Archive for August 26th, 2014

R.I.P. Simin Behbahani, “lioness of Iran” and first recipient of Stanford’s Bita Prize for Literature and Freedom

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014
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“To stay alive, you must slay silence … / to pay homage to being, you must sing.”

Iran’s leading poet Simin Behbahani died last week in Teheran, of natural causes at the age of 87. This is no small accomplishment in post-1979 Iran.

According to the New York Times obituary here: “In 2006, the Iranian authorities shut down an opposition newspaper for printing one of her works. In 2010, when she was 82 and nearly blind, she was barred from boarding a Paris-bound plane and interrogated through the night regarding poems she had written about Iran’s 2009 elections, which were considered fraudulent by government opponents.”

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“I have put my poems forward for everyone to see.”

Her literary awards include the 2013 Janus Pannonius Poetry Prize from the Hungarian PEN Club, which carries a 50,000-euro prize. She was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. She also was awarded a Human Rights Watch-Hellman/Hammett grant in 1998 and, in 1999, the Carl von Ossietzky Medal for her struggle for freedom of expression in Iran.

But there was one award not mentioned in the obituaries: in March 2008 she was the first recipient of Stanford’s Bita Prize for Literature and Freedom. The $10,000 prize was part of the Daryabari Persian Studies Fund, endowed by Bita Daryabari to support and promote teaching, research and scholarship relating to Iran, including the area formerly known as Persia, and people of Iranian or Persian heritage. I wrote about it here. Here’s what I wrote way back then:

Behbahani is one of the most prominent figures of modern Persian literature and one of the most outstanding among contemporary Persian poets, as well as a leading dissident. She is Iran’s national poet and an icon of the Iranian intelligentsia and literati, who affectionately refer to her as the “lioness of Iran.” Her poems are quoted like aphorisms and proverbs.

Behbahani was born in 1927 in Tehran. Her father was a writer and newspaper editor; her mother was a noted feminist, teacher, writer, newspaper editor and poet. Behbahani started writing poetry at 12 and published her first poem at 14.

She has expanded the range of the traditional Persian verse forms and has produced some of the most significant works of Persian literature of the 20th century. While many poets of her time embraced free verse, Behbahani’s signature writing focused on the traditional ghazal form and took it to new lyrical heights—with a modern twist in perspective and voice. For example, while the form traditionally is a male poet courting a woman, in Behbahani’s verse the man is the object.

She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1997. She also was awarded a Human Rights Watch-Hellman/Hammett grant in 1998 and, in 1999, the Carl von Ossietzky Medal for her struggle for freedom of expression in Iran.

Behbahani said: “I have put my poems forward for everyone to see. What can they be from the year 1979 onward? We wrote our books not with ink but with blood. No doubt, the same is true about the works of every other poet.”

As she has written in one of her poems: “To stay alive, you must slay silence … / to pay homage to being, you must sing.”

I dropped in for the award ceremony six years ago. I didn’t stay long – I had another appointment, and the proceedings were in Farsi, anyway – but she was a grand presence, gracious and magnanimous. She seemed to me a Persian Anna Akhmatova.