PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Sam Jordison for Narges Mohammadi:
In May 2016, the Revolutionary Court of Iran sentenced Narges Mohammadi to 16 years in jail. Charges included being a member of an organisation called “Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” and “committing propaganda against the state.”
One of the main focuses of that propaganda campaign was to stop the state killing juvenile offenders.
Which is to say, children.
She’s now in the Evin prison alongside Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. There she sometimes endures solitary confinement. She’s ill. She has a neurological disorder which causes muscular paralysis… Yet, Evin prison officials denied her access to an neurologist for over a year. It’s partly for that reason that early this year Narges went on hunger strike. Since then, her health has deteriorated further. And it’s all too clear she hasn’t had the help she needs.
There’s a lot more to her story that I’d urge you to look into. And, of course, when you read that story, you’ll want desperately to help. And for Narges, there is something you can do. If you visit the website her friends and supporters have set up, the first thing you will see is a gallery of photos of mountains from around the world. The website explains:
“Foremost, we hope to raise awareness for Narges Mohammadi’s case, so that she is released and free to explore all these mountains and places, along with her family.”
Narges Mohammadi’s hobby used to be mountain climbing. When she was a university student, she was banned from mountaineering because of her political and human rights-related activities. She has been kept from the mountains ever since – but now people are sending her these pictures. I don’t know if she can see them in prison, but there’s still something about this gesture. The photographs represent beauty and freedom: an alternative world were Narges is able to roam where she wants, enjoy nature on her own terms and feel the wind on her face. These pictures are also touching as individual acts of kindness. The people who have gone to the trouble of sending them are really sending solidarity and hope.
I’ve tried to take inspiration from those people in what follows. I want to give my own small gift to Narges, which will be a walk on the mountain I love the most.
Actually, it’s more of a hill. It’s called Whitbarrow and it lies on the edge of the Lake District. Its summit is only 705 feet above sea-level – but that summit does glory in the name of Lord’s Seat.
The rest of the hill, meanwhile, a long, exposed limestone escarpment laid down in the carboniferous period 350 million years ago, is a site of Special Scientific Interest, full of rare habitats, glacial erratics, and unusual rock formations.
It’s an incredible place – but don’t take it from me. In his book the Outlying Fells of Lakeland, the great bard of fell-walkers Alfred Wainwright describes a walk up Whitbarrow as “the most beautiful in this book; beautiful it is every step of the way. ... All is fair to the eye on Whitbarrow.”
Which is true. But I love it especially, because it’s the hill behind my Mum’s house and I go up there all the time.
From her front door, I just turn left onto a farm road, and I’m climbing.
I go through a wooden gate at the top of the lane, and up though a steep field where lambs play in spring, and where, in winter, if it snows, the sledging is second to none. At the end of the field there’s a style leading into a small wood, carpeted with bright bluebells in April and May, or where in summer, the air is thick and potent with wild garlic in and in late Autumn everything is dark and dripping.
A short slippy trudge through this wood takes you to three old stone steps up the side of the wall. Then, a steep diagonal path up a bank and on to a stony, muddy track (which is inexplicably marked as a road on some maps, and so, every so often destroys a luckless lost saloon car… )
Leave this path quickly, cutting upwards to the right, through another, field, stonier now and scrubbier. There are thick bramble bushes that deliver sweet and tangy blackberries in early Autumn --- and scratches for the unwary the rest of the time.
Another gate, a short climb and then it’s just sky and the long stretch of the escarpment. The path cuts through a small declivity, so you don’t get the full view yet, but no matter. The hill top itself is lovely enough, a big empty expanse of brown grass and heather and rocks, punctuated by just a few wind-battered trees and hawthorn and juniper bushes. It’s bleak and stony – but that has its own rugged charm. Not to mention its own unique interest. There’s a limestone pavement to the left of the path. It’s a geographer’s dream of clints and grykes and a special, ancient place…
And on we go. Don’t get too distracted because the track is generally pretty muddy and there are loose rocks to watch for. Also, gigantic hairy red cows with long horns. They don’t do much more than stand around chewing the cud and looking scenic, but let’s not bump into them…
The path is flat now, riding the top of the outcrop. After a gentle, but nonetheless elating couple of kilometres, we get to a high dry stone wall, built over a hundred years ago, by unknown hands, one carefully selected rock at a time. It stretches out over the top, as far as the eye can see… After that a small pine copse, before the path leads you past some miniature limestone escarpments that look for all the world like scale models of the hill you’re on… Then take a sharp right for Lord’s seat and the summit…
Which is where the magic really begins.
Because my mum’s house is so well situated for the hill, and because I’m a father and early mornings no longer hold any fear for me, I’ve quite often made it up there just after sunrise. I ran up there this winter just past on a day so foggy that it felt as if it was actually getting darker as the dawn progressed – until, at least, I got to the last slope towards the cairn at Lord’s Seat. That took me above the mist, and I found myself looking out over splendours suddenly visible under the rising sun. Morecambe Bay and the Kent estuary and the Irish Sea to the south, another temporary sea of rolling fog in the valley below and to the West and beyond that the outlines of the Lake District mountains brightening into sharp focus: Cartmel Fell, the Old Man of Coniston, the Langdale Pikes… The names are evocative enough in themselves. But it’s the feeling you get. The strange elation of mountains… Of their long campaign against time. Of their hugeness in the face of humanity. Of their stillness and silence. These are places we can’t touch, we can’t spoil. I can’t properly verbalise that feeling. But it’s the same excitement that moved the romantic poets to write about sublime nature – and, I’m guessing, which motivated all those people to send in pictures for Narges.
In the early morning there’s an extra selfish pleasure too. If you get there early enough, Lord’s Seat can be yours. You can be king or queen of the mountain. Later on there will be more panting joggers,. Walkers will enjoy well-earned cups of tea here. There won’t be so many people that it ruins things, and everyone I’ve ever met at the summit has been cheerful. But there’s something special about feeling alone amongst all that beauty…
I enjoy this solitude especially, because I know it will soon end. In fact, most of the time when I’m there, I’m not even really alone. My dog will be with me, tail wagging, making the most of things, sharing and adding to the joy of being there. I also know that when I get back I’ll get to see my family… My Mum’s house has a glass front door leading to the kitchen, and as I approach I generally see my daughter sitting at the table having breakfast --- and that’s better than all the other views in the world.
And I wish that simple delight for Narges. I wish the day will come soon when she can enjoy the companionable loneliness and freedom of mountains.
As it is, we know what she has to endure. Harder still, she’s a mother of young children and she has been denied the most basic and deepest joy of knowing that the next hello is just a short walk away.
If I may, I’d like to finish with an extract from a poem she wrote in September 2017 called Three Goodbyes:
Three goodbyes and a separation, like dying three times
When Ali and Kiana were just three and a half years old
I was arrested by the security guards when attacking my home
Kiana had just had an operation and it was only a couple of hours I had come home.
She had a temperature
When the security guards were searching the house, they allowed me to put the kids to bed.
I put Ali on my feet, and rocked him, and patted him
And softly sang him a lullaby
Kiana was restless. She had a temperature, and was scared.
She’d felt the fear
She’d clung her arms around my neck
And I, as if gradually sinking,
Was separated from them
When I was going down the stairs, leaving the house
Kiana was left crying in her father’s cuddle
She called me back three times
Three times I came back to kiss her…
When Ali and Kiana were eight and a half, I got them ready for school in the morning
And they left
The security guards attacked my home again
This time Ali and Kiana were not home
I picked up their photo from the bookshelf
And kissed them goodbye
And was led to the car
With men who had no mercy
And now in September 2017
I have not seen them in two and a half years
My writing might not be correctly worded
But it has the certainty of feeling – the pain of mothers throughout history
The mothers who take pride in their convictions from one side, and feel the pain of conviction being away their children taken away.
September 2017, Evin
It’s June 2019 now. It’s time she was allowed to see them.
About Narges Mohammadi: Narges is an Iranian journalist and human rights defender, who is currently detained in prison – the same prison as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – has frequently been kept in solitary confinement, and suffers from a chronic and painful health condition that is not being properly treated.
About Sam Jordison: Sam is an author, journalist and publisher. He is the co-director of the award-winning Galley Beggar Press. He writes about books for The Guardian. He has also written over ten non-fiction books including the best-selling Crap Towns series and a book about Brexit and Trump called Enemies Of The People.