences, which could bring to us persecution as it did to the Yaran. For me as a woman, it is the women Yaran that come into view in my mind’s eye, but the five men are suffering as well, and they are examples of what it means to be a illumined men, with the deep understanding of how men must release themselves of their own bondage by releasing women from the status of secondary human beings. I pray that, upon their release, they will be able to speak to this reality.

Laurie Zimmerman (April 4, 2016 at 1:24 PM)

We all pray for this end! May our prayers become the means for divine confirmations and supreme protection for their valiant acts of steadfastness.

Pharan Akhtarkhavari (April 4, 2016 at 7:19 AM)

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