The Lioness of Iran: An Interview with Simin Behbahāni

By Harriet Staff

Shiva Rahbaran conducted an interview with Simin Behbahāni, Iran's most prominent poet, at Guernica.

Rahbaran begins with a bit of context:

Simin Behbahāni is optimistic about where Persian thought and literature are headed despite Iranian society’s many post-revolution disillusionments. She speaks of the ruinous itinerary of the “literature of censorship” and the phenomenon of self-censorship, but she believes that exceptional knowledge has been stored up given Iranian social and cultural resistance to the consequences of the 1979 revolution. This knowledge creates fertile ground for the growth of contemporary Persian literature. From this perspective, the importance of poets and writers for the survival of Iranian civil society is undeniable. Behbahāni points out that this role has been inherited today after a thousand years of attacks on Iran’s writers and thinkers.

Behbahāni views her poetry in its historical context. She sees herself as an iconoclast, but has never severed her link with Iran’s past literature. On this same basis, far from attaching any importance, as a poet, to ‘being a woman,’ she considers any reference to it an insult. In other words, her poetry is part of Persian poetry as a whole, whether produced by men or by women. Behbahāni’s poetry is varied and, as she puts it, “multi-vocal,” because her poetry is the poetry of the “moments” of her life— whether the moments of “convoys of war martyrs on their way to the cemeteries” and “lorries carrying the bodies of executed prisoners, dripping with blood” or the moments of happiness. For Behbahāni, a good poem is one in which “today’s language, today’s events, and today’s needs” are poured into the mold of rhyme and meter.

And then begins the interview thusly:

Shiva Rahbaran: What impression do people in Iran have of democracy? Do they think that democracy always produces the desired outcomes? Have Iranian thinkers done anything to inform people about the dangers of democracy or not? Also, many people are of the view that democracy is not suited to Iranians.

Simin Behbahāni: Iranians have more or less the same impression of democracy as do the other nations of the world. Democracy means rule by the people. As long as it doesn’t make an about-face and turn into a dictatorship, it’s very desirable. Why, really, should democracy be suited to other nations but unsuited to Iranians? Western nations have experienced dictatorships in the past, too, and no Western nation has had a democratic state at the beginning of its history. Democracy is the product of human thought and reasoning. It’s true that philosophers and thinkers have always imagined a utopia in which everything is as it ought to be and the people live in freedom and comfort. But this was not achieved until recent centuries. And it can even be said that, even in the freest and most developed countries, the bounds of democracy are overstepped from time to time. Or, a country that wants democracy for itself sometimes disregards other countries’ rights to freedom. So the Iranian nation, too, wants democracy. But I think that it hasn’t, in its experience, reached the necessary conclusions in its reasoning for this kind of government. The Constitutional Revolution and the Islamic Revolution were carried out within a short space of time in the hope of gaining freedom. But, from the start, the people’s dream of freedom turned into a nightmare of tyranny. But I believe that these kinds of experiences and setbacks are necessary to attaining freedom and real rule by the people.

Today, another Hitler can’t come to power and turn Germany into a hellish dictatorship and set the world ablaze. Having had this experience, the German nation will be forever immune to the risk of this kind of government.

Our thinkers, too, are changing in the light of the experiences that they have had under an Islamic state. They will no longer consent to any old kind of tyranny as they would have done twenty years ago. We can see that killing people and imprisoning them no longer has the desired effect! Although proponents of freedom are still sent to prison, the future is bright and we will gradually acquire the knowledge that we need to achieve democracy.

She closes by discussing the direction of her new work:

Shiva Rahbaran: Your new poems that were published in the London edition of Kayhan newspaper revealed a new passion that distinguished them from your other poems, which often carry references to blood, war, and injustice. Is this the beginning of a new path for you?

Simin Behbahāni: I have said again and again that my poetry is the poetry of the moments of my life. I’ve experienced years when the sky over me was blackened with the smoke of missiles and the ground on which I walked turned into ruins under exploding bombs. I’ve seen convoys of war martyrs on their way to the cemeteries. I’ve seen lorries carrying the bodies of executed prisoners, dripping with blood, that were being taken for burial in Behesht-e Zahra.

I’ve stood in long lines, in the rain and under the sun, just to buy a pack of butter or a box of paper napkins. I’ve seen mothers running after the corpses of their martyred sons, oblivious to whether their headscarves or their chadors or their stockings and shoes were slipping off or not. I won’t say any more. In the light of all this, how did you expect my poetry to be joyful or, as in my recent poem, to speak of love? Even so, more than half of my poetry is joyful and these are the products of the moments when I’ve felt happy. As a matter of fact, my poetry is multi-vocal. I’ve spoken about everything. I’ve written poems that consist of a story in minimized form. I’ve used surreal subjects. I’ve produced ‘dialogic’ poems. I’ve produced descriptive poems. I had one working period which was totally devoted to transforming the foundations of the ghazal. I have used about seventy new or disused meters, and this is something that can give the ghazal a totally new potential and a new mold in which to pour today’s language, today’s events, and today’s needs. You can find any type of poem that you like in my works and anyone, with any taste, can find something to their liking in them. On the whole, there’s a great deal of variety in my works. I can’t predict how my poetry will be in the future. It will depend on the state of things and how I’m feeling.

Read the entire piece here.

Originally Published: October 4th, 2011