The life and works of Forough Farrokhzad:
In the Eyes of Mirrors
by: Tanya Bayrami
Who was Forugh Farrokhzad? Was she “the most important woman in Iranian history, the greatest poetess in Iran, and one of the great poets of twentieth century Iran” (Baraheni 2002), “a poet of the whole world” (quoted by Fatemeh Keshavarz in I Shall Salute the Sun Once Again, 1998), “ a bold expression of emotion and feminine passion” (Davaran, 1981, p. 117), a woman who “lived the same way she felt” (quoted by Amir Farrokhzad in The Mirror of the Soul, 2002), “a prisoner in a man’s cage” (Hillmann, 1987, p. 84), “a confused young woman who ha[d] a hard time forging an identity for herself” (Milani, 1985, p. 229), or “the fairy princess of the poetry of mankind” (quoted by Akhavan Sales at the funeral of Forugh Farrokhzad)?
It is exceptionally surprising to note both the multitude of opinions and the variation among the Iranian intellectuals who expressed their views about Forugh Farrokhzad over the years.
I know a sad little fairy
who lives in the sea,
and plays the wooden flute of her heart
sad little fairy
dying at night of a kiss
and by a kiss reborn each day
(Forugh Farrokhzad, 1982, p. 92)
The sad little fairy was born in Tehran in 1935, into an upper middle-class family, and was brought up in a patriarchal environment (Javadi, 1981, p.1 of Another Birth). The influences of Forugh Farrokhzad’s father, Colonel Mohammad Baqer Farrokhzad, (Hillmann, 1987, p. 5) as an army officer, and oppressing conditions of life in Iran, established a society of male chauvinistic measures.
Examining Forugh’s poetry, who she was, and the life she lead will enable us to better understand the environment in which she lived in for the short thirty two years of her life. “Her life and art as one woman’s poetic struggle within a pervasively patriarchal society…” (Hillmann, 1987, p. 3) has played a great role in the literature of that era, the forthcoming decades and on the works of a countless number of authors. We must also observe the historical and social conditions of life in Iran to obtain a full picture.
Poetry as an ancient art has always been expressed with specific intentions in mind; changing someone’s mind or mood, honoring or grieving an occasion, describing the past, predicting the future, uttering discontent or acceptance and any other reason for communicating with others. “The very notion of life experiences poetically perceived and expressed implies desire to share the essence of life with others” (Karimi-Hakkak, 1978, p. 1).
The first significant illustration of Persian poetry, was composed in the early ninth century AD, by the highly creative poet, Rudaki Samarghandi (Kianush, 1996, p. 9). Rudaki is recognized and glorified as the “father of Persian poetry” (Ibid.). After his death, other great poets such as Ferdowsi, Hafez, Rumi, Khayyam, Nima Yushij, Ahmad Shamlu, and Forugh Farrokhzad emerged throughout the following eleven centuries (Ibid. p. 10-30).
Many Persian scholars, in the late eighteen hundreds, had acknowledged the necessity for extreme adjustments in literature, as most Persian poets from the previous few centuries had been constrained by principles, guidelines, regulations, and policies (Karimi-Hakkak, 1978, pp. 1-3). With the Constitutional Revolution and the social upheavals of the century, the old techniques and standards of poetry had limited and chained the poets and writers who wanted to express themselves and their new ideals and desires.
The majority of modern poets, most predominantly Forugh Farrokhzad, identify and portray modernity effectively as an expression of the anger and chaos of the outside world:
What can a swamp be?
What can it be, except a place
of laying eggs for insects of corruption?
Swollen corpses write down the mortuary’s thoughts.
The unscrupulous man has hidden
his lack of humanity in the dark
and the cockroach…Ah,
when the cockroach talks
why should I stop?
(Farrokhzad, 1981, pp. 87-8)
Forugh’s obsession with a just society has pushed her to revolt against the existing standards of living. Her use of metaphors in this poem represent her ability to manipulate the language and create a modern way of expressing poetry. She portrays a society of cockroaches (possibly technocrats, deceitful politicians, and those who do not share her ideals), who continue talking and talking without ever introducing any solid foundations for society. Her use of the word cockroach gives the reader a resilient image of dirt and filth equivalent to her reflection of society.
With the assistance of the “poetic gift of imagination,” the modern poet makes an effort to challenge “external reality on artistic grounds” (Karimi-Hakkak, 1978, p. 25).
This paper will consider the degree to which Forugh’s poetry is a reflection of the life in Iran. Does she intentionally speak of explicit desires to stir controversy? Or, was she just speaking from her heart? Did she rebel against the patriarchal society of Iran to make a statement? Or, simply because she was a women who could not tolerate injustice? Does her life reflect that of a typical woman in Iran in the fifties or sixties? Or, was she a unique individual? Did Forugh consider herself a feminist? And did she intentionally attempt to open doors to a feminist movement? Or, was she merely speaking of similar oppressions and constraints others experienced? Was her poetry seen in the “eyes of the mirrors?” ( Farrokhzad, 1978, p. 381) Or, was she just one soul suffocating in a society full of unknown ghosts? A society that was far from her own?
The bird was small
The bird didn’t think
He read no papers
nor had any loans
The bird did not know men
(Farrokhzad, 1981, p. 55)
According to her brother, Amin Farrokhzad, “Forugh was not living in the same century. She lived in the twenty first century, I think she used to think a hundred years in advance” (quoted in the Green Cold 2002).
In Iran, throughout the fifty four year of rule of the Pahlavi kings (1925-79) – Reza Shah (25-41) and Muhammad Reza Shah (41-79) – 3 proposals by these monarchs indicated the importance and concerns of the universal status and condition of Iranian women: the first of these attempts was the 1935 order prohibiting the use of the chador by women in public; followed by the 1963 ruling granting suffrage rights as well as being able to compete for office; and finally the Family Protection Act of 1967 (which was passed the year Forugh died)(Vatandoust, 1985, p. 107). These projects of the Pahlavi monarchs involving women, were not separate from the overall policies and goals of the former regime (Ibid.). “The lack of total success of Reza Shah and Muhammad Reza Shah’ efforts in changing the status of Iranian women was chiefly due to their equation of social reform with modernization with westernization” (Vatandoust, 1985, p. 125).
The changes occurred, however, not on a full scale, (Ibid.) in other words, there were basically two issues the state was dealing with: the first, social issues (dividing the resources among the people) and the second, westernization (including modernization, nationalization and secularization). As a result of these, the condition of women in Iran was going through some rapid changes. Within only a few decades, the feudal or ancient approach to women’s issues changed into a modern one.
The women’s movement in Iran was a feeble movement with very little assistance or encouragement. However, in general, it was part of the intellectual stirring in Iran in the beginning of the twentieth century (Vatandoust, 1985, p. 105). As a result, many women’s organizations began to form and religion became a source of doubt rather than faith for some.
Review of Literature:
Forugh lived at a time where women generally performed as subordinates to the male race. There was very little shared activities between husband and wife, as it was quite common for each to spend their days separately with relatives and friends of the same sex. Many sources describe life in Iran in similar ways. The husband, would for the most part, return home only to eat and sleep, yet he expected the wife to perform all the duties of house keeping and child raising. As a result the attitude of the wife was one of suspicion and fear. “As for sexual relations the wife frequently considered it a duty” (Fathi, 1985, p. 153).
You can be like mechanical dolls
gazing at your world with glassy eyes
Your strawstuffed form
can sleep through the years in its velvet case
dressed up with sequined voile
To the pressure of any passing hand
you can squeak inanely
“Oh, how happy I am!”
(Farrokhzad, 1982, p. 45)
Forugh, illustrates the life of a woman, as one who lives in a male dominated society, as Reza Baraheni describes it in “And All My Wounds Are From Love.” She herself lived an unhappy marriage to Parvis Shapour, who she married at sixteen and did not love (Javadi, 1981, p. 1). She writes to Ebrahim Gloestan in a letter, “…I have never had a clear life. That ridiculous love and marriage at sixteen have shaken the foundations of my future” (1962). The evident sarcasm at the end of the poem, reflects society’s suppression of women quite well – having to put on a fake smile to please someone!
The literature on Forugh is quite extensive, and no other Iranian poetess has ever achieved that popularity among critics. In addition, many of her poems have been translated into different languages: French, English and Italian to name a few (Javadi, 1981, p. 1). In spite of this, clearly there is very little information about her “long-lasting friendship with Ebrahim Golestan” who was “the most important external experience” of her life (Karimi-Hakkak, 1978, p. 137). We can conclude that their relationship was quite intense as Kaveh Golestan (Ebrahim’s son) recalls, “my father passed away with Forugh’s death as far as I’m concerned” (Quoted in The Green Cold, 2002). With the exception of this quotes, there is not much detail about Golestan’s impact on Forugh’s life. How is it that it was her “most important external experience,” with very minimal evidence?
In regards to the literature on Forugh’s poetry, it is worth mentioning that though she speaks the so-called universal language, the English translations of her works, don’t give justice to her poetry: “Forugh’s main concerns were universal concerns, she was a poet of the whole world and that’s why she speaks so well to me, to you, to someone who reads her poetry in another language, because she speaks that universal language that makes sense to all of us” (Quoted by Fatemeh Keshavarz in I Shall Salute the Sun Once Again, 1998). The main concepts and thoughts are expressed well, however somewhere between the translations, we loose the flow, elegance and at times the mood of her poetry. For instance in Earthly Versus:
Ah, voice of the prisoner
آه ای صدای زندانی
will the plaint of your despair
آیا شکوه یاس تو هرگز
never burrow a way to light
از هیچ سوی این شب منفور
through any of the this despised night?
نقبی بسوی نور نخواهد زد؟
Ah, voice of the prisoner
آه ای صدای زندانی
O, final voice of all…
ای آخرین صدای صداها
(Farrokhzad, 1981, p. 47)
The imprisoned voice is translated as the voice of the prisoner. At first glance, this may appear insignificant, but after further examination, the original verse refers to the imprisoned voice of the poet, as oppose to the voice of the prisoner.
In an explanation to her reader, Forugh states that:
Poetry is the language of the heart and I am a woman, and my heart and it’s
emotions are different from the emotions that exist in the heart of a man.
Consequently, if I want to speak with the voice of a man, for sure I will not be
speaking from my own heart.
(quoted by Farrokhzad in Hillmann, 1987, p. 29)
When dealing with Forugh’s works, as noted above, either as a reader or a critic, one cannot avoid the evidently feministic mood of her poetry.
I saw the marrow of my being
in the movement of his hands
I saw his heart
held holly by the vagrant charmed
echoing of my heart
(Farrokhzad, 1982, p. 34)
This feministic mood is one of the many reactions women of Iran adopted as a result of the patriarchal society they lived in. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that the research of women in Iran has developed and progressed during the last thirty years, generating a great amount of expressive and analytical reviews (Afkhami, 1994, p. 5). “Most of these studies are methodologically social science oriented and identically pre-feminist, even though, usually, the feminist aspect is overshadowed by the political ideology that governs the text. Until recently, the ideology was mostly liberal or leftist, if produced within the academe, and doctrinal if produced within or in response to a variant of Islamic discourse” (Ibid.). During the recent years, critical theory of literature has been adopted when dealing with issues of women (Ibid.). The theoretical perspective of this essay can be described as that of a critical analysis, yet social and somewhat feministic at the same time.
Fundamental rulings imposed from above, are not likely to succeed, when they compete against the religious and collective morals and standards of the greater part of society, as they are only acknowledged by a small percentage of the people, that is the upper and the upper-middle classes (Vatandoust, 1985, p. 125).
Laws applied to women in the Iranian society of this era, and their role in the community were believed to have been passed down by God (Nashat, 1983, p. 11). This religious mood is quite prominent, even in Forugh’s works, although she was not a religious-minded intellectual:
Someone will come
Someone whose name,
As mother calls him
At the beginning
And at the end of her prayers,
Is the Judge-of-All-Judges,
(Farrokhzad, 1996, p. 158)
Reza Shah tried to eliminate all noticeable symbols of conventionality in order to appear modern, such as the unveiling of women and creating educational opportunities for them (Vatandoust, 1985, p. 110). To justify to the clergy and other patriarchal followers, the reason of educating women was based on the assumptions that a more educated mother would better train her son, in order for him to make the country advance (Afkhami, 1994, p. 10). On the other hand, unveiling and educating of women alone is not sufficient enough to modernize women’s role in society in order to fight against the Muslim family laws. “Radical changes in one aspect of society without corresponding changes in other domains only intensifies incoherence and introduces new conflicts and contradictions” (Tohidi, 1994, p. 113). These conflicts and contradictions are portrayed throughout the works of Forugh:
O song of copper pots and pans in the sooty toil of the kitchen,
O depressing hum of the sewing machine,
O constant contention of carpet and broom
Give me shelter
(Farrokhzad, 1981, p. 50)
The poem paints the life and miseries of the majority of housewives in Iran, and their limited scope of living conditions. Nevertheless, as with the stereotyped woman of this poem, the majority woman of Iran enjoyed the boring chores of the everyday life.
The Captive, one of Forugh’s first collection of poetry, may not appear as an extraordinary work of literature as it did for the readers when it was first published in the mid-1950s. For the first time, Iranian women hear their own voice, which was chocked until Forugh appeared on the literary scene (Hillmann, 1987, p. 73). This feministic candidness in her early works, brought immediate fame for her. Although, Forugh, herself, believed she had achieved very little:
I know that I have not accomplished anything extraordinary. Rather, perhaps because no woman before me took steps toward loosening these chains of constraints which have bound women’s hands and feet and because I have done this for the first time, all of this commotion has arisen around me.
(quoted in Hillmann, 1987, p. 73-74).
In Iran’s modern poetry Forugh Farrokhzad is the first to claim victory over the male dominated society. She owes her imagery and diction to the classics and neo-classics, but after she discovers Nima Yushij, she creates her own language and the poetry of the nation. She pioneered as the feminine voice of Iranian poetry, and in her short-lived life, she accomplished more than ever expected.
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Banani, Amin. “Introduction.” Bride of Acacias: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad. Delmar, New York: Caravan Books, 1982. 1-10.
Baraheni, Reza. “My Wounds Are From Love.” Shahrvand (Fall 2002): 1-27.
Chatty, Dawn and Annika Rabo. “Formal and Informal Women’s Group in the Middle East.” Organizing Women. Ed. Dawn Chatty and Annika Rabo. New York: Oxford International Publisher Ltd., 1997. 1-22.
Davaran, Ardavan. “The Conquest of the Garden – A Significant Instance of the Poetic Development of Forugh Farrokhzad.” Another Birth: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad. Emeryville, California: Albany Press, 1981. 117-124.
Farrokhzad, Forugh. Tran. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak. An Anthology of Modern Persian Poetry. Ed. Ehsan Yashater. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc., 1978. 136-159.
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I Shall Salute the Sun Once Again, directed by Mansooreh Saboori, produced by Irandukht Productions, 1998.
Jaam-e Jaan (The Mirror of the Soul), written, directed and produced by Nasser Saffarian. Viewed original version in Farsi with English subtitles, 2002.
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the sun grew cold
and blessings left the earth
Foliage dried in the fields
and fish in the oceans
and the earth no longer accepted the dead
Night was rising and soaring
within all windows, pale
like a dubious conception
and the roads surrendered to the dark
Nobody thought of love
nobody thought of victory
nobody thought of anything any more
In the dens of solitude
vanity was born.
Blood smelled of bhang and opium.
Women gave birh to headless babies
and the cradles retreated
to graves, in shame
What a dark and hostile time!
Bread had won over
the miraculous power of prophecy.
fled away from the divine promised lands
and the astray lambs did not hear
the voice of the shepherds calling 'Hey!'
in the puzzled wilderness
As if motions, colours and images
reflected upside down
in the mirrors' face.
And over the heads of the worthless clowns
around the shameless faces of hookers
a sacred halo burned
like a blazing tuft.
swamps of alcohol
with their poisonous pungent fumes
absorbed the stagnant intellectuals
into their depths,
and the swarming mice chewed over
the illuminated manuscripts
in the old cupboards
The sun had died
The sun had died and 'tomorrow'
had a vague meaning
in the minds of children
They pictured the estrangement of this archaic word
with a big black spot
in their school notes
the aborted mass of people,
despaired, broken and perplexed
under the ominous burden of their carcasses
went from one alienage to another
and an ailing desire of crime
swelled in their hands
Often a flash, a tiny flash
would explode from inside
this dead silent mass
They would rush to each other
Men would cut other men's throats
and would go to bed with little girls
in blood smeared beds...