A Poet Who 'Never Sold Her Pen or Soul'

Iranian poet Simin Behbahani uses strictly traditional forms to express progressive ideas.
Iranian poet Simin Behbahani uses strictly traditional forms to express progressive ideas. (Razieh Raaz Khalili - Photo By Razieh Raaz Khalili)
By Nora Boustany
Saturday, June 10, 2006

The voice of poet Simin Behbahani rises, soothing the wounds of Iranians betrayed by a revolution that has curtailed their rights and failed to deliver social justice.

To stay alive, you must slay silence . . .

to pay homage to being, you must sing .

At 79, the revered poet has only peripheral vision, but she still writes. To defy the ravages of macular degeneration, she records her verses vertically, down the edge of the paper.

She described an incident in March when riot police approached her during a gathering in Tehran to mark International Women's Day. "Hey, don't hurt this lady. She is Simin Behbahani," a student in the crowd protested. "If you touch her, I will set myself on fire."

His outburst enraged the police. One of the officers lashed Behbahani's right arm and back with a whip and then beat her with a club that emitted electric shocks, she recalled. A passing policeman recognized her, intervened and bundled her into a taxi.

Sitting composedly in the solarium of her niece's home in McLean recently, Behbahani discussed her work and life through an interpreter. She was on her 15th tour of the United States, with speaking events in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and other cities, and will travel on to Canada.

"I have always been drawn to social issues. Even before the eruption of the revolution, while under the shah, I was also suffering," she said, referring to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in the Islamic revolution of 1979. "There was no democracy in Iran. Even then, we had censorship."

Before the revolution, her poetry dealt with poverty, orphans and corruption, reflecting her concern for the outcast, the marginalized and the neglected. Her recent work has touched on the themes of freedom of expression and the rights of minorities and prisoners.

"I will identify her as the most iconic Iranian poet alive," said Farzaneh M. Milani , director of Studies in Women and Gender at the University of Virginia. "I can really say she has become a cultural hero, and she is treated as such outside and inside her country." Milani, an authority on Behbahani, teaches a course on Iranian female poets.

"She reminds me of T.S. Eliot," Milani said. "She dives deep into her culture and literature, and the product is a truly modern outlook on the role of the individual, concern for democracy and human rights. The form is traditional, but the perspective and poetic persona are quite progressive."

Behbahani is known for her ghazals , sonnet-like love poems distinguishable by their special rhyme scheme and lilting lyrics. Traditionally, the ghazal featured a male poet romancing a woman. Behbahani reversed the roles; in her poems, men are the objects of desire.

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