Interview with Mahvash Sabet

Lyrical flights

Mahvash Sabet, a leading representative of the Baha'i religion, spent almost ten years in Iranian prisons because of her faith. She was released in September. Sabet turned her experiences during her confinement into poems, which she managed to smuggle out of prison. Interview by Keyvandokht Ghahari

Ms Sabet, can you describe the day of your release for us?

Mahvash Sabet: My family and I were expecting my release on 19 September. On 18 September, however, I was informed that I was being released. The prison staff didn't even allow me to use the telephone. They just brought me to the exit and that was that. I told them I would get someone to film me and would tell the whole world they had just let me out on the street after ten years in prison with no money, no belongings, and that I didn't know anything and wasn't able to do anything. They couldn't have cared less. When I got outside, I was angry rather than happy. Outside the prison gate, some people were gathered, waiting for the release of their relatives. I asked if someone would make a call for me. One of them phoned my husband.

Where did you serve your ten-year sentence?

Sabet: In various places. The first 82 days were spent in the prison at Mashhad. I was then transferred to block 209 of Evin prison in Tehran, where I spent two-and-a-half years in solitary confinement and was interrogated over and over again. Finally I was put on trial, convicted, and sent to Rajai Shahr prison in Karaj. I was there for ten months. Then they closed the women's section and we were sent to Qarchak prison. Two weeks later I was back in Evin to serve out the rest of my sentence.

How did you spend your days during the years in prison?

Sabet: I wasn't really aware of very much during the days I spent in solitary confinement in the security block. It was a hard time, but I was able to escape into my thoughts, my inner world. I had a lot of time to pray. I saw it as a kind of struggle between what was right, that which I carried in my heart, and the misconceptions in the minds of those who were keeping me locked up. My conviction that we had not done anything wrong was unshakeable; during the interrogations in court and elsewhere, I was certain that our innocence would be established. We were accused of many things, but at no point did I take the allegations seriously. I knew it was impossible to make any kind of legitimate case against me. I could not believe that anyone could receive a twenty-year sentence when there was no evidence against them.

The seven members of the Baha'i leadership imprisoned by the authorities in Iran in 2008 (photo: Monib Sabet)
The seven members of the Baha'i leadership imprisoned by the authorities in Iran. On 14 May 2008, Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm were arrested. Mahvash Sabet had already been remanded in custody several months previously. The five men are still in prison

Were you ill-treated or tortured?

Sabet: I don't want to talk about that at the present time.

You were in a block with other political and social activists. How did you get along with your fellow prisoners?

Sabet: In the wing that housed political and religious prisoners, the prisoners sought a peaceful co-existence. We had created a kind of microcosm of a free country there, where everyone lived according to their faith without fear of discrimination, exclusion or insult. No one gave any heed to whether others were politically active or not.

Were you, as a Baha'i, treated any differently to the other prisoners?

Sabet: Some things happened in Rajai Shahr prison that showed that the authorities were trying to terrorise us psychologically, or to get the other prisoners to gang up on us. But the prisoners didn't go along with it. On one occasion, I was put into the block for serious offenders, along with Fariba Kamalabadi, who was also arrested for belonging to the Baha'i faith. The situation there was especially difficult as no one was permitted to talk to us or even acknowledge our presence. I even heard – though I can't confirm whether it is true or not – that one of the inmates awaiting execution had been ordered to kill us. Apparently she was told that she would be hanged anyway, but that killing us would allow her to die with honour.

Things soon changed for the better, however, because we had done nothing wrong and we supported the other inmates, empathised with them or gave them advice. We had very similar experiences in Evin prison too: it is the custom for the inmates there to choose a spokeswoman, the so-called "block lawyer". Her job is to deal with internal matters and establish lines of communication with the prison staff. The first time a Baha'i woman was elected block lawyer, the prison authorities refused to play along. All the inmates in the block went to see the deputy governor of the prison and were able to persuade him that we would not accept the conditions outside being transferred inside the prison, because inside, everyone is equal. The authorities accepted our point of view. It opened the door for other Baha'i women in the block to be elected later.

A visitor at an exhibition in Haifa about the founder of the Baha'i religion, Baha'u'llah (photo: Getty images)
According to the website of the worldwide Baha'i community, Baha'is believe that the crucial need facing humanity is to find a unifying vision of the future of society and of the nature and purpose of life. Pictured here: a visitor to an exhibition in Haifa about the founder of the Baha'i religion, Baha'u'llah

The Irish writer Michael Longley described your poems as "epic poems that want to soar". Do you agree? And what are your poems about?

Sabet: My poems are love poems. Despite the fact that they were written under very difficult circumstances in prison, they are about love: the love I tried to help grow in my heart for people all over the world, for my surroundings and for those who may not necessarily have been kind to me. I wanted to hold on to my memories forever – the memories of imprisonment, from the perspective of a woman. There may be many people who would like to know how a 21st-century woman managed to survive for ten years in such a tiny corner of the world? To know what she thought about every day, how she coped with problems in prison and about her moments of happiness?

I wrote about love, about pain and suffering, and about my inner struggle. I never once though of weapons or overthrow. Nor did I ever try to deviate anyone from their path, but rather to find strength in my spiritual and mental strength. If these are the characteristics of epic poetry, then yes, my poetry is epic.

That my poems should want to soar after all this seems normal to me. When one has been behind bars for years, one yearns to fly, to break free of the chains for ever. I longed to leave the narrowness, the pessimism and the misunderstandings behind me, to make people see that I had done nothing wrong, that I was a human being just like them and that I had been accused of the most dreadful things because of my most honourable actions.

How has your life been since your release?

Sabet: It has been difficult to adjust to life on the outside; emotionally I am still very much attached to the friends I had in prison. I got used to time passing slowly there. Out here it passes so quickly. I have the feeling that I'm getting virtually nothing done. That is something I find very difficult.

After my release, I didn't even recognise the bank notes, never mind the streets of Tehran. And then there were the many visitors, the children, who had grown up in the meantime, or the babies that I was meeting for the first time. Many people passed away while I was in prison. It is like living in a strange, foreign world.

Interview conducted by Keyvandokht Ghahari

© Iranjournal/Deutsche Welle/ 2017

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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