Sam Jordison was among the writers invited to perform at the English PEN Modern Literature Festival V at this year’s Greenwich Book Festival. Six UK-based writers were paired with writers at risk supported by PEN and asked to create and perform new pieces of work in response and in solidarity. This is Sam’s piece for imprisoned journalist and human rights defender Narges Mohammadi.
In May 2016, the Revolutionary Court Of Iran sentenced Narges to 16 years in jail. Charges included being a member of an organisation called ‘Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty’ and ‘committing propaganda against the state.’
One of the main focuses of that propaganda campaign was to stop the state killing juvenile offenders.
Which is to say, children.
She’s now in Evin prison alongside Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. There she sometimes endures solitary confinement Now she’s ill. She has a neurological disorder which causes muscular paralysis… Yet, Evin prison officials denied her access to an neurologist for over a year. It’s partly for that reason that early this year Narges went on hunger strike. Since then, her health had deteriorated and it’s clear she hasn’t had the help she needs.
There’s a lot more to her story that I’d urge you to look into. And, of course, when you read that story, you’ll want desperately to help. That’s why we’re all here, after all. And for Narges, there is something we can do. If you visit the website her friends and supporters have set up, the first thing you will see is a gallery of photos of mountains from around the world. The website explains:
Foremost, we hope to raise awareness for Narges Mohammadi’s case, so that she is released and free to explore all these mountains and places, along with her family.
Narges Mohammadi’s hobby
used to be mountain climbing. When she was a university student, she was banned
from mountaineering due to her political and human rights-related activities.
And now people are sending her pictures. I don’t know if she can see
them in prison, but there’s still something about this gesture. The photographs represent
beauty and freedom: an alternative world were Narges is able to roam where she
wants, enjoy nature on her own terms and feel the wind on her face. These
pictures are also touching as individual acts of kindness. The people who have
gone to the trouble of sending them in are really sending solidarity and hope.
I’ve tried to take inspiration from those people in what follows. I want
to give my own small gift to Narges… which will be a walk on the mountain I
love the most.
Actually, it’s more of a hill. It’s called Whitbarrow and it lies on the
edge of the Lake District. Its summit is only 705 feet above sea-level – but that
summit does glory in the name of Lord’s Seat.
The rest of the hill, meanwhile, a long exposed limestone escarpment
laid down in the carboniferous period 350million years ago, is a site of Special
Scientific Interest, full of rare habitats, glacial erratics, and unusual rock
It’s an incredible place – but don’t take it from me. In his book the Outlying Fells of Lakeland, the great bard of fell-walkers Alfred Wainwright describes a walk up Whitbarrow as ‘the most beautiful in this book; beautiful it is every step of the way. … All is fair to the eye on Whitbarrow.’
Which is true. But I love it especially, because it’s the hill behind my
Mum’s house and I go up there all the time.
From her front door, I just turn left onto a farm road, and I’m
I go through a wooden gate at the top of the lane, and up though a steep
field where lambs play in spring, and where, in winter, if it snows, the
sledging is second to none. At the end
of the field there’s a style leading
into a small wood, carpeted with bright bluebells in April and May, or where in
summer, the air is thick and potent with wild garlic in and in late Autumn everything
is dark and dripping.
A short slippy trudge through this wood takes you to three old stone
steps up the side of the wall. Then, a steep diagonal path up a bank and on to
a stony, muddy track (which is inexplicably marked as a road on some maps, and
so, every so often destroys a luckless lost saloon car… )
Leave this path quickly, cutting upwards to the right, through another,
field, stonier now and scrubbier. There are thick bramble bushes that deliver
sweet and tangy blackberries in early Autumn — and scratches for the unwary the rest of the
Another gate, a short climb and then it’s just sky and the long stretch
of the escarpment. The path cuts through a small declivity, so you don’t get
the full view yet, but no matter. The hill top itself is lovely enough, a big
empty expanse of brown grass and heather and rocks, punctuated by just a few
wind-battered trees and hawthorn and juniper bushes, all dark branches and
witch’s fingers. It’s bleak and stony – but that has its own rugged charm. Not
to mention its own unique interest. There’s a limestone pavement to the left of
the path. It’s a geographer’s dream of clints and grykes and a special, ancient
And on we go. Don’t get too distracted because the track is generally
pretty muddy and there are loose rocks to watch for. Also, gigantic hairy red cows
with long horns. They don’t do much more than stand around chewing the cud and
looking scenic, but let’s not bump into them…
The path is flat now, riding the top of the outcrop. After a gentle, but nonetheless elating couple
of kilometeres, we get to a high dry stone wall, built over a hundred years
ago, by unknown hands, one carefully selected rock at a time. It stretches out
over the top, as far as the eye can see… After that a small pine copse, before
the path leads you past some miniature limestone escarpments that look for all
the world like scale models of the hill you’re on… Then take a sharp right for
Lord’s seat and the summit…
Which is where the magic really begins.
Because my mum’s house is so well situated for the hill, and because I’m
a father and early mornings no longer hold any fear for me, I’ve quite often made
it up there just after sunrise. I ran up there this winter just past on a day
so foggy that it felt as if it was actually getting darker as the dawn
progressed – until, at least, I got to the last slope towards the cairn at
Lord’s Seat. That took me above the mist, and I found myself looking out over
splendours suddenly visible under the rising sun. Morecambe Bay and the Kent
estuary and the Irish Sea to the south, another temporary sea of rolling fog in
the valley below and to the West and beyond that the outlines of the Lake
District mountains brightening into sharp focus: Cartmel Fell, the Old Man of
Coniston, the Langdale Pikes… The names are evocative enough in themselves. But
it’s the feeling you get. The strange elation of mountains… Of their long
campaign against time. Of their hugeness in the face of humanity. Of their
stillness and silence. These are places we can’t touch, we can’t spoil. I can’t
properly verbalise that feeling. But it’s the same excitement that moved the
romantic poets to write about sublime nature – and, I’m guessing, which
motivated all those people to send in pictures for Narges.
In the early morning there’s an extra selfish pleasure too. If you get
there early enough, Lord’s Seat can be yours. You can be king or queen of the
mountain. Later on there will be more panting joggers,. Walkers will enjoy well-earned cups of tea
here. There won’t be so many people that it ruins things, and everyone I’ve
ever met at the summit has been cheerful. But there’s something special about
feeling alone amongst all that beauty…
I enjoy this solitude especially, because I know it will soon end. In
fact, most of the time when I’m there, I’m not even really alone. My dog will
be with me, tail wagging, making the most of things, sharing and adding to the
joy of being there. I also know that when I get back I’ll get to see my family…
My Mum’s house has a glass front door leading to the kitchen, and as I approach
I generally see my daughter sitting at the table having breakfast — and
that’s better than all the other views in the world.
And I wish that simple delight for Narges. I wish the day will come soon
when she can enjoy the companionable loneliness and freedom of mountains.
As it is, we know what she has to endure. Harder still, she’s a mother
of young children and she has been denied the most basic and deepest joy of
knowing that the next hello is just a short walk away.
If I may, I’d like to finish by reading an extract from poem she wrote
in September 2017 called Three Goodbyes:
goodbyes and a separation, like dying three times
Ali and Kiana were just three and a half years old
I was arrested by the security guards when
attacking my home
Kiana had just had an operation and it was
only a couple of hours I had come home.
She had a temperature
When the security guards were searching the
house, they allowed me to put the kids to bed.
I put Ali on my feet, and rocked him, and
And softly sang him a lullaby
Kiana was restless. She had a temperature, and
She’d felt the fear
She’d clung her arms around my neck
And I, as if gradually sinking,
Was separated from them
When I was going down the stairs, leaving the
Kiana was left crying in her father’s cuddle
She called me back three times
Three times I came back to kiss her…
Ali and Kiana were eight and a half, I got them ready for school in the morning
And they left
The security guards attacked my home again
This time Ali and Kiana were not home
I picked up their photo from the bookshelf
And kissed them goodbye
And was led to the car
With men who had no mercy
And now in September 2017
I have not seen them in two and a half years
My writing might not be correctly worded
But it has the certainty of feeling – the pain of mothers throughout history
The mothers who take pride in their convictions from one side, and feel the pain of conviction being away their children taken away.
September 2017, Evin
It’s June 2019 now. It’s gone time she was allowed to see them.
Sam Jordison is a journalist and author of ‘Enemies of the People’. Sam is also a co-director of Galley Beggar Press, the co-editor of the Crap Towns series of books, and looks after the Guardian’s Reading group. You can follow him on Twitter @samjordison
To mark National Writing Day (26 June), we’re inviting supporters across the UK to join us in sending messages of support to Narges Mohammadi. Please send yours via [email protected]
Image credit: Mohammadi family