Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Visit with Poet Simin Behbahani

My Iranian friend was nervous. She had agreed to accompany me as a translator for my interview with Simin Behbahani, but now I suspect she was regretting her promise.

She was afraid there might be trouble if she were to go with a journalist to visit the well-known activist and poet. It was still early in my visit to Iran and the fear of running afoul of authorities that lurked like a low-grade fever on the brows of many of those I met had yet to rub off on me.

We brought a bouquet of rose-like lisianthus. They were in season in August and could be found in all the Tehran flower shops.

Behbahani’s son met us at the door and invited to take a seat in the ornately furnished apartment. One wall was covered with photos of the poet. They documented a lifetime as an artist and a voice for human rights. As I was looking at them, the poet herself appeared from an adjoining room. In her late 70s, Behbahani is still a handsome woman.

English translations of poems by Hafez, Rumi and Khayyam abound. But the giants of contemporary Iranian poetry, like Behbahani, Forookhzad and Shamlou remain largely unknown to non-Persian readers - with few English volumes available.

Perhaps it's because poetry doesn’t occupy the same lofty spot in other literary traditions that it does in Iranian literature. After all, few people make pilgrimages to the graves of American poets.

On an earlier trip to Iran I had visited Hafez’ tomb in Shiraz. It was a Thursday evening and the dome over the poet’s tomb at the center of a garden was lit in an emerald light. People streamed from the busy street to crowd under it.

A man knelt and rested his forehead on the tomb. People ran their fingers across the poet’s words inscribed in the stone. A young man opened a small volume of Hafez and began to sing. Onlookers lit sparklers and listened appreciatively.

Poetry is more than literature to Iranians. It is a record of Persian culture, philosophy, and history. Behbahani told me, “Basically our people's lives are mixed with literature. Even the poor and illiterate people are connected to poetry. Therefore, poetry can have a significant impact on society."

Behbahani's own work has had an impact. Within the sweep of her verses lie delicate metaphors and stark, chilling images, portraying the human toll of the hardships and realities of life in Iran. In the words of Farzaneh Milani, director of the women and gender studies program at the University of Virginia, and a translator of Behbehani’s work, "Simin Behbahani is really an historian, albeit the medium she uses is poetry. Take the last three decades of Iranian history. I sincerely doubt you will be able to find a more detailed, exquisitely written, judiciously depicted representation of everyday life in Iran."

Milani says one of Behbahani's great accomplishments is her revival of the traditional the quazal form of Persian poetry, which was, historically, a short lyrical love poem written by a man for a woman. Milani says the simple fact that Behbahani was a woman writing the quazal was significant:

”Bring me the palatte,
my beloved wants me green,
when he comes thus,
he will find me green,
from brain to skin.
Make me a pond
My beloved wants me cool;
what pleasure to wash this fire
from my soul.
What shall I say, If he doesn't care for my washed out colors,
even if this dove
is as articulate as a parrot?
What can I do, if he can't stand
my self-immolation,
even if he knows he is the cause
of my conflagration

O incredulous heart,
how quick is my pulse.
In my breast there is a turmoil again,
created by love.
Again my body is burning, hot.
Again my eyes are lit.
Again my heart is a garden.
Again this garden is paradise.

Love has come, I greet it.
It has come, defiant, and bold.
It has come with love-killing lateness,
the antidote.

Kill me or burn me:
Have I ever begrudged my life?
Whatever my friend commands
I will obey."*

But Behbahani wasn’t content to write love poems. “In her post-revolutionary Iran poems,” Milani says, “the country has become the beloved."

By adapting the ancient quazal form and writing about war, repression and poverty, Behbahani reinvented it, infusing it with modern themes. Behbahani herself talks about the change she brought to this traditional style as if it was an imperative in which she had no choice: "I don't want to have this pain, but I feel it anyway. As much as I want to get away from the pain, I can't. When I see the hunger, the misery, the dead, the war, it seems as if all these disasters are happening to me. With any poem that I have written, I have ripped a piece of my heart."

In the 1980s, one of Behbahani's students was killed in a government crackdown on Iranian dissidents. In "12 Fountains of Blood", she describes the dead student's body.

"On her shirt flowed the blood from twelve fountains of blood.
In the dust of madness laid her twin jasmine braids.
streams of blood ran down her body as if not from wounds.
her mouth was open, as if an angel had made her smile.
It was as if her clothes were not sprinkled by a tyrant’s lead,
but the sky had sprinkled starts in the cup of her body.
She who sat in my class, politely, for a year, has fallen.
She does not mind me anymore.
What would Ahriman want from an angel so pure?
His kiss and death have branded her breast,
even though the two buds there had not yet blossomed.
Who has the heart to surrender to a shroud
a body like porcelain, once accustomed to wearing silk?
Her presence will never again light up her father's eyes.
Brothers, what happened to her shirt in the thick of the night?

What was her sin? Tell me. It must be asked.
Don't keep it a secret, if you hear anything about it." (1985)

In the Diaspora that followed the revolution, many writers left Iran to write in freedom elsewhere. Although she had traveled many times outside her country, Behbahani always returns. She’s never considered living elsewhere. She told me that when she is away from Iran, “I always check my flight tickets at the end of the day to see when my return date is.” When I asked her why she hasn’t left, she answered, “Maybe others can continue their work abroad, but I cannot work only by listening to news. I have to be in the heart of the events.”

“You leave, I’ll stay. You leave, I’ll stay.
I swear, I cannot endure being separated from my homeland.
Til my last day you will hear in my bones
the same tale of the reed.
Though sparkles and light may fill the nights of exile,
they are of little use to me, since I am not happy in exile.
From the agitation of fire and molten metail
the sky above me is as turbulent as my mind.
When one must cover the light in a lamp,
I would rather extinguish the flame
than let my ears be pierced by the policeman's orders,
'lights out!' 'black out!'
Where will my heart escape,
if this house and its shade collapse on my head?
In these dark ruins we remain:
the children, the old people and I,
and our sad cares and thoughts of absent, brave warriors.
I will not forsake this unruly corner to beg for affection
in a land of self-serving calculation.
Even if this sky is dark and unsmiling,
it belongs to me and my fellow countrymen.
This canopy is not on loan.
Hoping for a better day,
I take one step, then another,
towards something I believe.
You leave, I'll stay." (1980)

Behbahani eschews political poetry as artless. “People don't like the political poetry; they don't want slogans in poetry. The poetry should be really an art and not politics.” Yet, her poetry is “political” in the sense that it deals with how outside forces affect the lives of people.

Under both kings and clerics, the Iranian censor’s pen has always been poised over the poet’s work. Like other artists, Behbahani has learned to express herself in spite of the constraints. “Under these restrictions, we always have to adapt ourselves to the circumstances, meaning that if we cannot speak openly, we speak in metaphors. During the previous regime, my poetry always involved metaphors.”

Oppression, poverty and human suffering know no season. In the Shah’s time, Behbahani wrote,

“O you who earn your bread
like morticians from the dead
don’t decorate your chest and shoulders
with their backbones.."

In the post-revolution crackdowns on dissidents and artists, Behbahani has spent only one night in jail. Many other writers haven't been so fortunate. Behbahani reasons, “Because of the persistence and the assertiveness that I've had in poetry, I have the feeling that nobody wants to dispute with me. They, to a large extent, try to avoid confrontation with me.”

Now the Internet gives Behbahani a freedom she's never known. She says, "Twenty six years ago, we didn't have the means to justify ourselves to the world. Today, if a word is said here, the whole world will hear it."

Behbahani has received numerous literary and human rights awards. In 1997, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Age hasn’t quieted her voice. She is a familiar presence at rallies and demonstrations in Iran.

Health problems and unsuccessful eye surgery have left Behbehani struggling to write. She showed me how she uses black markers to write in blocky letters on large sheets of paper.

Sitting in her Tehran apartment, Behbahani grants a request and with difficulty, reads a poem entitled "Necklace" about an Iranian mother mad with grief over the death of her son in the Iran-Iraq war.

"Anxious, agitated, sad
her face uncovered, her head unveiled,
not afraid of arrest or policeman,
oblivious to the order to cover and conceal herself
Her eyes two grapes plucked from their cluster,
squeezed by the times to fill a hundred barrels with blood,
mad, really mad, a stranger to herself and others,
oblivious to the world, beyond being awakened even by the deluge
a particle of dust adrift in the wind, without purpose or destination,
lost, speechless, bewildered, a corpse without a
carrying around her neck a necklace of curses and tears,
a pair of boots tied together belonging to a dead soldier.
I asked her: what does this mean?
She smiled: my son, poor child, sitting on my
shoulders, hasn't taken off his boots yet." (1988)

My friend translates the poem for me and when she finishes I see there are tears in her eyes.

Behbahani lowers her voice and says softly that with her eyesight failing, she's afraid her life's work may be at an end.

*translations are from "A Cup of Sin" (selected poems of Simin Behbahani, 1999, Syracuse University Press.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr

Even in condensed form, Louis Massignon's (1883-1962)description of the 10th century milieu that produced Al Husayn Ibn Mansur al Halla, known as Hallaj - 'the carder of consciences', is exhaustive and exhausting. But I was fascinated by this story of the man some regarded as a saint and others considered a heretic or madman.

Herbert Mason's "Hallaj - Mystic and Martyr" (1982, Princeton University Press)is an abridged English translation of French Islamologist Massignon's landmark four volume, 1500 page, five- decades-in-the-writing work "The Passion of al-Hallaj".

The book requires more interest about this period of Islamic history and more patience for long, abrupt departures from the narrative than many readers possess.

Massignon's prose is at turns ponderous and breathless. pass by in feverish half-page sentences littered with parenthetical and bracketed asides. Explanations about arcane and esoteric aspects of religious life mix with details of the Caliphate's annual budget. Over this backdrop Massignon's Hallaj moves like a bright comet.

For all it's scholarship, this is a very personal work. It was a verse attributed to Hallaj that first captivated Massignon: "Two moments of adoration suffice in love, but the preliminary ablution must be made in blood." It was Hallaj, Massignon contended, who helped guide him in his darkest hours, leading him from agnosticism to, of all things, Catholicism.

Hallaj was born in the Arabicized south of Iran at a time when Islam was still spilling across Asia. His grandfather, in fact, had been a Zoroastrian. He was drawn at a young age to the mystics and to 'the spiritual exile' of Sufism - which he would later abandon, "worn out by spiritual dryness and by the hypocritical fraternal correctness of those hermits who cultivate their perfection sealed off from reality."

After spending time in prayer and self denial in Mecca, Hallaj began to write and preach publicly, wandering and gaining followers. In each region he visited, he was called by a different name: "The aesthetic", "the nourisher", "the enraptured", "the dazed".

His travels took him through much of Iran, to India and into the Turkish areas where he is credited with helping to introduce Islam. He drew crowds by performing what many considered to be miracles (producing food out of thin air, increasing his physical size, etc). Apparently Hallaj made no claim to being a miracle worker. He said he performed his tricks in order to attract people to his message.

Hallaj's home was in Baghdad and Massignon creates a fascinating picture of the city teeming with the sacred and the profane: preachers holding forth in front of mosques and markets and vying for influential converts in high society, slave traders with troupes of performing women, "dream-like creatures, supposed to stimulate people's desire for aesthetic diversion...only to destroy through the lure of the feminine face..."

The rivalries of Islamic sects, the economic discontent of the masses and the political intrigues of the court combined to make Baghdad a city thrumming with tension. It was into this atmosphere that Hallaj stepped.

In Massignon's description, Hallaj preaches like a man possessed: "He cries out his joy at having reached, and having in his possession, 'the One who is at the heart of ecstasy'..."

Hallaj tears the veil of secrecy from the Sufi's lonely communion and shows the masses a man who has lost himself in God. What others preached as theory, Hallaj made real. He aroused awe and excitement among the displaced people who lived in the squalid margins of Baghdad life.

He interpreted Quranic verse and Islamic traditions in a way that puzzled some and infuriated others. Despite his denials, his followers believed he could raise the dead. His ecstatic behavior, was, to them, a sign that God spoke through him. He himself said, "Who is it but God who writes, since I am no more than the hand that serves him as an instrument?"

Hallah's most dramatic and famous proclamation was "Ana'l Haqq" - "I am the truth" (or "I am God") - a statement meant to express his oneness with the creator.

For his accusers this was enough to condemn him for "encroaching on the rights of God."

Religious leaders considered his popularity a threat and political leaders saw him as a catalyst for the people's discontent and a threat to the social order. Others withheld judgment: "What should I say about a man who in jurisprudence knows more than I do, and who in mysticism speaks a language I do not understand?"

As Reynolds Nicholson wrote in "Studies in Islamic Mysticism", Hallaj's crime was, "in actively asserting a truth which involves, religious, political and social anarchy."

Hallaj sought not adulation but condemnation and death at the hands of those who disagreed with him: "A man who is zealous for his religion is dearer to me, and dearer to God also, than a man who venerates a creature," he said. "What will you say to yourself...on the day when you see me hanging on the gibbet and killed and burned? Yet that will be the happiest day of my life."

Despite this claim, Hallaj fled when he was first ordered arrested. Later captured, he was imprisoned for eight years - but still allowed to write and receive followers.

Massigon describes how Hallaj's fate was decided in the "piestic riot" of his religious detractors and the political machinations of the Caliph's court. In a brief retrial, "this same aesthetic who had preached in vain that God must be loved first and foremost, that the holy war of the Law against idolatries must be waged against our own consciences, making us abandon all of our riches" was sentenced to death by lashing, dismemberment and decapitation and finally burning - his ashes scattered.

His execution in 922 AD was a public event accompanied by much interest and tumult. It's said he was led laughing to his death. Near the end he uttered the words: "Here I am now in the dwelling place of my desires."

There are two lives intertwined in this book: Hallaj and Massignon. After a half century of delving into his subject's story, Massignon wrote, "Not that the study of Hallaj's life yielded to me the secret of his heart. Rather, it is he who fathomed mine and who probes it still."

Friday, February 1, 2008

"In Iran everything is possible and everything is impossible."

-Woman in a restaurant

It's someone's job in Iran to go through every magazine sold here and black out offending photos. I looked through a copy of National Geographic the other day. A photo of a person standing naked in a wash basin with their back to the camera was covered in black magic marker. For some reason a photo on an earlier page featuring bare breasted women in body paint wasn't. A big sticker was placed over the cover photo of a yoga magazine to hide a woman who was wearing a bathing suit.

An Iranian friend of mine was arrested once for wearing a short sleeve shirt. He spent a night in jail. He was arrested twice more, both times for wearing bright colored shirts. The way he dressed was considered un-Islamic. That was many years ago. "Now change is happening so quickly in Iran," he told me, "The best man of today is the worst man of tomorrow." My friend is a very modern, enlightened person and he's not a devout Muslim, but when he weighs Iran's social or cultural changes, he views them through the prism of his religion.

My friend told me about something he witnessed just recently as he walked past a mosque in Shiraz. A young woman was standing on the sidewalk outside the mosque. She was wearing a tight manteau that revealed her figure, her scarf was worn back and her hair was exposed. A man came out of the mosque. He'd just finished praying. He said to the girl, "We will kill you."


One night I attended a concert of Persian classical music, Sufi spiritual music as it's described to me.

Several hundred people stand outside a central Tehran concert hall called Tawlareh Vahdat waiting for the performance to begin. The show is sold out. The people are beautifully dressed. Women with their long hair gathered under colorful scarves, their makeup accentuating their dark features. Some of the men have long hair and neatly trimmed beards. Others are wearing sharp sport coats. There is laughter and the murmur of happy conversation. People greet each other in the warm Iranian way; a handshake a slight bow, maybe a hand placed over a heart. Women shaking hands with men in public - that's something relatively new.

When the gates swing open, though, the men and women must separate. They aren't permitted to enter through the same gate. The women, for some reason, have their bags checked. My companion is concerned about the camera she carries in her bag, so I take it through the men's entrance. On the other side of the gate, only a few feet from where we'd been standing together before we entered, couples, families and friends reunite. The brief separation feels like an odd ritual from a past that no longer exists.

We walk under tall pines, past boxes planted with dusky lavender and into the concert hall where a domed ceiling rises high, glittering above the three-tiered balcony.

When the lights dim and the curtains open, there are twelve musicians and eight singers on stage. A man and a woman sit in the center. She is dressed in white. The musicians wear black. There is a small violin section on one side, and on the other side a group of soloists, including a violinist, an oud player, and a man playing a tar - a stringed instrument with a small body and long, slender neck. There are two men playing round flat drums called dafs. They hold them aloft in front of them and beat with their finger tips. The drums seem to float as they play.

The man and woman in the center are the lead singers. Women aren't permitted to perform solo in front of mixed audiences in Iran. The music is transcendent and cinematic. The instruments and voices rise and fall together, with long instrumentals - frenetic string work dissolves into meditative solos.

At the end of the concert the musicians and singers all take up dafs. Another group of daf players rises from the orchestra pit. The drumming fills the hall and you're transported. Here for a moment, with these amazing performers, there's a feeling of pleasure and happiness beyond trouble.