Simin Behbahani: 'The lioness of Iran' whose status as the doyenne of Persian poetry did not protect her from government intimidation

 

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Simin Behbahani was a towering figure in Persian literature who became known as "the lioness of Iran" for poetry in which she elegantly and courageously laid bare the suffering of the destitute, the marginalised and the oppressed. For decades, from the era of the Western-backed Shah to the rule of the ayatollahs that followed the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Behbahani was one of her country's most celebrated writers.

She was 14 when she published the first of her hundreds of poems and was in her 80s, and nearly blind, when she wrote her last. Her work was collected in 19 volumes that were translated around the world. She regularly appeared on lists of contenders for the Nobel Prize in Literature. For millions of Iranians inside the country and abroad, Behbahani was the "eloquent voice of conscience," said Farzaneh Milani, a scholar of Persian literature who translated many of Behbahani's works into English.

Readers of her poetry encounter a prostitute who uses rouge to mask a face "withered from sorrow", a woman stoned to death for her alleged adultery, a child who steals the pistachios his family is too poor to buy, and a mother who, grieving for the loss of her son in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, laces together her dead child's boots and wears them like a necklace.

"I have said again and again that my poetry is the poetry of the moments of my life," Behbahani once said. "I've experienced years when the sky over me was blackened with the smoke of missiles and the ground on which I walked turned into ruins under exploding bombs. I've seen convoys of war martyrs on their way to the cemeteries. I've seen lorries carrying the bodies of executed prisoners, dripping with blood. I've stood in long lines, in the rain and under the sun, just to buy a pack of butter or a box of paper napkins. I've seen mothers running after the corpses of their martyred sons, oblivious to whether their headscarves or their chadors or their stockings and shoes were slipping off or not."

Although Behbahani rejected ideology, her work became increasingly dissenting after the Islamic revolution. One of her best-known poems, named for its first line, was written in 1982. It begins:

"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

Favoured by your youth.

I will wash again the blood off your body

With torrents of my tears."

The authorities often tried to intimidate Behbahani and other writers who sought to defy the censors. In the 1990s, while she was visiting a German diplomat, Behbahani was blindfolded, taken to prison and released the next day in the street with the blindfold still over her eyes. At an International Women's Day event in Tehran a police officer beat her, she said, with a club that delivered electric shocks.

The government closed down a publication that printed one of her poems, and in 2010, as she prepared to travel to Paris for an International Women's Day event, she was stripped of her passport.

The following year, in a statement on the Iranian New Year, President Obama recited from "My Country, I Will Build You Again" and hailed Behbahani as a woman "who has been banned from travelling beyond Iran, even though her words have moved the world."

While many intellectuals left Iran after the revolution, Behbahani chose to remain, to be close to her people and the language they shared. "I want to live there," she said, "and die there."

She was born Siminbar Khalili in Tehran. Her father, a prominent writer and editor, was exiled for a period by the Shah while her mother was a poet and women's rights activist. Both parents, who were divorced, encouraged her educational development. She graduated in law from the University of Tehran but didn't work as a lawyer. Instead, during the 1950s, '60s and '70s, she worked as a schoolteacher while writing poetry. She wrote three autobiographical books, two collections of short stories, copious literary articles and essays and lyrics for well known Iranian singers; my of her poems were set to music.

Among students and scholars of Persian literature, she was recognised for her command — and renovation — of the ghazal, a poetic form often compared to the sonnet. Traditionally, a ghazal expressed a man's feelings for a woman but Behbahani reversed hundreds of years of literary practice by making men the objects of love. In one poem, "Old Eve" she described the abiding desire of an 80-year-old woman who is still "busy / Offering apples." The poem ends:

"Adam! Leave behind objections and denials

Come! Take a look!

The Eve of eighty

Rivals girls of twenty."

"You may wish to have me burned, or decide to stone me," she once wrote. "But in your hand match or stone will lose their power to harm me."

Siminbar Khalili, poet: born Tehran 20 July 1927; married firstly Hassan Behbahani (marriage dissolved; three children), secondly Manouchehr Koushyar (died 1984; died Tehran 19 August 2014.

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