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Poetry | 'Ancient Eve': The Ghazals of Simin Behbahani

by ARIA FANI and ADEEBA TALUKDER

11 Jul 2012 12:34Comments

The ageless voice of the revolutionary "lady of ghazal."

[ poetry ] Simin Behbahani's poems paint one of the most nuanced narratives of modern Iranian society. Her poems offer apertures into the daily life of the Iranian people, revealing its subtleties and paradoxes. "From the Street," a series of poems written between 1983 and 1985, are realist representations of the economic and moral quandaries that plague Iran; the stories include a pregnant woman giving birth while waiting in line for rationed food ("From the Street 3") and the stoning of a woman by a cement block ("From the Street 6"). In another poem, "The Child Trailed Behind," a boy stomps his foot on the floor and cries for pistachios. Embarrassed, the penniless mother leaves the store only to find him smiling with pockets full of pistachios. Momentarily relieved, the mother has a new predicament: has he stolen them?

Spanning over 600 poems, Behbahani's work deals with war, peace, revolution, class disparities, gender discrimination, polygamy, marital life, domestic violence, patriotism, prostitution, aging, poverty, and global violence. For her lifetime accomplishments, in particular her efforts in the struggle for freedom of expression, she was awarded a Human Rights Watch-Hellman/Hammet grant in 1998 and the Carl von Ossietzky Medal in 1999.

Born in 1927 in Tehran into a literary family, Behbahani is now in her mid-eighties. Nearly blind, her warm and passionate voice still never fails to mesmerize. She likens herself to an "Ancient Eve," whose mouth is "shut with kisses." With "wine" in hand and her "companion" by her side, she "rivals the twenty-year-old" Eve. Classical Persian poetry, traditionally coded as masculine, did not foreground issues of gender and sexuality. Behbahani has mobilized her identity and experiences to highlight issues of gender hegemony and egalitarianism. Her story traces and illuminates gender apartheid and oppression as well as ground-breaking transgressions in Iran's cultural and literary history.

Behbahani's innovations and transgressions are better understood when examined in the context of the traditional Persian ghazal -- a short metric poem with a rhyme-and-refrain pattern (aa ba ca). Apart from internal aesthetic developments, the Persian ghazal has been transformed by many poets over the centuries to appropriate a space for the expression of social, political and idiosyncratic thoughts. The ghazal is closely bound to its era, language, and context; hence our intention is not to paint a homogeneous and monolithic picture of this poetic form, but rather to state thematic and conceptual generalities of the classical Persian ghazal to shed light on the function and nature of the modern ghazal, namely Behbahani's violations of male-centric literary conventions.

The classical ghazal was traditionally a versification of the speaker's eternal quest for the beloved, whether a woman, patron, prepubescent boy, or God; it has developed its own language and functions through a set of metaphors, stock characters, tropes, and allusions. The ghazal's speaker is usually a nightingale, singing songs of love and lament for the beloved. The beloved is often the rose, immobile and unmoved, or perhaps even a hunter, trapping the poet in his snare. Like the Sufi mystic Mansur al-Hallaj (ca. 858-922) and the legendary lover Majnun in Nizami Ganjavi's (1141-1209) "Layla and Majnun," he must manifest his passion outwardly, whether it leads him to ridicule, exile, or execution. Writhing with an eternal anguish, Majnun cries tears of blood and bangs his head against the wall. (The character, originally known as Qais, acquires his new name when he is driven made by love; majnun is Arabic for "madman.") He tears his collar in grief and shouts his beloved's name in the bazaar as he is ridiculed and pelted with stones, then wanders bloodied and tattered into a vast and lonely wildernesses. In the path of desire, he annihilates all sense of self. In this is his greatest exaltation.

The function of the ghazal's elements as well as the attributes and attitudes of its characters were all fixed realities in its universe: the speaker was usually wretched, and the beloved, often by definition, cruel. Thus, it was not possible for the lover to be cruel, prideful, or even to waver in his love. Actual sexual union with the beloved was another impossibility in the traditional ghazal. Metaphors were similarly fixed in their function, and to write outside of convention was considered deserving of ridicule.

The Persian ghazal, though historically known as a love lyric, has been recast and redefined several times, its elements made to serve new purposes, or sometimes done away with altogether. In her verse, Behbahani circumvents the social and cultural segregation of men and women, particularly by composing ghazals outside the aforementioned conventions. She writes in the traditional ghazal form but allows her personal perspective on the sociopolitical realities of her time to permeate its fantastical universe and even take precedence over its conventions. Among Behbahani's predecessors, female poets who challenged gender roles and male-centric conventions in Persian poetry include Tahirih Qurratul-Ayn (1814-52), Parvin Etesami (1907-41), Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-67), and Tahereh Saffarzadeh (1936-2008).

In her essay "We Await the Golden Dawn," she writes, "From early on, my poems have reflected my social milieu and conditions, though in effect, these reflections have been reflections of my individual and emotional reactions to the society and conditions in which I have lived." Behbahani employs an autobiographical voice, whereas traditionally poets left their own world to enter the world of the classical ghazal. Making the daily lives of Iranians her subject, she explores political and social themes and opinions. There is no trace of unrequited, mystic love; instead, love is often celebrated in its most earthly and physical sense. She manipulates the rigid walls of the ghazal's universe, and appropriates a new space more tuned to the expression of contemporary aspirations and ideals.

Behbahani began to compose poetry at the age of 14. Having experimented with rhyming couplets and free verse, she turned to the ghazal as a vehicle for her artistic expression. Formally, she departs from the classical ghazal by adding new, original meters; what remains essentially intact is the geometric shape of the classical form.

Behbahani has employed ghazals through a period of relative decline for classical poetry in Persian letters and an unprecedented boom in the popularity of free verse. She revives the form by virtue of theatrical subjects, a refreshing combination of highly cultivated and colloquial diction, directness of expression, feminized poetic content, and a remarkable thematic variety, which Kaveh Safa -- cotranslator of A Cup of Sin, the first collection of Behbahani's work to appear in English -- says brings "breathlessness to a Persian reader who might come to her poems expecting to find the familiar." In Behbahani's poetry, the old emerges to claim its newly defined place in the modern.

Uninvolved in partisan politics, her verse is a manifestation of her engaged awareness of the social and political life of Iranians regardless of race, gender, or religion. Her works were banned for many years and continue to be censored in Iran. In 2006, she was harassed by the police, blindfolded, and taken to jail for having celebrated International Women's Day on the streets of Tehran. In 2010, she was banned from leaving the country to commemorate International Women's Day in Paris. In her new book, Words Not Swords, Farzaneh Milani, professor of women's studies and Persian literature at the University of Virginia, quotes Behbahani as she recalls her interrupted speech in 1997; the passage encapsulates the kind of hostility she has faced and consequently the kind of resilience and courage that have become the hallmark of her verse.

Behbahani writes, "The Ministry of Guidance invited me to read poetry in a hall large enough to hold 2,000 people. I pulled out of my purse the written text of a speech, which concerned the harassment, the censorship, the oppression that had been inflicted on Iranian writers for eighteen years." Barely halfway through the speech, "the microphone was cut off. I continued at the top of my voice. The lights were shut down. I walked farther upstage in order to use the light streaming through from the auditorium. The curtain was pulled down on me. I stepped in front of the curtain. It was the audience's exuberant show of support that saved me that day."

Having consistently and courageously defended freedom of expression, Behbahani occupies an exceptional place in Iranian society. Her poems have been turned into popular songs, extracted for daily aphorisms, rapidly circulated through mass emails, and memorized by Iranians of all walks of life. Her unequivocal voice for economic egalitarianism and her bold violations of culturally accepted gender norms and dynamics are revolutionary. She has fiercely challenged gender roles and criticized laws that discriminate on the basis of sex. In a country ranked 125th out of 135 in last year's Global Gender Gap report, you would be tempted to label her a "feminist." She has versified the suffering and aspirations of her people, and become the voice of Iranians, similar to an ideologue. But both labels fail to encompass her life and works. If neither a feminist nor an ideologue, who is she then?

Love at Eighty?

Admit it: it's bizarre.



Ancient Eve is, once again

offering apples:

red lips and golden tresses.

Beautiful,

but not divine.

Beyond all ideological frameworks, Behbahani is a woman and a poet with feminized perspectives and desires. In love with beauty, she has witnessed one of the longest wars of the 20th century, which consumed the lives of nearly one million Iranians and Iraqis (1980-88). Even the soul-numbing realities and horrors of war are chronicled through the melody and beauty of her verse. The immoral, the bad, the ugly are all communicated through her artistry. Though she is known for her social poems, idiosyncratic themes that celebrate femininity dominate the body of her works. In verse, she discusses issues otherwise unspeakable.

In "Ancient Eve," one of her more recent poems, she likens herself to Eve, who violated many boundaries and crossed into previously forbidden realms. Unapologetic, prideful, she recites and claims her sexuality. Joyful and content, the octogenarian poet speaks of her desire to love and be loved. Throughout the poem, she challenges the convention that one must be of a certain age or look a certain way to love and to experience and express physical desire and fulfillment. She challenges traditional frameworks of morality and the rigidity of the dichotomies of virtue and sin, divine and godless, acceptable and unacceptable, and perhaps even heaven and hell. She speaks unabashedly of her "body warm with lust," of the "wholesome wine" of the company of her lover, making use of "burn[ing]" imagery and acknowledging implicitly that both are traditionally sinful -- and, at her age, "bizarre" -- ideas, but asserting in the end that that is all she needs to construct and dwell in her own heaven.

Behbahani may not have yet found the global readership that her works deserve; all the same, her verse resonates profoundly beyond the borders of Iran, perhaps most powerfully in neighboring Afghanistan where the tradition of Persian poetry is the country's cultural hallmark.

Farangiz Sowgand, for instance, is an emerging voice in the literary community of Mazar-e Sharif. Dedicated to the "pure women" of Afghanistan, one of her ghazals challenges the conservative viewpoint towards prostitutes: "Just to herself, she laughs for an hour / the passing breath of a prostitute / for a moment she gazes in the mirror / she isn't there. And then she is / hidden in dust / dust of the world of a prostitute." Sowgand does not mourn her lost "chastity" or "innocence," but rather celebrates her resistance and grieves her lost opportunity to narrate her story fully, recite her song, sound her rebellion. The voice of Behbahani emerges from Sowgand's ghazal; every line echoes her testimonial of humanism, her outcry against the injustices facing women, her nonjudgmental voice, and her vision as a storyteller. The old universe of the ghazal is there and all its classical elements, but they are presented differently and with a new purpose, challenging the rule of masculine history and presenting different shades of female agency. Turning 85 this month, Behbahani looks to Sowgand and her generation to commence their own journey and bring forth new changes and innovations.

Whether in Tehran, Mazar-e Sharif, or elsewhere in the world, a new generation of poets is following Behbahani's footsteps, singing over the deafening sound of war, poverty, and despair, firmly insisting on the power of their verse, its artistry, and its beauty. Behbahani has challenged gender monopoly, lending a millennia-old male-centric Persian literary tradition a feminized perspective and content. A revered form evoking figures the likes of Rumi, Saadi, and Hafez is now associated with a woman, banooy-e ghazal, the lady of ghazal. In a political climate where loud, superficial statements demand more and more authority and recognition, a profound sense of hope can be drawn from her vision and verse.

For over six decades, Behbahani has been living and writing in Iran. Professor Milani asserts that her works show evidence of "nightingale's fever," a condition that the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) described as an "inability to stop singing." With a fever "past any physician's cure," Simin Behbahani continues to sing Iran.

***

Ancient Eve

Love at Eighty?

Admit it: it's bizarre.



Ancient Eve is, once again

offering apples:

red lips and golden tresses.

Beautiful,

but not divine.



If my face has color

it's just makeup, a deceit.

But in my chest a heart

beats its wings wild with desire,

every seventy of its heartbeats

multiplied by two.



Love and shame and my body

warm with lust. I burn

with fever, a fever

past any physician's cure.

But at my side is bliss,

my lover

kind and faithful

and as long as he is here

I dwell in heaven.



I can't breathe a word;

my mouth's sealed

shut with your kisses,

their tongues of flame.

Oh, my thirsty lover!

Look at my happy fortune:

You, I, us tonight.

with a wine so delightful

where's the room for restraint?



Adam! Come see the spectacle.

Leave behind your denial and conceits

and watch as the Eve of eighty

rivals the twenty-year-old she.

**

Translation by Aria Fani and Adeeba Talukder. To read the poem in the original Persian, please click here.

Sources (quotations in narrative):
Milani, Farzaneh (2011). Words Not Swords, p. 167. Syracuse University Press.
"Translating Simin Behbahani," "An Interrupted Speech," and "We Await the Golden Dawn" published in A Cup of Sin (see below).

Simin Behbahani in English translation:
Milani, Farzaneh, and Kaveh Safa (1999). A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems. Syracuse University Press.
Salami, Ismail (2004). Maybe It's the Messiah: Selected Poems. Abankadeh Publications.
Khalili, Sara (2009). My Country, I Shall Build You Again: Selected Poems (bilingual edition). Sokhan Publications.

also by Aria Fani and Adeeba Talukder | One Tongue, No Tongue: 'Return' and Afghan-Iranian Dialogue | Daughters of Afghanistan: Literary Voices of Change

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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