A tiny slice of the outside world

Mahvash Sabet has been imprisoned for over seven years. Sentenced to twenty years in Evin prison in Tehran and charged with espionage, propaganda against the Islamic republic, the establishment of an illegal administration, co-operation with Israel, sending secret documents outside the country, acting against the security of the country, and corruption on earth. All mainly because of her words about her faith. I truly, truly cannot see why an enlightened people, race or country would feel threatened by prose and mere words. I hate and despise the very concept of some dark authority, running from the light of truth and trying to ban and stop those words – like Pandora desperately trying to close the lid on ideas that are flying out.

I found a book entitled The Moth – True Stories told Live. It has stories from myriads of people with words and tales that are poignant, devastating, quirky, wry, brave but always and ultimately true. The people telling them are not asking for approval or trying to change the world. They don’t insist that you listen and heed their words; they’re just letting the words get out to anyone who will listen.

It seemed appropriate to try and get it to her and to make her understand that she wasn’t alone, that the outside world knew about her plight and that people, in their own small way were trying to get through to show her she wasn’t forgotten and give a gleam of hope.

I parcelled it up with a postcard and a bookmark. I had no idea how long it would take to get to Tehran. I wasn’t sure it would even get through to her but I hoped something would. Even just the postcard – a tiny slice of the outside world.   It was May and I hoped for the best.

In December, I heard from Mahvash’s cousin in Texas – Bijan – saying that Mahvash had received my book was grateful and amazed it had got through to her. She had also sent me some of her art work done in prison – a beautiful textile runner with bright, jewel-coloured arabesque designs inlaid into it. It was a labour of love. The letter ended by saying: ‘What you did is a clear example of how the humanity in us continues to live, despite all the acts of senseless violence in today’s world’.

Mahvash Sabet artwork (sent to Mish Varney, 2015)I was struck dumb. This was humbling. I had done nothing. Nothing apart from think of someone and send a book in a throw-away gesture. But to Mahvash who received it and Bijan who worries about her it meant so much more. It brightened their lives. It meant that no matter what their plight and wherever they were, someone cared and had remembered them.

I’ve always believed in the power of books. In the power of words to reach out to people and tribes and nations. Books and words are powerful tools that can change behaviour and thoughts, which can suddenly make ideas crystal-clear and explain the world. They can only release and enrich people. But they can’t hurt you. They are no danger to anyone. Books love you back.

So no matter how small the gesture, the thought or the gift – reach out to someone. Send that postcard to a prisoner. It’s nothing to you but it could be a bright shaft of light to the recipient.

Find out more about sending letters and books to Writers at Risk

Here is the prose book mark created for World Book Night on April 23rd 2015 that was sent to Mahvash:

How can you not love a book?

It goes everywhere and yet is always at your side. It sits with you through the dark times and holds onto to you, soars with you when your heart is up in the clouds. It can be your heart’s desire or a long, dark journey into your soul. It will teach you, enrich you, make you laugh in remembrance of it and yet the taste can be as bitter as wormwood.

You can meet books wilder than your imagination, and ones that you think are mad, bad and dangerous to know. You can meet books you wouldn’t take home to Mother, that will shock the Vicar, will keep the children spellbound and ones you and your Granny can talk about for hours. Meet your soul mate, your enemy, arch-rival and your hero.

Books will accompany you to the pub, that long holiday journey to Aunty Winifred’s or halfway across South America to find yourself. Meet a book and meet yourself.

They have been taken to the bottom of the sea, to the North and South Poles and are circling the planet as we speak.

Take three of them to bed – they won’t care and will still respect you in the morning.

Nothing loves you like a book.

– Michelle Varney, April 2015

Michelle Varney is an editor/ reviewer with an interest in campaigning for human rights.

About Cat Lucas

Cat Lucas is English PEN's Writers at Risk Programme Manager

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One Comment on “A tiny slice of the outside world”

  1. I took the time to read this article. I am a Baha’i, living in a country largely free from striife and tyranny. The article is a good reminder of many things we take fro granted as well as how we can teach through our actions, no matter how humble.

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