Writing to survive: Baha'i woman's poetry was her best friend in Iranian jail

(CNN)The sun had already set when the woman with long gray hair descended the steps to the same prison gate she had passed through all those years ago.

Mahvash Sabet had been behind bars for an eternal decade, and on this evening, she was leaving Tehran's Evin Prison without money or possessions or anyone waiting for her.
Iranian authorities released Sabet from her jail cell a day ahead of schedule at a little after 5 p.m., the deadline for prisoners to make their last phone calls of the day. The move was deliberate, she believes, to keep her homecoming quiet and largely removed from media glare. She had become, after all, internationally known.
    Outside the prison gate, Sabet asked to borrow a passerby's phone, then waited patiently for the 90 minutes it took her husband to cross Tehran in rush-hour traffic.
    She had been arrested, interrogated and tortured for her faith -- she is Baha'i, a religion the Islamic Republic of Iran considers heresy. She and six other members of an informal Baha'i council known as the Yaran, or Friends in Iran, were arrested in 2008.
    Her Baha'i beliefs in peace, altruism and humanity were, undoubtedly, instrumental to Sabet's perseverance in prison. But she also relied on something else: poetry.
    "Writing," she says, "became my means of survival."
    She scribbled her words on paper napkins and towels and shoved them into pockets and purses during precious "contact" visits with family, when they were not separated by the usual thick glass.
    The words she managed to get out of prison described a place of bleakness but one that could not break the human spirit.
    Author Bahiyyih Nakhjavani reads a statement from Mahvash Sabet at a PEN International ceremony honoring Sabet's poetry.
    They were words that recently earned Sabet recognition from English PEN, the founding center of PEN International, which promotes freedom of expression. Poet Michael Longley, winner of this year's PEN Pinter prize, named Sabet as the 2017 International Writer of Courage.
    "Her imagination is rhapsodic. Her poems want to soar," Longley said at a ceremony ipn London.
    He called her incarceration a "sin against the light" and then, quoting William Blake, said: "The power of dictators to silence and imprison writers continues to 'put all heaven in a rage.'"
    Sabet walked free of Evin Prison on September 18, the eve of President Donald Trump's speech to the United Nations, which focused in part on Iran. But, really, she had escaped prison long ago, when she began writing.
    What are they doing to us in this perilous place,
    this prison of loss?
    But what can they do to a handful of dust
    in the middle of chaos?
    If they cut open our veins, red tulips will blush
    like blood in the fields.
    If they padlock our lips, the mouths of a thousand
    spring buds are unsealed.

    'Where's the life in your roots gone?'

    Before Shiite clerics took over Iran, Sabet lived another life.
    Born Mahvash Shahriyari in the small city of Ardestan, about 225 miles south of Tehran, she moved with her family to the capital when she was in the fifth grade.
    She earned a degree in psychology but also taught and became a principal in several schools. She had always loved writing and was good with words, say those who know her, and for a while she played a role with the National Literacy Committee of Iran.
    Sabet was a teacher and principal before Iran began persecuting the Baha'is.
    She fell in love with Siyvash Sabet and the two married in 1973. They had a son, Foroud, and a daughter, Negar.
    But the life she had envisioned ended with the Islamic revolution.
    The Baha'i faith is monotheistic and focuses on the spiritual unity of humanity. It was founded during the 19th century in what was then Persia and has millions of followers across the world, including 300,000 in Iran.
    But Iran's Shiite clerics view the faith as blasphemous because its founder, Baha'u'llah, declared himself to be a prophet of God. Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed was the last prophet of God. And so, since 1979, life for Baha'is in Iran has deteriorated.
    Iran banned the religion, and the Baha'is -- the largest religious minority in the country -- have faced persecution in all aspects of life. Baha'i cemeteries have been desecrated; their marriages are not recognized.
    The Iranian government, says Amnesty International, routinely denies the Baha'is "equal rights to education, work and a decent standard of living by restricting access to employment and benefits."
    Sabet was fired from her job as principal and permanently barred from public education. She eventually became a director of the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education, created to help Baha'i students barred from higher education in Iran.
    On March 6, 2008, the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security arrested Sabet and jailed her for more than two years without a proper hearing. Eventually, a revolutionary court convicted Sabet and the six other Baha'i leaders and condemned them to 20 years behind bars, although later the time was reduced to 10 years. The charges against them included espionage for Israel and spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic.
    It was a verdict that Amnesty International called a "damning manifestation of the deeply rooted discrimination against Baha'is by the Iranian authorities."
    One of Sabet's lawyers, Mahnaz Parakand, recalls her first encounter with Sabet in February 2009. Sabet was handcuffed to Fariba Kamalabadi, another of the Baha'i leaders.
    The two women did not complain or speak of themselves, Parakand recalls, but she could tell from the color of their skin that they had been deprived of daylight and fresh air.
    "However, despite all their hardships, their will remained unbroken and they were determined to give up their lives, if necessary, for their beliefs," Parakand would later write.
    About the same time, Iranian authorities arrested American journalist Roxana Saberi and imprisoned her in Evin for 101 days. Saberi shared a cell with Sabet and Kamalabadi.
    "They taught me to, as they put it, turn challenges into opportunities -- to make the most of difficult situations and to grow from adversity," Saberi wrote of their encounter.
    "We kept a daily routine, reading the books we were eventually allowed and discussing them; exercising in our small cell; and praying -- they in their way, I in mine. They asked me to teach them English and were eager to learn vocabulary for shopping, cooking and traveling. They would use the new words one day, they told me, when they journeyed abroad. But the two women also said they never wanted to live overseas. They felt it their duty to serve not only Baha'is but all Iranians.
    "Later, when I went on a hunger strike, Mahvash and Fariba washed my clothes by hand after I lost my energy and told me stories to keep my mind off my stomach. Their kindness and love gave me sustenance."
    Evin has been home to thousands of political prisoners in Iran. Many wallowed in grief. Many broke. But not Sabet.
    She had been confined to a 13-by-16-foot shared cell in Evin's Section 209, a ward notorious for housing prisoners of conscience. The small windows were covered by metal that let in hardly any light. Often, she slept on a cold cement floor, even in the midst of harsh winters. She was subjected to nightlong interrogations and worse: torture and solitary confinement.
    After her release, I wrote to Sabet, asking about her imprisonment, her poetry and how she survived.
    "A prison does not merely consist of high walls and barbed wire. The effects go far deeper and are much more complex than external barriers," Sabet said in a translated and emailed response to my questions.
    She says her confinement cut her off from everything, even her own senses of light, taste, touch and sound, to the point that the sensory deprivation began turning her into a vegetable.
    "They leave you into this limbo state and simply feed you to keep you alive," she says. "And all through this time, they interrogate you. They throw false charges at you over and over again. They accuse you, threaten you, abuse you, curse you, humiliate you. And you have to endure it all knowing that this could lead to further charges, more indictments, longer imprisonment ahead."
    But there was something else that was even harder to endure, she says.
    "Worse than this was that they wanted me to forget who I was. They wanted me to forget what I believed, forget my identity."
    Sabet searched for signs of hope in the smallest things, a sparrow taking flight or a thistle growing out of the pavement. And she began writing them down.
    And I said to myself,
    'Are you less than a weed then?
    Where's the life in your roots gone?
    Where's growth in your leaves? Your stem? No stirring in you at all? For shame!
    And at that I felt a surge of the sap
    Of spirit blaze within.

    'They cannot take from me what I shall never lose'

    At first, Sabet says, she wrote poems for her family. She wanted to cheer them up.
    "I didn't want them to suffer for me; I wanted them to stop grieving for me," she says.
    "But soon, poetry began to lighten my own heart, too. I found that I could express my deepest feelings through poems. They could contain my misery amnd my suffering, my anguish at being separated from my friends and family, and in addition to recording painful moments of crisis, they became the place where I could record my little victories."
    She discovered she could put her anger and grief away if she expressed them in a poem. Her words allowed her to forget heartbreak and sorrow, overcome disappointments. They cleansed "the rust off my heart and recover the strength of my soul," she says.
    Why is it that despite its reels and shakes
    the topsy-turvy world here cannot cause
    this throbbing heart of mine to ache?
    ... If I have not died here it is because
    they cannot take from me what I shall never lose.
    But she also wrote so that she would remember her experiences, she says. She kept a pen and notebook with her and wrote every single day. In prison, poetry became Sabet's best friend.
    ... And that is why I need a balm to perfume
    this camphor-tasting bread.
    A light to cast on these yellowed faces.
    A breath to lift these heads.
    Sabet at her Tehran home in a recent photograph taken after her release.