“She was not merely a poet, but a witness, a vision and a voice of her nation”. Simin Behbahani (1927-2014), the pioneering Iranian poet, died of heart failure at the age of 87 in her homeland, Iran. Her death is a huge loss, both for the Persian literary community and the Iranian women’s movement. For more than half a century, Simin’s poetry mirrored the most marginal voices of Iran; from the prostitutes hustling in the streets to destitute children, from the landless peasants to the neglected workers. But most important of all, she remained an independent and outspoken voice of Iranian women who have so long suffered at the hands of domestic violence and social injustice.
Behbahani was born to an educated family steeped in culture and literature. Her father, Abbas Khalili, was a man of letters and poetry and the editor of Eghdam newspaper and her mother, Fakhr-e Ozma Arghun, was a poet and teacher who discovered Simin’s talent for poetry. At the age 14, Simin penned her first poems in the classical form of ghazal and in her very first attempts, a very different vision and voice, distinct from the conventional and often masculine voices of ghazal, set her poetic sensibility and style apart from other poets of her generation. Her very first poem called out to the ‘deprived masses’: ‘Oh, hungry, weeping masses, what are you doing? Oh, deprived, troubled nation, what are you doing?’
The poem was published in the most prestigious newspaper of the time, ‘Nobahar’ whose editor in chief was the poet laureate Malek-al-sho’ara Bahar. It was the beginning of a long journey for a young Iranian female poet whose allegiance was not only to poetry and literature, but also to egalitarian and democratic preoccupations. In the course of the 16 volumes of poetry that she published throughout her life, Simin Behbahani transformed the conventional rhythm and content of one of the most popular classical forms of Persian poetic composition knows as ghazal. Altogether, Behbahani introduced 41 new and unprecedented meters to the world of Persian ghazal. She reconstructed this form through bridging the poetic and natural rhythms of the Persian language.
Long, multiword prosodic units were another unique feature of her work which led to expanding the horizon of the Persian ghazal as well as that of its readers. But Simin’s contribution to the Persian literary heritage was not just in revolutionizing the classical literary form and introducing novel literary techniques. Her role in restructuring the classical forms through introducing new concerns and content was also masterly and unique. She gave voice to those who were most socially disadvantaged and ignored by mainstream society. Some of the imagery she drew from have been immortalized in the mind of the Persian poetry aficionados. Since Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s enactment of his White Revolution and programme of land reform in the early 1960s, she sought to depict a landless peasant and his impoverished family, and their troubled and turbulent migration to the city in the hope of a better life, in vivid detail. She also focused her attentions on the prostitute, her sufferings and her search for sustenance as well as love in an often unforgiving world. Following Islamic Revolution of 1979 which brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power and the Iran-Iraq War which followed on its heels, she turned her attention to the ravages of war. In one poem, Folded Trouser-Leg, she depicted a war veteran who had lost one of his leg in that devastating conflict, and the shame and sense of rage he felt when walking in public are utterly palpable.
The imagery, the language and the illustration of the real in her poetry went beyond the realm of conventional Persian ghazal. During the war, Behbahani wrote some of her most influential verses directly antithetical to the pro-war ideology of the state. While the state went on to call the Iran-Iraq War a ‘sacred defence’ and praised death in the name of martyrdom, Simin depicted a bloodied doll of a child or a house on fire as metaphors of a destroyed life.
After the war, Simin once again became the voice of hope and change. The sun of life shined in her verse: ‘Oh my homeland, I will build you again, if need be, from the brick of my soul’. The poem was turned into a famous, national song, which was repeatedly recited, in the presidential gatherings of the reformists.
Apart from her masterly poetic skills, Simin was also a pioneering figure in the women’s movement of Iran and an active member of the Iranian Writers’ Association until the end of her life. Her presence in the women’s demonstrations against the compulsory hijab in Iran and her constant contribution to this cause through her poetry placed her in the conservative establishment’s crosshairs in 2010 when she was banned from leaving the country. Her passport was never returned to her and she could never leave the country. To those who treated her this way, however, she wrote: Oh, you! All my enemies! What did I say but the right thing? In response to your curse, I will never sigh to curse!”
Simin remained one of the most influential voices of peace, freedom and human dignity through her verse in a country where poetry and poets are venerated as icons and iconoclasts. In 2009, Simin was awarded the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom and in 1999 and 2000 she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the biannual International Society for Iranian Studies Conference in 2014, she received the lifetime award and on the very same day was admitted to hospital due to heart problems. The prizes and nomination were in recognition of her abiding status as an iconic figure in the realm of culture, poetry and civil rights over the course of half a century. The unique and influential voice of Simin Behbahani will forever be enshrined in this pantheon and will undoubtedly continue to echo for generations of Iranians to come.
University of Oxford