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While reading Remembrance Suite by the poet Shirin Sabri, I found myself getting caught up in emotion.
Thinking about my tearful reaction to these stunning poems, I traced them back to an unusual mixture of feelings of outrage and inspiration.
The poet tells of the wrongs done to some of the women in history but gowns the exposure with descriptions of their achievements, and their eternal glory. The vocabulary is rich, the images suffused with colour and beauty, the message as clear as a bell.
Most of the subjects of the poems are women unknown to most people in the world but they clearly made significant contributions to the great ongoing spiritual journey of humanity. We learn of Hajar and Hatshepsut, of Zenobia and Hypatia. For Baha’is we are treated to new perspectives on Khadijih Bagum, on Navaab, and on Ruhiyyih Khanum. Other subjects are Aseyeh, Maria the Jewess, The Magdalene, Tahirih and Bahiyyih Khanum.
In her poem “Grandmothers”, Shirin Sabri lives up to her own injunction in the final verse:
So, tell their stories, breathe upon history’s blood red ember
and light their lovely faces with that flame. We will remember.
I relished the opportunity to ask the poet some questions.
Baha’i Blog: Do you see ‘Remembrance Suite’ as contributing to the righting of great wrongs?
I honestly do not know—I only know that I felt impelled to write it.
Baha’i Blog: Some of your subjects are well known to Baha’is, but others are probably new to most of your readers. How and why did you select these particular subjects?
To some extent I allowed Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi to be my guides to the women of the past. I looked for women whose lives they had drawn attention to, particularly women whose contributions the Master highlighted in His talks. I realized that He focused on women who had been spiritual heroines. They had been defenders of the religion of God in their day, or protectors of the weak, or investigators of reality—in some way, they had moved the world onto a more positive track. These were the women whose stories I wanted to tell.
Baha’i Blog: When you researched the life stories of the women who are the subjects of your poems what emotions did they evoke in you?
This sequence of poems really began with Mary Magdalene. Some years ago, I was teaching a class on World Religions. I asked the students if anyone had heard of her, and immediately a boy put his hand up with that “Pick me! Pick me!” look on his face. So I did, and he eagerly told the class, “I know! She was a whore!” I remember feeling such dismay at that moment, and an acute awareness of the contrast between the boy’s ignorance and the honour shown to Mary of Magdalene by the Master. It was a level of ignorance that had to be addressed. Writing the poems in the first part of the sequence meant revisiting those painful feelings, but also drawing energy from them—and perhaps also to some extent destroying the pain by using it.
The poems in the second part of the sequence drew out very different thoughts and emotions – I became so aware of the ways in which Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha had drawn attention to the contribution of women – and aware that we were in the middle of a disjunctive break in history. Things were clearly going to be different this time around.
Baha’i Blog: The images you evoke, and beautiful language you employ are in contrast to the pain and injustice exposed. Was this deliberate?
Yes, it is an affirmation, in a way. An affirmation of the beauty that is inherent in humanity, in spite of all the wrong we are able to do to each other.
Baha’i Blog: Your poem “The Unkown Women” includes the words: “We enter now an age when hidden things surface, when buried names come to light; a fledgling age, shifting sharp elbowed wings, awkwardly gathering itself for flight.” Do you have real hope that women’s contributions will soon be properly recognised and celebrated?
I don’t know about “soon”! But I do have faith that, as Abdu’l-Baha explained, the world is in the process of shifting away from the domination of “force” and “aggression”, and I do believe that we are arriving at “an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced”. As the world finds this balance, we can expect a greater value to be placed on the contributions of women. In fact, this is already evident. The positive achievements of women are already far more known than they were even a few decades ago. The world is moving!
Baha’i Blog: How did you feel as you found quotations of Abdu’l-Baha to introduce most of the poems such as: “In past ages, noted women have arisen in the affairs of nations and surpassed men in their accomplishments”?
It is so evident that the Master is intent on changing humanity’s understanding of the capacities of women. It was really confirming to search for those quotations and to find that actually I was suffering from over-choice. Abdu’l-Baha spent a lot of time persuading His audiences that women had been critically underestimated in the past. The quotes I chose are the tip of an iceberg.
Baha’i Blog: ‘Companions of the Crimson Ark’ is just one of your previous publications. Do you encourage others to pick up the pen and have a go themselves?
I would certainly encourage others to pick up a pen. Writing poetry is one of the ways we connect to the spiritual side of our own selves and teach ourselves to be more profoundly aware of the beauty of language.
Baha’i Blog: What feelings do you experience when writing on sacred and inspirational topics?
“Filled with trepidation” would be one response—just because I wonder if I am saying anything that makes sense. I have to push on past that feeling. Sometimes, if I am lucky, there is a sudden sense of everything clicking into place, and a feeling of “rightness”. The poems about sacred topics often sit in my mind for a long time before I am able to find the key that will open the door to that piece.
Baha’i Blog: Where do live now, and are you a full-time poet and writer?
I am currently living in the Czech Republic, working at Townshend International School. Townshend is a Baha’i-inspired school, and working there is a great joy. Writing is something I fit into the moments when there is time.
Baha’i Blog: Thank you, Shirin. You can purchase a copy of ‘Remembrance Suite’ from the Irish Baha’i book distribution service here.
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