When we consider the scope of the conflagration ignited in Iran by the “crime” of a young woman who allowed a few strands of hair to slip from her hijab, we can’t help but be astonished. How could such a dubious violation of Iran’s hijab law set a whole nation ablaze? Likewise, when we reflect on what has prompted the systematic persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran, ongoing now since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, we may be equally confounded. How, in an age characterized by a growing acknowledgement of the richness of the diverse traditions that, together, make up the tapestry of human civilization, could a group of people be detained, imprisoned, denied access to jobs and education, stripped of their properties, and even executed, simply because of their religion?
What crime did the Bahá’ís of Iran commit that they should be so punished? In His Book of Certitude, Bahá’u’lláh offers a sweeping view of religious persecution throughout the ages. As He explains there, it has always been this way: the followers of one divine messenger persecute the followers of the next. So it was that the Jews persecuted the Christians and the Christians the Muslims. And so, today, the Bahá’ís are persecuted in the Islamic Republic of Iran. What “crime” did the Bahá’ís of Iran commit? As Bahá’u’lláh writes in a tablet revealed more than a century ago for Bahá’ís who were, even then, being subjected to the horrors of detention and execution: “Thou knowest full well, O my God, that their only crime is to have loved Thee.”
As the protests launched in September continue to sweep in waves of disaffection across Iran, the persecution of the Bahá’ís intensifies. Since July, more than three hundred and twenty Bahá’ís have been victims of acts of persecution, with dozens arrested in Shiraz, across Mazandaran province, and in cities and villages throughout the country. Homes in Roshankouh, a village in the north of Iran, have been demolished; and throughout Iran, Bahá’ís have been vilified with hate speech and tarred by propaganda. Currently, at least ninety Bahá’ís are imprisoned or subject to humiliating ankle-band monitoring.
To add to this litany of injustices, just days ago, Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi, both of whom have been recognized by the international community for their courage and resilience in enduring a full decade in Iran’s prisons, have now been sentenced to an unthinkably cruel second ten-year prison sentence. When both women were released five years ago, who could have imagined they would face further sentencing, sentencing that would take them into the seventh decade of their lives, a time when both should be free to enjoy their families and contemplate further services to the community for whose upliftment they have sacrificed so much.
It is hard to imagine a more consequential body of poetry than that which a skilled craftsperson might produce from within the confines of a prison cell. Without doubt, Sabet’s first volume of poetry, Prison Poems, speaks more powerfully than any other form of advocacy could ever hope to do, of the anguish suffered as well as the victories won in the course of an unjust imprisonment.
In this issue, we are honored, therefore, to be able to share with readers more prison poems by Mahvash Sabet, these ones newly translated into English by Shahin Mowzoon and Sandra Lynn Hutchison. In these poems, which are drawn from A Tale of Love, a volume of poems previously published in Persian, Sabet continues to tell the story of her life in an Iranian prison, a story that, sadly, she shares with so many Bahá’ís living in Iran today.
And while the eyes of the world are fixed on Iran, we, at e*lix*ir, would like to take the opportunity to draw attention not only to cases of Bahá’ís unjustly imprisoned, but also to the fate of Bahá’í youth in that beleaguered country. So, at this potent moment of learning, when people the world over are coming to know something of the aspirations of the Iranian people, we give voice in this issue to the hopes and dreams of Bahá’í youth at this critical time in the life of Iranian society.
It is our hope that by reading their stories, readers will draw close to these youth and come to feel such solidarity with them that they will be inspired to engage in advocacy on their behalf — by sharing their stories and speaking out against the injustices they suffer, and by praying for their liberation, at long last, from the forces of darkness that smother their hope for the future.
In the essays and stories that appear in the “Holy Soil” and “Candles in the Darkness” sections of this issue, we give voice to youth whose remarkable courage cannot help but inspire our readers. And in “The Scent of Roses,” we offer essays about places so vividly described that readers may feel they have been transported to Sanandaj or Babol or Shiraz and are walking in gardens redolent with the scent of jasmine and damask roses or picking pomegranates and figs from backyard trees.
In “Personal Reflections on Bahá’í Texts,” we share the reflections of some of these youth on passages from Bahá’í scripture. One of these essays, “Calamity: The Path to Eternity,” was written by Hannan Hashemi just days before her arrest. When we ponder the lived experience from which these reflections arise, we may feel galvanized to reach to greater heights of service in the work of healing the world.
In this issue, we launch a new section entitled “Letters,” which we hope to include as often as we can in future issues, for what is art if not a letter to a beloved reader? The letters written by Andisheh Taslimi and Mehrsa Mastoori are addressed to the children they hope to have one day, and offer us, as readers, a heart-rending and intimate portrait of the difficulties faced by Bahá’í youth as they attempt to make lives for themselves under conditions of extreme oppression.
With this issue, we add Mehrsa Mastoori to our team at e*lix*ir as our arts correspondent in Iran. We are pleased to be able to share the interview she conducted with Shahriar Cyrus, a Bahá’í painter also living in Iran. In her interview, Mehrsa speaks with Cyrus about his unforgettable painting of seven of the Bahá’ís who administered the affairs of the community in Iran, on their day in court in 1981. Cyrus’ painting bears witness to a haunting moment in the history of the persecution of the Bahá’ís of Iran. By bringing us inside the court room to look into the faces of these unjustly detained prisoners, Cyrus enables us to experience something of the gravity of the fateful moment when all seven prisoners were sentenced to death for refusing to recant their faith.
In a show of solidarity, fabric artist Lynn Miller created a quilt for the Bahá’ís of Iran, which we share in the art section of this issue. Written in fabric, the quilt, which she has entitled “Resilience,” is a love letter to the friends in Iran, reminding them that we are with them in spirit.
In this issue we feature, once again, the photographs of Ann Sheppard and James Braun, and we add Jake Michaud to the list of accomplished photographers and artists whose work we have showcased in e*lix*ir. Jake’s photographs soothe the soul and shine the light of spirit on the pages where they appear.
In the theme song of the current Iranian protest movement, “Baraye” by Shervin Hajipour, we hear nothing if not a yearning for a life free from surveillance by a government that has so often dealt harshly with its citizens, for the opportunity to enjoy, without fear, the everyday pleasures of life: “For dancing in the alley... For wistful wishes of having a normal life... For the face that smiles... For peace of mind... For the sun after long nights....”
As we listen to these mournful lyrics, we may wonder if Iran and its capital city, Tehran, which has been the center of so much protest in recent days, are destined to become the graveyard of dreams, places where such yearning is buried alive. Yet Bahá’u’lláh offers a very different vision of the future of what is referred to in Bahá’í scripture as “this holy land of Persia,” the birthplace of God’s messenger for this day. And if we look with the eyes of faith, we may be able to soar high above the crowded chaotic streets of Tehran and its dark prison cells and catch a glimpse of “the holy and shining city” Bahá’u’lláh wrote of, a city in which people of all faiths can live together in peace.
Sandra Lynn Hutchison