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.