Song of a Captive Bird, Jasmin Darznik, author; Mozhan Marnò, narrator
When the author and her family left Iran because of the ongoing unrest, she discovered a book of poems by Forough Farrokzad, among her mother’s belongings. She became fascinated with the poetess who could not be said to have been born either before her time or wished to have been born after it, for even today, her place in time has not yet arrived. Yet her place in Iran’s history was and still is profound. She was a woman who found her voice, although the powers that be tried to silence her, and she was alternately praised or condemned for making it heard. Forough wrote poetry in Iran at a time when women did not write poetry or even work outside the home. Women, even before the Islamists took control, had little power of their own.
As the reader becomes drawn into the story, it will be hard to believe that it is a novel or that it is historic fiction, because the author, Jasmin Darznik, has imbued the character with a personality that is believable, that makes the character very authentic. I could not tell where the real and imagined parted ways. She gave Forough all the wisdom, strength and courage she needed in order to become the defiant young woman who affected so many lives in Iran, many positively, and some, even negatively. Although the story only covers about a decade and a half of Forough’s life, from her mid teens to her early thirties, it feels like it covers far more of the history of Iran since so much other information is imparted by the author with historical facts and through the inserted verses of Forough’s poetry. At the time of Farrokhzad’s life and even more so today, the men made the decisions and controlled the rules that governed the lives of women. They could be seen, but basically, not heard. Their opinions were not considered. Once the Islamists came to power and the Ayatollah became the supreme ruler, the women became even more unimportant; they became invisible, shrouded and silent.
Iran was a country that other countries wanted because of ifs oil. The United States had wanted that oil and had basically established rule in Iran. Under the Shah, there were seeds of unrest budding and blooming. There were Iranians who believed that the oil was theirs, and they wanted to control their own country. They resented the relationship that the Shah had with the West, the control the West had over their country’s economy, and the clash of the cultures which they found degrading to their own and to their women. There were even some Iranians who wanted to return to the traditional ways of Islam, the ways which gave women even less freedom, which demanded that they be covered and silent, completely divorced from having any influence on society.
Forough was just a teenager when her heart was stolen by a young man, just over a decade older than she was. He liked poetry and was the one who inspired her in that direction. When her mother discovered their secret relationship, she forced her to submit to a virginity test, which, although it proved she was a virgin, also accidentally stole her virginity from her. In the eyes of any observer, she would be tainted, since no blood could be shed on her wedding night. She had squirmed and the tool being used unfortunately slipped. She never revealed the truth, although she knew it, because she knew no one would believe her. However, that slip of the knife foretold the future tragedies in her life.
Forough was defiant and did not obey the mores of the times. She wrote poetry described often as risqué; she traveled alone and dressed immodestly at times. She had affairs of the heart which were shameful, at the time, and tongues wagged and unmercifully condemned her. Unscrupulous people, her father and husband among them, had her confined to an asylum when she refused to stop writing or to change her ways and return to her child, husband and his family. In the asylum, on a former beautiful estate, she was subjected to shock treatment and medications she did not need. She was not sick, she was not insane. She was only hungry for her own independence.
After she was rescued from the institution by a dear friend, her husband divorced her and obtained complete custody of their child. Her mother-in-law turned her son against her and made him fear her. Although her behavior was unconventional, she was sane. Although her behavior was sometimes promiscuous, she was not a whore, as she was often called. She was, however, someone who wrote her own rules, defied her own culture, and was punished by the behavior of those that disagreed with her. Still, she always knew one thing, she wanted to be free to think for herself, walk about by herself and make her own choices. She wanted her independence and resented her need to be dependent upon others. As she defined alternate mores for women, she was ridiculed and punished by those who had more power than she did and those who wanted more stringent rules. Still, she always seemed to manage to pull herself together and survive.
In her brief lifetime, she became an accomplished poetess, film director, and photographer. However, the fact that she was a paramour in a place that did not accept paramours, colored the perception others had of her. She was a woman out of her time or any other defined time period in Iran, for she would have less freedom, even today, than she had in the nineteen fifties and sixties.
Due to the cloistered nature of Iran, there is not much written about Forough that has survived, except for her poems. The poems reveal her life, as she drew on her own experiences in her verses. Because of her behavior, she lost her reputation, her family and her child. However, her intelligence and sensitivity shone brightly in her writing. Even with little education, she was able to convey her pain, her joy and sadness, and her desire for women’s rights and freedom. Her writing also illustrates the abuse and cruelty she and others suffered during her time of life in a world ruled by men and/or extremists of different stripes. She lived in a world in which a man could have many wives, but a woman could only have her arranged marriage; it was a time in which a man could discard a wife and even have her confined to a prison or insane asylum, simply to get her out of the way. There she would be subjected to cruel attendants, abusive treatments and doctors who also believed women should not have the right to make their own decisions, and there she would be helpless and hopeless. Has that much changed in Iran? I think it may have gotten worse. Do the women want freedom, or are they happy to be shielded from the world? One can only wonder. The one thing the reader will know, in the end, Forough was the mortal bird of the poem.