Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Simin Behbahani: National Poet, Nation's Mother

Behbahani at a Glimpse
Image courtesy of Tavaana
by Tavaana

Simin Behbahani, one of Iran’s most prominent poets, was born to a cultured family and raised amongst the literary elite. Behbahani published her first poem when she was only 14 years old, and in the years that followed, she gradually developed her own style of writing as she became a renowned poet. Prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution, Behbahani worked as a songwriter for the Iranian National Radio. She was also a member of the Iranian National Radio and Television Council for Music for some time.

Alongside her career as a poet, Behbahani was always involved in social and civic activism. In her youth, she was a member of the Tudeh Party of Iran’s Youth Organization, and later on, she helped found the Iranian Writers’ Association. In later years, Behbahani became known as a women’s rights activist respected by the young members of the Iranian feminist movement. Even though her poetry mainly touches on personal themes, socio-political concerns, too, played an important part in informing her vision. Social justice, poverty, women’s rights, freedom of speech, and resisting censorship are all central themes in many of her poems.

In recent years, the Iranian government had imposed restrictions on Behbahani’s activism, and the authoritarian voices in the media attacked her character. Nevertheless, Behbahani continued to express herself and chose to address these attacks from a compassionate perspective. She passed away at age 87 in August 2014.

A Poet Raised from Her Mother’s Bosom

Simin Khalili, better known as Simin Behbahani, was born on July 20, 1927 in Tehran.[1] Her father, Abbas Khalili, wrote poetry in both Persian and Arabic. He was the editor-in-chief of Nedaay-e-Islam’ newspaper before starting his own paper, Eghdam.[2] He translated over 1,100 stanzas from Ferdowsi’s mythical epic poem, the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings). Behbahani’s mother, Fakhr-Ozmaa Arghoun, was erudite and progressive: she was born in 1898 in Tehran and had learned Arabic and Persian in elementary school alongside her brothers before continuing her education in French and English at the Joan of Arc French school and the American School.[3]

Behbahani’s parents’ marriage and divorce is a story in itself. Behbahani herself recalled how her parents met: “my mother had [turned to writing] poetry, and she had sent a beautiful poem to my father’s newspaper for publication:

With the traitor’s blood, we must sow tulips on our land.
Rivers of this blood must flow through every part of her!

[My father], who had taken a liking to this poem and to its unknown poet, was surprised to find out that it was written by a woman.”[4]

But this marriage, founded on love and the love for poetry, did not last long: only fifteen days after the wedding, the political storm of the last days of the Qajar monarchy swept through the young couple’s life, and Behbahani’s father was exiled to the city of Kermanshah for two years. At the end of this exile, his wife visited him only to find him a completely changed man.[5] At the time of separation, Behbahani’s father had been completely unaware that her mother was pregnant with Behbahani. He saw his daughter for the first time when she was already 14 months old, and did not see her again until she was 11.

So it was Behbahani’s mother who played the central role in shaping her character. Later on, Fakhr-Ozmaa married Aadel Khalatbari, the editor-in-chief of Ayand-e-Iran newspaper, and changed her name to Fakhr-Aadel.[6] She was a poet, social activist, and a founding member of the Iranian Committee of Nationalist Women.[7] Fakhr-Ozmaa befriended the intellectual and literary figures of her time, such as poets Nima Yooshij, Malek o-sho'ara Bahar (Mohammad-Taqi Bahar), and Parvin E'tesami, and author and scholar Saeed Nafisi, all of whom Behbahani knew during her childhood. Behbahani’s mother also would recite poetry and the stories of the Book of Kings to her as she grew up.[8]

Simin & Parvin

It was in these surroundings that Behbahani began writing her own poetry at the age of 14. At first, she was too shy to show her poems to others, but one day her mother found one of them, which began as follows:

Alas, you hungry, wailing masses, what holds you back?
Alas, poor and anguished nation, what holds you back?[9]

Behbahani’s mother encouraged her to continue writing poetry, and sent this poem to Nobahar newspaper. Yazdanbakhsh Ghahreman, the paper’s literary editor, could not believe that a 14 year old had written this poem.[10] Nevertheless, her first poem was published under the name ‘Simin Khalatbari.’[11]

Behbahani’s mother then invited the poet Parvin E'tesami over to their house to listen to her poetry.[12] Behbahani recalled: “When I recited my poems, Parvin said that this girl will one day become an excellent poet and she must be encouraged to do so. From that very instant I took a liking to Parvin and began reading her collection of poetry. I found that all her poems speak of human and societal hardships in the language of similes. So I told myself that I would write like her in order to help my own people.”[13]

Behbahani was an intelligent, talented girl; she quickly finished high school and enrolled in the obstetrics school. It was during this period that she began her activities in the Tudeh Party’s Youth Organization. It was because of this that the school directors were suspicious of her intentions; when a report criticizing the school’s mismanagement was published in a newspaper, the school director, suspecting that it was Behbahani who had written the article, expelled her.[14]

Love, Politics, Poetry

After this event, Behbahani married her first suitor. Hassan Behbahani was an educated man from a respectable family, and it was after this marriage that Behbahani published her poetry under the name Simin Behbahani. In spite of this, her and her husband’s attitudes toward life were starkly different. She continued her studies throughout her marriage and went to law school. She then chose to become a teacher, first teaching physics and chemistry before going on to teach literature for the rest of her life. Throughout this period, she also wrote poetry and gradually became a renowned figure in literary circles. Even though she and her husband lived together for 20 years and parented two sons and a daughter, their tensions ultimately led to their separation.[15] 

As of 1962, Behbahani began writing lyrics for the Iranian Radio and joined the National Radio and Television Council. She wrote lyrics for programs such as ‘Colorful Flowers.’[16] Regarding this experience, Behbahani commented: “I wrote lyrics to make money. Many people told me that it was beneath me to [write lyrics], but I liked it and joined the radio. The radio people used to call me ‘quick and pretty,’ because I wrote my lyrics quickly and they were pretty.”[17]

In 1969, Behbahani married again, but this time for love. Her second husband was Manouchehr Koushyar, whom she had met at law school. Behbahani wrote an extensive account of their relationship in the book That Man, the One Walking Next to Me.[18] They loved each other for 14 years, but Simin eventually lost her second husband to a heart attack in 1984.[19]

In addition to being a skilled poet, Behbahani was always a dedicated social activist. Regarding her membership in the Tudeh Party’s Youth Organization, she said: “As of the month of Shahrivar 1320 (1941), after reading Bozorg Alavi’s book, 53 [Men], I became interested in the politics of the left. I wanted equality for all humans and justice for the proletariat and the farmers. These were beautiful slogans preached by the Tudeh Party and I was interested in their cause. At the time, I was involved with writing slogans, distributing flyers, and participating in meetings.”[20] Behbahani later joined the Iranian Authors’ Association in order to protect the legal rights of those in the writing profession and to fight censorship.[21] She remained a member of the organization for the rest of her life.

A New Sonnet

Simin Behbahani is the most significant Iranian writer of sonnets, and pioneered many innovations in this genre: “Perhaps my earlier works were highly influenced by Parvin E’tesami’s poetry, but soon enough I freed myself of the influence of my precursors and chose my own independent path, on which I walk to this very day. I worked mostly on the sonnet, and made changes to its contemporary format that makes it starkly different from its traditional form. The only remnant of the traditional style of the sonnet is its structure, but otherwise, in terms of content, word choice, and rhythm, I made quite a few changes.”[22]

Behbahani’s poetry can be divided into two general categories: those that express her inner feelings, and those that reflect on societal situations and her ideals. One of her more personal poems is told from the perspective of a woman defeated in love and contemplating revenge on her lover:

Oh Lord, help me torture him!

Exile him, taunt him, and mock him!

With fiery kisses, and flirting laughs,

I shall torch his soul with a hundred fires, ensnare him in a hundred traps![23]

Or a different poem, speaking of the torments of a lonely spirit longing for tears, famously sung by vocalist Homayoon Shajarian:

Unloved and without a beloved,

I drift on, drift on, free like a plank on the waves.[24]

Amidst Iran’s male-dominated literary scene, Behbahani is one of the rare original female voices of her generation, and the clarity and resonance of this female voice is what distinguishes her poetry from Parvin E’tesami’s.

I Shall Build You Anew, Homeland

Behbahani is also known for her social activism and her concerns for issues such as justice, love for one’s country, women’s rights, and freedom of speech. Even though Behbahani joined the Tudeh Party in her youth due to her conscientious nature, she nevertheless strongly criticized the party later on in her life: “The Tudeh Party introduced the masses to education and discourse, which led to the enlightenment of many, but unfortunately, the biases, prejudices, and the lack of autonomy that pervaded its leadership led to its downfall. For example, during the 1953 coup, the party members were quite willing to engage with the events, but we were told that we had to wait for the leadership’s decision – a decision that never came, and an engagement that never took place.”[25] Nevertheless, she wrote a poem in honor of the party’s executed officials:

My dear child, the pages of the book of love were torn on this day,
Into the fire of hatred and rancor these pages were thrown on this day.
My dear child, the blossoms of hope and love withered away on this day,
The wind took them with itself to faceless graves far, far away…[26]

Behbahani’s deep love for her homeland informed her work, and one of her poems, sung by Darious Eghbali, is particularly popular; a poem that speaks of a renewed will to rebuild one’s homeland, often echoed in youth and student gatherings:

I shall build you anew, homeland, with clay from my own flesh if need be,
I shall build your ceilings new colonnades, with my own bones if need be.
I shall fill you once more with flowers, as your youth demands,
We shall flow like your blood, out of the flood of my tears…[27] 

Behbahani was also particularly interested in women’s issues. The Prostitute’s Melody is one of her older poems, which she dedicated to “unfortunate men who, in fleeing their torturous homes, seek the shelters of even more unfortunate women.”[28] In this poem, she sought to depict the hardships of a female sex worker:

Who’s knocking on this door? It’s my husband for tonight!
Oh sorrow! Leave my tender heart be! Tis time for his contentment!
Oh my lips, my cunning lips, mask my miseries in mystery,
Perhaps he will pay me a few more coins. Kiss him, love him, be pretty! [29]

Another poem, The Passive Verb, speaks from the perspective of a female student whose father beats her sister and throws her mother out of the house – a house in which there is no peace:

The passive verb is for the father who broke my heart
Beat my sister with slaps and fists, threw my mother out of the house…[30]

In another, Behbahani wrote of the equality of men and women, calling each the other’s half. She spoke to men of the equality amongst all beings:

Quit the boasting - we’re all made of the same stuff!
Stop the shooting - I’m your other half!
In making us, the Creator made us his surrogate.
I am your mother, your creator. Preserve my honor. [31]

Anti-War Poetry

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the attendant environment of the time did not stop Behbahani from expressing her concerns in her poetry. When a group of allies to the Shah’s regime were hanged on the roof of Alavi School the day after the triumph of the revolution, Behbahani wrote about her fears that the revolution would be uprooted:

I cannot bear to see the corpse in the dirt, lying flat,
Its dreadful lines dotted with bullets…[32]

Throughout the years of the Iran-Iraq war, she did not forget about the wounded and affected soldiers either:

The trousers with the folded leg,
Belong to the man missing one leg,
His fiery gaze says: this is not a spectacle!
I look divine, but I have eyes only for him.
He is young, perhaps no more than 20…[33]

Poetry & Activism

Behbahani became a prominent figure of the Iranian women’s movement in recent years. The One Million Signatures Campaign for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws has been one of the movement’s most significant achievements, and Behbahani was one of its first signatories. Accordingly, she was nominated to receive the Simone de Beauvoir Prize on behalf of the campaign.[34] She was awarded the prize exactly 101 years after de Beauvoir’s birth.[35]

During the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, Behbahani also supported “The Confluence of the Women’s Movement” with the political groups, as a strategy to advance the movement’s agenda during the elections: “A statement under the name of the Confluence of the Women’s Movements was published, which called on all the various groups of women from across the country to think and act in unison in order to achieve equal rights for women and to [push the state] to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This statement called on the future president to break with the traditions set by his predecessors and to recognize women’s just right to equality: ‘The reality of sunlight appears as its colorlessness, but its truth manifests itself in seven colors. It is the sun’s colorlessness that is instrumental to our praxis. One way or another, in the near future another person will become the next president – and this is the reality. The Signatories to the Declaration of the Confluence of the Women’s Movements will have made a demand on this reality, which, if fulfilled and achieved, will disclose and reveal the truth. If we do not lay our hands on this reality, we will not see the face of that truth either: we must put out shoulders to this wheel and make the universe revolve around our demands. We will not beg; we will compel! And we will keep our reverence since “it is only us who know of our own worth!’”[36]

Simin Behbahani  always supported civil liberties, the right to freedom of speech in particular. Once, in front of a group of women’s rights activists, she spoke of her hope for a free homeland: “Our poets, writers and artists are venerated only on the day when there are no more authors in prison, when poets are not in trouble, when students are not jailed, when our journalists are free and so are their pens, when poverty and despair and oppression have ceased to exist [in this country.]” [37]

All in all, Behbahani is regarded as a poet with strong social convictions who tried to sympathize with the masses and to respond to various social issues. She wrote poems about earthquakes, revolution, war, poverty, prostitution, and freedom of speech, amongst many other societal ills, and in dealing with social and political phenomena as a civil activist, she always played the role of a loving, compassionate mother.[38]

A Gateway to Freedom

Simin Behbahani published many works of Persian poetry and literature, particularly as sonnets, which were all met with acclaim and enthusiasm from both readers and critics. Some of these works include: The Broken Sitar (1951), Footprints (1954), Chandelier (1955), Marble (1961), Resurrection (1971), A Line of Speed and Fire (1980), [Almond] Tree (1983), About Poetry & Literature (1989), That Man, the One Walking Next to Me (1990), Paper-clothed (1992), The Gypsy and the Love Letter (1994), Read, More in Lover than Ever (1994), What Did I Pay for with My Heart? (1996), A Gateway to Freedom (1996), Poetry Collection (2003), Never Sleep, Cyrus; the Poetry of Our Time (2012), and The Collection of Simin Behbahani’s Poetry (2012).[39]

Behbahani received many awards from international organizations during her career. She won the Hellman-Hammett Grant from Human Rights Watch in 1998.[40] One year later, she was awarded the Carl von Ossietzky Medal. She also received the Freedom of Expression Prize from the Norwegian Authors’ Union in 2006 for her struggles against censorship.[41] She received the Janus Pannonius Poetry Prize from Hungary’s PEN club in 2013. Behbahani considered this award, regarded as the Nobel Prize of poetry, the greatest award received in her career.[42]

Behbahani is consistently applauded by Iranian and foreign writers and prominent figures. An article in the Washington Post by Nora Boustany called her a poet who never sold her pen or her soul.[43] In an article published in Shargh newspaper, Akbar Ganji, the renowned Iranian journalist, called Behbahani a fighter of injustice who has combined civic duty with the defense of women’s rights.[44] The Maple’s Green Cradle, written by Ahmad Abou Mahboob about Behbahani’s life and poetry, comments on her perspective on women’s rights: “It is particularly obvious that she is a liberal feminist, and this also manifests in her poetry. The liberal feminist criticizes the structural discrimination against women in the media and popular culture, and assumes that in order to solve these problems, there must be laws that give equal opportunities to women.”[45]

Farzaneh Milani, a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia and the translator of Behbahani’s poetry into English, comments: “She’s a poet who has worked hard for our dear country for nearly seventy years, and has paid the price for it: she never submitted to the rule of any power, never sold her pen to anyone, and has lived on with admirable dignity.”[46]

“All you, enemies of mine! Were they but the truth, the words of mine?”

Simin Behbahani lived in Iran until the end of her life. In recent years, because of her support for the women’s rights movement, the One Million Signatures campaign, the Confluence of the Women’s Movement, her resistance against censorship and defense of freedom of expression, and also due to her longstanding, prominent role as a member of the Iranian Writers’ Association, Behbahani had been subject to attacks by the state and its authoritarian supporters. For example, Jahan News, a hard-line website, wrote: “The foreign media and figures who have often encouraged Simin Behbahani with prizes consisting of significant amounts of money and media hype, are only taking advance of this woman’s obsession with the West. In truth, Behbahani is a great poet whose poetry has injured the masses’ feelings because of its treasonous attitude toward her country. Her poetry, with its slanderous and scandalous way of addressing Iranians, only serves to make Iran’s enemies happy, because Iranian people would never approve of such devotion to any powers. Presently, Sminin Behbahani is merely the Western culture’s bootlicker; a truth that neither she nor her Western friends can deny.” [47]

In March 2010, when Simin was about to leave the country to participate in a ceremony held by Paris in honor of International Women’s Day, she was arrested by intelligence officers, her passport was confiscated, and she was barred from leaving the country.[48] In spite of the pressure on her, Behbahani emphasized the importance of treating her opponents with compassion as a way of instructing them on civic duty. Her poetic response to those who call her a seditious poet and insult her is informed by the same compassionate perspective:

If the snake is of my house, I will keep it safe.
Even if it commits injustice, I will hold it dear![49]

Simin defends herself against the hostile political environment with the language of poetry, too:

All you enemies of mine!
Were they but the truth, these words of mine?
I won’t answer your abuse with muttered curses,
It is as if I gave birth to you, faulty and defective.
Even if I leave you alone, this will not stop my love.
It is as if I gave birth to you, snakes that bite me!
Other than tolerate it, what else can I do with my flesh and bone?
Seventy years with the same herd, I stayed and never let it perish!
I would rather die in my five foot six grave, than let my homeland suffer anguish![50]

Ultimately, Behbahani’s perspective is perhaps summed up in a single line: “I disagree with death, with murder, with imprisonment…”[51]

After 13 days of hospitalization at Tehran's Pars Hospital, Simin Behbahani passed away on the morning of August 19, 2014.[52]


[1] From Simin Behbahani’s Facebook fan page: https://www.facebook.com/siminbehbahani/info  
[2] From ‘The Poetry of This House,’ a documentary about Simin Behbahani made by Jamshid Barzegar for BBC Persian: http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/arts/2014/03/140321_l93_simin_behbahani_interview_short.shtml
[7] The Committee of Nationalist Women (1922-1933) was a renowned, radical women’s organization in Tehran, founded in 1922 through the efforts of a number of intellectual Iranian women, foremost among them Mohtaram Eskandari. This organization aimed to promote women’s rights and improve young women’s living conditions: http://www.kalam.se/z-fakhr-ozma.htm
[8] Simin Behbahani’s life as told by the private television channel ‘Iran-Zamin’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XPtdzR1rss
[10] Poet, born in 1295, who received his degree in Farsi Literature from Tehran University. He was Malek o-sho'ara Bahar’s son-in-law.
[12] Rakhshandeh Etesami (1907-1941), known as Parvin E’tesami, was a librarian and renowned poet of classic poetry.
[16] A popular radio program during the 1960s-70s.
[21] The Iranian Writers’ Association is one of the first democratic unions for authors [in Iran,] established in 1968 with the help of Ahmad Shamloo, Mahmood Etemad-Zaade (Beh-Azin), Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, Simin Daneshvar, Bagher Parham, Simin Behbahani, and Esmaeel Khouyi.
[34] The Simon de Beauvoir Prize was first awarded on January 9, 2008, on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Simon de Beauvoir, the French feminist and philosopher. The international committee awarding this prize consists of 20 male and female authors, philosophers, sociologists, journalists, and political activists.
[40] The Hellman-Hammett Grant is awarded in the memory of the American playwright, Lillian Hellman, and her loyal partner, novelist Dashiell Hammett. Both Hammett and Hellman wrote during the 1950s and were blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee:

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The Lioness of Iran



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