A Visit With Simin Behbahani

Poetry has long played a central role in defining Iranian national identity. Throughout the centuries, poets have helped keep the language and culture of the Iranian people alive. In modern times, Iranian poets have gone beyond traditional themes of romantic and spiritual longing to become voices for social justice, and they have done so without sacrificing the lyricism of their work. The strategy is clear—in the words of Simin Behbahani, considered by many to be the first lady of Iranian poetry, “People don’t like political poetry; they don’t want slogans in poetry. Poetry should really represent art and not politics.”

Behbahani herself has been a literary pioneer for more than half a century. She has reinvigorated the traditional gazal form, reshaping it so that it specifically addresses the human condition and hardships associated with everyday life in contemporary Iran. Unlike many of her literary peers, Behbahani has chosen not to leave Iran, and for this she has paid a price. Her work is not well known among non-Iranians, and in her own country, she has been barred from giving public readings. Yet the special power and passion of her writing burns brighter in spite of these setbacks, not because of them. In her own words, “I swear, I cannot endure being separated from my homeland/Til my last day you will hear in my bones/the same tale of the reed.”

Steve Zind
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