Simin Behbahani, Poetess and Activist, Passes Away at 87

The world of Iranian literature lost a major player yesterday with the death of Simin Behbahani, a lifelong poet and human rights activist. Her biography is reported in summary by some of the major western news outlets.

A good portion of her work has been translated into English by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa. In her memory, I post here both a review of the translation, and the translation of her most famous ghazal (~sonnet), “My Country, I Will Build You Again.”

My Country, I Will Build You Again

My country, I will build you again,
If need be, with bricks made from my life.
I will build columns to support your roof,
If need be, with my bones.
I will inhale again the perfume of flowers
Favored by your youth.
I will wash again the blood off your body
With torrents of my tears.
Once more, the darkness will leave this house.
I will paint my poems blue with the color of our sky.
The resurrector of “old bones” will grant me in his bounty
a mountains splendor in his testing grounds.
Old I may be, but given the chance, I will learn.
I will begin a second youth alongside my progeny.
I will recite the Hadith* of love and country
With such fervor as to make each word bear life.
There still burns a fire in my breast
to keep undiminished the warmth of kinship
I feel for my people.
Once more you will grant me strength,
though my poems have settled in blood.
Once more I will build you with my life,
though it be beyond my means.

Translated by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa.

*A hadith is a saying or deed of the Prophet Muhammad as reported by his contemporaries and later compiled by Muslim scholars.

Source: Simin Behbahani’s official website

The American Institute of Iranian Studies awards The Lois Roth Translation Prize (funded by the Lois Roth Endowment). In 2008, the award went to Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa for their translation of Simin Behbahani, A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems. (Syracuse University Press, 1999), xxvii+182pp.

From the award statement:

“In A Cup of Sin, Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa introduce a distinctive and often compelling poetic voice to English-speaking readers. Simin Behbahani, Iran’s most celebrated living poet, writes courageously and incisively – a compelling female voice that does not flinch from poetic, personal or political engagement. Behbahani’s poetry is grounded in the fixed forms and traditional versification of the Persian literary heritage, but modern in its themes and speech rhythms, as well as thoughtfully innovative in its adaptation and expansion of prosodic conventions. A poet much concerned with form and metrics like Behbahani presents an immense challenge for translation, but Milani and Safa have pioneered the path to a convincing English idiom. Unlike Farrokhzad or Sepehri, whose poems were more readily portable to an “international” lyric idiom (one thinks here of the relative mobility across European language boundaries of poets like Lorca, Paz, Célan, Rilke or Milosz), Behbahani’s mode of lyricism is rooted in its Persianness, more particularly in the ghazal form. Milani and Safa’s approach to translating the modern Persian ghazal is exciting, and the engaging explication and analysis (including an autobiographical essay by Behbahani, herself) creates a contextual framework for new readers to approach the poems of this talented, yet to English-readers, almost unknown poet. Given the sizeable proportions of Behbahani’s still expanding oeuvre, the translators’ careful culling of the poems to present in translation is to be much commended. The informative discussion of translation considerations and practices in Safa’s afterword will provide food for thought for future translators, as it also deepens our appreciation of the notable achievement of A Cup of Sin.”

Persian original:

دوباره می‌سازمت وطن!

اگرچه با خشت جان خویش

ستون به سقف تو می‌زنم

اگرچه با استخوان خویش

دوباره می‌بویم از تو گل

به‌میل نسل جوان تو

دوباره می‌شویم از تو خون

به‌سیل اشک روان خویش

دوباره یک روز روشنا

سیاهی از خانه می‌رود

به شعر خود رنگ می‌زنم

ز آبی آسمان خویش

اگرچه صدساله مُرده‌ام

به‌گور خود خواهم ایستاد

که بردَرَم قلبِ اهرمن

به‌نعرۀ آنچنان خویش

کسی که « عظم رمیم» را

دوباره انشا کند به لطف

چو کوه می‌بخشدم شکوه

به عرصۀ امتحان خویش

اگر چه پیرم ولی هنوز

مجال تعلیم اگر بُوَد

جوانی آغاز می‌کنم

کنار نوباوگان خویش

حدیث «حبّ‌الوطن» ز شوق

بدان رَوش ساز می‌کنم

که جان شود هر کلام دل

چو برگشایم دهان خویش

هنوز در سینه آتشی

به‌جاست کز تاب شعله‌اش

گمان ندارم به کاهشی

ز گرمی دودمان خویش

۲۰ اسفندماه ۱۳۶۰

سیمین بهبهانی


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