Sunday, May 15, 2011

More Powerful than Hatred: A Note

Not so shiny days in Iran! It is too sad that the Iranian jails are full of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners. Add to it the attempts to put those prisoners under harsher and harsher conditions by sending them on exile across more horrifying prisons. A few days ago, several female political prisoners and prisoners of conscience formerly held in Gohardasht prison were transferred to Qarchak prison outside Tehran and are now spending their sentences under inhuman circumstances that make Qarchak even more dangerous than Gohardasht prison. Although several human rights groups and other governmental or non-governmental organizations have condemned the action, the Iranian government has not done much to improve their situation. But this does not mean that disappointment should prevail the efforts to defend their rights. There are lessons of hope and determination to be learned from those powerful souls whose constructive resilience in prison proves to be inspiring elsewhere.

The story starts when the officials of Gohardasht Prison, home to several prisoners of conscience including the Iranian Baha’i leadership group, transferred Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi, the two female members of that group, to a more insecure and insanitary section of the same prison. When Mrs Kamalabadi informed her family of this transference, she noted that she would call her family each day; in case the family did not receive a phone call from her some day, it would be an alert to them meaning anything - including their death possibly.

On such occasions, informing the public - through the media - is maybe the only thing that can be done to influence a change. Whether it was for the political situation in the country or simply due to ignorance, no press release came out about that act of transference for three long days – after which the first public news I received was that of the Baha’i World News Service.

During these three days, I would pray for their lives, thinking about the last couple of years and what had went on throughout. There is this inspiring song by Josh Groban that said “…Per te vivrò. L'amore vincerà…” The supernal quality of the song can make you contemplative at any given time, let alone under these circumstances, when you see people who do not recant their faith and their love, and dedicate themselves to the happiness of all around them, including not only their fellow inmates, but also people like me - through their energetic voice on the phone, the voice that you cannot hear much but that frequently echoes in your mind.

A few weeks later, I received an email that was about a convicted criminal who had been allegedly ordered to kill the two - an informal way of getting rid of prisoners who are not legally found guilty, but whose presence some authorities would like absented. Presumably the criminal had gone to their cell one day, telling them what she had been ordered to, but that she was not going to kill them because she and other prisoners had learned they were good people. 

The transforming power of love, which overcomes enmity and goes beyond it: “When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love.” (Emphasis Added. Paris Talks: Addresses given by Abdu’l’Baha in Paris in 1911-1912 (London: Baha’i publishing trust, 1995),p.19)

The validity of this comparison between the power of love/unity and hatred/division is already proved to be true in the natural world. Compare the nuclear energy produced in a fission reaction – an atomic reaction with a nucleus splitting into parts- with that released in fusion -when several nuclei unite into one. The energy produced during fusion is so much that it still challenges physicists who want to tame and control the reaction in a reactor!

Controlling the power of love and unity is, I think, even more complicated in the world of human beings. God willing, nobody should ever face such displays of hatred as evidenced in this corner of the globe, yet the experience in Gohardasht can contribute to our understanding of the world in general. Their attitude is well the subject of a case study, introducing a powerful force into our social affairs, one at work even in a mysterious complicated prison community, the force of love that could transform the hearts of even the most convicted criminals and could diminish the flare of enmity there.

Mrs Sabet herself has talked about this force, recounting part of their experience in Gohardasht in one of her poems, an English translation of which can be found here. The poem is already available in a Farsi human rights website named Agahee. Please share this translation with everybody who is interested in the well-being of humankind – so that they may raise the call in support of these women and the many other innocent people kept in Iranian prisons and that they may find the attitude put forward here inspiring in their efforts towards the betterment of the world.

An English Translation of a Poem by Mrs. Mahvash Sabet

No Boundaries[1][2]
No boundaries:
     face to face,
         knee to knee,
                eye to eye,
away from all that was and is.

We gaze at the water in dingy sinks,
     at water-smeared mirrors,
          looking for a reflection,
                looking for the Light of the world,
                     that eternal glimmer of Light,
                          the spot where there is sun -
                                   a jeweled crown at the Apex of the world –
                                        a bride on the Mountain of love
                                            enthralled by the Mountain of love,
                                                 transported by the scent of red geraniums and green meadows.
And those women:
just letters --
each separate from one another,
sitting around us all, their faces . . . ghastly . . .
no sign of connection,
merely letters,
not sentences,
not even

And yet it is together
          that we achieve that two-letter meaningful word “BE”:
              and become transported by the scent of red geraniums and green meadows.
No boundaries,
     knee to knee,
         eye to eye.

We didn’t know it,
          yet we unleashed
                chaos into the clamor
                         through our silence.
We didn’t know it,
           and the reflection of
                  the Light of the world,
                      in the water-smeared mirrors and dingy water –

We disturbed the silence.

We didn’t know it,
          and yet we would smile
                in the interstices of pain.

We would smile at those women –
           their feet swollen,
          mad ones with cold eyes,
          sick ones with yellow faces.
          no longer women, not even  men,
          old ones in death’s grasp, no matter the age
          and icy hungry ones
          hair shaved and faces razed
          and the ones with missing teeth
          and the young ones with yellow, swollen wounds
          and rotten thoughts
          with the paralyzing tang of decay,
          rusty voices
          and innocent women with entreating glances
          with hands like ivy 
                   seeking love,
and there we were, shedding love
         in that limbo of tribulation
              speaking of sacredness
                     of Humanity,
and those isolated letters glorified us
for some time in secret
and then openly.
When that one dear woman
         flipped through the pages of a book
                for the first time
                     and saw the letters of text
                           in the simple association of meaning
                                her eyes began to glitter
                                    her smile radiated with connection
                                        and her words radiated herself.
We didn’t know it

     and those lost delusory souls --
         unaware of love --
         unaware of us --
         unaware of Plus – addition and connection
         tending toward Minus -- subtraction and division--
         tried to remove us from the glossary of words.
And so,
       everyone saw the connectedness of letters
            in the simple association of meaning
                 flipping through pages
                     no boundaries
                          between one another
                              knee to knee
                                   eye to eye.


[1] This is an English translation of a poem by Mrs. Mahvash Sabet, one of the seven members of the Baha’i leadership group in Iran, now serving their 20 year prison sentences. The poem is the story of why Mrs Sabet and Mrs Kamalabadi were transferred within the notorious Gohardasht prison. The original Farsi poem can be found here.
With special thanks to dear Ms Roxana Saberi and a beloved Baha’i friend for their comments on the translation draft.
[2] Also posted here.