Iranian poet and women’s rights advocate Simin Behbahani has died. Her work probed the social and political challenges that faced Iran after its Islamic Revolution. She was 87
‘To understand the work of Iranian poet Simin Behbahani (1927-2014) is to understand better the paradoxical nature of contemporary Iran. Indeed, if Emily Dickinson so much identified with her community that she occasionally signed her letters "Amherst," then Simin Behbahani can sign her poems "Iran." In book after book, in one deeply felt poem after another, Behbahani has painted miniature portraits of her country over the decades. She has given voice to the yearnings of the Iranian people, chronicled their hopes and disillusionments, documented with pride and precision the heroic resistance and creative subversion of her nation and herself. Hers is poetry of immediacy and resonance, of hopes betrayed and renewed, of disillusionment and dissent. It is high art and popular art at the same time, accessible to the ordinary reader, despite its formal traditionalism, its encyclopaedic breadth, and its many historical and cultural allusions, both local and global. It is a quest for beauty and elegance, for clarity and moderation through all the turbulence of war and revolution.’…
Simin Behbahani – obituary
‘Simin Behbahani, who has died aged 87, was widely considered to be the greatest living Persian language poet, known throughout the Middle East and much of the world as the “Lioness of Iran”.
She was credited with introducing modern themes into traditional verse forms like the ghazal, a Persian sonnet form distinguishable by its rhyming couplets and lilting lyrics. Traditionally, the ghazal featured a male poet addressing a woman. In Simin Behbahani’s poetry, the roles were reversed and she developed classical forms to explore everyday events and address social and political issues, including women’s and minority rights and freedom of expression.
She won numerous international awards both for her campaigning and her verse, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999 and 2002. As a result she was blacklisted by Iranian hardliners and denounced as subversive.
Simin Behbahani began writing poetry under the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, dealing with such matters as poverty, orphans and corruption, reflecting her lifelong concern with the marginalised and outcast. But the ghazal form was out of fashion; most of her poet contemporaries in Iran had embraced modern free-verse forms and some claimed the old genre was dead.
Her most popular poem, My Country, I Will Build You Again, was published soon after the 1979 Islamic revolution and expressed the optimism of those who thought they had witnessed a “democratic” revolution: “My country, I will build you again,/ If need be, with bricks made from my life”. But from the early stages Simin Behbahani was sceptical. “I realised changes were not going in the right direction,” she recalled.
When others woke up to the fact that the Islamic Revolution of 1979 had failed to deliver on its promises, people began to turn back to the old forms of poetry. As a result, Simin Behbahani, who had been largely ignored by the authorities under the Shah, began to attract the attention of the Islamic police.
Her work was banned for 10 years after the revolution and she became the target of harassment. Yet, oddly, for most of that time she was allowed considerable freedom to travel, and she made several tours of the United States.
This freedom, too, was curtailed, however, after the popular protests that followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed election victory in 2009, when she appeared before both the Iranian and Western media to read two new poems, one commemorating the slain student protester Neda Agha-Soltan and the other denouncing Ahmadinejad without naming him: “If the flames of anger arise any higher in this land, your name on your tombstone will be covered with dirt,” she wrote. “You have become a babbling loudmouth, your insolent ranting, something to joke about.”
In March 2010 the 82-year-old Simin Behbahani, by now almost blind, was detained at Tehran airport as she prepared to board a flight for Paris to attend an International Women’s Day conference and led away by Iranian security officers, who confiscated her passport and interrogated her for several hours.
She was born Simin Khalili in Tehran on July 20 1927 into a family of intellectuals. Her father was a newspaper editor, her mother a poet and French teacher.
She studied law at Tehran University in the 1950s and later took the surname of her first husband, Behbahani, which she kept after their separation and her second marriage.
Simin Behbahani served for many years as president of the Iranian Writers’ Association. She received the Simone De Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom in recognition of her involvement in the “One Million Signatures” campaign for the repeal of discriminatory laws against women in Iran.
Simin Behbahani’s husband predeceased her. She is survived by two sons and a daughter.’
Simin Behbahani, born July 20 1927, died August 19 2014
The above obituary was first published in The Telegraph on 24 August 2014
"On this day – a celebration that serves as a bridge from the past to the future – I would like to close with a quote from the poet Simin Behbahani – a woman who has been banned from traveling beyond Iran, even though her words have moved the world: "Old I may be, but, given the chance, I will learn. I will begin a second youth alongside my progeny. I will recite the Hadith of love of country with such fervor as to make each word bear life." ~ President Obama, Nowruz Message
My Country, I Will Build You Again
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.
I will inhale again the perfume of flowers
Favored by your youth.
I will wash again the blood off your body
With torrents of my tears.
Once more, the darkness will leave this house.
I will paint my poems blue with the color of our sky.
The resurrector of “old bones” will grant me in his bounty
a mountains splendor in his testing grounds.
Old I may be, but given the chance, I will learn.
I will begin a second youth alongside my progeny.
I will recite the Hadith of love and country
With such fervor as to make each word bear life.
There still burns a fire in my breast
to keep undiminished the warmth of kinship
I feel for my people.
Once more you will grant me strength,
though my poems have settled in blood.
Once more I will build you with my life,
though it be beyond my means.