Wall Street Journal: For a lesson in the power of artists to shake despots, consider the Iranian poet Simin Behbahani. The Islamic Republic four years ago imposed a travel ban on her in retaliation for poems she’d written denouncing Tehran’s crackdown on the 2009 Green uprising. She was 82 and nearly blind, yet she was barred from boarding a France-bound plane and interrogated through the night in March 2010.
Simin Behbahani was 82 and nearly blind when the Tehran regime imposed a travel ban on the fearless, celebrated poet.
Wall Street Journal
By Sohrab Ahmari
For a lesson in the power of artists to shake despots, consider the Iranian poet Simin Behbahani. The Islamic Republic four years ago imposed a travel ban on her in retaliation for poems she’d written denouncing Tehran’s crackdown on the 2009 Green uprising.
She was 82 and nearly blind, yet she was barred from boarding a France-bound plane and interrogated through the night in March 2010. Behbahani died Tuesday from respiratory illness.
Behbahani’s poems are routinely memorized and quoted in Iran. “In more than a thousand years of Iranian literature, it is unprecedented for a woman to have reached this level of national recognition during her lifetime,” notes her English translator, Farzaneh Milani, in an essay on Behbahani’s work. She was popularly dubbed the “Lioness of Iran.”
Born in 1927 in Tehran, at the dawn of the Pahlavi dynasty, she published her first poem at age 14. Persian poetry was at the time undergoing a revolution of sorts, and Behbahani eventually came to lead its vanguard, alongside the likes of Nima Yooshij, Sohrab Sepehri and Forough Farrokhzad.
In their work, idyllic wineries and star-crossed lovers were replaced by serious social and psychological themes and portraits of everyday life. Many of these poets also broke free from the elaborate rhyme schemes of classical Persian verse. They developed a free verse to match the turmoil and uncertainty around them, as the Pahlavis dragged Iran, kicking and screaming, out of its feudal slumber into industrial modernity.
Yet Behbahani emerged as a contemporary master of the ghazal, a classical Persian sonnet consisting of rhyming couplets. Her most-beloved ghazal, widely anthologized in the West, was published soon after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
“My Country, I Will Build You Again” expressed the fragile optimism of a nation still convinced that it had just staged a democratic revolt—not one to usher in a new Islamist dark age. Its opening couplet:
My country, I will build you again,
If need be, with bricks made from my life.
The new regime would soon declare war on Iran’s poets, novelists and intellectuals, and Behbahani’s work would take a darker and more explicitly political turn—culminating in the two 2009 poems that earned her the travel ban.
“Stop Throwing My Country to the Wind” was addressed directly to Iran’s theocrats:
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.
The other poem, “For Neda Agha-Soltan, ” was a tribute to the young woman shot by regime agents on Tehran’s streets in 2009, video of which went viral around the world:
You are neither dead, nor will you die.
You will always remain alive.
You have an eternal existence.
You are the voice of the people of Iran.
Behbahani could have been describing herself.
Mr. Ahmari is a Journal editorial-page writer based in London.