Simin Behbahani is 82 years old, nearly blind, and the most celebrated living poet in Iran. She is also, since early this month, a prisoner in her own country.
On March 8, on her way to an International Women’s Day event in Paris, she was stopped by authorities at the airport in Tehran. Interogated. Stripped of her passport. And summoned to court on unnamed charges.
Behbahani has written some of the most beautiful and powerful Iranian poetry of the last century. But she apparently looks like a threat to the regime in Iran.
This hour, On Point: the poet as prisoner in her own country.
Joining us from Charlottesville, Va., is Farzaneh Milani, professor of Studies in Women and Gender at the University of Virginia. She has been the main translator of Simin Behbahani’s poems from Farsi into English. She’s the author of many books including “A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems of Simin Behbahani” and “Veils and Words: The Emerging Voice of Iranian Women Writers.” She is a close friend and collaborator of Behbahani.
Joining us from College Park, Md., is Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, a specialist in modern Persian literature and director of the Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland.
And from Washington we’re joined by Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. In her native Iran, she was a noted journalist, deputy secretary general of the Women’s Organization of Iran, and more. She drew international attention when she was arrested by Iranian authorities and held in solitary confinement for 105 days in 2007. She’s the author of “My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran,” “Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution,” and more.
On March 19, NPR’s Mike Shuster reported on the clampdown on Behbahani’s travel.
In June last year, NPR spoke with Behbahani and posted two of her poems related to the post-election protests, including the poem for Neda Agha-Soltan.
Below are some of Behbahani’s poems, in translations by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa, from “A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems of Simin Behbahani.”
Anxious, agitated, sad,
her face uncovered, her head unveiled,
not afraid of arrest or policeman,
oblivious to the order, “Cover! Conceal!”
Her eyes two grapes plucked from their cluster,
squeezed by the times to fill a hundred barrels with blood,
mad, really mad, a stranger to herself and others,
oblivious to the world, beyond being awakened even by the deluge,
a particle of dust adrift in the wind, without purpose or destination,
lost, speechless, bewildered, a corpse without a grave,
carrying around her neck a necklace of curses and tears,
a pair of boots tied together belonging to a dead soldier.
I asked her: what does this mean?
She smiled: my son, poor child, sitting on my shoulders,
hasn’t taken off his boots yet.
WINE OF LIGHT
The stars have closed their eyes, come.
The wine of light flows through the veins of the night, come.
I have poured so many tears waiting in the night’s lap,
that twilight has blossomed and the morning has bloomed, come.
In my mind’s sky your memory etches lines of gold
like a shooting star, come.
I’ve sat so long with the night telling my tale of woe
that the night and I have turned pale with sorrow, come.
If you are waiting to see me again when I die,
understand, this is the time, come.
If I hear anyone’s footsteps, I imagine they are yours,
with all this beating, my heart is bursting out my breast, come.
You didn’t come when the sky was full of stars like grapes,
now that dawn has picked them one by one, come.
You’re the hope in the heart of Simin-the-broken-hearted,
put an end to my misery, come.
GRACEFULLY SHE APPROACHED
Gracefully she approached,
in a dress of bright blue silk;
With an olive branch in her hand,
and many tales of sorrows in her eyes.
Running to her, I greeted her,
and took her hand in mine:
Pulses could still be felt in her veins;
warm was still her body with life.
“But you are dead, mother”, I said;
“Oh, many years ago you died!”
Neither of embalmment she smelled,
Nor in a shroud was she wrapped.
I gave a glance at the olive branch;
she held it out to me,
And said with a smile,
“It is the sign of peace; take it.”
I took it from her and said,
“Yes, it is the sign of…”, when
My voice and peace were broken
by the violent arrival of a horseman.
He carried a dagger under his tunic
with which he shaped the olive branch
Into a rod and looking at it
he said to himself:
“Not too bad a cane
for punishing the sinners!”
A real image of a hellish pain!
Then, to hide the rod,
He opened his saddlebag.
In there, O God!
I saw a dead dove, with a string tied
round its broken neck.
My mother walked away with anger and sorrow;
my eyes followed her;
Like the mourners she wore
a dress of black silk.
I WANT A CUP OF SIN
He said I want that which cannot be found.
I want a cup of sin, a cup of corruption,
and some clay mixed with darkness,
from which I shall mold an image shaped like man,
wooden-armed and straw-haired.
His mouth is big.
He has lost all his teeth.
His looks reflect his ugliness within.
Lust has made him violate all prohibitions
and to grow on his brow an “organ of shame.”
His eyes are like two scarlet beams,
one focused on a sack of gold,
the other on the pleasures found in bed.
He changes masks like a chameleon,
has a two-timing heart like an eel.
He grows tall like a giant branch,
as if his body has acquired vegetable properties.
Then, he will come to me,
intent on my oppression.
I will protest and scream against his horror.
And that ogre called man
will tame me with his insults.
As I gaze into his eyes
innocently and full of shame,
I will scold myself: you see,
how you spent a lifetime wishing for “Adam.”
Here you have what you asked for.