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Banouyeh Iran
A heart-to-heart with poet Simin Behbahani

June 17, 2004

What makes Simin Behbahani's poetry different from others is that she writes with passion, without contempt, with the wisdom and the heart of a woman. She doesn't write with resentment; she uses the times to express her feelings. It is as if there are Buddha's teachings in her poetry. She uses traditional Ghazal in a modern way, with so much feeling and love. She is indeed the most accomplished poetess of our modern times. -- Khosrow Golesorkhi

During the past month, Washington, DC has been the site of many important events, especially when it comes to famous Iranian women. The Nobel Peace prize laureate, Shirin Ebadi, human rights activist Mehrangiz Kar and the most famous poetess of Iran, Simin Behbahani were all here last month, accepting awards, and making rounds with passionate speeches, poetry and reading.

Behbahani spoke at the International Society of Iranian Studies, which is held every two years, in Bethesda, Md. She also attended the speech by Ebadi at the conference. The two most famous women of Iran shared their friendship and respect for one another despite criticism of Ebadi from some fronts.

I spoke to Behbahani, the vision of strong women of Iran, a voice of justice, and a pillar of intellectual society. She has spoken for five decades, a lifetime, with her words of poetry on everything from women to justice to inhumanity against her countrymen and all that is sacred. She represents what is still human in Iran, what holds this nation together, love for thy homeland, and admiration for the poetry of old and new.

On the night of June 3, 2004, Behbahani spoke again at another event organized by a group of dedicated individuals comprised of mostly women. She was introduced by Farzaneh Milani, another accomplished woman in literature who teaches at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. Milani has translated a good portion of Behbahani's poetry into English, titled, "A cup of Sin."  

At the end of this meeting, where many Washingtonians attended and listened to Behbahani's strong and beautiful voice, the crowd applauded and paid immense tribute to her with a standing ovation. She is seventy-seven years old and since the age of fourteen she has been writing and reciting poetry. She read from her work, the hundreds of poems written by her throughout the years. Her non-stop sense of humor and her judgments on people and events show the true nature of a woman who is an inseparable part of the literary and social history of Iran.

I asked, despite her visible fatigue, for a short interview, which she granted me at the end of the program. Holding on to my hands, she said, "I promised you, therefore I will keep to my promise." I will be indebted to her forever for granting me this interview on such short notice.
We sat in a quiet area of the college and I asked her the following questions.

Tell us of your recent trip to the United States and the events you attended. What is your perception and your encounters with Iranians and Iranian- Americans? How have these days been for you?

I thank you. I have had tremendous pleasure to see old friends and to meet new acquaintances. It has truly been gratifying to see so many people still interested in me and my poetry. I had three conferences already. One at Stanford University at Dr. Abbas Milani's conference, one at the Society of Iranian Studies conference at the Hyatt Hotel, and tonight at the event organized by this committee, or the Iranian ladies of Washington who invited me to recite poetry.

In all three, the outpour of love for my poetry has been wonderful and it has given me great joy. Here friends, like Dr. Farzaneh Milani spoke about my poetry and its style. Mr. Fereydoun Farahandouz recited some of my poetry. A few days ago, At the SIS conference, Mr. Sohrab Akhavan, filmed the program and Dr. Karimi Hakak introduced me. All in all, I have become even closer to all these people.

From what age did you start to write poetry and how did you become interested in this field?

I began to recite and write from the age of fourteen. I was born into a very cultural family. My mother, Mrs Fakhr Khalatbari or Fakhr Ozma Farghoun, inspired me. She was a fine poetess and mastered the French language. In those times, as you know, women were taught at home, so she was home schooled. She knew of religion. She was a very learned woman.

My father was also a journalist and has written many books. His name was Abbas Khalili. Maybe your father knows of him. He was the author of more than 50 books, and a translator of the history of "Al-Kamel Ibn-e Assir". Over all, I was brought up in a very cultured environment. My mother's second husband was also a literary man. Thus, from childhood, I was surrounded and nurtured in such a milieu. And perhaps, I even had some kind of talent and later I became a poet.

In the last 25 years that you have lived in Iran, many of the poets and literary people who were your friends, many great men and women have died. How has that been for you?

It hasn't been easy. I have lost many good friends who are irreplaceable. It was very difficult. The first blow was the passing away of Mehdi Akhavan Sales who died too early. I was not awaiting his death; he was still too young to die. He was a close friend and associate. I even named my daughter after him, Omid.

In fact I had told myself, whether I had a son or daughter, I would name him or her after Mehdi Akhavan Sales's pseudo name which was M. Omid. I knew his poetry before I even met him. We were very close. Among others, those who I consider close friends, was Fereydoun Moshiri, whom I knew for nearly 40 years. Nader Naderpour was another companion while he was still in Iran and even when I came abroad for visits, I would stay with him.

Hamid Mossadegh was also very close to me. He helped me throughout difficult times during the revolution and with the revolutionary court He took my case and defended me. Unfortunately, he is gone as well. The last person that I truly felt a loss was Ahmad Shamlou. We were good friends. He respected me and the Association of Iranian Writers. He is gone too and that was yet another great blow to me and to all poetry lovers.

Bijan Najdi was another one. He was young and very talented. It's a shame that he is not amongst us. We gave him the Gardoun Prize which is bestowed upon very talented individuals. This prize was given when Abbas Maroufi was still in Iran and he ran the journal Gardoun. He was also another talented soul but he left for Germany when life was becoming too unbearable in Iran. He remains there now.

Ghazaleh Alizadeh also received the Gardoun Prize. She died as well. They said she committed suicide but some people believe she may have been killed. Her death was suspicious.  

Tonight you said that you are part of this land and that is why they have not dared touched you. However, recently, a group calling itself the army of Mohammad has sent a statement that has enlisted you among those they consider as infidel and that your death is permitted. What do you know about this and what is your reaction? Do you consider this as a real threat?

Yes, I know. Of course I consider this threat as dangerous. This is how they killed the Forouhars, Mokhtari and Pouyandeh. It was this sort of statement. Maybe there is some danger. But you have to realize that this is not coming directly from the government or any legal authority. These are pressure groups that act alone and even if they have any connection to the regime or to the State, they hide themselves. The government does not acknowledge them.

This group, the Sepah Boland Mohammad is one who slanders both the government and Islam. An Islam that condones killing is not in our realm. What have I done to deserve death? What did the others do to deserve death? What crimes have they committed? There are 67 individuals that they have targeted. I don't really care about such a threat. Even if I die, I have done my work. I have left my mark in the history of Iran. But this type of killing is not what Islam's message is. It is not what our religion is all about.

In your talk at the Iranian Studies conference, you read from some of your daily journals which were heart wrenching. Can you tell us a bit about these? Have they been printed anywhere?

No, they were not daily journals. They were my own observations with poetry about the events of the last twenty five years. They were my own poetry about these years. And since it had a calendar date, I read them chronologically. They were a sort of history of the last twenty five years and what our nation has endured.

In the same conference you mentioned something about the Iranian- Americans and the youth in this country, those who were born to Iranian parents. You said something about not putting pressure on them to become full fledged Iranians. Can you elaborate on this?

The kids who are born here belong to this country. What is the meaning of homeland or Vatan? Vatan is a word that can best be described as your childhood memories of your parents, of the place you were born. Even until death, the memory of your childhood remains with you from the times you spent with your parents, your family, and your surroundings. We can never forget that.

The children who are born here have their memories from this land. So we must not pressure them to love another place. Yes, we must encourage them to learn about their parents' ancestral home. But this is now their true homeland. And in reality, you cannot force them into loving something unknown to them. Here they learn to adapt to this culture. Thus, they should not be pressured in doing otherwise.

Yes, of course, I would have loved our youth to have lived in Iran and been familiar with our culture. But they have learned to dress and act in this culture. We must acknowledge it and accept it. I wish that they could become an honor for Iran and in a way they are. We could claim them as our own, especially when they become geniuses of some sort. Nevertheless, even if they are a treasure to this country, we can be proud of them, a pride for the Iranian nationality and for their parents.

What has the Iranian Writers' Association been able to accomplish in the last few years, in spite of all the pressure on them? How have you personally been involved? And among the new talents of Iran, who are the ones whom you consider as future poets?

The Iranian Writers' Association has been active despite tremendous pressure from the authorities. We send out communiqués regularly for the freedom of prisoners, prisoners of conscious. We also have a new generation of poets like Ali Abdol-Rezai, Mehrdad Fallah, Akbar Eksir, Abdollah Kowsari, He is a great translator and a poet and he is a friend of mine.

The association is restricted with its gatherings. And the ministry of intelligence stops us from many activities. However, despite all the pressure, we do whatever we can in our capacity. We get together, we have poetry reading and we send communiqués for the release of political prisoners.

How do you envision the future for Iran?

Well, that is something that the Koli (Gypsy) should predict, as she is the fortune teller! Personally, however, I believe that Iran has a great future, because of its people, because the Iranian Nation is resolute. The Iranian people are a determined bunch. The future of any country is dependant on its people.

Yes, of course, our nation is under pressure, but I am hopeful that these pressures will subside. I don't see a particular form of government but I know that the people will decide for their future and will make up a government that is most beneficial to them. 

What is your most favorite poem amongst all the poems you have written?

A. My most favorite poem is not necessarily my best one. But I love the poem "Yek metro Haftaad Sadom." It is not my best, but personally, I like it better than the others.

Thank you profoundly for your time, Mrs. Behbahani.


Simin Behbahani left the audience and all of us with a sense of pride. Her famous poem, "I will rebuild you, my homeland" was the center of the audience's favorite poem. She remains the voice of Iranian women who have been subjugated to pressures particularly in the last two decades. But relentless and courageous, she and others have left heir mark and will do so as we enter a new period in our history, where Iranians will finally give the world what is noble and precious to us all: love for humanity. As our great poet Omar Khayam said: 

"Ah! My beloved, fill the cup that clears
To-day of past regrets and future fears
To-morrow? Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n Thousand Years."                                  

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