Bahá’í poet and teacher Mahvash Sabet has this evening been named 2017 International Writer of Courage by Michael Longley at the PEN Pinter Prize ceremony at the British Library. Longley was announced as the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize winner in June this year.
Sabet was released in September, after being imprisoned for almost ten years in Iran. One of the group of seven Baha’i leaders known as the Yaran-i-Iran (‘Friends of Iran’), Sabet was detained in 2008 along with six others, for their faith and activities related to running the affairs of the Bahá’í community in Iran. They were held for twenty months without charge. Their trial finally began on 12 January 2010, on false charges including espionage, propaganda against the Islamic Republic and acting against the security of the country.
Five months later, on 14 June 2010, each of the defendants was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, after six brief court sessions characterised by their lack of due legal process. These sentences were later reduced to ten years each, after a delayed application of the 2013 penal code to the case. They never received official copies of the original verdict or the ruling on appeal despite repeated requests.
On 18 September 2017, Sabet was the first of the group to be released from prison, having served almost a decade in detention. Following her release, she has issued a public call for the release of her six fellow detainees.
Mahvash Sabet began writing poetry in prison and a collection of her work Prison Poems, adapted from Persian by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, was published in the UK in April 2013 by George Ronald Publisher. As Nakhjavani described in the introduction to the collection, ‘her poems allowed her to speak when words were denied, to talk when no one was listening to her.’
Michael Longley was chosen as the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize recipient in June by this year’s judges: Maureen Freely, Chair of Judges and President of English PEN; Antonia Fraser, historian, biographer and widow of Harold Pinter; Tom Gatti, culture editor of the New Statesman; award-winning poet Don Paterson and playwright Polly Stenham. The judges said of Longley: ‘[He] is an ideal recipient of the Pinter Prize. For decades now his effortlessly lyric and fluent poetry has been wholly suffused with the qualities of humanity, humility and compassion, never shying away from the moral complexity that comes from seeing both sides of an argument. Longley is a war poet and a love poet, a nature poet and a poet of the arts, a poet of social and cultural history.’
Michael Longley comments:
I am humbled to share the PEN Pinter Prize with Mahvash Sabet, an Iranian poet condemned in 2010 to twenty years in prison simply because of her Bahá’í faith and her work on behalf of the Bahá’í community: a songbird trapped in a cage. Mahvash is at heart a lyrical poet who sings the beauty of the world. Her imagination is rhapsodic. Her poems want to soar. I rejoice that she has been released from prison. Her incarceration by the Iranian authorities was a sin against the light. The power of dictators to silence and imprison writers continues to ‘put all heaven in a rage’.
Comedian Omid Djalili, who is a member of the Bahá’í faith, has spoken to the media about the persecution of its members and attended the ceremony. He comments:
I’m delighted that Mahvash’s poems are being recognised in this way. What moved me when reading Prison Poems was the care she demonstrates towards her fellow prisoners. To feel their pain and document the nuances of their lives with such sensitivity, while herself a prisoner, is truly heroic.
The fact that Mahvash’s qualities of courage and compassion are being recognised in such a prestigious award, and by such an important poet as Michael Longley, will surely bring hope and encouragement to others who continue to endure injustices, in Iran and around the world.
Nakhjavani attended the ceremony to accept the prize on behalf of Mahvash Sabet, and to deliver her stirring acceptance speech:
—Dear friends, esteemed hosts, honorable guests, Mr Michael Longley, members of PEN, ladies and gentlemen.
Ten years of my life have just passed behind bars, and as I re-enter the world I find myself given this incredible award. It is a wonder to me and a mystery.
Coming back into the light after these ten long years in darkness has not been easy. The changes I see all round me are truly astonishing. The pace of life is overwhelming. But the hardest thing for me is to know that even though I am walking free, many other friends and colleagues still remain behind bars.
So in the midst of my wonder, I am filled with anguish. I am torn between joy and sorrow at this moment. And in thanking you for this great honour, I would like to speak on behalf of all whose rights and freedoms have been deprived.
This is what PEN did for me, by championing my cause. This is what you are doing for so many poets and writers in the world. When I suffered in prison, your compassion sustained me; all through those dark years, your sincere support encouraged me. You are an example of advocacy to people of goodwill everywhere, including journalists and activitists among my own compatriots, and even certain clerics in Iran.
But the person to whom I owe my deepest gratitude today is you, sir – Mr Michael Longley, the poet of Belfast. You have found words for the suffering in your country. You write with an honesty, a directness, and a courage that I admire with all my heart. To be your chosen “Writer of Courage” is a distinction I will try to deserve for the rest of my life. How I wish I could be with you on this occasion. How I hope I might meet you one day.
Thank you for the honour you have given me.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation once again to PEN and its respected members all over the world and to those who have helped to translate my work in so many languages.
Thank you all.