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NZ poet speaks out about persecution of fellow writer

Award-winning NZ poet speaks out about persecution of fellow writer

Auckland, New Zealand (Monday 30 October 2017)

North Canterbury poet and writer Bernadette Hall has spoken out about the unjust imprisonment of an Iranian poet who spent the last 10 years behind bars.

Mahvash Sabet was released from Iran’s Evin prison last month where she was being held as a prisoner of conscience for her beliefs as a Baha’i.

The Baha’i community face state-led persecution in Iran and members of the faith are forbidden to publicly practice their religion. They are denied employment and education and routinely suffer the confiscation of their property and closing of their businesses.

Hall, who was the recipient of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2017 for Services to Literature, was introduced to Sabet’s poetry by a Baha’i friend, Bev Watson, who also lives at Amberley Beach. She says she was “amazed” at Sabet’s ability to find inspiration and write in one of Iran’s most notorious prisons.

“Here’s a woman who for the first years was held in solitary confinement, face-to-face with herself. I think that would be a really tough place to begin to write poetry. Here is someone in dire circumstances who can turn outwards and then make beauty.”

Hall has authored over nine poetry collections and in 2015 she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for poetry. She says she was struck by the authenticity and optimism in Sabet’s work.

“There’s a hopefulness which I guess comes also from the Baha’i Faith because it seems that it’s an optimistic way of looking at the world and our lives. The thought is that the world is improving, that humankind is maturing, no matter how awful it looks out there.”

Like Hall, Sabet is a former teacher who started writing later in her life. Sabet composed poems on scraps of paper in prison and gave them to friends and family. Her compositions, adapted into English, were published in a volume called Prison Poems in 2013.

Earlier this month, Sabet was awarded the PEN Pinter prize; an international writing award celebrating free speech.

Sabet, now 64 years old, was one of seven Baha’is who were arrested and sentenced to prison on charges of “espionage” and “spreading propaganda against the regime” in 2008. The other Baha’i prisoners are yet to be released.

The United Nations, governments, parliamentarians, Nobel laureates and human rights lawyers all over the world have condemned Iran’s persecution of its Baha’i community. In New Zealand, there are around 5,000 members of the Baha’i Faith who follow the teaching of Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the religion.

Among the Baha’i principles are the oneness of humanity, the equality of men and women, and the need for universal education.

“I’m not a Baha’i myself but I can’t help but be amazed at the courage of the Baha’is who know they’re out of step with authorities in Iran. There are big moral reasons why they take the stand they do,” says Hall.

“Sabet is an inspiration for the commitment she has shown to humanity. I hope a little spark of her courage will spread.”


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