Nine Years: Prison Poems

prison poems mahvash sabetThis article is devoted to a review of the work called Prison Poems. It is a collection of poems written by Mahvash Sabet, one of a seven Baha’i leaders who have been imprisoned in Iran for nine years. They are adapted into English by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani.

The “crime” which Mahvash committed was to serve her religious community by acting as its informal secretary.  Her lawyer, Mahnaz Parakand records:

Mahvash was firm and determined, brave and dignified, she seemed fearless of the outcome of the court’s decision against her. Her principal concern was for the Baha’i community in Iran. She believed that it was not herself but her Faith and those who believed in it that were on trial.

The outcome was never in doubt. The judges, dressed in clerical robes, relied on a religious fatwa defining the Baha’i Faith as “warring against God and spreading corruption on the Earth“.  At her trial Mahvash said:

Well, the upshot is that you will finally condemn us. We know that and we are ready for death. But we nevertheless believe that the laws must be upheld and that the Baha’is in this country should have the right to defend themselves and their faith.

Before the revolution Mahvash had been a teacher, had trained as a psychologist and worked as a principal. After the revolution, simply because she was a Baha’i, she was expelled from her profession and work – as were all Baha’is working in anything but the smallest organisations. Afterwards she served as a volunteer professor in the “Baha’i Institute for Higher Education” – an underground university run to provide education to Baha’i students who were barred or expelled from universities in Iran.

Despite her courage — the very real suffering of years of imprisonment is engraved in Mahvash’s Prison Poems. “Home was so beautiful, the tree, bird-filled, … a home of joy; even the little ones happy … with everyone busy there. Your prayers tasted of eternity.”

The following is one of my favourite poems from the collection:

The Sparrow

One day, returning from the prison walk

I met a sparrow taking the air too, on my way.

It was pecking a piece of frozen bread,

a cold crumb lying between us in the snow.

‘You and I are both hungry prisoners,’ I said.

At that, it instantly let go of the crumb and flew away,

and I thought, ‘Are you less than the sparrow’?

‘Why don’t you drop the bread too, like this bird?

Why can’t you free yourself from crumbs – and words?”

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