A Biographical Essay about Forugh Farrokhzad
“I do not know what arriving is,
but without a doubt, there is a destination
towards which my whole being flows.”
Forugh Farrokhzad is certainly one of the most prominent among the Iranian woman poets in the history of Persian literature. Her great achievements in poetry and film production during her relatively short life and her unexpected death in an automobile accident have made her an enigmatic and almost legendary person. Her avant-garde poems were both praised and criticized during her life. Almost half a century after her death she is still one of the most read and acclaimed Iranian poets; as well as continuing to be one of the most controversial persons in Persian literature.
When thinking about Forugh Farrokhzad, one is always faced with the question: “What makes her so enigmatic and legendary?” Is it because of her powerful poems? Well, she was not the only Iranian poet who wrote good poems. Is it because of her activities in film production? But she was not the only Iranian filmmaker who gained international praise. Or is it because of her independent life as a female intellectual in a male-dominated society that has made her a role model for different generations of Iranian women? The aim of this short article is to give a summary of Forugh Farrokhzad’s life and works and to shed light on some important issues in her life that are of interest and importance for both Iranian and international readers.
Forugh-Ozzaman Farrokhzad, the 3rd of 7 children of Mohammad Farrokhzad, an army officer, and Batul Vaziry-Tabar, a housewife, was born on December 28th, 1934 in Tehran. Although they were considered a well-to-do family, Forugh’s father as a person with military background raised his children according to military disciplines; the children were treated harshly, and they had to work from early adolescence to gain their pocket money. In an interview Forugh said:
“Since childhood our father made us acquainted with what is known as ‘hardship’. We slept and grew up in military blankets, whereas in our house fine and soft blankets could and can be found. Our father brought us up according to his especial norms.” (Eternal Sunset, 68)
Her father’s attitude towards disciplining his children may seem harsh, but this training since childhood may be a reason for Forugh’s independent and self-reliant personality in her adulthood. Although a military man, her father was also a man of culture having a small library at home, which prompted Forugh’s early readings.
Forugh started writing poetry at the young age of 14 while attending high school. Her early poems were in ghazal form _a classic Persian poetic form with a set of strict rhythmic and rhyming rules. She wrote these poems casually with no intention of publishing them, and indeed they were never published because she destroyed them almost as soon as they were done since she was scared of her father’s reaction towards her writing poetry.
In 1949 she entered an art school for girls where she learned painting and embroidery, which were common skills for girls from the middle class when it was not common for them to attend university and receive academic education.
At the age of 16 Forugh fell in love with Parviz Shapur, a neighbor and a distant relative 15 years her senior. It is not uncommon in Iranian culture for girls to get married at a young age, despite this, her parents were against her getting married so young, but finally succumbed to her will after her insistence. Therefore, they got married in 1950; a marriage about which a few years later she said: “That absurd love and marriage at the age of 16 disturbed the base of my future life” (Eternal Sunset, 60).
Soon after a simple marriage ceremony, she had to leave Tehran to settle in the city of Ahvaz in the south of Iran because of her husband’s occupation. This immigration put an end to Forugh’s official education. She never received any further academic education during her life.
Despite her new chores as a housewife, she continued writing poetry, still as a hobby:
“It was a time when I regarded poetry as a sort of entertainment and casual activity. After getting rid of cutting vegetables for dinner, I would scratch my head and say ‘alright, now let’s go and write a poem . . .” (Cited in Like Nobody Else, 15).
Later she thought of having her poems published, therefore she took a trip to Tehran, and went to a literary magazine named Roshanfekr whose poetry section was managed by Fereydun Moshiri, a prominent poet in 1950s, and offered her first poem named Gonah (The Sin) to be published. The poem had a romantic-erotic theme which was not very uncommon in that era, but the fact that it was written by a young woman made it a controversial one. Of that incident Moshiri said in an interview with Nasser Saffarian:
“It was very amazing for me. The person who was sitting in front of me looked more like a girl rather than a woman. [But] she had written: ‘I made a sin, a sin rich in pleasure / In a bosom warm and like fire’” (Verses of Sigh, 269)
The publication of this poem caused a lot of controversy among the readers of the magazine. The fanatics would blame Roshanfekr for “writing the explanation of a woman’s sexual encounter” (Verses of Sigh, 270), but the intellectuals and students would praise them and demand more poems to be published. Anyhow, the publication of this poem and the poems that were published afterward caused both sudden fame for Forugh and an increase in the circulation rate of Roshanfekr which the managers looked forward to.
This fame and the controversies were not something that Forugh’s father and husband were looking forward to. Her husband, although he was himself a man of letters, did not approve of her intellectual activities, her controversial poems, and her trips to Tehran to publish her works. Nevertheless, in the following year, in 1952, she compiled a collection of her poems under the title of Asir (Captive) and sent them to a publisher. In this stage of her poetic life, she was inspired by Nader Naderpur, Fereydun Moshiri, 2 famous figures in Persian poetry in the 1950s. All of the poems in this volume had similar romantic, erotic, and sometimes feminist themes and were written in a poetic form called Chaharpareh, which was a common poetic form during the 1950s in Iran. It was created by some modulation in Iranian classic poetic forms; the poem was broken into sections of 4 rhythmic lines, every even line end-rhymed. This was before Nima Youshij’s Nimaic form, and Ahmad Shamlou’s freeform She’r-e Sepid gaining prominence in Iran. Although this volume is not considered a major work compared to Forugh’s later works it received positive feedback from the readers and was republished in the following years.
In the very year, just a few weeks after the publication of her first poetry book, she gave birth to her only child, a son named Kamyar. As it is expected, now as a mother her chores at home were multiplied. She had less time to focus on her poetry, something that was not a casual activity for her anymore, and had become of great importance for her, as she said:
“Now poetry is a serious issue for me. It is like a responsibility that I feel before myself. It is like an answer that I must give to my own life. I respect poetry like a religious person respecting his creed.” (Cited in Eternal Sunset, 20)
Despite this, she continued writing more poems and publishing them in different literary magazines. As she was gaining more fame, magazines would ask her for an interview. Obviously, Parviz could not tolerate this. Forugh who was under so much pressure to decide between her life as a housewife, or a poet. Finally, in 1955 they decided on a separation. This separation was very difficult for both of them and left its lifelong mark on them. Never again Parviz got married, and Forugh who was denied from visitation with her child had a difficult time, and indeed she could never fully recover from losing her beloved son. Forugh and Parviz although separated, did not hate each other. A possible clue to Forugh dedicating her next poetry volume named Divar (The Wall) to Parviz. But Parviz’s family blamed her for their separation and denied her occasional visiting of her child. They had even told Kamyar not to go near Forugh or speak to her at times when she went to his school to visit him. Not speaking or visiting each other was very tragic for both the mother and the child.
The trauma of the separation and losing her child and the pressure from her own family who also blamed her for the separation gave her a nervous breakdown for which she had to be hospitalized in a psychological hospital for a few months.
Released from the hospital and now a divorcée she went to her father’s house, but she could not stay there for a long time because her father still blamed her for the divorce, and her writing poetry. So, she had to rent a small place in Tehran after staying at a friend’s house for a few weeks. She did not have any job and she refused to receive pension form her ex-husband, so she had to look for a job and to struggle with poverty. In a letter to her father after leaving his house, she explained with a painful tone:
“My biggest pain is that you never know me, and you never wanted to know me. Perhaps you still think of me as a foolish woman with silly ideas . . . but I wish I was like that, then I could be fortunate, I would be happy to live in a small house with a husband who wished to remain a low-rank state clerk for the rest of his life, and who was scared of any responsibility and risk for promotion, and I could be happy to wear fancy clothes and go to parties, and chatter with neighbors, and fight with my mother in law, and in short be satisfied with every cheap and trivial activity one can do; I would never know a bigger and more beautiful world, and I would have to squirm in my little dim cocoon like a larva and just pass my life away! But I could not, and I cannot live like that.” (Eternal Sunset, 108)
She published her second poetry book, Divar (The Wall) in 1956, which had similar themes to her previous book. In the same year she participated in a play called “Blood Wedding” written by Gabriel Garcia Lorca and was translated by Ahmad Shamlou, which was meant to be directed by himself, but due to some complications, this project could not go beyond rehearsal stage.
In the very year to make a change in her life after the traumatic separation, and also to escape from the unfair criticisms in the magazines and literary circles who would make a judgment about herself and her lifestyle rather than her poems and her literary skills, she traveled to Italy. About these criticisms she had written earlier in a letter:
“. . . I willingly accept fair criticisms, but not a kind of self-righteous and prejudicious criticism which is only made to defame and defeat the subject. . . . but despite all of these I will not surrender. I will not be defeated, and I will bear everything with absolute self-possession, like what I have always done.” (Eternal Sunset, 57)
During her 7 months stay in Italy she worked on different jobs from an extra in Italian movies, to dubbing films into Persian in Iranian studios in Italy. The memoirs of her travel to Italy was published in an Iranian magazine after she went back to Iran in the following year. Before that, invited by her older brother Amir-Masoud, who worked and lived in West Germany, she traveled to Germany. She learned some German and read German poetry during her stay. With the help of her bother, she translated a selection of poem by 100 contemporary German poets, which was not completed during her lifetime. Although this selection was completed by her brother and was published posthumously in the year 1998, under the title Marg-e Man Ruzi… (My Death Someday…).
Missing her country, she decided to go back to Iran in the summer of 1957, while she could stay in Germany for an unlimited time.
Back in Tehran, in 1958, at the age of 24, she published her 3rd poetry book, Osyan (Rebel), which was compiled during the previous 2 years. This volume was not much different in form from the previous 2. But one could see a slight change in content as the poet had aged and had gained more knowledge and experience. But this change was not as significant compared to the second phase of her poetry which began with the publishing of her next book in 1964. Regarding this book and the previous ones she said:
“I was not fully formed yet; I hadn’t yet found my own style, language, and intellectual conception. I was in a small and bounded atmosphere which we call ‘family life’. But then suddenly I got rid of all of those. I changed my surroundings; I mean it changed naturally and unintentionally. Divar and Osyan were, in fact, a hopeless struggling between two stages of life; final gasps before a kind of salvation.” (Eternal Sunset, 164)
In the same year, she was introduced to Golestan Film Organization, a film production company managed by Ebrahim Golestan, a famous Iranian director, writer, and translator. Her first occupation in Golestan Film was a simple job as a secretary. But soon when Mr. Golestan realized she had a talent in film production, he gave her a promotion within the company as an editor. To be able to perform her job she was sent to Britain to pass a course on film editing. After a few months of training, she went back to work on her first film editing project, named Yek Atash (A Fire), a documentary about one of Iranian oil wells in the south of Iran catching fire.
In 1960, she again took her chance to act in 2 more plays, but both of them again failed to be performed on the stage due to different complications. But in the next year, she acted in a short film named Khastegari (Suiting), directed by Ebrahim Golestan; a film, as the name suggests, on suiting and marriage ceremonies in Iran, ordered by a Canadian film institution.
In Mr. Golestan’s next project, a 2 episodic documentary, Ab o Garma (Water & Heath), Forugh accompanied him during the shooting, and when Golestan learned that she was interested and had a talent in film directions, he let Forugh lead the crew during the shooting of the second episode of the film. The editing of both episodes was also done by Forugh.
The House is Black
After another educational trip to Britain in 1961, and after producing 2 advertisements for Keyhan Newspaper, and Pars Oil Company _now following filmmaking professionally_ she started her greatest and most celebrated film project:
Golestan Film received an order to make a documentary about a leper colony near the city of Tabriz in the north-west of Iran from a nonprofit organization to raise consciousness about leprous people. Golestan agreed to make the film, and send Forugh and her film production crew to Tabriz. Forugh and her filming crew stayed for 12 days in Bababaghi leper camp to shoot her short documentary named Khaneh Siah Ast (The House is Black), which gained critics praise after its viewing in Iran and worldwide.
Khanneh Siah Ast is probably the best Iranian short film ever. The film verges on a documentary about lepers and leprosy that is meant to raise viewers’ consciousness and a poetic-philosophic film. It is an excellent fusion of poetry and cinema. The film starts with Forugh narrating her own poems over the footage of a group of lepers under treatment in Bababaghi colony and interrupted by Mr. Golestan’s voice citing some facts about lepers and leprosy. The poems and the pictures have a deep and powerful correlation, to the extent that it is not clear if the poems are composed inspired by the footage or vice versa. We expect to see ugly pictures of leprous people, but Forugh’s camera makes us see beauty in them, like them, and pity them. In the end, the film makes us wonder about our own lives, and think “are we not similar to lepers in a leper colony in a way or another? Are our lives any different from them, except for a few trivialities that we have crowded our lives with?”
Khaneh Siah Ast won the prize for the best short documentary among 65 competitors at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, one of the most important festivals for short films held in the city of Oberhausen in Germany, in the year 1964.
During the time of shooting the film at the leper camp, Forugh met a boy named Hossein, son of a leprous couple, who reminded her of her own son, Kamyar. When she was returning from the camp she adopted the boy and took him to Tehran to live with her. This incident could relieve her pain of losing her son which had been troubling her for years. Hossein stayed with Forugh until her death, and after that, until the age of maturity, he stayed with Forugh’s mother.
Right after the release of her film, Forugh published a collection of poems that she wrote during the past recent years when she was active as a filmmaker, under the title of Tavalodi Digar (Rebirth), which began her second phase of poetic life. She believed that she indeed was reborn after the publication of this book. This statement seems to be true when we compare it to her previous poetic endeavors; her poems were richer in content and form. One could already sense a change in Forugh’s poetry beginning from the very poems that were narrated on Khaneh Siah Ast. We can see a great shift in her worldview, style, tone, and themes. Instead of the previous mostly romantic and personal poems, these poems have broader philosophical and social concepts which could be perceived by many people regardless of their gender, nationality and social standing. Besides, she used different literary elements that were innovative in Persian literature. These novelties until today have inspired many Iranian poets. Perhaps if it was not due to this poetry book, she could never gain so much prominence in the Persian literature. Regarding this poetry book, and her poetry in general, she said:
“I regret publishing Asir, Divar, and Osyan. I regret why I didn’t begin this with Tavalodi Digar. . . . In Asir, Divar, and Osyan, I was simply recounting the external world, it hadn’t yet gone through my being . . . But then poetry was enrooted in me, and that was how the themes of poetry became different for me. I didn’t anymore use poetry to express a simple feeling about myself, but as poetry was sinking in me, I grew vaster, and I discovered new worlds.” (Eternal Sunset, 195)
In this stage, she was inspired by two renowned Iranian poets, Nima Youshij, the innovator of Nimaic form, and Ahmad Shamlou who is famous for his non-rhythmic “white poems”. Although Forugh always supported using rhythm in poetry, and she never put rhythm aside, under influence of the poets mentioned above, she adopted the Nimaic form in her later book and used a milder rhythm in her poems. Her remaining poems composed after Tavalodi Digar are even closer to non-rhythmic free verse. Forugh was familiar with western poetry and literary schools, for example, she read works of T. S. Eliot and Paul Éluard which possibly affected her works during this stage.
Final Years & Death
Forugh did not suffer from chronic depression, but she sometimes experienced temporary moments of great sorrow and sadness, which led to her 2 unsuccessful suicide attempts in the last few years of her life. Like any other intellectual living in this world, she had a “common pain” which denied her seeing the world as total bliss. Her marriage and losing the custody of her child were the greatest traumatic experiences she underwent. Also during the years of her activity with Golestan Film, she formed a close, and supposedly amorous relationship with Mr. Ebrahim Golestan, a married man, and father of a son and a daughter. This relationship obviously could not continue, and on top of all the pressure that it was putting on Golestan family, it was stroking a new round of rumors around Forugh among people who were hungry for every triviality to debase her. As a woman living in a male-dominated society, she had to endure a lot of discrimination. During her short life, she received a lot of negative, unjust, and usually personal criticism usually from men who considered her an undesirable figure in the Iranian intellectual circles. As she wrote in a letter to Mr. Golestan:
“What a strange world it is. I do not meddle with anybody, but this non-hostility and my keeping myself to myself make people become even more curious about me. I do not know how to deal with people.” (Eternal Sunset, 63)
After the publication of Tavalodi Digar Forugh was at the top of her professional success. The last few years leading to her death were her most active years. On top of her activities at Golestan Film, and writing poems, she became more interested in painting and drawing, also she could at last act in a play: 6 Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, directed by Pari Saberi. She also had sporadic social and political activities and supported students’ protests against the Shah’s policies, which led to her temporary confinement in the police lockup. But thankfully this activism did not result in any serious problems for her.
The poems she wrote and published in literary journals, which were posthumously published in a volume titled Iman Biavarim be Aghaz-e Fasl-e Sard (Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season) proved to be even more successful than her previous works. Alas, this sudden eruption in her poetic talent was extinguished by her sudden and untimely death in a car accident when she was driving on her way to her office, on February 13th, 1967. Two days later she was buried in Zahir-Oddoleh graveyard in Tehran while hundreds of people, including the most renowned literary faces, gathered to mourn this great loss. She was 32 years old when she died.
Commit the Flight to memory,
for the Bird is mortal
Forugh Farrokhzad at the time of her death was already a prominent person, at least among literary and intellectual circles in Iran, but it was years after her death that her works began to be reevaluated by generations to come. Today Forugh stands shoulder to shoulder with Iran’s most famous people of all time. Her importance is to the extent that Reza Baraheni, Iranian poet and critic, claims that “Forugh Farrokhzad is the greatest woman in Iranian history” (Like Nobody Else, 61).
Many people may share the same point of view with Mr. Baraheni when we consider the context in which Forugh was born, and her achievements despite this prejudicious context; a context of living in a mostly male-dominated society in which women were hidden either under veil or lived the great extent of their lives inside the walls of houses with hardly any social presence. Even though we had just a few female poets before Forugh, they were either silenced by jealous fathers, brothers, and husbands or had to speak with a masculinized voice about a masculine world. Forugh was the first female poet who spoke of and about women and women’s world. Disregarding a few of her poems in the first phase of her poetic life, she neither took a radical feminist view when dealing with men, nor she became masculinized in her second phase of poetry when she wrote about humanity’s common pains. When reading her poems one can hear a feminine voice talking of thoughts shared by all human beings.
Putting her professional success aside, her lifestyle still makes her a role model for Iranian women. She lived an independent life without relying on any men to support her. She praised women’s subjectivity and freedom. She was against the Middle Eastern concept of veiled women at home, but on the other hand, she did not go for the western concept of women as beautiful dolls. She was a living poem, defining the immortal beauty of a divine woman by living her truth.
“I wish I could die and rise again to see the world has become different. The world is not so much cruel, and people have lost their usual miserliness, and nobody marks his house with fences.”
 The birth date of Forugh Farrokhzad was also mentioned as January 4th, 1935 by some sources including “In an Eternal Sunset” by Behrouz Jalali, and “Forugh in the Garden of Memories” an essay by Mahasti Shahrokhi; but in “The Verses of Sigh” by Nasser Saffarian, the given date is December 28th, 1934. The latter source seems to more reliable.
- Verses of Sigh (Original title: آیه های آه), Nasser Saffarian, Tehran: Ruznegar, 2002.
- In an Eternal Sunset: Collection of written works of Forugh Farrokhzad (Original title: در غروبی ابدی: مجموعه ی آثار منثور فروغ فرخزاد), Behruz Jalali, Tehran: Morvarid, 1997.
- Someone who is like Nobody Else: About Forugh Farrokhzad (Original title: کسی که مثل هیچ کس نیست: درباره ی فروغ فرخزاد), Puran Farrokhzad, Tehran: Caravan, 2001.