Tag Archives: Iran

Day of the Imprisoned Writer: a letter to Mahvash Sabet

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Alberto Manguel is a well known and celebrated Argentine-born Canadian anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist and editor. Below is the letter he wrote to Mahvash Sabet, a Bahá’í and prisoner of conscious in Iran. During her incarceration, Mahvash has published a wonderful and inspiring book of poetry about her experiences in prison. (See below.) The letter was published in the British newspaper The Guardian  on Monday, November 10th in recognition of tomorrow, November 15th, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. This is one of many open letters by leading authors written to defend persecuted writers.

I find his letter both touching and sincere and hope that it, in some degree, alleviates and comforts Mahvash Sabet and all her sister and brother Bahá’ís—and indeed all prisoners of conscious—in their unjust imprisonment.

Dear Mahvash Sabet,

It’s almost an impertinence, I feel, to write to a poet who is being kept behind bars for her words and beliefs. King Lear, imprisoned at the end of the play with his daughter Cordelia, tells her that they will become “God’s spies”. That is what you as well have become, bearing witness to society’s injustices, prejudices and inability to understand that no matter what society might do to a poet, the poet’s words will still be free in the minds of the readers, and continue to conjure up ideas, engage the mind in conversation. Perhaps there’s consolation in this.

You end one of your poems saying that “You can’t see the sorrow after lights out,” and that you therefore “long for the dark, total black-out.” I hope, for your dear sake, that the end of your sorrow is near but not as that “total black-out” you speak of: instead, as a resolution of freedom, as the free sunlight that is every person’s natural right, a right no one is entitled to take away.

I don’t know if you can find comfort in realising that you have now been welcomed into a vast and honoured company of imprisoned writers, from all centuries and all tongues, from Boethius to Abu Nuwas, Cervantes, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Nazim Hikmet and hundreds of others, 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.

I can’t offer you anything in your cell except my devotion as your reader, my trust in better times, and my distant but sincere friendship. I hope that in the very near future we will meet in person, not only on the page.

With very best wishes of hope and courage,

Alberto Manguel

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Mahvash Sabet, teacher and poet, is one of over 150 Bahá’ís currently serving long term prison sentences in Iran. She has been detained since 2008 for her faith and activities related to running the affairs of the Bahá’í religious minority in Iran. I have previously posted several of her poems, all taken from her book, Prison Poems:

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available both in the US and UK.

A great thanks to Pete Hulme of Everybody Means Something for his post on this subject and for bringing this letter to my attention.

– john

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Mavash Sabet’s “At Such a Time You’ll Come”

Mahvash Sabet is a Bahá’í prisoner of conscience currently serving an unjust 20 year sentence in Iran. Read more of her story here.

At Such a Time You’ll Come

I fear that time
when patience will no more be mine
when brittle hope will have been blown away,
it’s kindness gone,
when the wind will have scattered me
and my eyes will have strayed from the path–O!
if no door opens to me then, not one–
I will know for sure it is that time
when you will come again.

 

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I am amazed at the strength and constancy that this poem radiates! Especially for one who is unjustly in prison and ill, such utter resignation is like a blade of grass which bends to the storm, unlike a strong tree, which is uprooted and thrown down.

Please consider purchasing Mahvash Sabet’s poetry as an act of solidarity in the fight for human rights: in the US, from Amazonin the UK, directly from the publisher.

john

This English edition of At Such a Time You’ll Come is ©2013 by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, who adapted the original Persian text into English; all rights reserved.

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Mahvash Sabet’s “The Prayer of the Tree”

Mahvash Sabet is a Bahá’í prisoner of conscience currently serving an unjust 20 year sentence in Iran. Read more of her story here.

The Prayer of the Tree

That hapless tree that sat through all the winter months out there
naked in the snow and ice, it’s shivering branches bare,
broken, wind-torn, bleak and dreary,
bent by the changing seasons, weary,
has finally had an answer to its prayer.
See how the kind Creator full of loving care
has decked it in new garments, fresh and rare!
Have you seen how green it is at last, how finally dressed, how fair?

 

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Can one not but be amazed that anyone, sick and unjustly imprisoned for their faith, could still find the tenderness and gentleness in their heart to write such a delicate and joyous poem? Shame to the Iranian authorities for such an injustice!

Please consider purchasing Mahvash Sabet’s poetry as an act of solidarity in the fight for human rights: in the US, from Amazonin the UK, directly from the publisher.

john

This English edition of The Prayer of the Tree is ©2013 by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, who adapted the original Persian text into English; all rights reserved.

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Mahvash Sabet’s “The Imaginary Garden”

There was once a woman
green as the spring,
who planted her hands in a garden.
And another woman,
red as her heart
who plucked light from the bars of a prison.
And now here I am
with my own patch of soil,
growing a garden
in this tiny cell,
with poppies of love for each pane.

You need just one flower–
that’s all it takes–
to open the windows of sight.
A single verse
is quite enough
to illumine the eyes with light.

So I’ll tie my bags to the foot of the breeze
and soar high up to the top of the trees
in my garden that grows inside.
And I’ll spread wings to reach you
and soar high to teach you
how windows can open wide.
You don’t need much:
one poppy is all
it takes to open to love.
One verse is sufficient
to fill the eyes
with that shining beam from above.

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Mahvash Sabet is a Bahá’í prisoner of conscience currently serving an unjust 20 year sentence in Iran. This is another heart-rendering poem smuggled out of her prison and translated and published in the west. Read more of her story from my post of her poem Fire.

Mahvash is not well and languishes in prison without proper treatment. Please pray for her strength.

Please consider purchasing Mahvash Sabet’s poetry as an act of solidarity in the fight for human rights: in the US, from Amazon; in the UK, directly from the publisher.

– john

This English edition of The Imaginary Garden is ©2013 by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, who adapted the original Persian texts into English; all rights reserved.

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The Letters of the Living

Burst

There, then, on that Purest Spot,
with the night pregnant with the day,
Shiva the Destroyer lifted up
and threw down on the knee of His love
the entire world and the heavens thereof,
breaking them then, all that lay therein
so that they fell, cast deep into darkness and doubt.

There were but Twenty still living:
the First, the eighteen and the Second,
Witness unto Himself. What Word
on that day did those eighteen say
so that the reunion could finally begin?
“Yea!” they cried, voices flung in abandon,
high unto the heavens.
“Yea!” they cried, necks bared to the blade,
arms lifted taut with joy.
“Yea!” they cried and thus they died
leaving only their echoes to recall them.
But here in my place, God help me,
I think I hear them still.

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This is a poem that is steeped in the history of the Bahá’í Faith and the allusions will be unclear to non-Bahá’ís, so let me explain very briefly:

Much like John the Baptist came first to prepare the world for Jesus Christ, the Báb (“the First” in the poem) came to prepare the world for Bahá’u’lláh (“the Second” in the poem), the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. The first eighteen brave souls—martyrs all, as was the Báb Himself—who declared Their belief in Him are referred to as the Letters of the Living.

This concept of “living”  i.e. spiritual rejuvenation through belief in a new Manifestation of God, is developed also in the first stanza, where Shiva—a Hindu deity—fulfills one of the roles of God and “destroys” the world (everyone is metaphorically dead upon His arrival) and then transforms it, through giving “life”, i.e. spiritual rejuvenation through faith in Him.

Thank you for reading The Letters of the Living. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

The photograph is entitled Burst and was taken in Washington, DC on Memorial Day, several years ago. For more photography, please visit the Book of Bokeh.

john

Photograph, poem and notes © 2014 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. The poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original written work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2014 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com. The photograph is not licensed for use or reproduction in any way, unless so granted in writing by the copyright owner.

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Mahvash Sabet’s “Lights Out”

Mahvash Sabet is a Bahá’í prisoner of conscience currently serving an unjust 20 year sentence in Iran. Read more of her story here.

Lights Out

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—
filling the space with coughs and groans,
suffocated sobs, incessant moans—

You can’t see the sorrow after lights out.
I long for the dark, the total black-out.

I am not sure what breaks my heart more: the difficult circumstances of Mahvash’s life, health and incarceration or the beauty and sublimity of her poetry under such difficult circumstances! Please keep Mahvash in your hearts; she is gravely ill in prison, suffering from tuberculosis of the bone.

Please consider purchasing Mahvash Sabet’s poetry as an act of solidarity in the fight for human rights: in the US, from Amazon; in the UK, directly from the publisher.

john

This English edition of Lights Out is ©2013 by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, who adapted the original Persian texts into English; all rights reserved.

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Mahvash Sabet’s “Bear This in Mind”

Mahvash Sabet is a Bahá’í prisoner of conscience currently serving an unjust 20 year sentence in Iran. Read more of her story here.

Bear This in Mind

When you pass by
a heap of rotting rats
bear this in mind:
they might not all be dead.
They might just be lying there,
lying and pretending.
Because no one bothers
the dead round here.

This is, I believe, an poem from the early part of Mavash’s incarceration. Please keep her in your hearts and prayers; she is gravely ill in prison, suffering from tuberculosis of the bone.

Please consider purchasing Mahvash Sabet’s poetry as an act of solidarity in the fight for human rights: in the US, from Amazon; in the UK, directly from the publisher.

john

This English edition of Bear This in Mind is ©2013 by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, who adapted the original Persian texts into English; all rights reserved.

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Mahvash Sabet’s “Fire”

They set fire to all you had:
each flame transformed
into a bright anemone of blood.
They pierce you through and shot
each arrow owned by old Farhad.
But when the sweet juice stained
the ground, it flowed from Shirin’s vein.

My heart breaks to deliver this poem to you, as does my soul soar in love and admiration. But before I explain why, let me make a few notes in explanation of the poem: an anemone is a daisy-like flower of the temperate zone, available in a variety of intense colors, including crimson red. The tale of Farhad and Shirin is one one of the most celebrated love stories of Persian literature, somewhat equivalent, I think, to the Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

This is one of the incredible prison poems of Mahvash Sabet, a Bahá’í who was arrested in Iran in 2008 merely for the crime of being a member of the Bahá’í Faith. Held for nearly three years without a proper hearing, she and a number of her co-religionists, were finally convicted on a series of trumped up false charges—those usual fabrications of an evil fantasy typically thrown at the Bahá’ís in Iran—and sentenced to twenty years of imprisonment. Fire comes from the new publication, Prison Poems by Mahvash Sabet; published by George Ronald Publishing.

Prison Poems is an incredible triumph of the heart and the soul, for while it documents the sorrow, fear and desolation of false imprisonment, it also chronicles the courage, love, growth, forgiveness, dedication and sacrifice of a transcended soul. As Mahnaz Parakand, one of the human rights lawyer, who, at great risk to her own freedom, courageously defended the Bahá’ís at their trial, states in her forward to the book, “Indeed the staunchness of faith and the unfaltering humanity of Mahvash Sabet is worthy of every praise.”

If you can, please keep Mahvash in your hearts. She is gravely ill in prison, suffering from tuberculosis of the bone.

Also, please consider purchasing Mahvash Sabet’s poetry as an act of solidarity in the fight for human rights: in the US, from Amazon; in the UK, directly from the publisher.

Now you know why my heart is broken and why my soul is soaring. Thank you for visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

This English edition of Fire is ©2013 by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, who adapted the original Persian texts into English; all rights reserved.

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Last nights

Did you plan on dancing through the pain,
or you, to give sweets away in thanks?
And you—you prepared your wedding gown
when you knew that they were coming;
while you, in joy, communed the night through,
half here, half there, yearning for the dawn,
yearning for the chance to stand and cry,
‘O king!’ as if calling to a servant,
for of course you were, and for that alone would die.

I do not believe it happenstance—
that accident and fate can connive for
such perfection. But what love does it take
to command the will to shape such an end?
And so joyously?

Curiously, this poem had two creative forces. One, from several years ago was quite clear: my dearest friend and self-adopted brother, Samandary  (the English language really ought to have a specific word for this type of relationship—and it’s not ‘bro’) suggested both the idea, the title and much of the substance. (Clearly, you can understand why it took me so long to bring the poem to fruition, having been given so little to proceed on.)

The second impetus was my recent reading of the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, an effort to prove—with this being counter-intuitive to our every notion—that violence has decreased throughout history and is today at its lowest level ever. It is a brilliant book and one that, quite frankly, I started to read to determine how silly and foolish the author was, only to be converted by the clarity of his writing and the strength of his facts and binding logic. Read it only if you do not fear feeling better about the world.

But there was one section of this book that I disagreed with, and that is the second specific impetus for this poem. Pinker is quite open about being an atheist. I have no problem with that, except that I think it taints his view of the role that self-sacrifice has placed in religious history. His description of the crucifixion process is quite graphic and he progresses from there to describe how religious martyrs have been killed throughout the ages, in a tone which does not so much describe the level of violence that the societies of that day could gleefully inflict (which is his point) but implies the silliness and foolishness of the martyrs to allow themselves to say or do anything that would set them up for such treatment.

I could not disagree more. To me, that “silliness and foolishness” is better called “certitude and conviction” and was not done to invite violence, but was done courageously in the face of such evil, so as to change it, one of the causes in the reduction of violence throughout the ages that Pinker does not care to suggest. Moreover, such courage is the hallmark of all the world religions.

We in the Bahá’í Faith are no exception to the history of relentless religious persecution. The different incidents referred to in this poem of how four stalwart heroes prepared for, or acted, during their martyrdom, actually happened. In fact, Bahá’í martyrdom still happens in Iran and Yemen to this day, the most recent being just a few weeks ago. True martyrdom is never sought, but when inflicted by evil, bigoted people, it is faced with courage, resignation, self-sacrifice, love and humility. And I, for one, will always honor them.

Thank you for reading Last nights. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

PS: By the way, Iran English Radio, the official Iranian radio for English speaking peoples followed my blog after the publication of another poem in which I highlighted the persecution of religious minorities and the destruction of basic human rights in that country. I have little hope that my or your appeal to their humanity would make any difference, but be aware that they may read your comments. Also, Iran English Radio has yet to ‘like’ any of my poetry. Frankly, I’m hurt.

© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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The orange tree

In the spring, its blossoms scented the air throughout the neighborhood.
Mrs. Nusrat Yalda’i, 54 years old
I knew it well, as I grew up close to that House, leaving only when I was 17.
Mrs. ‘Izzat Janami Ishraqi, 50 years old
I even used to say my prayers on the spot where He declared Himself
Miss Roya Ishraqi, 23; the daughter of ‘Izzat
and was proud, and happy, to be allowed to take care of that tree.
Mrs. Tahirih Siyavushi, 32 years old
When we were sick, my grandmother would make us tea from its blossoms
Miss Zarrin Muqimi, 28 years old
and for a difficult exam, I would put one of its leaves in my textbook, for luck.
Miss Shirin Dalvand, 25 years old
When they razed His House, the tree was sacrificed too; much was lost then…
Miss Akhtar Sabit, 19 or 20 years old
Years later, on pilgrimage, I saw two orange trees growing outside of His Shrine
Miss Simin Saberi, early 20’s
and learned that they are descendants of that orange tree from Shiraz!
Miss Mahshid Nirumand, 28 years old
I was so happy to see that tree alive and sacrificing itself, again, for others.
Miss Mona Mahmudnizhad, 17 years old;
she asked to be the last of the ten hanged so that she could help her sisters
if they needed it. They did not.
So happy.


Abbas Jannat is a Persian Bahá’í who contacted me recently asking permission to copy and use my poem That House. I, of  course thanked him for the courtesy of his request, granted the permission and asked how he had found the poem and why was he drawn to it. He had found the poem and the Book of Pain on Google (you can do that?!) and wanted to use the poem in a commemoration of a Bahá’í Holy Day. He also shared with me some details of his life, and in follow up emails his close connection to, and history with, the House of the Báb. I cannot thank him enough for his generosity in sharing these details with me. As soon as I read his words I knew there was a beautiful poem in them.

His response and notes from our subsequent emails form the narrative half of this poem. The second half of the poem, which I incorporated to stress the theme of sacrifice, is equally sad and tragic.

The history of the destruction of the House of the Báb in 1979 by the newly arrived political dominance of the Islamic Revolution, I have already covered in the posting for I am not here, but I will always be there so I will not repeat it here. That event was, sadly, only the opening salvo in the Islamic Revolution’s still (as of 2013) on-going war of persecution to eradicate the Bahá’í Faith in Iran. One of the next provocations was the martyrdom of many Bahá’ís, but most famously that of ten women from the city of Shiraz,  on June 18, 1983. As I write this, tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of that heartbreaking affair.

I can only imagine the thoughts of the religious fanatics as they hatched their plan: ‘Let’s attack their women!’ they said. ‘They are the weakest and easiest to intimidate! And when they are broken, their husbands and children will recant too, out of shame!’

How little fanatics understand anything!

The trial was clearly a sham and the women convicted of ‘Zionist’ activities (this, apparently because the Bahá’í World Headquarters are in Israel, where the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith was sent when it was a penal colony of the Ottoman Empire) and for teaching children after they had been expelled from their schools for their religious beliefs. Freedom of religion as a basic human right was then and is now, clearly a farce in Iran. Indeed, each and every one of these women could have bought their instantaneous freedom at any time in the process, including up to the point of martyrdom, by saying the merest words of recantation of their belief in Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. That not one soul did, brought me then, and brings me now, to the verge of tears every time I think of their courage and love.

May my life be a sacrifice to their noble and courageous lives.

Thank you for reading the orange tree. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

PS: By the way, Iran English Radio, the official Iranian radio for English speaking peoples followed my blog after the publication of that House. I have little hope that my or your appeal to their humanity would make any difference, but be aware that they will read your comments.

© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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