What One American-Iranian Prisoner Learned from two of her Cellmates who are still in an Iranian Prison
By Michael Ireland, Chief Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)
TEHRAN, IRAN (ANS – July 3, 2017) — Roxana Saberi is an Iranian-American journalist and author who was imprisoned in Iran for 100 days in 2009.
She moved to Iran in 2003 to work as the Iran correspondent for the U.S.-based Feature Story News. She filed reports for organizations such as NPR, BBC, ABC Radio and Fox News and was working on a book about Iran when she was arrested on January 31, 2009.
Saberi grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, the daughter of Reza Saberi, who was born in Iran, and Akiko Saberi, who is from Japan. She was chosen Miss North Dakota in 1997 and was among the top ten finalists in Miss America 1998. She graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, with degrees in communications and French.
Saberi holds her first master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and her second master’s degree in international relations from the University of Cambridge. She is now writing her second book on Iran.
Saberi was sentenced to eight years in prison on a trumped-up charge of espionage. In May 2009, an Iranian court overturned the sentence, and she was released.
More than 8 years ago, she shared a cell in an Iranian prison with two women who became her friends, made her laugh when she thought she couldn’t, and took care of her on a hunger strike.
“Through their example, I learned the true meaning of courage, compassion and freedom. Today they are still behind bars. These are some lessons they taught me and others who have known them,” she writes on her blog at http://roxanasaberi.com .
Saberi says: “The most valuable gift I ever received took four years to pass through several hands and cross half the world to get to me. It’s a bracelet made from the threads of a towel I left behind in Tehran’s Evin prison.
“Whenever I wear the pink-and-rose-colored band, I think of Fariba Kamalabadi, the woman who wove it, and her friend Mahvash Sabet — two of my former cellmates, who are now serving their tenth year behind bars.”
Saberi hasn’t seen the two women since shortly before she was released in 2009, “but they continue to inspire me and many others who know them or have heard their story.”
Saberi writes that Fariba and Mahvash, along with five male colleagues, had tended to the spiritual and social needs of Iran’s minority Bahais, who are viewed as heretics by the Islamic regime.
“For this, the seven were accused of ‘spreading propaganda against the regime’ and ‘engaging in espionage’ — charges they deny. They were each given 20-year sentences, which reportedly have been reduced to 10 years.”
Saberi says that despite the serious nature of their situation, Mahvash and Fariba “exuded a peace that I felt the moment I was transferred to their cell. They welcomed me gently and cleared a space for the blankets that served as my bed. I sat down and asked how long they’d been there.”
“One year,” Mahvash said.
“Ten months,” Fariba said.
And yet they were still smiling, Saberi says.
Saberi continued: “I asked them how they could remain so calm. ‘We trust in God to do what is best for our community,’ Mahvash replied. ‘If he thinks we can serve our faith better by remaining here, we accept it.’
She says: “One of Fariba’s relatives recently described this perspective to me: ‘Fariba believes if you want to make a positive change in the world, you need to pay a price.’
“Though they were in prison, their spirits seemed unshackled,” recalled another former prisoner, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They taught me to see my imprisonment as part of my destiny. I stopped asking, ‘Why me?’ and could tolerate even solitary confinement.”
Saberi writes that Mahvash and Fariba helped her, too, “to accept the reality of my situation — to let go of regret for not fleeing my Tehran apartment before four intelligence agents forced their way in to arrest me, and to stop yearning for an earthquake to split open the prison walls. Bad things happen to all of us, my cellmates reminded me. What matters is how we deal with them.”
She says the two women dealt with their circumstances by making the most of every day.
“They exercised in their cells, discussed the books they were allowed to read and asked me to teach them English phrases. (For fun, I also taught them a few choice curse words.)”
Saberi continued: “Mahvash and Fariba also taught me compassion, even for our interrogators, who subjected us to relentless questioning, pressured us to confess to false charges and threatened us with long sentences and even execution.”
When she asked if they ever became angry, Mahvash replied, “We believe in love and compassion for humanity, even for those who wrong us.”
Mitra Aliabouzar, who was a student activist when she met Mahvash and Fariba in Evin prison in 2012, described them as “selfless.” By that time, they had been transferred to the prison’s general ward with more than 20 other female political prisoners of disparate ideologies and faiths.
Saberi says the inmates became friends and worked together to keep the ward clean. “One time I accidentally overslept,” Mitra remembered. “It was my turn to clean the bathroom, but Fariba cleaned it for me” — though she had a bad back.
Fariba, a psychologist, also gave advice to inmates who came to her with personal problems. “She obviously had a lot of issues on her plate,” Mitra said, “but she wouldn’t talk about her troubles. Instead, she listened.”
Mahvash, who had been an elementary school principal before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, began sharing her poetry with other prisoners. A number of her poems were published outside Iran, in English, in 2013. In “Place of Peril,” she suggests she will never be silenced:
If they cut open our veins, red tulips will blush like blood in the fields.
If they padlock our lips, the mouths of a thousand spring buds are unsealed.
Saberi explained the seven Bahai leaders are expected to be released next year. Like many other prisoners, Mahvash, now 64, and Fariba, 54, long to return to their families, feel the sunshine on their skin and smell the fragrance of trees.
She concludes: “Every time I wear my bracelet made from my prison towel, I am reminded of the light of their kindness, compassion and courage. By all accounts, it has only intensified over the past nine years.”
After returning to the United States, Saberi wrote Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran, which was published by HarperCollins and has been translated into several languages. She also worked as a freelance journalist, with articles published in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CNN.com, The Daily Beast, and Chicago Tribune. She has been interviewed by organizations such as FOX News, ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC, CNN, PRI, NPR, and C-SPAN, as well as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Saberi has spoken across the United States and has traveled to Europe, South America, and the Middle East to speak with the public, media, and government officials about Iran, human rights, and overcoming adversity.
She has received the Medill Medal of Courage, the Ilaria Alpi Freedom of the Press Award, the NCAA Award of Valor, a Project for Middle East Democracy Award, an East-West Freedom Award from the Levantine Cultural Center, and the Concordia College Sent Forth Award. She was named one of Jaycees’ 2011 Ten Outstanding Young Americans and was honored by the Japanese American Citizens League as an “Outstanding Woman.” In September 2011, she was chosen as a “commended” artist for the Freedom to Create Main Prize, and in August 2014, she received a Champion of Change Award from the World Women Global Council.
Saberi narrated the audiobook version of Between Two Worlds, which is available at ITunes, audible.com, and Amazon. She has released a music album, including three of her piano compositions, inspired by some of the people and events in her book. She was also a co-writer of No One Knows About Persian Cats, a film-documentary about underground music in Iran, which won the Special Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
Editor’s Note: This reporter campaigned for Saberi’s freedom during her imprisonment in Iran.
Photo captions: 1) Iranian female prisoners in their cell in Evin prison in Tehran, Iran. (Vahid Salemi/Associated Press). 2) Roxana Saberi at a Kurdish elementary school. 3) Cover artwork for Between Two Worlds. 4) Michael Ireland
About the Writer: Michael Ireland is a volunteer internet journalist serving as Chief Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, as well as an Ordained Minister who has served with ASSIST Ministries and written for ANS since its beginning in 1989. He has reported for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China, and Russia. Please consider helping Michael cover his expenses in bringing news of the Persecuted Church, by logging-on to: https://actintl.givingfuel.com/ireland-michael
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