Iran’s leading poet receives new Stanford literature prize

Simin Behbahani

Simin Behbahani

Iranian poet Simin Behbahani is the first recipient of Stanford's Bita Prize for Literature and Freedom. The new $10,000 prize is part of the Daryabari Persian Studies Fund, recently endowed by Bita Daryabari to support and promote teaching, research and scholarship relating to Iran, including the area formerly known as Persia, and people of Iranian or Persian heritage.

The award ceremony is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 11, in Cubberley Auditorium. The ceremony will include a talk by Behbahani titled "Iran Today: A Poet's Vision."

Behbahani is one of the most prominent figures of modern Persian literature and one of the most outstanding among contemporary Persian poets, as well as a leading dissident. She is Iran's national poet and an icon of the Iranian intelligentsia and literati, who affectionately refer to her as the "lioness of Iran." Her poems are quoted like aphorisms and proverbs.

Behbahani was born in 1927 in Tehran. Her father was a writer and newspaper editor; her mother was a noted feminist, teacher, writer, newspaper editor and poet. Behbahani started writing poetry at 12 and published her first poem at 14.

She has expanded the range of the traditional Persian verse forms and has produced some of the most significant works of Persian literature of the 20th century. While many poets of her time embraced free verse, Behbahani's signature writing focused on the traditional ghazal form and took it to new lyrical heights—with a modern twist in perspective and voice. For example, while the form traditionally is a male poet courting a woman, in Behbahani's verse the man is the object.

She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1997. She also was awarded a Human Rights Watch-Hellman/Hammett grant in 1998 and, in 1999, the Carl von Ossietzky Medal for her struggle for freedom of expression in Iran.

Behbahani said: "I have put my poems forward for everyone to see. What can they be from the year 1979 onward? We wrote our books not with ink but with blood. No doubt, the same is true about the works of every other poet."

As she has written in one of her poems: "To stay alive, you must slay silence … / to pay homage to being, you must sing."

Behbahani was selected for the honor by Stanford's Program in Iranian Studies in consultation with leading members of the Iranian American community.