Simin Behbahani (1927-2014)
Simin Behbahani, the gregarious master of contemporary Persian ghazal and aptly named lioness of Iran whose unflinching support for freedom of expression, from time to time, curtailed her own freedom of movement, died in Tehran on 19 August 2014. She was 87 years old.
Simin Behbahani was born in Tehran on 19 July 1927 to her just-divorced mother, Fakhrolozma Arghoon, a poet and early feminist who despite her traditional education knew French well and played the Tar. Her father was Abbas Khalili, a writer, translator into Arabic, newspaper publisher and political activist. Simin Behbahani first met her father when she was 14 months old but the visits to his house stopped and it was not till much later in her teens when the two were partially reconciled.
Simin’s mother went on to marry the great intellect and print media magnate Adel Khal’atbary, who counted the poet laureate Bahar, the historian and writer Sa’id Nafisi and the poetess Parvin E’etesami amongst close friends. E’etesami’s encouragement and ideology was to become a significant influence on the early poetry of Simin Behbahani. Simin grew up in a home that was a meeting place of many prominent and influential Iranian literary figures of the day and was nurtured under the watchful eyes of a doting and dynamic mother who was active in the recently founded Society of Patriotic Iranian Women, whose primary aim was to promote literacy, health and well-being of girls.
Simin was about fourteen years old when her mother came across a poem she had penned and, contrary to her fears that she would be admonished, her mother encouraged her to submit the poem to the Nowbahar, the newspaper which was established by the poet laureate Bahar. The literary editor of the paper was much taken by the poem and the short ghazal was printed in the paper under the name of Simin Khalatbary.
In 1946, aged 19, Simin entered an arranged marriage to Hossein Behbahani. A marriage that lasted 20 years and resulted in the birth of her two sons Ali and Hossein and her daughter Omid, but the marriage was far from happy. Simin always spoke respectfully of her first husband, describing him as decent, devoted to his children and kind but their life together was not the blissful union she had always longed for. “I have no happy memories of my first marriage” she told an interviewer, lamenting that she and her first husband were never soul mates. It was during her first marriage that Simin began publishing her poetry, first of which was the volume entitled “The Broken Setar”, which she later dismissed as “immature experimentations in verse” and next, “Ja–ye Pa”, Footprints, published in 1955. This second volume was a collection of Nimaesque quatrains on the themes of social observation and the realities of domestic and working lives of ordinary men and women. Simin was by now accepted on to the Faculty of Literature of Tehran University which she was soon to leave before completing her degree. She then began writing for various literary journals and working as an editor and columnist.
The thought of not having finished her degree always weighed on her mind and having an interest in law she decided to apply to Tehran University’s School of Law, where she met, albeit fleetingly, the man who would become her second husband almost a decade later. Her poetic output during the 1950s till the late 60s continued to increase, as volume after volume of her modernist ghazals were published under titles such as Chandelier (chelcheragh), Marble (marmar) and Resurrection (rastakhiz), all of which received the highest critical acclaim. Her socially sobering and stylistically challenging, neo-classical compositions, stood in contrast to the works of many of her modernist contemporaries, including Forough Farrokhzad.
By now Simin was also a much sought after lyricist working for the music department of Iran’s National Radio and Television. She composed hundreds of memorable songs that were sung by the best of Iran’s classical and popular artists such as Delkash, Pouran, Mohammad Reza and Homouyan Shajarian and Dariush to name but a few. These songs were immortalised in the Golha radio programme and made Simin a household name ensuring that those who did not know her through her books cherished her as the writer of the many songs that became the soundtrack of the late 20th century Iran.
More than five years after her divorce from Hossein Behbahani, Simin married Manouchehr Houshyar, a man she affectionately introduced as “at first totally uninterested in poetry”, who in time became her most ardent fan and a much trusted and valued critic. Her account of the years of her marriage to Houshyar were chronicled in her part prose, part poetic tender memoirs entitled “An Mard, Mard–e Hamraaham”, That Man, My Fellow Companion, a testament to a loving and successful marriage, which ended with his sudden death after a heart attack in 1990. Simin continued to publish her poetry under the name of Behbahani – the surname she kept after separation from her first husband and throughout her second marriage and after.
After a lull of nearly ten years, in 1981, two years after the Iranian revolution, Simin began to once again publish her poetry. However, her new collection entitled “Khati ze Sor’at o Atash”, A Line of Speed and Fire, marked the emergence of a totally new poetic voice which revealed her innovating experimentations with meter and prosody. The subject matter of her poems changed too as she wrote about revolutions, war, natural disasters, jails and public executions She mixed the vernacular with the classical to arrive at her own unique language, and unspoilt by sentimentality she reflected on the drabness of lives of the ordinary, on poignant tales of forbidden love punished by stoning, of the alienation of the veterans of Iran – Iraq war, and all the while she manipulated and brought to life long forgotten metrical structures to frame compelling pictures of Iranian lives, habits, familial concerns and the frustrated ambitions of simple folk trying to get on with their lives.
In her most productive decade of writing from 1983 to 2003 she published the collections of Dasht–e Arjan, Arjan Plaine, Kaghazin Jameh, Cloth of Paper, Yek Daricheh Azadi, A porthole of Freedom, Shayad keh Masih Ast, Perhaps It’s the Messiah, and “A cup of Sin”, a compilation in English translation.
An inexhaustible and active opponent of capital punishment she used every public platform defiantly to voice her condemnation of inhuman treatment of all prisoners.
Simin was a loyal and reliable friend to many. A contemporary poet recalls an evening of celebration in the mid–1990s to honour Behbahani’s poetic achievements. Simin began her acceptance speech by suggesting that the best accolade for any artist would be the news that writers will no longer be incarcerated, poets will not languish in jail, students never locked up again and journalists will not be arrested. She continued, “the best tribute would be for the writing–pen to be guaranteed freedom, and political harassment to become a thing of the past.”
The price of her outspoken demand for respect for human rights, for equal rights for men & women and her active involvement with the Iranian Writer’s Association was the periodic loss of freedom to travel outside Iran, as well as restriction on her movement in Tehran and being placed under surveillance. She was often and maliciously attacked by government supported press in Iran as they labelled her a feminist – a derogatory term in the establishment’s lexicon – and despite her unwavering patriotism, accused her of being the West’s agent provocateur.
However, the octogenarian Simin never ceased her eloquent protest nor did she lose her zest for life or her sense of humour – sometimes mischievous. Moreover, her energetic and positive outlook marked her in contrast to so many of her browbeaten and desperately downhearted contemporary poets and writers.
Her phenomenal memory and her ability to recall and declaim vast amount of poetry she knew by heart, even in the last year of her life, was quite staggering.
Simin lost much of her eyesight in her eighties and the inability to read was perhaps what she missed most.
Simin Behbahani was the recipient of numerous Iranian and international awards and prizes both for her poetry and for her promotion of human rights. She was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature and last year she was able to travel to Hungary to receive the prestigious Janus Pannonius International Poetry Prize.
Senior Fellow in Persian – SOAS
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