Last weekend I was at a meeting where I became aware of a book that I must get hold of as soon as possible: its title is Prison Poems. Its subject is so compelling and so important that I felt that it would not wait till then for me to pass on the title, some background and at least one poem. So, I’m doing it now even before I’ve bought, let alone read the book.
The poems are rooted in experiences of oppression and false imprisonment. They are powerful, honest and deeply moving. As the publisher’s site indicates:
Adapted from the Persian by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani based on translations by Violette and Ali Nakhjavani, 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.
(I’m not quite clear yet exactly when the book itself was finally published.) I’d like to quote a poem to start with before exploring more fully the context from which it sprang:
I’ve come to the end of my capacities; not much is left.
The blood in my narrow veins is like an old postman
Creaking up a dark and ruinous path on a decrepit bicycle.
My lungs are filled with the poison of this air,
rank and stagnant with the taste of camphor and of soot;
My ears are deafened by the shattering screams of pain all round
In this stinking, fetid, dead-end place.
Hemmed in by thoughts that are so limited, so closed,
by the corruption and perversity – alas! – of those
who don’t know and don’t want to ask, who don’t seek and so don’t find.
who don’t hear, don’t see, don’t think and yet give orders to everyone:
creatures whose definition of unity consists of the breaking of atoms.
(The Limits of the Spirit)
I checked out the web for information and came across a useful link. Mary Victoria, the daughter of Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, explains in this article, written in 2011, that the poet is Mahvash Sabet. She gives the key points of Mahvash’s recent history as well as quoting poems such as the one above. Mahvash is one of seven people imprisoned almost five years ago for their beliefs.
Mahvash was one of an ad-hoc committee of seven Bahá’ís, all now imprisoned under similar harsh sentences, who had with the knowledge of the Iranian government been peacefully ministering to the needs of their fellow believers. . . . . . One day, in the spring of 2008, Mahvash was summoned by officials in a distant locality, ostensibly to organize the funeral rites of some Bahá’ís. She was arrested while away from home, incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison for two years without trial until the summer of 2010, then subjected to innumerable hearings based on trumped up charges, marred by judicial irregularities. Part of that story is told by Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist who shared a cell with Mahvash during her own highly media-documented run-in with the Iranian authorities. Ms Saberi was released after 100 days; last June, Mahvash and her companions were [condemned] to twenty years imprisonment, later reduced to ten.
Just a few days prior to the Iranian New Year’s celebrations on March 21st , I heard news of Mahvash’s fate: as a result of her befriending fellow prisoners, she had been transferred to one of the most troubled sectors of Rejai Shahr. There, certain inmates with a history of violent crime had been informally encouraged to do what the Iranian state could not openly accomplish, and murder Mahvash and her Bahá’í companion, Fariba Kamalabadi, with impunity. . . . .
So far, no one has killed Mahvash and Fariba, though they have been systematically hounded by gangs of prisoners, chased out of the communal showers they may use once a fortnight and denied access to food and water. Other reports maintain that the two Bahá’í women have a calming effect on their cellmates, even in the worst circumstances. People do not wish to attack them, after spending a little time in their company.
As I become more deeply acquainted with the poems and the details of the experiences that gave rise to them, I will return to a more detailed consideration of this book.