NPR senior producer Davar Ardalan spoke with Simin Behbahani in June 2009 and has this remembrance:
One of Iran’s most vocal and outspoken poets died this morning in Tehran at the age of 87. Known as the “Lioness of Iran,” Simin Behbahani reportedly had been in a coma for more than two weeks.
For millions of Iranians all over the world, Behbahani represented the invincible power of the Iranian psyche. Her words were piercing and fierce, lamenting on the lack of freedom of expression through the ages. For six decades, many Iranians found refuge in her poetry as a way to nurture their hunger for dialogue, peace, human rights and equality.
Farzaneh Milani, who teaches Persian literature and women’s studies at the University of Virginia, has been translating Behbahani’s work for decades. She has said that much of Iran’s history can be studied through Behbahani’s peoms, as her words stir the mind and quench the thirst of those who can only whisper their laments away from the public eye. Milani confirmed Behbahani’s passing this morning: “Our dear Simin Khanum [lady], a woman I loved and a poet I admired, died this morning, even though her voice is undying.”
One of the most famous of Behbahani’s poems, “A Cup of Sin,” reflects on the paradox of fear and hope:
“My country, I will build you again, if need be, with bricks made from my life. I will build columns to support your roof, if need be, with my own bones. I will inhale again the perfume of flower favored by your youth. I will wash again the blood off your body with torrents of my tears.” (Milani and Kaveh Safa have been the primary translators of Behbahani’s work.)
Born July 20, 1927, in Tehran, Behbahani was Iran’s nightingale, publishing 19 books of poetry over the course of six decades. Her first book, Setar-e Shekasteh, which translates as Broken Lute, was published in 1951. She was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Although Behbahani had been barred from leaving Iran for the past four years or so, her words continued to permeate and enlighten beyond the borders of her homeland. In March 2011, President Obama recited one of her poems as part of a Persian New Year greeting to the Iranian people:
“I would like to close with a quote from the poet Simin Behbahani – a woman who has been banned from travelling beyond Iran, even though her words have moved the world: ‘Old, I may be, but, given the chance, I will learn. I will begin a second youth alongside my progeny. I will recite the Hadith of love of country with such fervor as to make each word bear life.’ ”
Behbahani’s death brings stillness to our eternity. I want her to keep singing.
We’ll leave you with a poem Behbahani wrote about turmoil in Iran in 2009.
Stop Throwing My Country To The Wind
If the flames of anger rise any higher in this land Your name on your tombstone will be covered with dirt.
You have become a babbling loudmouth. Your insolent ranting, something to joke about.
The lies you have found, you have woven together. The rope you have crafted, you will find around your neck.
Pride has swollen your head, your faith has grown blind. The elephant that falls will not rise.
Stop this extravagance, this reckless throwing of my country to the wind. The grim-faced rising cloud, will grovel at the swamp’s feet.
Stop this screaming, mayhem, and blood shed. Stop doing what makes God’s creatures mourn with tears.
My curses will not be upon you, as in their fulfillment. My enemies’ afflictions also cause me pain.
You may wish to have me burned , or decide to stone me. But in your hand match or stone will lose their power to harm me.
Translated by Kaveh Safa and Farzaneh Milani