UVA Today correspondent Molly Minturn reports:
On March 20, President Obama delivered an address acknowledging the Persian New Year. He closed with a poem by Iranian poet Simin Behbahani from “A Cup of Sin,” which was translated by Farzaneh Milani (pictured at right), a Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures professor and chair in U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences, and her co-translator, Kaveh Safa. Obama spoke specifically to the young people of Iran, reminding them of their country’s history and wishing them peace:
“On this day – a celebration that serves as a bridge from the past to the future – I would like to close with a quote from the poet Simin Behbahani – a woman who has been banned from traveling beyond Iran, even though her words have moved the world: ‘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 of country with such fervor as to make each word bear life.’”
Born in Tehran, Behbahani is one of the most prominent figures in the sphere of modern Persian literature. She has published 19 books of poetry and has been nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in literature. Milani has studied Behbahani’s work for years and said “that the history of the last three decades of Iran, especially after the revolution, can be best studied through her poetry.” In a telephone conversation, an elated Behbahani told her,”The reaction of the Iranian people to my poem in President Obama’s address has been as if I’ve been awarded the Nobel Prize.”
After the break, a brief interview with Milani on her translation work and the role of poetry in Iran:
Q: What is the selected poem’s form?
A. The chosen poem is a ghazal, which is a traditional poetic form with deep roots in Persian literature. It is usually governed by strict structural rules, contains between seven to 15 couplets, and is characterized by a single rhyme pattern that holds each poem together. Although the meter must be maintained throughout the poem, it can be chosen freely, but the unit of thought remains for the most part limited to the single line.
Q: It’s interesting that President Obama’s message is aimed toward Iranian youth, and yet Behbahani is 82 years old. How aware are Iran’s young people of Behbahani’s poetry?
A. In book after book, in one deeply felt poem after another, Behbahani has painted miniature portraits of her country over the decades. She has given voice to the yearnings of the Iranian people, chronicled their hopes and disillusionments, documented with pride and precision the heroic resistance and creative subversion of her nation and herself. Behbahani has attracted the attention and admiration of the reading public and the academy both inside and outside her home country. She has come to play the role of a cultural icon, a symbol of resistance, the eloquent voice of dissent.
Q: How important is literature in Persian society?
A. Iranians – male and female, literate and illiterate, young and old – have a most reverential, even sensuous relationship with words, especially with written words. We kiss books. We carry them in miniature forms in our purses, in our pockets, in lockets around our necks. We treat our favorite writers and poets as cultural icons. We name our streets and children after them. We go on pilgrimage not only to the shrines of our saints, but also to those of our venerated literary figures.
Q: Finally, do you think there is hope that Behbahani will have her passport returned so she might one day be able to travel again?
A. Behbahani is currently under country arrest, but we need to remember that writers and poets can be detained, but their aspiration for democracy and human rights cannot be put behind bars; they can be denied the right to move about freely, but words cannot be handcuffed, arrested, jailed, murdered.
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