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Simin Behbahāni: The Woman who Reshaped Persian Poetry | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iranian poet Simin Behbahani speaks at the “Yes to peace, No to war” conference in Tehran, in this file picture taken November 19, 2007. (Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazi)

Iranian poet Simin Behbahani speaks at the "Yes to peace, No to war" conference in Tehran, in this file picture taken November 19, 2007.  (Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazi)

Iranian poet Simin Behbahani speaks at the “Yes to peace, No to war” conference in Tehran, in this file picture taken November 19, 2007. (Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazi)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—One of the myths prevalent in literary circles across the globe today is that poets write their best work between the ages of 17 and 30. In other words, poetry is the fruit of the tree of youth. In real life, however, the muse can visit whomever she wants, regardless of age. So, it was no surprise when the muse visited Simin Behbahāni when she had turned 50, guiding her onto a new path to achieve unexpected wonders.

Simin Behbahāni, who died in Tehran last month at the age of 87, was universally hailed as one of the most important Iranian poets of a generation that, over more than eight decades, redefined and remodeled Persian literature. Nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature and celebrated by numerous universities and literary establishments across the globe, Behbahāni had also become a household name in her native Iran—one of a handful of countries where poetry has a massive popular base. There is hardly an Iranian home that does not boast at least one collection of poetry and each year up to 10,000 people submit work for the national poetry festival.

A Line of Speed and Fire

The publication in 1980 of Behbahāni’s collection of poems entitled A Line of Speed and Fire attracted little attention at first. Behbahāni was already a well-established poet with a following of her own. But almost no one expected her to experience a literary rebirth on the eve of her 50th birthday. And yet A Line of Speed and Fire was soon to be discovered as the most important collection of Persian poems to be published in years.

A Line of Speed and Fire has subsequently been followed by a second collection which marked a continuing deepening of Behbahāni’s meditation on the essential issues of existence. The two books contained a total of 129 ghazals or sonnets, some of which were quickly rated as modern classics in the genre.

Together, the two collections showed that Behbahāni had at long-last found her own distinctive voice, a voice that she was to deepen to almost perfection in at least 200 other ghazals composed until the very last months of her life.

Auspicious Beginnings

Simin, as Mrs. Behbahāni’s friends and admirers prefer to call her, published her first collection of poems in Tehran in 1956. The 1950s witnessed the triumph of She’er-e now or New Poetry over the traditional forms that had, in various forms, survived for some eleven centuries.

The influence of Nima Yushij was finally well established and there were few poets who would choose the ghazal form as their medium of poetic expression. Even poets such as Hushang Ebtehaj, whose ghazals were recognized as classics of modern Persian poetry, soon abandoned the form to join the New Poetry movement. To be sure, there were other poets who produced ghazals, often of very high quality, including Amiri Firouzkuhi, Rahi Moayyeri and Mehdi Hamidi. But they were mostly unable to relate their work to contemporary human concerns.

Simin, who initially chose the ghazal, was therefore something of an outsider among her contemporaries. However, by the 1960s, she too felt obliged to move towards New Poetry by adopting the so-called “Four-Part” style of Persian poetry popularized by Fereydoun Tavallali—this represented a compromise between Nima Yushij’s style and more traditional metres.

Simin also extended her field of inspiration to discuss so-called “social issues.” This meant a large number of poems about the poor and the downtrodden in an increasingly complex society that sought a way out of medieval times. Simin’s well-rehearsed lyricism often contrasted with her experiments in “social realism”.

The lyricism of the fifties and the “realism” of the sixties were followed by a brief detour into feminism Simin’s seventies poetry. Feminism had always been present in Simin’s poems and had provided her with a platform from which to seek not only more legal equality for women but also, and more importantly, equality in cultural and literary expression. She had on occasions shocked the more traditional circles with her outspoken adulation of carnal love and descriptions of erotic delights. In the seventies, however, feminism become her dominant theme. But this also coincided with the first rumblings of a revolution that finally led to the overthrow of the Shah and the seizure of power by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.

Revolutionary Fervor

The gathering revolutionary storm affected Simin’s poetry almost right from the start. Feminism came to resemble an almost irrelevant concern at a time when the destiny of the entire nation was being reshaped. Simin became an enthusiastic supporter of the revolution and, for a while, put her poetry at its service. She penned a number of revolutionary songs that were sung by rebellious students at various universities in 1978 and 1979. In sonnet after sonnet she urged the revolutionaries to reject all compromise and to continue fighting until the entire imperial edifice was brought down. Some of these sonnets are no more than well-made tools of propaganda. The best among them stand today as proof of Simin’s totally mistaken, and subsequently regretted, belief that Khomeini and his mullahs could give Iran a democratic life of prosperity and joy.

It took Simin Behbahāni only a few months to discover her error of judgment. She was not alone; almost the entire intelligentsia had been deceived or, as some later argued, had deceived themselves. They had expected something from Khomeini that he could not offer; a religious teacher who firmly believes that eternal truth is contained in his dogma cannot offer an opportunity to doubt—the first step towards freedom. Some of the farib-khordehgan, or Deceived Generation as these revolutionary intellectuals came to describe themselves, turned into counter-revolutionaries of the Left or the Right, fighting the theocratic regime with guns as well as pens.

Simin took a different course. The shock of discovering how she had been deceived led to a new awareness of both herself and of the unhappy state that Iran found itself in. She found out that too much certitude could kill and that poets are not required to have opinions on all subjects.

The Years of Doubt

In a 1983 letter she wrote: “I have come to doubt everything, including myself.” She expresses the same feeling in one of her latest sonnets:

[blockquote]Where is the vision of my childhood-
A vision as pure as waters and mirrors
I am crying over my beliefs
Which die without even being sure of man’s existence.[/blockquote]

She decided to let “poetry write me, rather than I writing it.” Gone were the days of meticulously plotted revolutionary songs that would burn the lips without penetrating the hearts.

She wrote: “My poetry has become a cry that cannot be helped; it is a reflexive activity and goes on naturally like my heartbeats and the beatings of my pulse.”

By shunning the partisan politics of the day, Simin returned to the very real task of poetry—to delve into the depths of human existence with all its noble, and tragic, dimensions.

Her post-revolution ghazals were products of this new awareness. But it is not only their themes of despair, love and the search for peace that differentiate them from her earlier work. Simin’s new sonnets brought about a veritable revolution in Persian poetical forms.

Stylistic Innovation

The traditional way in which a ghazal is written is that the poet chooses a specific metre and proceeds. The exigencies of a pre-determined metre impose obvious constraints on the poet’s imagination. Rhythm and rhyme at times impose their presence, dictating the content of the poem, not vice versa.

Simin Behbahāni’s great discovery was that Nima Yushij’s method of breaking the traditional forms into hemistiches of unequal length could be applied to the ghazal without altering its familiar form. She begins by writing down “the first phrase that is dictated by my imagination,” regardless of its length and metre. But instead of forcing the rest of the poem into the straitjacket of a single predetermined metre she created a new mixture of metres and rhyming schemes. Form became a means to an end, a vehicle for poetic expression and not, as had been the case for centuries, a means of imposing order for order’s sake.

Traditionally, Persian poetry has worked with a maximum of nine metres, with a few poets experimenting with a further four. Because Persian is a very musical language, this created a situation where metre overshadowed content. Simin’s new metrical combinations allow the poet to “tame” the music without totally eliminating it, as is the case in the prose poetry that originated in France.

Over the past decades, Simin has created, or invented, over 50 new metres based on old forms many of which have been used by other poets. But the number of new combinations that can be created in this way is, of course, theoretically at least, unlimited.

The Emergence of “Gypsy”

The total freedom Simin sought in terms of poetical forms is embodied, as far as content is concerned, by the gypsy figure that appeared in a number of her works. Simin’s gypsy is free of religious rules and regulations and can, therefore, sing of love and liberty. This gypsy figure can roam through forbidden gardens, crossing every barrier even in Khomeini’s Iran.

Simin wrote: “What is my gypsy’s religion? She wears on her forehead the mole that is made of Hafiz’s blood; she is the pagan that Hafiz praised in his sonnets.”

At a time that the ruling theocracy propagates war and martyrdom as the highest of values in its cult of death, Simin sang of love and of life.

[blockquote]I pray that the sun shall rise
From a cup of joyful wine
In this obscure night of yours[/blockquote]

At a time when the government had banned music and dancing, she wrote:

Yes, it’s time to expel the silence of terror from this house;
It’s time to sing and dance, to be merry and boisterous.

But she also wrote of broken pens, of corpses strewn over the desert, of the body of a dead soldier that resembles the Milky Way and of the olive branch of peace that is turned into a cane by an Islamic Revolutionary Guardsman.

In some poems, Simin offered a macabre portrayal of life in present-day Iran: a land of eyes torn out of their sockets, of smashed brains and of “enemies of spring, ambushing the tulips of the desert.”

However Simin Behbahāni also rediscovered “the eternal Iran”, now wounded by decades of revolutionary madness and a war that claimed a million lives in Iran and Iraq. Contemplating the war-shattered country she wrote:

[blockquote]Motherland, rebuild you I shall
Even if with bricks of my soul.
I shall erect columns for your roof
Even if only with my bones.[/blockquote]

A Return to “Social” Concerns

Simin’s metaphysical preoccupations did not make her forget the poor and the downtrodden—“those who bear the main burden” of existence. She wrote about “children that are fruits of poverty/Growing on trees of pain.”

She urged steadfastness and resistance at a time when many of her contemporaries her either given in to despair or fled into exile. She wrote:

[blockquote]Resist I must—I must resist
In the hope of deliverance.
There is a living seed in water
That shall become a towering tree.[/blockquote]

She described those who preach despair and pessimism as “bats, ghouls, wild beasts and snakes.”

Simin’s collections of poetry are already out of print in Iran and attempts at securing permission for new editions have so far failed. Her poetry, however, is still reaching millions in Iran, helping the consciousness of a whole generation.