Behbahani, Simin (1927–)
Simin Behbahani (née Khalili) is an Iranian poet known both for her prolific body of poetry and innovations in literature, as well as her participation in campaigns for social and cultural change, freedom of expression, and women's rights issues.
Prolific Iranian poet Behbahani was born in 1927 in Tehran to parents who were poets and progressive cultural producers in their own right. Her father, Abbas Khalili, born in Najaf, Iraq, in 1893, was a poet, literary translator, writer, and editor for the newspaper Eghdam. He composed poetry in both Arabic and Persian. He also translated eleven hundred verses of the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), the epic written by Iranian national poet Ferdowsi, from Persian into Arabic. Behbahani's mother, Fakhrazami Orghuni, was similarly accomplished. She had been privately educated in Persian, Arabic, and Islamic jurisprudence and had been tutored in French, later serving as a French teacher in the Iranian education system. Similar to her daughter, Orghuni was known in her time as a progressive poet and activist. She was a member of the Association of Patriotic Women, the Democratic Party, and the Women's Society. Orghuni also worked as an editor for the Ayand-e Iran newspaper. She met Behbahani's father as a result of writing a fiery patriotic poem that was published in Eghdam.
Behbahani's parents divorced when she was four years old, after seven years of marriage. She is twice married herself. Before finishing high school, she married Hassan Behbahani. After sixteen years of marriage and having three children, the marriage ended in divorce. Many years later, she married Ali Kooshyar. She was a high school teacher for twenty-nine years and she produced many of her voluminous works of poetry at the same time as she was employed full time, raising three children, and running a household.
INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
Behbahani wrote and published her first poem at the age of fourteen. It was her mother who first discovered that Behbahani was secretly writing poetry and encouraged her to continue doing so. Her mother also introduced her to Parvin Etesami, Iran's then-greatest living poet, to whom she read Behbahani's poetry. Etesami, who would die the year following this meeting, warmly received Behbahani and praised her poetry. Behbahani went on to publish her first book, Tar-e Shekaste (Broken string), in 1951 when she had just turned twenty-four years old. Between 1953 and 1983, she produced six other books of poetry. In 1991 she published An Mard, Mard-e Hamraham (That man, my companion), an autobiography/memoir. Since then she has published a number of other volumes of poetry, some of which are available in English translation.
For many years, Behbahani's work was overshadowed by that of her contemporary modernist colleague Forugh Farokhzad (1935–1967), who received much of the attention of the literary establishment and the youthful audience. It was not until the 1990s that Behbahani's work began to garner the recognition it merited. Up to that point, her work was largely missing from anthologies of Persian literature and her poetry had not been translated into English.
Initially employing the Chahar Pareh style of Iranian modernist poet Nima Youshij, Behbahani later turned to the ghazal, a poetic form consisting of couplets that share a rhyme and refrain. Behbahani made innovations in the ghazal that give her poetry a unique and distinguishable style. The changes she introduced revolutionized the ghazal in both content and form. She became known for employing this new form of ghazal from the mid-1970s onward. Whereas the classical ghazal form incorporates its theme in fragments, Behbahani maintained a progressing theme from the beginning until the end of the poem. She also introduced the practice of incorporating conversations and daily events into the poems and succeeded in making the ghazal a vehicle for political and feminist testimonials. Behbahani's ghazal's overturned the conventions of producing women as objects of the male gaze, thereby according women agency as the holder of the gaze. Traditionally, ghazal's were written as love poems for and about women who were the subjects and audience of that poetry. Behbahani's work seized the position of woman as producer of the love poem and consigned men to the position of the gazed-at-beloved about whom lyrics are composed.
Due to the bold and transgressive nature of her poetry and the innovations she employed therein, she is sometimes called the Nima of the ghazal in reference to Iranian poet Youshij, who broke traditions of form and content in creating a new style of poetry known as Sher-e No (New poetry) or Shere-e Nimai (Nima poetry) and is credited as being the founder of modern Iranian poetry. Behbahani's mobilization of classical traditions in the service of producing new styles has been noted as an eloquent synthesis that both revitalizes existing traditions and gives rise to new ones; her work resists any reactionary tendencies of either wholesale rejection of or submission to classical traditions. Known for reconciling the old with the new, Behbahani has also been noted for merging the personal with the universal. She is often able to address personal subjects in ways that are contextualized within and speak to broader political and social issues.
In addition to considering a broad range of issues such as those pertaining to gender and discriminatory practices against women, social inequalities, and poverty, Behbahani is one of the rare few poets of prominence that have directly addressed the eight year Iran-Iraq War and the death and difficulties that resulted.
Name: Simin Behbahani, (née Khalili)
Birth: 1927, Tehran, Iran
Family: First husband, Hassan Behbahani, divorced, three children; second husband, Ali Kooshyar
Education: B.A., legal studies, University of Tehran
- 1951: Publishes first book Tar-e Shekaste (Broken string)
- 1953–present: Publishes over a dozen books of poetry, develops her innovations to the style and content of the traditional ghazal
- 1991: Publishes the autobiography/memoir An Mard, Mard-e Hamraham (That man, my companion)
- 1997: Nominated for Nobel Prize in Literature
- 1998: Wins Human Rights Watch Hellman/Hammett Award
- 1999: Receives Carl von Ossietzky Medal; named president of Iranian Writers Association
Beyond her contributions to revolutionizing Iranian literary forms and taking up important social and political issues in her work, Behbahani has been an active figure in the public sphere in support of women's rights and the freedom of expression and assembly. She has also advocated on behalf of political detainees and activists. Her outspokenness for social and political justice dates back to before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In those days, her poetry often addressed topics pertaining to poverty, orphans, and corruption. She has noted that she has suffered due to censorship practices both before and after the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy in 1979.
In the decades after the revolution, Behbahani continued to take up social and political issues in her work, but she also became more active in addressing her concerns outside of her poetry. When Iranian writer Ali Akbar Saidi Sirjani died in prison under mysterious circumstances after having been indicted on politically motivated charges, Behbahani joined 133 of her colleagues in writing an open letter protesting his suspicious death. Her activities with the Iranian Writers' Association have also included issuing a number of statements protesting the persecution of writers and activists. She has participated in vigils outside of Iran's Evin Prison to call for the release of political prisoners such as Nasser Zerafshan. As a result of being outspoken in promoting the freedom of the press and criticizing repressive governmental practices, her works have at times been censored or banned. Former political prisoner and prominent dissident Akbar Ganji has identified her as a heroine for her courage in breaking taboos in literature and openly speaking out in defense of civil liberties whenever they are trampled in Iran.
Behbahani has also been active in various aspects of the women's rights movement in Iran. The feminism apparent in her poetry and the feminist contributions she has made in developing new styles and spaces for women's expression in literature has been supplemented by her activism in the larger public sphere. She has been involved in numerous gatherings in support of women's rights campaigns. Her participation in one such event, a peaceful demonstration in Tehran marking International Women's Rights Day in 2006, resulted in her being hit by one of the security officers attempting to break up the gathering. The fact that the renowned seventy-something poet had been treated with such disrespect sparked anger among Iranian commentators and contributed to the attention the event garnered in the international press.
Behbahani has insisted on maintaining her independence when participating in the public arena. In the lead-up to Iran's 2005 elections, she publicly expressed her dissatisfaction that a presidential candidate had used the lyrics of one of her poems, "Dobare-e Misazamet Vatan" (Homeland, I will rebuild you), as part of his campaign.
IT'S TIME TO MOW THE FLOWERS
It's time to mow the flowers,
Fetch the sickles, come,
don't spare a single tulip in the fields.
The meadows are in bloom:
who has ever seen such insolence?
The grass is growing again:
step nowhere else but on its head.
Blossoms are opening on every branch,
exposing the happiness in their hearts:
such colorful exhibitions must be stopped.
Bring your scalpels to the meadow
to cut out the eyes of flowers.
So that none may see or desire,
let not a seeing eye remain.
I fear the narcissus is spreading its corruption:
stop its displays in a golden bowl
on a six-sided tray.
What is the use of your ax,
if not to chop down the elm tree?
In the maple's branches
allow not a single bird a moment's rest.
My poems and the wild mint
bear messages and perfumes.
Don't let them create a riot with their wild singing.
My heart is greener than green,
flowers sprout from the mud and water of my being.
Don't let me stand, if you are the enemies of Spring.
FROM STRANGE TIMES, MY DEAR: THE PEN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY IRANIAN LITERATURE. EDITED BY NAHID MOZAFFARI AND AHMAD KARIMI HAKAK. TRANSLATED BY FARZANEH MILANI AND KAVEH SAFA. NEW YORK: ARCADE PUBLISHING, 2005.
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE
As Behbahani's Iranian audience and literary circles have since the 1990s accorded her work the attention and praise it merits, so too have her achievements attracted broader international interest. Over 102 of her poems have been translated into both English and German, and international symposia have been held in her honor. Her contributions to literature and social and political activism have also been recognized in the form of prestigious awards. In 1997 she was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature. The following two years, her work for freedom of expression was recognized first by the Human Rights Watch Hellman/Hammett Award in 1998 and then by the Carl von Ossietzky Medal in 1999.
Behbahani's revolutionary contributions to Iranian literature have ensured her legacy as an innovative poet whose developments of the ghazal form of poetry opened new spaces of expression for women previously closed by prevailing styles of classical poetry. Her eloquent uses of both the modern and traditional styles have belied the notion that the two are incompatible, thus laying the groundwork for further innovations in style and content.
Behbahani, Simin. A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems of Simin Behbahani. Edited and translated by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999.
Milani, Farzaneh. Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992.
――――――. "Neotraditionalism in the Poetry of Simin Behbahani." In Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East: Tradition, Identity, and Power. Edited by Fatma Müge Göçek and Shiva Balaghi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Mozaffari, Nahid, and Ahmad Karimi Hakak, eds. Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature. Translated by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2005.