A Poet Who 'Never Sold Her Pen or Soul'

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.

"It was not only sensuous but courageous," Milani said of her dedication to the form. "While most of her contemporaries from the '20s and '30s wrote free verse at the height of the modern movement, she stuck to ghazal . Some poets claimed the genre was dead, but she pursued it and took it to new heights."

Roya Hakakian , an Iranian American poet and author, said that when she was growing up in the 1970s, Behbahani was not at all fashionable, eclipsed by the late Forough Farrokhzad and Ahmad Shamlou, the literary giants of that time.

"When the revolution failed to deliver people to democracy and greater freedom, people turned away from modern poetry," Hakakian said. But Behbahani "has remained extremely loyal to the classical concept and has become a symbol of resistance, which is why, 30 years later, she looms so large," she said.

"She has been very fair to tradition and has never sold her pen or soul to any political group or political party. Yet, she is also very political because she has always spoken truth to power. Now some of her poems have become like aphorisms, sayings and proverbs," said Milani, who with Kaveh Safa translated some of Behbahani's poems into English in "A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems."

My country, I will build you again,

if need be, with bricks made from my life.

I will build columns to support your roof,

if need be, with my bones.

Unlike younger intellectuals swept up in the fervor of the early stages of the revolution, Behbahani was suspicious. "I realized changes were not going in the right direction," she said.

She was frightened by the wave of terror that followed, encompassing executions, kangaroo trials and mysterious disappearances of ordinary Iranians. "We had gone the wrong way from the very beginning," she said.

She took a public stand against the tyrannical rule of the ayatollahs and their infringements on freedom of expression. Her work was banned for 10 years after the revolution, and newspapers and magazines frequently published broadsides targeting her.

One night in 1996, while attending a gathering at a German diplomat's home, she was hauled off to jail. "I was slapped around, blindfolded and taken to prison," she recalled. "We were released the next morning. They led us out and dropped us in the middle of the street with our blindfolds still tied."

The Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi , who wrote about the incident in her recently released memoir, "Iran Awakening," described Behbahani as a "kindred spirit" and an inspiration for her own work on the suffering of women and the celebration of their rights.

Ebadi wrote that while she was in jail, she revisited her friend's ghazals, with their images of "monsters soaring the sky in trails of smoke, of plundered mermaids."

Behbahani smiles when asked whether she ever considered leaving Iran.

"I want to live there and die there," she said. "I feel for my people, the language, the ability to write about them through cultural bonds. The creativity in me comes from them, and I want to share it."

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