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