A week or so ago, I read that Mahvash Sabet was released from Evin Prison on a five-day furlough after eight years behind bars. Photos showed her straight gray hair and luminous skin, her shadowed eyes, and her radiant smile above the bouquet of lilies she held. Ms. Sabet was the first of the seven Iranian Bahá’í leaders captured in 2008, some two months before Mr. Khánjání and the others.
She was on my mind as I sat in a newly renovated Starbucks with a friend, swinging my feet from the rungs of the barstool and sipping a tall plastic cup of iced tea. I explained the news and my friend asked two questions. What do you mean, "furlough"? And, why doesn't she just pack up and disappear?
The first is an easy one. We all assume that our prison system and penal code is like everyone else's. Not so much. In Iran, the penal code allows for limited furloughs on a regular basis, after every certain amount of time served, or for certain humanitarian reasons. However, Bahá’ís exist outside the system. Authorities may or may not grant them benefits that are, in fact, written into the code as prisoners' rights. Ms. Sabet and her colleagues were all due multiple furloughs throughout the years. This is just the second of two that have been granted.
The second question is harder to answer. It would be dangerous, if not impossible. Not to mention illegal. But beyond that, it would break the hearts of Bahá’ís all over the country. Not because she might escape a situation that others cannot, but because there is a strong sense that the Bahá’ís are working for a better nation and a better world. Even from the depths of Evin and Rajai Shahr, they're striving to bring peace, compassion, and a unifying sense of humanity to everyone they touch. If that means sacrificing their years, their health, the comfort of their families, and even their lives ... so be it.
That's no easy decision, no simple task. To read Ms. Sabet's poetry, adapted into English in her book, Prison Poems, is to catch a glimpse of the despair she's felt. It's also, for one moment, to see absolute love in the midst of abasement. Why not leave? She answers in this one small verse from "The Imaginary Garden":
You need just one flower -
that’s all it takes -
to open the windows of sight.
A single verse
is quite enough
to illumine the eyes with light.