During last summer’s protests in Iran, while WVFC ran notes from NPR’s Jacki Lyden and honored the iconic  Forugh Farrokhzad on Poetry Friday, we never got to mention the country’s current, prized poet laureate Simin Khalili, also known by her pseudonym ‘Behbahani’ — who was hailed by the Washington Post’s Nora Boustany as “A poet who never lost her pen or soul.”

This week, Behbahani’s name and face streamed across the headlines yet again: After returning to Iran after years of exile and talking to the media about the protests, the 82-year-old poet has been barred from traveling outside the country. She told the BBC that “The moment I was due to get on the plane, a man came and took my passport away from me and said that I was banned from going abroad.” It’s not surprising, giving the international reputation enjoyed by the Nobel Prize-nominated poet.

According to the Persian Cultural Foundation, which held a symposium on her work last year in Toronto, Behbahani was born in 1927 in Tehran to  literary parents: noted feminist author Fakhr Ozma Arghoon was her mother and writer and newspaper editor Abbas Khalili was her father. She began writing poetry at fourteen. She’s now widely credited with reinventing the ancient Sufi verse form, the ghazal, making “a historic development in the form … as she added theatrical subjects and daily events.”

By the turn of the 20th century, Behbhani was Iran’s most famous living female poet, and inspired loyalty that reached far beyond her command of verse form.  In 2006, she told The Washington Post about being approached by police during International Women’s Day:

“Hey, don’t hurt this lady. She is Simin Behbahani,” a student in the crowd protested. “If you touch her, I will set myself on fire.”His outburst enraged the police. One of the officers lashed Behbahani’s right arm and back with a whip and then beat her with a club that emitted electric shocks, she recalled. A passing policeman recognized her, intervened and bundled her into a taxi.

Behbahani is close to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian exile poet WVFC recently named as one of our Nine Women to Run the World. Like Ebadi, Behbahani  has been vocal in support of the “green movement” in Iran following the disputed 2009 elections. When stopped last week she was on her way to Paris, where she was scheduled to read one of her poems.

Below, we present video of Behbahani speaking at UCLA in 2004 (in Persian, but you can see the charisma Tehran may fear), and one of her classic poems.


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.

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