Iran Halts Travel By Poet Simin Behbahani, Known As 'Lioness Of Iran' Simin Behbahani, Iran's most prominent poet, was about to board a flight to Paris when police seized her passport. Behbahani, 82 and nearly blind, has not been charged with any crime. Many fear her treatment may signal a rise in repressive tactics by Iran's government.
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Tehran Halts Travel By Poet Called 'Lioness Of Iran'

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Tehran Halts Travel By Poet Called 'Lioness Of Iran'

Tehran Halts Travel By Poet Called 'Lioness Of Iran'

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Iran's most prominent poet won't be leaving the country any time soon. Police stopped the elderly woman last week as she was about to leave for Paris. They interrogated her all night and sent her home without her passport. NPR's Mike Shuster has more.

MIKE SHUSTER: They call her the lioness of Iran. Simin Behbahani has been writing fierce poetry for decades - during the reign of Iran's Shah, during the Islamic Revolution, during the reign of the ayatollahs, and over the past year's political turmoil.

Through it all, she was not imprisoned and continued to enjoy the freedom to travel, says Farzaneh Milani, who teaches Persian literature at the University of Virginia and is one of Behbahani's translators.

Professor FARZANEH MILANI (Persian Literature, University of Virginia): We all thought that she was untouchable. And it's amazing that a woman of 82, a woman who can barely see anymore, a woman who has brought nothing but pride for Iran, is now a prisoner in her own country.

SHUSTER: Behbahani has been nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in literature, and she has received many literary accolades around the world. She was on her way to read her poetry in Paris, where last year she was awarded a prize for her defense of women's freedom.

In a 2007 interview with this correspondent in Tehran, Behbahani expressed horror at the practice of stoning to death women convicted of adultery.

Ms. SIMIN BEHBAHANI (Poet): (Through translator) In the last 28 years after the revolution in Iran, this has been repeated. And even once at the beginning of the revolution, we had a woman condemned to stoning to death. While they were stoning her, she would not die, as she was resisting. At the end, one of the police, or Revolutionary Guards, got a piece of heavy cement and put on her head to kill her.

SHUSTER: In recent years, it has not been easy for Behbahani to publish her poetry in Iran. For much of the last decade, she was not able to publish. Not long ago, she did release a book of poems, but only after government censors required her to remove 40 poems or fragments of poems.

In 2007, the government closed a magazine that ran a poem of hers about the Iran-Iraq war.

Ms. BEHBAHANI: (Through translator) It was an anti-war poem. And it would question the people who created and started the war. Most of the writers cannot write, cannot publish exactly what they have in mind and what they have written. And they are forced to change or modify some of what they have written.

SHUSTER: That didn't hold Behbahani back after last June's presidential election. Millions of people poured into the streets to challenge the declared result, which gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad another four-year term.

The protesters were met with police truncheons and rifle fire. Behbahani wrote a poem adding her voice to that of the protesters. It was posted on NPR's Web site last June with Behbahani reading it in Farsi over a telephone line from Tehran and NPR producer Davar Ardalan reading an English translation. This is a fragment of "Stop Throwing My Country to the Wind."

DAVAR ARDALAN: (Reading) Stop this extravagance, this reckless throwing of my country to the wind. The grim-faced rising cloud will grovel at the swamp's feet. Stop this screaming, mayhem and bloodshed. Stop doing what makes God's creatures mourn with tears.

My curses will not be upon you, as in their fulfillment. My enemies' afflictions also cause me pain. You may wish to have me burned, or decide to stone me. But in your hand match or stone will lose their power to harm me.

SHUSTER: Behbahani has been told to appear at the Revolutionary Court in order to get her passport back, but so far she has declined.

Farzaneh Milani, one of the translators of "Stop Throwing My Country to the Wind," is fearful her treatment may signal intensified repression in Iran.

Ms. MILANI: She has been doing this all her life. She has always said, I'm going to write what I see. I'm going to be honest and candid and truthful. I believe she has never sold her pen or her soul. Simin Behbahani has always written poetry that portrays the reality of life in Iran.

SHUSTER: So far, Simin Behbahani has not been charged with any crime. Neither the police nor the Revolutionary Court have asserted any legal basis for the confiscation of her passport.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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