Hubert Moore addresses the crowd in Trinity's OCRCambridge PEN

This weekend, Cambridge PEN held the event Human Rights and Writing Iran. The occasion proved emblematic of the literary network’s mission to protect freedom of expression by supporting writers and readers across the world. Iranian lawyer and activist Shirin Ebadi spoke out against president Hassan Rouhani for failing to tackle his country’s crippling human rights issues. Although their rapporteurs have been denied access to the country for the last nine years, the UN estimates that 411 people have been executed in Iran this year alone.

Exiled human rights activist and writer Nasrin Pavraz, one of three speakers to address a packed Trinity Old Combination Room, clarified the extent of political oppression in her home country. After calling for women’s rights and civil liberties, Pavraz served eight years in prison (commuted from a death sentence) before seeking exile in the UK. Although not wishing to delve too far into her own experiences, she highlighted the terror of being in prison during the heinous 1988 mass executions. Over five months, approximately 5,000 political prisoners were put to death in what Nasrin refers to as ‘a massacre’. According to Pavraz there are currently at least 60 journalists and bloggers in Iranian prisons awaiting execution, charged with either insulting their leader or producing "propaganda".

Alongside punishment for dissidents who speak out, Pavraz stressed the Iranian government’s determination to prevent them from speaking in the first place. She claims that Iran enforces a "deliberate policy of illiteracy" by suppressing Internet access and denying education to large swathes of the population, notably the children of Afghani immigrants. Censorship is a problem too. Before they can be published, books must receive the approval of the Ministry of Culture and the Office of Islamic Conscience, inherently binding authors to the political and religious ideology of the state. Those who refuse to alter their work, like Pavraz and her fellow speaker and poet Ali Abdolrezaei, face public speaking bans and possible imprisonment or exile.

One of Iran’s most influential poets, Abdolrezaei, left the country in 2002 after he was banned from teaching and speaking in public following his protests against the censorship of one of his books. He is now the chair of Exiled Writers Inc. in London. He claims his work was victimized because he does not share in Iran’s religious ideology. What first marked him as a dissident for the authorities was his poetic exploration of love and sex but in the two poems he reads (one with the help of a translator), there is a clear mingling of the personal with the political; a personal scene is set against a backdrop of state violence as he exclaims, "Your red hair, your red hair in the wind. That’s the only flag I like"; the footnote to a seemingly whimsical poem about falling in love with a teacher reveals her government-sponsored assassination.

Despite PEN’s focus on writers, all three speakers were keen to stress, in response to a question from the floor, that the oppression of writers should not be seen as different to the oppression of the public; "Everyone is suffering," explains Pavraz, "Writers cannot write…[but] everyone suffers in a different way". And Abdolrezaei warns against a kind of elitism in approach to writers and journalists, "the creation of classes". The only difference for him is that "writers pay attention to things others don’t. Writers, poets and artists help people to think." That is, writers and organisations that support them, allow for the challenging and questioning of oppressive regimes.

Writing also presents an opportunity for healing, according to British poet Hubert Moore who, like Pavraz, has worked extensively with Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. His work with exiles has lead him to the conclusion that victims of oppressive regimes require both an "escape" and an "escape back"; that is, a way to return to and overcome the mental torment of torture and abuse. His piece 'Poem for five refugees, one of them a piece of paper’ first offers sympathy for the horror of psychological trauma; "How you must have cowered in the dark hole of what they did to you", and then insists on the power of writing as a release "you allowed it to have happened…flew the flag of it in the wind".

Moore also offers an insight into the power of literature as a tool of international exchange, a theme inherent to the entire event. His reading of Dear Fahimeh, which can be found online, is preempted by an explanation of the poem’s complex journey which has lead him to think of it as "a version rather than a translation". It was composed – "although not likely written" – in 1982 by an anonymous poet before his execution in an Iranian prison. A fellow prisoner memorised his words and, after being released wrote them down in Farsi whilst living in Sweden. Pavraz made a literal translation of the poem and finally Moore translated this into literary English. The degree of separation between Moore and the original poet may imply a certain detachment, yet the effect the poem has on him (he "always takes a moment to recover" from reading it) suggests that the international and collaborative nature of its composition may in fact be its most emotive aspect.

This is in line with PEN’s objective, to provide support for writers in even the most oppressive of situations, like that of Dear Fahimeh’s author, so that they know their voice can be heard. Moore’s final poem, 'Quail' is dedicated to Pavraz. He parallels her confinement in prison to the solitary life of the quail in his neighbour’s garden, explaining that when he hears the bird whistling into the silence he likes to whistle back, "in Quail", to tell it someone’s listening. 

Cambridge PEN will be showing similar solidarity next week at its event Unsheltered Poets. On Friday 5 December outside Round Church they will be reading and performing the work of artists displaced by ISIS in Iraq in an attempt to both share their stories and remind them they are still being heard.