The Lioness Of Iran

by Dish Staff

Davar Ardalan pays tribute to the great Iranian poet Simin Behbahani, who died this week at the age of 87:

For millions of Iranians all over the world, Behbahani represented the invincible power of the Iranian psyche. Her words were piercing and fierce, lamenting on the lack of freedom of expression through the ages. For six decades, many Iranians found refuge in her poetry as a way to nurture their hunger for dialogue, peace, human rights and equality.

Farzaneh Milani, who teaches Persian literature and women’s studies at the University of Virginia, has been translating Behbahani’s work for decades. She has said that much of Iran’s history can be studied through Behbahani’s poems, as her words stir the mind and quench the thirst of those who can only whisper their laments away from the public eye.

Those words also made her a perpetual target of Iran’s regimes. Soraya Nadia McDonald details the one such harassment:

In 2010, Iranian officials stopped [Behbahani] at the airport in Tehran. The 82-year-old poet, nearly blind due to macular degeneration, was on her way to Paris to speak at an International Women’s Day event. Somehow, she was a threat. Authorities confiscated her passport, interrogated her all night and told Behbahani if she wanted her passport back, she would have to retrieve it from Iran’s Revolutionary Court. Behbahani, by then a recipient of the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom and a two-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature, had developed quite the reputation for speaking out against tyranny. Behbahani wrote about social issues with a populist bent. She wasn’t afraid to draw attention to the problems faced by prostitutes in Tehran or bring context to the Islamic revolution of 1979 by including Iranian history in her accounts.

Soraya Lennie puts Behbahani’s life and work in context:

She came from a different generation – often referred to by Iranians as the “best generation” – which rediscovered the freedom of critical thinking in a society controlled by absolute monarchy, and refused to be silenced after the Islamic revolution that replaced it. Much like [her contemporaries, the late Forough Foroukhzad and Ahmad Shamlou], she had been a critic and a poet long before the revolution in 1979. She learned censorship and self-censorship. But never silence. It was her words that revolutionaries used to inspire their opposition to the monarchy, and the very same words their children now use against the Islamic Republic.

Regarding Behbahani’s feminism, she rejected the notion that a woman’s poetry should ever be held in a different light than a man’s. Douglas Martin explains how that ethos drove her writing as well:

Ms. Behbahani wrote more than 600 poems, collected in 20 books, on subjects including earthquakes, revolution, war, poverty, prostitution, freedom of speech and her own plastic surgery. … One of her first literary innovations was to experiment with the ghazal, a sonnetlike Persian poetic form. Traditionally, the ghazal had been written from the perspective of a male lover admiring a woman, but Ms. Behbahani made the woman the sexual protagonist. Her skill at writing about love and sex led her to compose lyrics for many popular songs. She later used the ghazal format to write about all manner of subjects, including the Iran-Iraq war.

More on the ghazal form and her contributions to it here. In a 2011 interview with Shiva Rahbaran, Behbahani remarked on what it was like to write knowing that censors awaited the result:

Despite my age, I can almost say that I have never put pen to paper without worrying about censorship. The nightmare of censorship has always cast a shadow over my thoughts. Both under the previous state and under the Islamic state, I have said again and again that, when there is an apparatus for censorship that filters all writing, an apparatus comes into being in every writer’s mind that says: “Don’t write this, they won’t allow it to be published.” But the true writer must ignore these murmurings. The true writer must write. In the end, it will be published one day, on the condition that the writer writes the truth and does not dissemble. Of course, whenever censorship is stringent, most writers resort to metaphor and figurative and symbolic language. And this can help stimulate the imagination. But taking comfort from this fact doesn’t lessen the writer’s dream of attaining freedom.

She also discussed the power and responsibility of being a poet:

Our literature has always been a reflection of contemporary events. The Shāhnāmeh is the greatest epic in history. It is a treasure trove of ideas, wisdom, advice, help, guidance, and rites. With this immense work, Ferdowsi revived the spirit of serenity, magnanimity, and pride in the Iranian nation, which had lost itself under the weight of the Arab conquest of Iran. It empowered divided Iranian peoples to unite. Most of our poets, even those who worked as tyrannical kings’ eulogists, have used their poems to remind rulers of the right way to run the state, practice justice, and uphold the welfare of the people. At the time of the Mongol invasion of Iran and the horrific massacres, writers and poets belonging to the mystical school of thought set out to soothe the people’s pain and sorrow, to teach them to be patient and ascetic, because there was no other alternative at the time. In any age, writers have produced works which were in keeping with their society’s needs and which helped and guided the nation.

When Neda Agha-Soltan was murdered by the regime during the 2009 Green Movement protests, Behbahani was one of the Iranians who spoke out. And with respect to her influence, even President Obama chose Behbahani to quote at the end of his 2011 Norouz address. Stepping back, Azadeh Moaveni mourns, but is also grateful:

She stayed in Iran when many of her literary compatriots, novelists and poets alike, transplanted themselves to Europe or North America, prizing a fierce national loyalty over personal freedom. For many Iranians, she was nothing less than the country’s literary conscience, a figure whose poetry refracted all the anger, disappointment and displaced beauty of the modern Iranian experience. …

The lioness of Tehran’s literary scene, the hiking partner of [Nobel Peace Prize winner] Shirin Ebadi, the poet who refused to leave and refused to be forced into silence, I can hardly begin to describe the force Behbahani has exerted on Iran, carving out a literary realm and inviting everyone to take refuge alongside her verse.

An English-language collection of Behbahani’s poetry can be found here.