On Friday, June 7th, Omid Djalili was interviewed by Sean Moncrieff on Newstalk Ireland about a remarkable new collection of poetry just published in the UK.
Prison Poems – launched at the U.K. National Baha’i Centre in London on June 4th – is a collection of poetry written by Mahvash Sabet, one of the seven members of the former Yaran.
Mahvash Sabet and six of her colleagues have already been in prison for five years and face a further 15 years incarceration simply for being members of the Baha’i Faith.
The poems, all written in prison, were adapted by the novelist Bahiyyih Nakhjavani from original translations, with the assistance of Farzaneh Milani, professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and cultures at the University of Virginia.
Speaking at the launch of the book, Professor Milani said that though Iran has a long tradition of poetry written by prisoners this has always been a masculine tradition. This collection, on the other hand, was not only written by a woman it was written by a prisoner still in prison at the time of publication which, Professor Milani believes, makes it quite unique.
She also commended Mahvash Sabet’s courage and compassion which she said is evident in her poetry, noting how remarkable it is, “…that a woman who is in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic can still have so much compassion for other people – regardless of their faith, regardless of their crime – and that she can fly, she can take shelter in her faith, in poetry.”
All accounts of these poems describe them as uplifting, in spite of the circumatances. “She has made a tract out of her words, a magic carpet and gone all over the world,” said Professor Milani. “I think she is one of the most courageous women.”
Mahvash Sabet served for several years before her imprisonment as secretary of an informal council of seven individuals known as the Yaran, who were responsible for managing the affairs of the 300,000 plus Iranian Baha’i community. In March 2008 she was arrested and jailed. Her six colleagues were arrested in May of the same year. It was more than two years before they had a trial and then they were sentenced to twenty years in prison – the longest sentence ever received by prisoners of conscience in Iran.
One of the four lawyers who defended the Yaran, Mahnaz Parakand, describes their first meeting –
My first encounter with Mahvash Sabet took place on a hot summer’s day. After many hours of tedious waiting in a special room set aside for lawyers, I was finally allowed to meet her in the presence of two women guards . . . it was obvious that the Bahai prisoners had been deprived of fresh air and daylight for a long time; their entire beings seemed thirsty for the energizing heat and light of the sun. However, despite all their hardships, their will remained unbroken.
Published to mark the fifth anniversary of the imprisonment of the seven so-called Baha’i leaders, these poems are not the type of poems many people might expect. As the official statement about this book explains,
“Her poems have allowed her to speak when words were denied, to talk when no one was listening to her. But unlike many prison poems, hers are not merely a catalogue of hopes and fears. Sometimes a means of historical documentation, a chronicle of what the Baha’is have been subjected to since their incarceration; sometimes a series of portraits of other women trapped in prison with her; sometimes meditations on powerlessness, on loneliness; her poems are plangent with appeal, ardent with hope for whatever the accusations against her, she is a prisoner of faith… these poems testify to the courage and the despair, the misery and the hopes of thousands of Iranians struggling to survive conditions of extreme oppression.”
Anglo-Iranian comedian and actor Omid Djalili who presided over the launch, noted that today there are over a hundred Bahá’ís imprisoned in Iran simply for their faith. In his address to those gathered at the launch of Prison Poems, he stressed that Iranian Baha’is just want to serve the homeland they love. He also described Mahvash Sabet’s poem as unique for their defiant optimism.
Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, who was instrumental in the translation of these poems, also addressed those gathered for the launch of Prison Poems. Of Mahvash Sabet and her colleagues Ms. Nakhjavani said that they were, “not victims but witnesses, not prisoners drawing attention to their own plight but representatives of other peoples’ suffering, not individuals demanding their rights but servants of humanity.”
Listen to the Newstalk interview with Omid Djalili here (the interview starts c. 8mins 14seconds)
Read more about Mahvash Sabet here
Find out more about Prison Poems here
The journalist, Roxana Saberi, who was jailed in Evin prison for 101 days in 2009 and held in the same cell as Mahvash Sabet and her colleague Fariba Kamalabadi, also sent a video message to the launch in which she recalled the exemplary character and behavior of her cellmates.
Prison Poems is published by George Ronald Publishers, Oxford.