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:
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.
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.