My Unwanted Sabbatical

By Mahmoud Badavam:

On April 30, 2015, I was standing behind the very tall and heavy door of Rajaee-Shahr prison in the suburbs of Tehran, anxiously waiting for a moment I’d been imagining for four years. At last, the door opened and I could see the waiting crowd that included my family, friends, and former students. The first thing I did was hug my wife. We were both crying.

In 2011, my career had taken an unexpected and unusual turn: I was imprisoned for the crime of teaching physics at an “unofficial” university called the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE).

Iran’s Baha’i community created BIHE in the 1980s after our youth were banned from Iranian universities. I began volunteering there in 1989 after serving three years in prison for simply being an active Baha’i. At BIHE, I taught physics and electronics and, as a member of BIHE’s e-learning committee, was a liaison with MIT’s OpenCourseWare Consortium. When I was arrested in 2011, I was on the engineering faculty at BIHE on top of my day job at an engineering company.

After six months in solitary confinement, I joined 70 to 80 fellow prisoners of conscience (many of us Baha’is); I shared a two-by-four-meter room with five others. I spent most of my time meditating, praying, and reading any available books. I wrote letters to friends and family, talked to fellow prisoners, and taught English.

Weekly visits with my wife and daughter (and sometimes my sister) provided a connection to the outside world. They brought news of calls, e-mails, and visits from my friends and colleagues. Once my daughter brought me a copy of MIT Technology Review, which I read line by line and page by page, including all the advertisements! But the authorities did not allow me to receive the next issue, because it was in English and no one there could verify its contents.