by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
In March, 2010, one of Iran’s most famous and admired poets, about to board a fight for Paris to participate in an International Women’s Day program, was suddenly intercepted and arrested by intelligence officers. 82-year-old Simin Behbahani (1927-2014), who had become almost blind, was interrogated for hours about the poems she had written on Iran’s 2009 elections. Her passport was confiscated, and she was barred from leaving the country. Neither the police nor the Revolutionary Court voiced any legal basis for the travel ban.
In 2009, Behbahani had received the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom on behalf of all the women’s rights campaigners in Iran. It was one of many honors from Western literati and human rights organizations which made her a target for defamation by government-controlled media. Her poems, full of powerful images pointing out injustice, the horrors of war, and the oppression of women, met with frequent censorship. In 2006, Iranian authorities shut down an opposition newspaper for printing one of her works, the same year she was hit by a policeman during an International Women’s Day rally.
She earned her title, ‘the Lioness of Iran.’
For the Dream to Ride
You want to erase my being, but in this land I shall remain
I will continue the dance as long as I sustain
My verse as vast as a meadow, its universe rooted in my homeland
In the world of ghazal, I’m fleet-footed galloping gazelle
I speak as long as I’m alive; fury, roar and revolt
Your stones and rocks I fear not: I’m flood, my flow you can’t halt
I don’t veil my hair. I’m not Gordafarid nor do I pretend
I’m not the woman your deceit can lock up in your fortress end
I’m lightning: my silence will not adorn the sight
I’m prelude to thunder, till then I illuminate the night
Your arrow may give my eyes strain but in chasing me it’s flying in vain
My back not to bow. My head isn’t Esfandiar’s, I vow
I said what I said to defy or to cry; come what may
It’s the voice that shall remain I’ll wither away
Aging and ailing, my steed still at my side
Horseback no longer moves me; it is the dream to ride.
– translation from the Persian by Sheema Kalbasi
Ghazal is a traditional Persian poetry form using a series of couplets. Behbahani made especially effective use of it, bringing ghazal into the modern era, and popularizing it with contemporary Persian-language poets.
GORDAFARID is one of the heroines in the Shahnameh (The Epic of Kings), a very long poetic opus by the Persian poet Hakim Abu l-Qasim Firdawsi Tusi, written around 1000 AD. Gordafarid fought against Sohrab, commander of the Turanian army, delaying the Turanian march on Persia. She is a symbol of courage and wisdom for Iranian women.
ESFANDIAR, legendary Iranian hero, is crown prince and the son of King Goshtasp. He remains loyal to his father in spite of being repeatedly promised the throne if he will perform one more task, and then his father reneging. A version of Esfandiar’s battle with the warrior Rostam is described the Shahnameh. Esfandiar, like Achilles, has only one vulnerable point, but it’s his eyes, not his heel. Rostam is given the knowledge to fashion a special double-pointed arrow, which enters both of Esfandiar’s eyes, and kills him.
A Man with a Missing Leg
A man with a missing leg
has one leg of his pants folded.
Anger burns in his eyes.
Is this a spectacle, they cry?
Though I turn my face away,
his image lingers in my eyes:
his extreme youth, less than twenty, perhaps.
I pray he will not be like me:
have to suffer another forty years.
Yet, the suffering that comes with existence
is impervious to such entreaties.
My feet are quick,
yet how difficult the path was for me.
How will he manage with just one leg?
Tap, tap, he stamps the pavement with his cane,
though he needs no signature
to register his presence.
My tender smiles turned to thorns and daggers in his eyes.
Used to rough treatment,
He has no appetite for tenderness.
Lines of bitterness mark his cold, parched face.
It’s as if, with his body diminished,
his spirit too had lost its resilience.
To help him hang on, I thought, I would offer him
some kindness and motherly advice.
But I realized it was more than he could bear.
I turned to him to initiate a conversation.
The spot where he stood was empty.
He was gone, the man with the missing leg.
Anxious, agitated, sad,
her face uncovered, her head unveiled,
not afraid of arrest or policeman,
oblivious to the order, “Cover! Conceal!”
Her eyes two grapes plucked from their cluster,
squeezed by the times to fill a hundred barrels with blood,
mad, really mad, a stranger to herself and others,
oblivious to the world, beyond being awakened even by the deluge,
a particle of dust adrift in the wind, without purpose or destination,
lost, speechless, bewildered, a corpse without a grave,
carrying around her neck a necklace of curses and tears,
a pair of boots tied together belonging to a dead soldier.
I asked her: what does this mean?
She smiled: my son, poor child, sitting on my shoulders,
hasn’t taken off his boots yet.
There were over half a million Iranian casualties in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)
“The Man with a Missing Leg” and “Necklace” from A Cup of Sin, © 1999, edited and translated from the Persian by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa – Syracuse University Press
Simin Behbahani was born as Simin Khalili. Her parents met because her mother, Fakhr-Ozmaa Arghoun, wrote a poem, and sent it to Nedaay-e-Islam’ the newspaper where her father, Abbas Khalili, who was also a poet, was editor-in-chief. He liked the poem, and arranged to meet the poet. He was surprised to find the poet was a woman. This was the beginning of their courtship. They married, but had less than a month together before the political storm at the end of Ahmad Shah Qajar’s reign as Shah of Persia forced Khalili into exile, unaware that his new wife was already pregnant. Simin was born July 20, 1927. When the couple saw each other again, he was like a different man. Abbas Khalili saw his 14-month-old daughter for the first time, but was not to see her again until she was 11 years old.
Simin was raised by her mother, who continued writing poetry, becoming known in intellectual and literary circles, but also as a social activist, and founding member of the Iranian Committee of Nationalist Women. Her mother remarried, to Aadel Khalatbari, another newspaper editor, and changed her name to Fakhr Aadel.
Behbahani started writing poetry at age 14, but felt too shy to show her poems to others. Her mother found one of her poems, and not only encouraged her to write more, she also sent the poem she discovered to a literary editor she knew, who was amazed the poem was written by a 14-year-old. He published it in his newspaper under the name Simin Khalatbari.
In 1941, Simin joined the Tudeh Party’s Youth Organization, a Communist group, which caused her trouble at school; when an anonymous report appeared in a newspaper criticizing the administration’s management of the school, she was immediately suspected to be the author, and she was expelled.
She married her first suitor, Hassan Behbahani, and from then on published her work as Simin Behbahani. There was conflict in the marriage almost from the beginning. She continued her studies, and went to law school, then became a teacher. Her poetry brought her increasing recognition in literary circles. She and her husband had two sons and a daughter during the 20 years they lived together, but they ultimately separated.
I Want a Cup of Sin
He said I want that which cannot be found.
I want a cup of sin, a cup of corruption,
and some clay mixed with darkness,
from which I shall mold an image shaped like man,
wooden-armed and straw-haired.
His mouth is big.
He has lost all his teeth.
His looks reflect his ugliness within.
Lust has made him violate all prohibitions
and to grow on his brow an “organ of shame.”
His eyes are like two scarlet beams,
one focused on a sack of gold,
the other on the pleasures found in bed.
He changes masks like a chameleon,
has a two-timing heart like an eel.
He grows tall like a giant branch,
as if his body has acquired vegetable properties.
Then, he will come to me,
intent on my oppression.
I will protest and scream against his horror.
And that ogre called man
will tame me with his insults.
As I gaze into his eyes
innocently and full of shame,
I will scold myself: you see,
how you spent a lifetime wishing for “Adam.”
Here you have what you asked for.
In 1962, she started writing song lyrics for Iranian Radio to earn money, and joined the National Radio and Television Council.
Her mother, who was her daughter’s inspiration as a poet and campaigner for Iranian women’s rights, died in 1967.
Gracefully She Approached
Gracefully she approached,
in a dress of bright blue silk;
With an olive branch in her hand,
and many tales of sorrows in her eyes.
Running to her, I greeted her,
and took her hand in mine:
Pulses could still be felt in her veins;
warm was still her body with life.
“But you are dead, mother”, I said;
“Oh, many years ago you died!”
Neither of embalmment she smelled,
Nor in a shroud was she wrapped.
I gave a glance at the olive branch;
she held it out to me,
And said with a smile,
“It is the sign of peace; take it.”
I took it from her and said,
“Yes, it is the sign of…”, when
My voice and peace were broken
by the violent arrival of a horseman.
He carried a dagger under his tunic
with which he shaped the olive branch
Into a rod and looking at it
he said to himself:
“Not too bad a cane
for punishing the sinners!”
A real image of a hellish pain!
Then, to hide the rod,
He opened his saddlebag.
In there, O God!
I saw a dead dove, with a string tied
round its broken neck.
My mother walked away with anger and sorrow;
my eyes followed her;
Like the mourners she wore
a dress of black silk.
Behbahani married again in 1969, but this time for love. She met Manouchehr Koushyar at law school. They were happily married for fourteen years, until he died of a heart attack in 1984.
Wine of Light
The stars have closed their eyes, come.
The wine of light flows through the veins of the night, come.
I have poured so many tears waiting in the night’s lap,
that twilight has blossomed and the morning has bloomed, come.
In my mind’s sky your memory etches lines of gold
like a shooting star, come.
I’ve sat so long with the night telling my tale of woe
that the night and I have turned pale with sorrow, come.
If you are waiting to see me again when I die,
understand, this is the time, come.
If I hear anyone’s footsteps, I imagine they are yours,
with all this beating, my heart is bursting out my breast, come.
You didn’t come when the sky was full of stars like grapes,
now that dawn has picked them one by one, come.
You’re the hope in the heart of Simin-the-broken-hearted,
put an end to my misery, come.
Behbahani was a long-time member of The Iranian Writers’ Association, which fought against censorship, and she served for a time as the association’s president. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999 and 2002, and was awarded the Janus Pannonius Poetry Prize (2013).
She never lost the sensuality of her poetry, even at eighty years of age.
Love at Eighty?
Admit it: it’s bizarre.
Ancient Eve is, once again
red lips and golden tresses.
but not divine.
If my face has color
it’s just makeup, a deceit.
But in my chest a heart
beats its wings wild with desire,
every seventy of its heartbeats
multiplied by two.
Love and shame and my body
warm with lust. I burn
with fever, a fever
past any physician’s cure.
But at my side is bliss,
kind and faithful
and as long as he is here
I dwell in heaven.
I can’t breathe a word;
my mouth’s sealed
shut with your kisses,
their tongues of flame.
Oh, my thirsty lover!
Look at my happy fortune:
You, I, us tonight.
with a wine so delightful
where’s the room for restraint?
Adam! Come see the spectacle.
Leave behind your denial and conceits
and watch as the Eve of eighty
rivals the twenty-year-old she.
Translation by Aria Fani and Adeeba Talukder
Simin Behbahani was hospitalized on August 6, 2014. She remained in a coma until her death on August 19, 2014, and died of Pulmonary heart disease at the age of 87. Her funeral, attended by thousands, was held on August 22 in Vahdat Hall, a venue for ballet, symphonies and opera.
- The Broken Lute [Seh-tar-e Shekasteh, 1951]
- Footprint [Ja-ye Pa, 1954]
- Chandelier [Chelcheragh, 1955]
- Marble [Marmar 1961]
- Resurrection [Rastakhiz, 1971]
- A Line of Speed and Fire [Khatti ze Sor’at va Atash, 1980]
- Arzhan Plain [Dasht-e Arzhan, 1983]
- Paper Dress [Kaghazin Jameh, 1992]
- A Window of Freedom [Yek Daricheh Azadi, 1995]
- Collected Poems [Tehran 2003]
- Maybe It’s the Messiah [Shayad ke Masihast, Tehran 2003] Selected Poems, translated by Ali Salami
- A Cup of Sin, Selected poems, [translated by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa, 1999]
- BBC obituary
- NY Times obituary
- Encyclopaedia Britannica
- Iran Chamber Society
- wbur – On Point
- Arabian Gentleness by Silvana Gabudean Dobre
- Simin Behbahani in profile
- Grieving mother
- Iraqi man
- Fakhr Aadel, Simin’s mother
- Shooting star
- Simin Behbahani with flower in her hair
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud