Ledbury Festival and English PEN

Hello there
I was going to write about political matters but decided not to. I'd only be saying what others have already said, more eloquently. Instead I drafted a poem and I will share it with you when I've edited it a bit more. It was inspired by this from Michael Rosen - 

Fascism: I sometimes fear...

"I sometimes fear that 
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress 
worn by grotesques and monsters 
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. 

Fascism arrives as your friend. 
It will restore your honour, 
make you feel proud, 
protect your house, 
give you a job, 
clean up the neighbourhood, 
remind you of how great you once were, 
clear out the venal and the corrupt, 
remove anything you feel is unlike you...

It doesn't walk in saying, 
"Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution."

And incidentally Michael Rosen wrote this before the referendum


Instead I want to write briefly about an important project which I am proud to be a very small part of. 
The "Poetry as Protest" initiative sees poets at the upcoming Ledbury Poetry Festival sharing work from imprisoned poets from around the world. Dozens of poets will give voice to their words, to a living audience, citizens who enjoy freedoms we might take for granted.
The programme is run by English PEN  - a literature and human rights charity that defends writers’ rights to freedom of expression.

I am going to to read a poem by imprisoned teacher and poet and mother-of-two Mahvash Sabet. She is serving a 20-year sentence in Evin prison,  Iran and began writing while incarcerated.
Her poems are described as ‘sometimes a means of historical documentation…; sometimes a series of portraits of other women trapped in prison with her; sometimes meditations on powerlessness, on loneliness’.

Here is one of her poems - 

Lights Out
Weary but wakeful, feverish but still
fixed on the evasive bulb that winks on the wall,
thinking surely it’s time for lights out,
longing for darkness, for the total black-out.
Trapped in distress, caught in this bad dream,
the dust under my feet untouchable as shame,
flat on the cold ground, a span for a bed,
lying side by side, with a blanket on my head.
And the female guards shift, keeping vigil till dawn,
eyes moving everywhere, watching everyone,
sounds of the rosary, the round of muttered words,
fish lips moving, the glance of a preying bird.
Till another hour passes in friendly chat,
in soft talk of secrets or a sudden spat,
with some snoring, others wheezing
some whispering, rustling, sneezing –
filled the space with coughs and groans,
suffocated sobs, incessant moans –
You can’t see the sorrow after lights out.
I long for the dark, total black-out.
Adapted from the Persian by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. Based on translations by Violette and Ali Nakhjavani.
From Mahvash Sabet’s Prison Poems. Published by George Ronald Publisher Ltd 


Mahvash  is one of a group of seven Baha’i leaders known as the ‘Yaran-i-Iran’ – ‘Friends of Iran’ – who have been detained since 2008 for their faith and activities related to the affairs of the Bahá’í community in Iran. 

According to PEN, the Baha’i community in Iran has been the focus of a systematic, state-sponsored persecution since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. After the revolution, the ‘Yaran-i-Iran’ – was formed with the full knowledge of the government and served as an informal council for the Baha’i in Iran, working to support the spiritual and social needs of Iran’s 300,000-member Baha’i community, until its entire membership was arrested in 2008. Mahvash was arrested on 5 March 2008 while on a trip to Mashhad. The other six members of the group were arrested on 14 May 2008 at their homes in Tehran. All were imprisoned without charge until January 2010, during which they were held incommunicado for weeks and were not allowed access to legal counsel. 
PEN says: "Charged with espionage, propaganda against the Islamic Republic, the establishment of an illegal administration, cooperation with Israel, sending secret documents outside the country, acting against the security of the country, and corruption on earth, their trial began on 12 January 2010. On 14 June 2010 each of the defendants was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, after six brief court sessions characterised by their lack of due legal process. Their sentences were later reduced to ten years each when an appeals court revoked three of the charges; however, in March 2011, the prisoners were informed of the reinstatement of their original sentences. They have never received official copies of the original verdict or the ruling on appeal despite repeated requests."

You can find out more about the Poetry as Protest initiative here - 


In these times of turbulence across Europe it is important to remember how fortunate we are to live in democratic societies and to be able to speak without fear of persecution or imprisonment. The Poetry as Protest initiative drives this home.
It is vital that people are aware of the plight of those who cannot speak or who are imprisoned for speaking out against the authorities. Until I took part in this initiative I am ashamed to say I was unaware of poets living out 20-year jail terms in Iran, without legal recourse or right to appeal.
The chance to share a poem from Mahvash Sabet with an audience at Ledbury is therefore a huge privilege. The poem is a direct connection from her prison cell to the listener in Britain and as such it is a vital link that runs both ways.
I'm going to be sending Mahvash a letter, and a book, and she and many like her are in my thoughts. Their plight puts the current situation in Britain and Europe into perspective.


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