Iran Today: Part Three, The Power of the Word

02/08/06 12:00AM By Steve Zind
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(Host) Iranian writers have never known freedom of expression - not today under the Islamic government - or in years past under sometimes brutal regimes.

Despite their struggles against censorship and the risk of imprisonment, Iranian writers continue to be a powerful voice.

Today in this week's series on "Iran Today," VPR's Steve Zind profiles one of the country's best known contemporary poets.

(Sounds of crowd at Hafez tomb)

(Zind) The southern city of Shiraz is the birthplace and the resting place of one of the Iran's most beloved figures. Shemmsuddin Mohammad died more than six hundred years ago. He's known to the world as the poet Hafez.

Hafez' tomb lies under a graceful dome erected in the center of a garden.

This is a popular spot, especially for young Iranians. They crowd around the tomb and run their fingers across the poet's words inscribed in the stone.

As a man kneels and rests his forehead on the stone, another opens a small volume of Hafez poetry.


(Zind) For outsiders, it's difficult to understand the deep love Iranian's have for their poets. Many can recite lines from Hafez and Omar Khayaam from memory.

Poetry is a repository of Persian culture, philosophy, and history.

Simin Behbehani says poetry is central to Iranian identity.

(Behbehani speaks)
(Translator) "Basically our people's lives are mixed with literature. Even the poor and illiterate people are connected to poetry. Therefore, poetry can have a significant impact on society."

(Zind) Behbehani's own work has had an impact. At 78, she is perhaps Iran's best known poet.

Since the revolution, her condemnation of political repression and the treatment of women has put her at odds with the government, but she's famous among her country men.

Within the sweep of Behbehani's poetry lie delicate metaphors and stark, chilling images, portraying the human tragedy and harsh realities of life in Iran.

(Milani) "I think Simin Behbehani is really a historian. Albeit the medium she uses is poetry. Take the last three decades of Iranian history. I sincerely doubt you will be able to find a more detailed, exquisitely written, judiciously depicted representation of everyday life in Iran."

(Zind) Farzaneh Milani is director of studies in women and gender at the University of Virginia and a translator of Behbehani's work.

Milini says one of Behbehani's great accomplishments is her revival of a traditional form of Persian poetry called quazal.

Quazel is a series of couplets similar to the western sonnet.

Historically, quazal was a short lyrical love poem written by a man for a woman.

Milani says the simple fact that Behbehani was a woman writing quazal was significant, but
Bebehani also broke with tradition by writing about modern themes.

(Milani) "Man, now, is the beloved. Or, in her post-revolutionary Iran, the country has become the beloved."

(Zind) By using a traditional form to deal with contemporary issues like war, repression and poverty, Behbehani linked Iran's rich poetic history to life in modern Iran.

In the 1980s, one of Behbehani's students was killed in a government crackdown on Iranian dissidents. In the poem, "12 Fountains of Blood", she describes her dead student's body.

(Reader) "In the dust of madness lay her twin jasmine braids streams of blood ran down her body as if not from wounds her mouth was open, as if an angel had made her smile."

(Zind) Like the writers of traditional quazel Behbehani also writes about love - but it's love from a woman's point of view, full of passion.

(Reader) "Again my body is burning, hot
Again my eyes are lit
Again my heart is a garden
Again this garden is paradise"

(Zind) In the years after the revolution writers were arrested, they had their work banned and were harassed by pro-government forces, just as they had been under the Shah.

In 1998 a number of writers and intellectuals were murdered by rogue intelligence agents.

Many have left the country to write freely and in safety. Behbehani has chosen to stay. She says the only place she can write is in Iran.

(Behbehani speaks)
(Translator) "I don't want to have this pain, but I feel it anyway. As much as I want to get away from the pain, I can't. When I see the hunger, the misery, the dead, the war, it seems as if all these disasters are happening to me. With any poem that I have written, I have ripped a piece of my heart."

(Zind) Behbehani has often been barred from giving poetry readings in Iran, but she's a familiar presence at protest rallies and demonstrations that sometimes occur.

She says she's spent only one night in jail. Behbehani's age and her stature have protected her. She's continued to be an outspoken advocate for human rights, and a critic of Iran's Islamic system of government.

(Behbehani) "I am not against religion. I am against diminishing religion to the level that it turns into a set of court sentences or public laws or politics of the day. Politics involves deception; religion should not be intermixed with politics. Otherwise, it will lose its purity and it will lose its spirituality."

(Zind) Behbehani speaks now knowing that it's possible for her voice to be heard around the world. She says the Internet gives Iranian writers a newfound freedom, although they still risk punishment by the government.

(Behbehani speaks)
(Translator) "Twenty six years ago, we didn't have the means to justify ourselves to the world. Today, if a word is said here, the whole world will hear it."

(Zind) Behbahani has received many literary and human rights awards. And she's been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. But she remains largely unknown to non-Iranians. Only one book of her poems has been translated into English.

Recent health problems and unsuccessful eye surgery has left Behbehani struggling to write. She uses black markers to write in blocky letters that are large enough for her to see.

Sitting in her Tehran apartment, Bebehani grants a request and, with difficulty, reads a poem entitled "Necklace".

(Behbahani recites Necklace in Farsi)
(Farzaneh Milani Translates)
"Anxious, agitated, sad
her face unveiled, her head uncovered
headless of arrest, unafraid of guards
oblivious to the order to cover and conceal herself
For eyes she had two grapes plucked from their cluster,
squeezed to fill a hundred barrels with blood "

around her neck, she carried a necklace of curses and tears,
a dead soldier's pair of boots
What is that? I asked.
My son, she said with a smile.
poor child is sitting on my shoulders, with his boots on."

(Zind) When she finishes, Behbehani lowers her voice and says softly that with her eyesight failing, she's afraid her life's work may be at an end.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Steve Zind.

Note: Tomorrow, we continue our Iran Today series when with a visit to a young member of Iran's conservative morals police.

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