Reboot 7.5: Late Night Thoughts on Mahvash Sabet

I had a few things to say, six months ago, on reading the story of a little-known Iranian woman named Mahvash Sabet. She was the focus, on May 14, for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign that tried to train a spotlight on her imprisonment, and those of six of her fellow Iranian Baha’is. Iran ought to be ashamed of itself.

The world was briefly more aware of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for seven outrageous years, but as of right this minute it’s now seven and a HALF years. There is no sign of their imminent release from an incarceration that would be ridiculous if it weren’t such a serious injustice, such an outright loss to Iranian society. So if you missed it, here I was, trying to get to know Mahvash a little better.

Ms. Sabet was the first among the seven Baha’i leaders to be arrested, in March of 2008. These seven had taken on an ad hoc role of guiding and encouraging the oppressed Baha’i community of Iran, since its local and national institutions had been banned in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Over a year after her arrest, Ms. Sabet was charged with “espionage” and “spreading propaganda against the [government]” in a kangaroo court proceeding, more of a political harangue than anything we’d recognize as judicial. There she is, and here am I, wondering about her life as I read a brief biography.

Greyer, but what a kind, calm face.

Greyer, but what a kind, calm face.

  • Mahvash Sabet was a Psychology major, as I was. She taught and led schools until, like many Baha’is, she was dismissed. (My goodness, they must have lost a pile of good teachers. It’s a damned good thing that education doesn’t matter much!)
  • She has two kids. Grandkids? I don’t know. I think of the Sabets I know, and wonder if they are any relation to Principal Mahvash (or to her husband). There are two Sabets on the edges of my life, Sabets I know from more than blurry photos and biographical teases. S is a strong-minded young mum, a tall and striking woman. It’s silly, but I like to think of her two little boys as Mahvash’s grandkids. It brings her closer. M is a bright young lawyer who’d rather write. I like to think of him as the son who learns, earlier than his mother, of his gift for writing.
  • Because she published a book of Prison Poems, smuggled out to family on various scraps of paper, Mahvash Sabet became the focus of a PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists & Novellists) International campaign last fall on behalf of imprisoned writers. I worked for and alongside PEN President John Ralston Saul for a short time. Connections. Degrees of integration.
  • I’ve known a few Iranian students who came to Ottawa for Master’s studies after doing informal bachelor’s degrees in Iran’s Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. BIHE has done heroic and rather dangerous work, as shown in Maziar Bahari’s documentary To Light a Candle, and Mahvash Sabet was its director after her professional standing and work were taken from her. Education, apparently, is a crime in Iran. For some.
  • Mahvash is the same age as my big brother. (And your __________.)
  • I had me a wry little grin when I read about the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence’s ruse, getting her out of Tehran on a transparent and utterly pointless pretext in order to arrest her. Um, why? Somebody in the Republic has read too many decadent Western spy novels.
  • How do you solve a problem like Mahvash? What do you do as a prison authority when your convicted ‘enemy of the state’ repeatedly behaves kindly, acting as a spiritual counsellor and guide? That must keep the bosses at Evin prison up nights.
  • I found this snippet of her poetry. Lovely:“My heart aches for you do not seem to knowThe worth of that subtle inner star.

    If only you could see the lovely one

    Who lies prostrate in who you think you are.”

  • I throw a wee prayer your way, Teacher Sabet. Thanks for teaching me.

Comment (1)

  1. Paul Desailly

    As a writer and as a teacher like Mahvash, and above all as a fellow believer, I find her plight so sad that I’m committed to trying any and all approaches that might help.
    This time last year while attending in Tehran the first national congress of Esperanto I was pleasantly surprised (and suspicious, too, given that I’m a published Baha’i and Esperantist author) to see the high regard in which the Iranian authorities hold the local and the international Esperanto movement. Can the Baha’is at an institutional level reach out to the Esperantists, in the same way as they reach out to the UN and the English speaking media, and ask the Esperantists to act as neutral intermediaries? Just a thought…
    A record number of Iranian Esperantists (30) are registered to attend the 100th World Congress of Esperanto at the end of July in France where 3,000 speakers of Esperanto from 70 countries will gather in an effort to promote world peace. The second Iranian Congress of Esperanto is slated to occur about a month later in Tehran.
    I’ll be praying today with millions of other Baha’is.
    [Mr. Desailly’s note was edited for length.]

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