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Iranian Poet Simin Behbahani

Simin Behbahani (Photo: Fakhradin Fakhraddini / Wikimedia Commons)

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.

More links:

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.



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,
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.



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.

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  • libby@sertoron.edu

    Subliminal War Drums are in action …. again.

    Regime change, Regime change, Regime change

    Thank you NPR

    There are wonderful poets in Borneo and Patagonia; why don’t we bring them on, but only the elite poets who are against the Elected Government in Iran?

  • cory

    Kudos to you, Libby.

  • Henry Stimpson

    So, Libby, you think it’s a good thing for a dictatorial theocracy to harass an innocent imminent poet?

  • Henry Stimpson

    oops, typo – I meant EMINENT poet

  • Ed Cobb

    I lived in Iran as a teenager back in the 50′s, was a member of a boy-scout troop there, and had a number of Iranian friends. I was struck by the fact that they all seemed to be very involved in poetry — even the most macho of them. It indeed seemed to be a large part of their culture.

    (By the way — please take a cue from your guests in your pronounciation of “Iranian”: There’s no “rain” in “Iranian”; it rhymes with “ron.”

  • praveen misra

    It’s not the fighters, it’s this kind of poetry that creates real revolutions. Its this poetry that get to your soul. I am not Iranian or being suppressed by any regime but just listening to it is making my hair rise.

  • Martin A. Thiel

    Dear Tom, AS I listen to the show this AM I hear the thugs in Iran branded as “The Right”. I am offended as this regime in engaged in the same control tactics and desire for totalitarian control as what I call “The left” in our country. My Christian Conservative cohorts, most of whom today call themselves Republicans are are for individual empowerment and against the type of “Statism” pursued by totalitarian regimes both autocratic and socialistic. Today’s Democrats have their own religion,secular humanism, which in most aspects is a type of imposed socialism. MA Thiel(757)254-1795

  • Ellen Dibble

    Martin, it seems to me that The Right is for control in that The Right is defined as “conserving” what has been, the status quo or status quo ante. The Left might almost be defined as poetry, sending words and emotion into new terrain, letting anyone who can speak them follow.

  • v

    It is too bad that NPR continues its program of marching America to a false war against the people of Iran. It will make the Iraq holocaust look like a kindergarten. How many Iraninan civilians, and OK, even soldiers, should be killed for the inconvenience to this woman?

    And why is there never, EVER, a spokesman from Iran allowed to give their side. Anyone reading this should read up on how NPR has been distorted over the last 10 years, and how much Rupert Murdoch influences it with his money.

  • Saied Assef

    How can you distort a celebration of Irnaian culture and a concern for human rights into a war with Iran. Wake up! If you had any knowledge of Iran you would know that every one who was on this program has taken a public position against military intervention in Iran. Free your mind! The only options available are not either war as some advocate or accepting tyranny and supporting dictatorship as you seem to be for. What is happening in Iran is very similar to the civil rights movement in this country in the 60′s. Stop your paranoia and join the millions across the world that wish the Green movement in Iran success. Behbahani is a Grand poet of liberty as was Ahmad Shamloo and others. They stand up to tyranny with words of peace and to bayonets with their bare chests. Your head must be so deeply burried in sand if you can’t see this for what it is. This indigenous movement of Iranians does not ask the world for armed intervention on it’s behalf. We only ask that you stop being partners in tyranny by your support/engagement with thugs that control Iran today. So V wake up smell the coffee and don’t bash NPR for putting this program on so that uniformed Parnaoind ideologs can actually learn something about countries and issues before rendering their misguided opinions.

  • Ali

    Except those who are directly benefiting from Islamic regime, and they don’t care what hardship the majority of Iranian are going through, the rest of the Iranian feel that they are in a big prison called Iran, Simin Behbahani is expressing the frustration and hardship and pains that every Iranian facing everyday,

  • Kousha

    Bravo Simin Behbahani, The regime with all of its forces of brutality and human rights violations is fearful of being exposed by true voice of Iranian people, the regime is blindly busy with its own survival.

  • Todd

    “It is too bad that NPR continues its program of marching America to a false war against the people of Iran. It will make the Iraq holocaust look like a kindergarten. How many Iraninan civilians, and OK, even soldiers, should be killed for the inconvenience to this woman?

    And why is there never, EVER, a spokesman from Iran allowed to give their side. Anyone reading this should read up on how NPR has been distorted over the last 10 years, and how much Rupert Murdoch influences it with his money.”
    Posted by v

    @ v:
    Well said—National Propaganda Radio at its finest!

  • David

    I would love to see more of the comments focused on the poetry. Seems like no one read the poems, they only tried to read into them some bizarre political meaning to give themselves another excuse to politicize yet another conversation. Look at it as one woman’s expression of emotion for what she feels is going on in her culture/country, and judge it on that. Remember, she is a celebrated poet WITHIN Iran too, not just a poster-child for Westerners who don’t like their government as some of the comments seem to suggest.

  • Sheesh

    I didn’t get the “Subliminal war drum-beat” angle at all. Shows like this serve to humanize the Iranian people, while most of the other media outlets are busy painting them as alien foreigners doing bad things. That makes it harder to bomb Iran.

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