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. --
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,
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
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
comprised of mostly women. She was introduced by Farzaneh
accomplished woman in literature who teaches at the University of Virginia,
in Charlottesville. Milani has translated a good portion of Behbahani's
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
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
non-stop sense of humor and her judgments on people and events show
the true nature
a woman who is an inseparable part of the literary and social history
I asked, despite her visible fatigue, for a short interview,
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
us of your recent trip to the United States and the events you
attended. What is your perception and
your encounters with Iranians
Americans? How have these days been for you?
you. I have had tremendous pleasure to see old friends and to meet
new acquaintances. It has truly been gratifying to see so many
still interested in me and my poetry. I had three conferences
at Dr. Abbas Milani's conference, one at the Society of Iranian
Studies conference at the Hyatt Hotel, and tonight at the event
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
my poetry and its style.
Mr. Fereydoun Farahandouz recited some of my poetry. A few days
the SIS conference, Mr. Sohrab Akhavan, filmed the program and
Dr. Karimi Hakak
me. All in all, I have become even closer to all these people.
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,
Fakhr Khalatbari or
Fakhr Ozma Farghoun, inspired me.
She was a fine poetess and mastered the French language. In those
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
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
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
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
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
In fact I had told myself, whether I had a son or daughter,
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.
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
I truly felt a loss was Ahmad Shamlou. We were good friends. He
Association of Iranian Writers. He is gone too and that was yet
another great blow to me and to all poetry lovers.
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.
Alizadeh also received the Gardoun Prize. She died as well. They
said she committed suicide but some people believe she
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
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
Yes, I know. Of course I consider this threat as
dangerous. This is how they killed the Forouhars, Mokhtari and
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
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
a bit about
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
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
In the same conference you mentioned something about the Iranian-
Americans and the youth in this country, those who were born to
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
memories of your parents, of the place you were born. Even until
death, the memory of your childhood remains with you from the times
your family, and your surroundings. We can never forget that.
children who are born here have their memories from this land.
So we must not
to love another place. Yes, we must encourage them to learn about
their parents' ancestral home. But this is now their true homeland.
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.
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
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,
be proud of them, a pride for the Iranian nationality and for their
What has the Iranian Writers' Association been able to accomplish
in the last few years, in spite of all the pressure on them? How
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
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
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
great future, because of its people, because the Iranian Nation
is resolute. The
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
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
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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