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Society & Culture

“Not Victims but Witnesses”

November 15, 2014
Saleem Vaillancourt
5 min read
“Not Victims but Witnesses”
“Not Victims but Witnesses”

Mahvash Sabet found her voice in prison. “My heart aches,” Sabet wrote in her 2013 book Prison Poems, either to her Iranian jailers or to her fellow women inmates, “for you do not seem to know / The worth of that subtle inner star. / If only you could see the lovely one / Who lies prostrate in who you think you are.”

Sabet, a 61-year-old former teacher, is currently serving a 20-year sentence in Evin prison in Tehran. PEN International, a freedom of expression NGO, has identified Sabet as one of hundreds of imprisoned writers whose cause is to be championed on 15 November for PEN’s annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer.

“November 15 is a day of action and acknowledgment,” says Marian Botsford Fraser, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. “It is PEN’s way of saying to all of our 900 imprisoned, harassed, murdered and disappeared writers: you are not silenced. You are not forgotten. We stand with you and fight for you.”

But the Iranian authorities did not jail Sabet for her words. Sabet, the poet and teacher, is also a Baha’i. She was arrested on 5 March 2008 because she was a member of a seven-person informal leadership group responsible for the affairs of Iran’s 300,000 Baha’is. Her six colleagues were arrested a few weeks later. All seven endured 18 months of harsh detention and repeated violations of due process.

The trial of the seven Baha’is, which began on January 12, 2010 and ended after six brief sessions on June 14, 2010, left them with 20-year jail terms each, on charges of espionage, propaganda against the Islamic Republic, the establishment of an illegal administration, cooperation with Israel, sending secret documents outside the country, acting against the security of the country, and “spreading corruption on earth”.

Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, founder of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders, and the lead lawyer for the Baha’is, called the charges “baseless” during the trial. Most of the charges were later dropped. The prison sentences were also reduced, to 10 years; but were then reinstated to the original terms. No formal verdicts have ever been issued to the seven Baha’is or their lawyers.

Cathy McCann, another PEN official, says that Sabet’s case is “quite special” because Sabet’s writing has been successfully transmitted to the outside world and then published. Prior to her incarceration, she was not really a writer, setting her apart from many of the writers PEN champions.

Sabet herself was “very reluctant” to be identified as an imprisoned writer, according to McCann. “She wanted to be treated as an equal to the others she’s imprisoned with – she didn’t want to be given what could seem as preferential treatment.” PEN International has included Sabet in its line-up of jailed writers because her case is “emblematic” of the “plight of the Baha’is in Iran and the group she’s imprisoned with – and obviously the case of other writers in Iran.” Thirty-seven journalists are imprisoned in Iran today.

Sabet’s poetry inspired an open letter from the Argentinian-Canadian writer, Alberto Manguel, as part of the PEN campaign. “I don’t know if you can find comfort,” he writes, “in realizing that you have now been welcomed into a vast and honoured company of imprisoned writers, from all centuries and all tongues ... and that generations of readers to come will remember your name as they remember theirs, long after the names of your jailers have been swept off the memory of the earth.”

PEN International says that 283 writers are imprisoned around the world – and 900 more are considered “at risk” of harassment, detention, and murder.

PEN would never have heard of Mahvash Sabet, though, had it not been for the impromptu and discreet sharing and translation of Sabet's poetry across half the planet. “It was really to do with discovering her prison poetry,” McCann says.

Sabet’s poems were composed on scraps of paper in her Evin cell. Friends and family were able to remove the poems out of prison and then out of Iran. Her work eventually made it the writer Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, author of the bestselling The Saddlebag: A Fable for Doubters and Seekers, who led the translation effort.

Nakhjavani translated the poems into an English that echoes the tone of the original works. Speaking at the launch of Prison Poems in London in 2013, Nakhjavani said that Sabet and the other Baha’is in prison were “not victims but witnesses” who were “not drawing attention to their own plight but representatives of other peoples' suffering.”

Sabet’s work in Prison Poems often dwells on the people she has encountered in prison. “And when a woman,” she writes, “is forced to stamp / the death warrant with her own thumb / I forget my own shames, choke at hers, / Humiliated and heart-wrung.”

Farzaneh Milani, professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and cultures at the University of Virginia, assisted in Nakhjavani’s translation. Speaking at the 2013 book launch, Milani said that, in Sabet’s work, “you see the juxtaposition of metaphors of containment, of walls, iron doors, gates, alcoves within alcoves, juxtaposed side by side with instruments of flight, of freedom, of hope, of compassion.”

Sabet’s poetry typifies the Iranian Baha’i response to the systematic persecution the community suffers. Baha’is are routinely arrested and detained – more than 100 are in jail on trumped-up charges – and they are denied livelihoods and access to higher education. Sabet also served for 15 years as the director of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. The BIHE is an informal university for young Iranian Baha’is barred from public institutions – and it is now the subject of a documentary, To Light a Candle, produced by Maziar Bahari, and a new global campaign called #EducationIsNotACrime.

Culture and education, for Sabet and her fellow Baha’is, are a more lasting defence against oppression than any kind of violent response. And perhaps Sabet’s poetry is also a form of release. Milani, during the book launch, said that Sabet has “made a tract out of her words, a magic carpet, and gone all over the world.”

“Beyond those gates, another world, another race,

a people poisoned and oppressed by woe;

they stared wearily at us, the prisoners we faced,

with sunken eyes, lack-lustre, circled with sorrow”

(Mahvash Sabet, an extract from “From Evin to Raja’I Shah” in Prison Poems, published in English on 1 April 2013)


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