Celebrating Norooz in Prisons

March 21, 2019
Maziar Bahari
9 min read

The last days of March mark a strange and melancholic time in prisons across Iran, but somehow, it is also hopeful. This is the time when prisoners see their sabzeh, or wheat sprouts, growing on their windowsills. The green blades of sabzeh make them long for home and their loved ones and give them hope that the Persian new year, Norooz, on March 21, may bring them some good news. Maybe they will be released early or perhaps a loved one will visit them. Norooz signals the start of the spring. Regardless of who you are in Iran — a revolutionary guard or a political prisoner —  thinking of spring puts you in a better mood.

Among thousands of innocent political prisoners in Iran, there are about a hundred men and women who can be relied on to look after sabzeh in jail. Two weeks before the start of Norooz, they soak the unpelted wheat, the outer bran layer still intact, in a shallow bowl that keeps the fine roots moist during the sprouting. And for the next 14 days they protect the sprouts like a baby. The water in the bowl needs to be drained and filled regularly, a cloth must cover the sprouts to drain the water and then the cloth must be soaked again with water to nourish a healthy sabzeh. Wheat sprouts need care and sunlight to grow perfectly. A sabzeh expert is a patient gardener and a patriotic Iranian. The tradition of growing wheat sprouts to greet the spring goes back thousands of years, to the time of the Persian Empire. It reminds most Iranians of their glorious past, their hopes for a brighter future and, of course, of the current situation of their country.

Growing sabzeh in prison takes extraordinary effort from extraordinary individuals. Not every prisoner has the patience or perseverance to look after sabzeh. The sprouts can be confiscated and destroyed by wardens. They may also never grow tall enough in dark prison cells, where sunlight can come only in pale narrow strips. But one group of Iranian prisoners has consistently worked to grow sabzeh no matter what the challenges and hardships they’ve had to suffer. These prisoners are Iranian Baha’is, members of the largest religious minority community in the country. 

The Baha’is’ struggle to grow sabzeh in prison speaks to their love for their country and their willingness to suffer for this love. Most of the Baha’is in Iranian jails have done nothing wrong. They’re charged with “undermining the security of the nation,” which essentially means practicing their faith, refusing to recant it, refusing to convert to Islam. 

Since the 1979 Revolution, the Islamic Republic has murdered, tortured and jailed Baha’is to cleanse Iran of their presence. The regime wants the Baha’is to either leave their country or face daily persecution. But, 40 years later, there are still more than 300,000 Baha’is in Iran who remain devoted and patriotic citizens of their country. Despite being treated as second-class citizens, suffering daily discrimination at school and work, being denied places of worship and subjected to arrest, imprisonment and torture, Baha’is are still at the forefront of progressive social changes in Iran. As a forward-looking community, they contribute to the progress of Iranian society and culture, and as brave individuals, they are role models for other persecuted Iranian women and men. 

It’s difficult to explain what hardship the Baha’is of Iran have experienced over the four decades since Iran’s Revolution. (Believe me, I’ve been trying to do that for years now, and each time I’ve failed miserably!) But imagine you love your country so much that you are willing to die for it, you are so devoted to your faith that you never recant it, even under torture, and your love of learning and education is so strong that you are willing to study and teach underground in the face of possible imprisonment because your own government bars you from university. And to top it off, imagine being insulted on state radio and television – every day. This has been the Baha’i experience in Iran for the past 40 years.

The Islamic Republic celebrated the 40th anniversary of its revolution last month, and it will soon celebrate the 40th anniversary of many other “achievements,” such as the establishment of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the start of the Cultural Revolution that led to the closure of Iran’s universities for three years while undesirable elements were cleansed away by force. Each of these anniversaries remind the Baha’is of discrimination, arrest and murder. It began on August 30, 1980, when nine Baha’i leaders disappeared; still no one knows their fate. They are presumed dead. On December 6, 1981, eight more leaders were executed after a sham trial. And on June 18, 1983, Mona Mahmoudnejad, aged 17, and several other Baha’i women were executed in the city of Shiraz. 

For me, a non-Baha’i Iranian, technically a Shi’a Muslim who grew up in a secular family, the arrest and murder of my Baha’i sisters and brothers is a shameful chapter in Iranian history. It is also a stain on our collective conscience as Iranians. As the French writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” We, the overwhelming majority of Iranians, did not care to care about the plight of the Baha’is. When 17-year-old Mona was slaughtered just for saying that she could not and would not convert to Islam, we were not there for her. And we were silent when almost 200 Baha’is were killed after the revolution.

For a neutral observer, the suppression and murder of Baha’is in Iran looks not only monstrous, but idiotic. Why would a regime try to suppress patriotic and honest citizens who believe in education? The Baha’is even have a teaching that calls on them to obey the laws of the land. A normal government would cherish such citizens. Seven million Baha’is around the world are among the most productive citizens of almost every country on Earth, where normal or relatively normal governments don’t persecute their citizens because of their faith. Baha’i teachers, physicians, economists and educators are applauded for their contributions to nations as diverse as Brazil, South Africa, New Zealand and the United States.

It’s an understatement to say that the Islamic Republic is not a normal government. It is a regime based on hatred and discrimination. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s movement, which started in 1962 against the government of the Shah, was not an anti-dictatorial and anti-imperialist liberation movement. Judging by Khomeini’s speeches and letters, his movement was a rebellion against women having the right to vote and the relative freedom of the Baha’is under the Shah. The campaign that led to the 1979 Islamic Revolution was, in essence, a reactionary protest against modernity in Iran and its two most prominent symbols, women and the Baha’is. 

One of Iran’s Shia clergy’s main objections against the Baha’i Faith from the beginning of its foundation, by the prophet Baha’u’llah in the mid-19th century, has been the Baha’i emphasis on the equality of men and women and universal education. The other main objection of the clergy was to the Baha’is’ belief in an individual’s personal relationship with God, and that, unlike Shia Muslims, they do not believe clerics are needed to interpret religious teachings. The historical animosity of Shia clerics and many of their followers against the Baha’is intensified after the 1979 Revolution. The irony is that, at the same time, as many Iranians became more modern, despite and because of the regime’s futile attempts to impose a fundamentalist orthodoxy on people, they have become more sympathetic to the plight of their Baha’i compatriots. 

The outstanding example of this progressive Baha’i outlook is their approach to higher education. After the international community condemned the killing of Baha’is in Iran after the revolution, the regime changed course and tried to turn Baha’is into second-class citizens. Baha’i students and teachers were denied the right to study and teach at university during the early 1980s Cultural Revolution. And although this was an attempt to strangle the community over the long-term, I think it was also a blessing for the Baha’is, because instead of submitting to suppression, they chose a beautiful form of peaceful resistance by starting their own university, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (or BIHE), in 1987.

The BIHE is an underground university with no real campus and no official recognition within Iran. The degrees given to its students are not issued by any official institution.  BIHE teachers are Baha’is and non-Baha’is inside Iran, in the homes of Baha’is across the country, and volunteer teachers around the world who teach BIHE students online. Thousands of young Baha’is – who were qualified high school graduates, but were rejected by Iranian universities – have studied at the BIHE. The standard of its teaching is so high that now many prestigious universities, including Berkeley, Harvard and Yale, accept its graduates. 

Since its first few years, BIHE students and teachers have been arrested and have spent years in prison on charges of “unlawful gathering” and “undermining the security of the nation.” The homes where Iranian Baha’is have hosted BIHE classes have been raided. Makeshift laboratories have been closed. This March, dozens of BIHE graduates are among the almost one hundred Baha’i prisoners who have been growing sabzeh over the past few weeks. A number of these sabzeh plants are thrown to the floor and trampled by sadistic prison wardens. But Iranians take solace in the words of Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah and one of three central figures in the Baha’i Faith, who despite being exiled from Iran in the 19th century and witnessing the persecution and murder of his followers, never lost hope in Iran and in Iranians in one of his new year messages:

“May the old earth disappear and the new earth appear; old ideas depart and new thoughts come; ancient politics whose foundation is war be discarded and modern politics founded on peace raise the standard of victory; the new star shine and gleam and the new sun illumine and radiate; new flowers bloom; the new spring become known.” 



Maziar Bahari is the editor of iranwire.com. His 2014 film To Light a Candle tells the story of the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education. It can now be watched for free here



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