Simin Behbahani’s poems bear testimony to her unwavering conviction and true devotion towards liberation
Hailed as the ‘lioness of Iran’, the late Simin Behbahani was one of Iran’s foremost poets. Her poems are remembered best for their memorialisation and censure of the tyranny and oppression throughout the turbulent course of Iranian political history. In her lifetime, Behbahani witnessed and endured various forms of repression spawned by the coup d’état that toppled the rule of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, the White Revolution spurred by the last Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, the dissolution of the Persian Empire through the 1979 Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and an eight-year war with Iraq.
Edited and translated from the original Persian by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa, A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems is a tribute to the experience embodied throughout Behbahani’s prolific career as a poet of dissent. As witness to the upheavals and injustices within her homeland, her poems offer a portrait of quotidian suffering that is often harrowing and relentless. In ‘Necklace’, we see the deranged and mourning mother of a soldier killed in war. She has regressed through the ages as she trawls the street with his boots around her neck, claiming it is her son, now a child again and seated on her shoulders. In ‘A Man with a Missing Leg’, the slightest gesture towards compassion for an inconsolable crippled war veteran becomes "more that he could bear".
Fraught with disillusionment and pain, the predicament of her own and her people piques her consciousness to agony. For her defiance, Behbahani suffered "street harassment, court summons, anonymous slander, official denunciation, and fear for her life". The affliction, urged bare in a voice continually impinged with exhaustion, anxiety, melancholy, and fear, is evident in poems, such as, ‘A Lily, Like a Smoke’, ‘It’s the End of the Line’, ‘In My Necessary Silence’, ‘When the Hand of Darkness’, ‘Inheritance’, and others.
In these poems, this knowledge remains abreast and rife in images of blood and bones. Metaphors of darkness, blindness, entrapment, and desiccation underscore the pervasive sense of ravage, inadequacy, and purposelessness that permeates the landscape of her poems.
Yet, when torment debilitates, the abasement of the human condition at large perpetuates in Behbahani an unbending sense of purpose and an abiding sentiment of dissent and condemnation that threads poem to poem. In ‘I Can’t Look’, she cannot bear to witness the eyeless corpse "fallen so low". The questionable "enemy" is possibly murdered by SAVAK, the surreptitious national secret intelligence unit established during imperial Iran to iron out and silence dissent against the Shah and later adopted by the succeeding Ayatollah for similar purposes. "This is not my religion," she proclaims of such murder and degradation in the name of Islam.
In her poems, language sourced from cultural myth, whether Persian or Quranic, often spears a reclamation of cultural ideals and principles appropriated and contorted by a fundamentally extremist regime for its underhanded and fanatic violations. In ‘I Can’t Look’, Behbahani rejects their form of "‘justice’ with a dagger in its sleeves" by asserting that "The Book, the Scale, and The Iron/are verses sent to guide us." Similarly, in ‘And Behold’, Behbahani prompts us to:
behold the camel, how it was created:
not from mud and water,
but as if from patience and a mirage. (1-3)
What follows is an intimation of the camel’s attributes -- of patience and vehemence -- as it thirstily endures a desert journey led by its jockey to the mirage. Unquenched and yielding to the limits of its patience, it tears through the arteries of its driver. Behbahani’s invitation to deliberate also accrues value for its Quranic source to "consider the camel" a divine exhortation to presumably learn a lesson. The dynamic between the two is emblematic of the limits of the resilience and patience of the Iranian people whose political leaders have misguided in the name of Islam.
Behbahani’s fierce criticism of rightist ideology and its panderers has no limit, whether it implicates herself or actors within or beyond the state. In ‘Opium of False Promises’ she ruefully ponders over her own complicity in falling blind to the allure of Islamic utopia:
What made the well-content Eve my temperament
be tempted by a sheaf of wheat? (14-5)
In ‘The World is Shaped Like a Sphere’, she mocks the artificiality and arbitrariness of dividing humanity into the East and the West, reminding us that:
The world divided by a line is a dead body cut in two
on which the vulture and the hyena are feasting.
You sit on the corpse with the crowd of flies
in self-contentment imagining
you are the host and patron (13-7).
With acerbic force, she cuts through the smug illusion of hegemony and insists on the rottenness of a world upheld by borders and division rather than unity and harmony. This perspective underlies her vision of resistance. Yet, Behbahani’s contributions cannot be limited to her witness accounts or her private ruminations on war and resistance. Like any great poet, her work resists definition as it sprawls a wide net of concerns shaping the private and public sociopolitical Iranian experience. Whether it is war, a meditation on time, ghazal aesthetic, gender discrimination, ageing, or the tribulations of love and desire, each poem gives way to another as a series of vignettes that surmounts to a portraiture of contemporary Iran relayed to readers from a course of over half a century of writing.
Her iconic status as a prolific poet and cultural icon who has been nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature owes itself to her multifaceted representation of Persian culture and history as one of flux and revival.
Behbahani’s contribution towards such renewal is evident in her effort to challenge the aesthetics of classical Persian poetry by pushing the formal boundaries of the ghazal. In poems, such as, ‘I Write, I Cross Out’, ‘Mind: Smoke Rings’, ‘Buddha’ among many others, one familiar with the
Persian ghazal’s formal elements can read how Behbahani challenges the form. She invites new techniques, devices and concerns that expand the content towards diversity and pluralism.
According to her critic and translator, Farzaneh Milani, Behbahani has "democratized" the classical form, expanded it from its exclusively male and privileged associations to invite an autobiographical voice, the vernacular, individual concerns, and a reversal of the woman’s position of centrality under the male gaze. In doing so, Milani sees her as carving an emotional space for women through a subversion of its exclusive associations with her classical predecessors, such as, Rumi, Hafez, and Sa’adi.
The poems in A Cup of Sin chronicle Behbahani’s legacy of resistance and renaissance as it intersects the fabric of the political, cultural and historical in the Iranian life and imagination. They bear testimony to her lifelong and unwavering conviction in the value of fearlessness and true devotion towards liberation in the face of a lifetime of censorship, harassment, and violence.