Simin Behbahani, the foremost woman poet of contemporary Iran who died last night at 87, was best known for her lyrical and modern interpretations of the classical Persian ghazal. But beyond her contributions to literature, she formed an indelible part of the country’s cultural resistance to decades of social and political repression. She stayed in Iran when many of her literary compatriots, novelists and poets alike, transplanted themselves to Europe or North America, prizing a fierce national loyalty over personal freedom. For many Iranians, she was nothing less than the country’s literary conscience, a figure whose poetry refracted all the anger, disappointment and displaced beauty of the modern Iranian experience.
Among her generation of poets she worked and wrote with particular prolificness – nearly twenty volumes of poetry in the course of six decades – and her work, especially since 1979, can be read as a history of the Islamic revolution in verse, from the shattering sense of alienation secular intellectuals felt as Iranian Islamists rose up before them and claimed the mantle of nationhood, to the spirited resilience of Iranian women who clung to values of independence despite the chokehold of the Islamic Republic.
Iconic with her resolute glamour – she always appeared coiffed and elegantly dressed into her eighties – Behbahani’s work was also unique for its deep and courageous engagement with the political turmoils of the present. When a Basij sniper shot down Neda Agha Soltan during the 2009 Green uprising, Behbahant wrote a poem that captured a generation’s anguish at seeing their hopes for change smashed along with the life of a young woman on a Tehran street.
President Obama ended his 2011 Norouz address with a quote from Behbahni, whom he described as “a woman who ha been banned from travelling beyond Iran, even thoug 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 world bear life.’
In English, Behbahani’s poetry has found elegant translation and exposition chiefly through the work of University of Virginia professor Farzaneh Milani, who translated A Cup of Sin, a book of Behbahani’s poems, in 1998, along with Kaveh Safa, and has taught the poet’s work for decades. She has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature, and though banned from leaving Iran in recent years, had remained connected with Iranian writers in the diaspora, travelling to PEN events and various conferences.
The lioness of Tehran’s literary scene, the hiking partner of Shirin Ebadi, the poet who refused to leave and refused to be forced into silence, I can hardly begin to describe the force Behbahani has exerted on Iran, carving out a literary realm and inviting everyone to take refuge alongside her verse. I met Behbahani only once, when I was very young, and was tongue-tied in her gracious, warm presence, though what I wanted to tell her was that I had found her poetry in the library and it had propelled me across the world to Iran.
In her poem “Our Tears Are Sweet,” translated by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa, she reflects on a country emerging from its long war with Iraq:
Our tears are sweet, our laughter venomous.
We’re pleased when sad, and sad when pleased.
We wash one hand in blood, the other we wash the blood off.
We cry as we laugh at the futility of both these acts.
Eight years have passed, we haven’t discovered their meaning
We have been like children, beyond any account or accounting.
We have broken every stalk, like a wind in the garden
We have picked clean the vine’s candelabra,
And if we found a tree, still standing, defiantly,
We cut its branches, we pulled it by the roots.