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Iran: Simin Behbehani, A Poet For The Ages, Captures Nation's Suffering And Joys (Part 3)

By Nazi Azima Simin Behbehani In December 1977, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming 8 March as a commemorative day honoring women's rights and international peace. The tradition of marking a special woman's day stretches back nearly a century, and continues to unite women across the world regardless of ethnic and political boundaries. In this four-part series, RFE/RL profiles four extraordinary women in Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. For centuries, Iran has produced some of the world's greatest poets. Names like Omar Khayyam, Hafez, Ferdowsi, and Rumi have become well-known across the globe. At home, Persian poets are regarded with a kind of reverence that is uncommon in the West. Ferdowsi's 10th-century national epic "Shahnameh," or "Book of Kings," is still considered the defining portrayal of Iranian identity. In the pantheon of Iran's contemporary poets, a woman -- Simin Behbehani -- is considered by many to be the country's greatest living poet, overcoming Iran's traditional patriarchy to become a master stylist and one of the country's guiding moral voices.

Prague, 5 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Simin Behbehani describes her poem "Gypsyesque" as a call to women to celebrate their existence by letting their voices be heard.

"Sing, Gypsy, sing.
In homage to being you must sing.
Let ears register your presence.
Eyes and throats burn from the smoke
that trails the monsters as they soar in the sky.
Scream if you can of the terrors of this night.
Every monster has the secret of his life
hidden in a bottle in the stomach of a red fish
swimming in waters you cannot reach.
In her lap every maid holds a monster's head
like a piece of firewood set in silver.
In their frenzy to plunder, the monsters
have plundered the beautiful maidens
of the silk and rubies of their lips and cheeks."

The poem, included in her 1983 collection "Plains of Arzhan," concludes with the lines: "Gypsy, to stay alive, you must slay silence. I mean, to pay homage to being, you must sing."

Behbehani, who at 76 is considered one of Iran's greatest living poets, has been "singing" nearly all her life. The author of hundreds of poems, Behbehani has produced some of the most significant works of 20th-century Persian literature, many of which reflect the turbulence of Iran's recent history.

"If she had lived in another part of the world, people would have had more access to her work."
Some of her most affecting works -- like "Necklace," which pays homage to the grieving mother of a soldier slain in the Iran-Iraq War -- balance artful insight with sometimes shocking realism. Behbehani says she has always been compelled to speak about the sufferings, and happiness, of the Iranian people.

"Many people ask me why I write poetry. I don't know why -- poetry has imposed itself on me. Even in childhood I wrote things without knowing they were poems. I only knew that I wanted to say something. It is somehow a command for me -- a command in the sense that when it comes, I can't help but get a pen and paper and start to write," Behbehani said.

Behbehani was born in Tehran in 1927. Her father, Abbas Khalili, was a well-known writer and journalist. Her mother, Fakhr-Ozma Arghun, was herself a noted feminist, writer, and poet. Behbehani began writing poetry at 14, and published "The Broken Lute," her first collection of poems and short stories, when she was 24.

Since then, she has published numerous collections and has been the recipient of many literary distinctions, including a nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1997. She has become best-known for her mastery of ghazal, a traditional genre of Persian poetry comprising a series of couplets, much like the Western sonnet.

The ghazal has been the most popular poetical genre in Iran for more than 13 centuries. But Behbehani's adaptation of the ghazal is strictly her own, applying innovations in rhythms and meter to her signature focus on contemporary social and humanitarian issues.

In Iran, poetry is an integral part of the public mind-set -- so much so that current writers often find themselves competing for popularity not just with their contemporaries, but with the poets of preceding centuries.

In her adaptation of the classical ghazal, Behbehani honors tradition and modernism in a single stroke. For this reason, she is widely considered a great poet not only of her time, but of all time.

The "great lady of the Persian ghazal," as she is known, is also one of Iran's most popular poets. Nearly all Iranians are familiar with her work; she has won fans among not only the intelligentsia, but among ordinary Iranians, devout Muslims, and some government officials, as well. Her works are among the country's fastest sellers -- many of her collections are already in their sixth or seventh editions.

The fact that she is a woman in a realm traditionally dominated by men makes her accomplishments all the more striking. Farzaneh Milani is a poet and writer who helped translate Behbehani's recent collection, "A Cup of Sin," into English. She says Behbehani's gender plays an integral role in her poetry.

"Simin Behbehani doesn't believe in paying attention to a poet's gender -- she believes it is the poetry that is important, regardless of the poet's sex. But in societies like ours, with such differences between the male and female worlds, the works of men and women are different. The most important thing about Ms. Behbehani is that, by virtue of being a woman, she has changed the meaning of ghazal. Ghazal is traditionally the work of a male poet, written for a woman. The man is the poet and the woman is the inspiration. In Simin's ghazals, the roles are displaced. A woman is writing about men, Iran, ordinary people -- this is her inspiration. This is a fundamental revolution in the meaning of ghazal. Simin Behbehani's signature is on each of her poems, even when no name appears. And luckily, Simin Behbehani is a woman," Milani said.

Motherhood has also played a role in Behbehani's art. Married at 19, she raised three children and managed a household, all while writing, teaching, and attending law school. She speaks of being a good cook and dressmaker, as well as a poet, and said, "maternal feelings are present in every woman. For a woman poet, they are especially important."

Behbehani's eldest son, Ali, says his mother's gift for nurturing extends beyond her poetry to the hundreds of high-school students who have come under her tutelage in her 30 years of teaching literature. "My mother, the affection she shows, and has always shown, to her children, has put her at the pinnacle of motherliness," he said. "And since she has been a teacher, as well as a poet, maybe she found her children in her students, and it was somehow in her mind that her students are also her children."

The 1979 Islamic Revolution and the advent of Shari'a law has also infused her work with a strong political undertone. In the early days of the revolution, she published articles criticizing the imposition of the veil, restrictions on education for girls, and other limitations on women's rights. Her condemnation led to a six-year ban on her books and subsequent years of censorship and public smear campaigns.

Behbehani says she has endured much unhappiness in the 25 years since the revolution. There have been personal tragedies, like the death of her second husband, and of a 6-year-old granddaughter. There has also been the trauma of watching her country suffer from years of war, religious repression, and a systematic crackdown against writers and intellectuals.

Still, Behbehani has refused to leave Iran, despite the hardships. "If she had lived in another part of the world, people would have had more access to her work," her translator Farzaneh Milani said.

But Behbehani says her life, and her work, are inseparable from her homeland. "I'm so lucky to be one person among many others," she said. "It's why I am able to feel people's pain and unhappiness as if it is my own. All my life, I've been among people, never separated from them, and I reflect their sufferings in my poetry. But I also reflect their joy and happiness, I reflect love, happiness, kindness, everything. Thank God I have a dialogue with my compatriots, my people. Thank God I can talk with them."

Click here to read Part 1 of this series, "Uzbekistan: Ozoda Eshmuradova -- 'Selling Her Hands' And Waiting For A Better Future."

Click here to read Part 2 of this series, "Kazakhstan: Top Businesswoman Raushan Sarsembayeva Sets Her Sights On Parliament."

Click here to read Part 4 of this series, "Afghanistan: Tajwar Kakar -- Fighting For Women And Freedom."