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Famed Iranian Poet Simin Behbahani Dies At 87

Simin Behbahani (right) during a visit by human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (center) in 2010.

Simin Behbahani, one of Iran’s most prominent literary figures and a vocal human rights defender who was targeted with censorship and smear campaigns by Iranian authorities, has died in Tehran. She was 87.

A two-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature, Behbahani died on August 19 of heart failure and respiratory problems at a hospital in the Iranian capital, according to local news agencies.

Behbahani gained renown as master of “ghazal,” a traditional genre of Persian poetry comprising a series of couplets, much like the Western sonnet. Her words resonated deeply among Iranians, both in intellectual circles and the general public. Some of her poems were set to music, and many are widely known by heart among Iranians.

Behbahani reconciled ghazal with modernity and reinvented the literary form, which traditionally had been reserved for men, says Farzaneh Milani, who has translated some of Behbahani’s poems into English and written the first collection of articles about her poetry.

“Ghazal was defined as a poem that a man wrote for a woman. Simin Behbahani changed that age-old pattern,” says Milani. “Now it’s a woman who is singing her love for a man. One can say that Iranian men were finally unveiled in a Persian ghazal; they became the object of love rather than the loving subject.”

Milani, who teaches Persian literature and women’s studies at the University of Virginia, says that, as a woman, she takes “great pride in the fact that [Behbahani] desegregated the arena of this old Persian form.”

“It’s no longer possible to talk about ghazal and only talk about men,” Milani says.

In her hundreds of poems, Behbahani tackled issues such as patriotism, women’s issues, war, peace, revolution, poverty, justice, and other challenges facing Iran and its people.

Behabahani, the winner of several international poetry and human rights awards, told RFE/RL in a 2012 interview that her work reflected her concerns for her compatriots, their joy and suffering.

Literary Roots

Behbahani was born in Tehran on July 20, 1927, into a family of intellectuals. Her mother was a poet and a French teacher, while her father was a writer and the editor of a newspaper. She wrote her first poem during World War II at the age of 14.

“Our country had also been affected, and after the war, people were facing a tough situation,” Behbahani told RFE/RL. “And I wrote a poem that began as follows: ‘Oh, poor and distressed nation, what holds you back?’”

Her concern for social issues remained with her throughout her life, which was marked by two personal tragedies: the death of her second husband and the loss of a grandchild.

“In all my poems I want to be with my people and share [their worries and problems], and I don’t know if I’ve been up to the task or not,” she told RFE/RL's Radio Farda in 2012.

Respected Activist

Behabahani touched Iranians not only through her literary achievements, but also through her political stances.

Iranian rights activists often turned to her for moral support and inspiration, and she became the spiritual mother the women’s movement in Iran that has pushed for greater rights and equality in the Islamic republic.

When an initiative called the “One Million Signature Campaign Against Discriminatory Laws” was nominated for the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom in 2009, the campaign organizers asked Behbahani to travel to Paris to accept the award.

A year later, Iranian authorities banned her from traveling to Paris for an International Women’s Day Event.

“Iran’s women’s rights movement lost its greatest advocate,” activist Talat Taghinia wrote in an article celebrating Behbahani’s legacy. “The encouraging presence of the lady of Iran’s ghazal in the women’s movement and her determination made activists more hopeful about the clear but bumpy road of achieving equal rights.”

Behbahani, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999 and 2002, was among numerous poets and writers who were blacklisted by Iranian hard-liners and denounced as subversive.

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, a friend of Behbahani’s, said the poet greatly contributed to the fight for freedom of expression in Iran.

“Simin Behbahani was for many years active in Iran’s Writers Association. She was a major supporter of those who had ended up in prison over their writings,” Ebadi told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.

Iranians have flooded social media with tributes to Behbahani by posting her pictures and work, including her poem “Stop Throwing My Country to the Wind.”

Behbahani wrote the poem after Iran’s brutal 2009 crackdown on opposition activists who took to the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest alleged election fraud:

Stop this extravagance, this reckless throwing of my country to the wind.
The grim-faced rising cloud, will grovel at the swamp's feet.
Stop this screaming, mayhem, and bloodshed.
Stop doing what makes God's creatures mourn with tears.
My curses will not be upon you, as in their fulfillment.
My enemies' afflictions also cause me pain.
You may wish to have me burned, or decide to stone me.
But in your hand match or stone will lose their power to harm me.

In one of her last interviews with RFE/RL, Behbahani said she wanted to be remembered for her honesty and sincerity.

“In my life, I’ve always said what my heart told me to say, and I’ve expressed the way I felt. If anyone wants to remember me, [he or she] should remember me as an honest and sincere person whose heart was always with the people,” she said.

Radio Farda broadcaster Elahe Ravanshad contributed to this report
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.