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Iran's last great female poet

Simin Behbahani, whose poetry was quoted by Barack Obama, has died aged 87. But her work lives on.
Last modified: 19 Aug 2014 19:56

The small, frail woman, looking all of her 85 years, walked into the room full of Tehran's finest. Initially no one noticed her.

But then something clicked. Gasps and whispers filled the room: This woman, draped in a Spanish shawl, was Simin Behbahani.

Even the crowd's contingent of Tehran’s new money, boisterous and covered in their gaudy clothes and jewellery as they were, hushed in her presence.

Iran’s last living great female poet took her seat. She greeted everyone in the same polite manner - from waiters to ambassadors and their wives - as they streamed past to pay their respects. She inspired even the most cynical.

Just months before, the US president Barack Obama had quoted her in his Norooz message.

That was 2011. Yesterday, aged 87, Behbahani died. But her legacy lives on, as do the words that have inspired generations of Iranians.

Behbahani, like her contemporaries such as the late Forough Foroukhzad and Ahmad Shamlou, saw her words cross over into politics as verses of hope and defiance for the people.

The best generation

She came from a different generation - often referred to by Iranians as the "best generation" - which rediscovered the freedom of critical thinking in a society controlled by absolute monarchy, and refused to be silenced after the Islamic revolution that replaced it.

Much like Foroukhzad and Shamlou, she had been a critic and a poet long before the revolution in 1979.

She learned censorship and self-censorship. But never silence.

It was her words that revolutionaries used to inspire their opposition to the monarchy, and the very same words their children now use against the Islamic Republic.

In 1983, she wrote "It is Time to Mow the Flowers: "Don’t procrastinate. Fetch the sickles, come, don’t spare a single tulip in the fields. The meadows are in bloom; who has ever seen such insolence?"

In 2009 after disputed elections saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retain the presidency, she showed her defiance with at least two poems.

"Stop this extravagance, this reckless throwing of my country to the wind," she wrote. In reply, a year later, the 82-year-old's passport was confiscated and she was banned from leaving the country. 

But the idea that a government, a system, a leader, would fear the words of a frail 82-year-old woman, made her supporters grin rather than grimace.

I have heard it said many times in Tehran that "they" could not touch her. That no one would dare try to censor Behbahani ever again.

Unlike many of Iran’s famous artists, Behbahani stayed in her country and alongside her people, despite the restrictions, the censorship and the threats. She did not flee, become an exile or a transplant into another world. And her people respected her greatly for that.

The verses of life

In a 2011 interview, she described her life - the inspiration for her work, the inspiration born from life in Iran.

"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.”

And her countrymen understood, for they lived this alongside her.

Iranians have often said to me that as many of the politicians running Iran are Behbahani’s age, only death would determine who wins the war of wills between them.

But it seems Behbahani herself said it best in 2009, in a poem for the slain protester, Neda Agha Soltan.

"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."