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 a 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 encyclopedic 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 is surely a renaissance woman. Within the net of her tightly woven words, she has captured the reality of the Iranian experience during one of the most challenging times in its history, proving that the darkest of nights can produce the most luminous of poets. In her lifetime, she has witnessed the coming to power of a new king, the nationalization of Iranian oil, a coup d’état, the White Revolution, the 1979 Revolution, the end of twenty-five hundred years of dynastic rule and the toppling of a monarchy, the establishment of a republic, the Cultural Revolution of the 1980s, an eight-year war with Iraq, and the trauma of various forms of repression and tyranny.
By combining love with loss, humor with horror, and by focusing on both the sublime and the mundane simultaneously, Behbahani offers readers a multifaceted, layered view of Iran. In her rainbow world of color and nuance, nothing is black and white except perhaps the black ink on the white page---as stark as blood on fresh snow.
In more than a thousand years of Iranian literature, it is unprecedented for a woman to have reached this level of national and international recognition during her lifetime. Her eminence testifies to her years of hard work, her literary talents, her political uprightness, her candor, and her courage. But it is above all a confirmation of the pivotal role women play in Iran today as a result of the new spaces they have occupied and appropriated as their own.
Behbahani has published some 600 poems. It is a historically prolific achievement. By the early twenty-first century, she had published nineteen books of poetry; two collections of short stories; a memoir of her late husband, Manuchehr Koushiar; and numerous literary articles, essays, and interviews. She has translated a book from French into Persian and composed about three hundred lyrics for some of Iran's most prominent singers. Though her body of work is impressive in its own right, her output is particularly noteworthy when one considers that Behbahani also was a married woman, a dedicated mother of three children, and a full-time high school teacher for twenty-nine years.
Behbahani has been nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature (1999 and 2002). She has been the recipient of several international prizes, such as the Hellman/Hammett Human Rights Award in 1998; the Carl Von Ossietzky Human Rights Award in 1999 [Past recipients of the Carl Von Ossietzky award include the Nobel Prize-winning German authors Günter Grass (1966) and Heinrich Böll (1974); the German American psychologist Erich Fromm (1986); and the Turkish humorist and author Aziz Nesin (1992)]; the Latifeh Yarshater Award, the Latifeh Yarshater Book Award in 2004; the Freedom of Expression Award by the Writers Union of Norway in 2007; and the Bita Daryabari Literary Prize at Stanford University. This award was established in 2008 at Stanford University and its first recipient was Simin Behbahani.
Although Behbahani has consistently resisted being pigeonholed and has objected to being categorized as a "woman poet" or a "feminist," she has challenged some of the most hidden forms of gender inequality in her poems.
From the beginning of her literary career until now, she has contested intentional or unintentional misogyny, questioned stereotypes about women, challenged traditions, and, perhaps most radically, resisted gender apartheid in her ghazals by reversing sex segregation.
In the tradition of her literary foremother, Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights, she tells her stories with courage, wisdom, fairness, playfulness, and narrative alchemy. Like Scheherazade, she focuses on the concrete as much as on the abstract, the particular as much as the general, the historical and the literal as much as the timeless and metaphorical. Her attention to intimate details of daily life protects her from making facile, sweeping generalizations, but in the course of creating these miniature portraits, she questions the existing order of things with emotional and intellectual acuity. She challenges the status quo and demands change even as she reworks the form itself. She utilizes the mundane details of daily life---presumably insignificant but always incisive---as a means by which to relay powerful sociopolitical messages.
Although she has avoided involvement in party politics since the beginning of her career, Behbahani has shown deep concern for social and political issues. She has unfailingly advocated for the rights of all individuals regardless of gender, class, religion, political affiliation, or ethnicity. Her concern for social justice, however, has become much more vocal since the 1979 Revolution. Rejecting any form of violence or discrimination, she has spoken at women's meetings, gatherings of the Association of Iranian Writers, sit-ins, International Women's Day celebrations, and rallies against the government's treatment of dissidents.
Aspiring to live in a free society with respect for human dignity and freedom of expression, Behbahani has recorded the saga of a nation in search of liberty. Her whole body of work, especially her post-revolutionary poetry, is a chronicle of the struggle for freedom that has emerged from the wretched mess of revolution and the perils of war. Although she celebrated the Golden Age of pre-revolutionary euphoria, that brief, intoxicating moment when freedom seemed almost within reach, that "Spring of Freedom" in 1978-79 when change seemed imminent, she also recorded the brevity of its blossoming, the swiftness of its blight, and the rapidity of its death.
Behbahani details a deplorable catalog of punitive measures taken against dissidents. The violence she portrays is staggering: writers, poets, and journalists maligned, censored, isolated, abducted, incarcerated, mutilated, gunned down, exiled, executed. Although alarming, this list of atrocities ultimately becomes a declaration of victory. No matter how drab the reality, no matter how oppressive the circumstances---and the reality is drab, the circumstances are oppressive---optimism and a sense of resistance shine through her work and refuse to be extinguished. She does not give into silence or despair.
Many writers have been silenced by such horrors, but just as many others, Behbahani among them, have angrily borne witness to the literal as well as literary suppression of their colleagues and innocent victims. It is this tension between forced silence and voiced protest, between acquiescence and resistance, that reflects the Iranian literary scene and Iranian society today, and Behbahani bears witness to both sides of this ongoing battle.
As a result, in her work---her poems, speeches, interviews, and prose narratives---she never depicts a monolithic Iran. The Iran she lives in, like the one she portrays, is a country in flux and constant motion, a country under threat of earthquake and upheaval, split between opposing visions of religion and conflicting variants of orthodoxy, fissured by the opposing ideologies of cultural Puritanism, pluralistic moderation, and democratic aspiration, cracked and divided by gender strictures and sex segregation. The Iran she knows so well is made of many Irans.
Behbahani has never subscribed to absolutes; she has always resisted binary modes of thinking. The fluidity of her poems, the shifting of the genres and forms she has deployed, all reflect their hybrid content, their versatile worldview. The way she reconfigures the familiar boundaries bears witness to the elasticity of her mind. She never sticks to a fixed or rigid position. Her poetry refuses to be locked into narrow categories. Old and new, East and West, masculine and feminine, personal and collective, traditional and modern, art and history---all are woven seamlessly into the fabric of her work. She challenges hierarchies, interrogates relations between the sexes, and attempts to influence the allocation of power, space, and resources not only in literature but beyond.
She has raised the banner of poetic rebellion in spite of harassment, attacks, and death threats. Through her words, a nation has found its voice, can lament its suffering, and finally celebrate its hard-won victories. As a firm believer in the futility of violence and as an advocate for an Iran in which dissent is neither eliminated nor punished, she has relied on words to fight for justice and human dignity. For more than six decades, her allegiance has been to democratic principles; her perspective has been egalitarian, her worldview tolerant. Her voice---so eloquent, so hopeful, so defiant---accompanies political prisoners to their solitary cells. It inspires those who share her ideals of beauty and elegance and her dreams for a better and more peaceful world. Even when the experiences described are harrowing---and there have been many---even when the poem bleeds with sorrow and grief, the sheer persuasiveness of her images, her luminous telling of a tale of darkness, the boundless power of her words and their magical spell lift the heart, console the soul, and promise better days.
May Simin Behbahani’s message of beauty and peace, tolerance and social justice be carried across many languages, cultures, and continents.
This is an excerpt from Words, Not Swords (Syracuse University Press, 2011) by Farzaneh Milani.