The winner of this year's Janus Pannonius Prize is Persian poet Simin Behbahani. The prize, founded last year with the intention to be a kind of "Nobel Prize for poetry," was given in 2012 to Lawrence Ferlinghetti who declined it on political grounds.
The International Janus Pannonius Award for Poets was given for the second time this year in Pécs on 29 August. The award ceremony was scheduled for the birthday of the poet Janus Pannonius, a 15th century Hungarian Humanist poet of European fame who wrote in Latin. The winner of the award, Persian poet Simin Behbahani, who is also a human rights activist often referred to as "lioness of Iran," has been a Nobel candidate several times. Her first volume in Hungarian, The Abandoned Sanctuary, translated by poet and former State Secretary for Culture Géza Szőcs, was also presented at the award ceremony.
The Janus Pannonius Award was created in 2012 by Géza Szőcs, who is currently President of the Hungarian PEN Club and counselor of the Hungarian Prime Minister in cultural issues, at the time when he was still in office as State Secretary for Culture. The prize comes with fifty thousand euros, partly financed from governmental sources. Szőcs's explicit aim in creating it was to have a poetry award equivalent to the Nobel Prize. (The Nobel Prize in Literature is given to poets and prose writers alike.)
Last year the winner of the Janus Pannonius Prize was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who first accepted, then renounced it. "Since the Prize is partially funded by the present Hungarian government, and since the policies of this right-wing regime tend toward authoritarian rule and the consequent curtailing of freedom of expression and civil liberties, I find it impossible for me to accept the Prize in the United States. Thus I must refuse the Prize in its present terms," he explained in a message to Szőcs. The President of the Hungarian PEN Club reacted by declaring that in the future the award would be financed exclusively from private sources in order to avoid such concerns. He apparently hasn't been able to make good on his word, since governmental support is still mentioned among the sources.
Simin Behbahani was also a candidate for the award in 2012, just as Adonis Alí Ahmad Sa'íd Esber, George Hill, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Tomaž Šalamun and Tomás Venclova. Thus, the list of candidates was virtually the same as in 2012, except for Tadeusz Różewicz, a new nomination. "These poets may not be the most important ones, but for us they are the most interesting representatives of contemporary poetry," Géza Szőcs commented last year, and apparently, his opinion has not altered ever since. The international jury consisted of literary historian Enikő Bollobás, poet Tomaso Kemény, Géza Szőcs (president of the jury), and poets Edwin Thumboo and Dorin Tudoran.
"Simin Behbahani is an innovator and at the same time follower of classical Persian poetry. Her oeuvre is one of the great artistic achievements of our age, and she is also renowned for her moral consistency and courage," Szőcs remarked before handing over the prize. "Nonetheless, the Janus Pannonius Award is not meant to reward brave people, but to honour great poets. Sometimes the two qualities coincide in one person," Szőcs added.
Simin Behbahani was born in 1927 in Tehran. She wrote her first poem at the age of 12 and her first publication was at the age of 14. She writes poetry in the traditional ghazal style, but besides love, the traditional topic of these poems, she also discusses public issues. She has received numerous prizes for her humanitarian and human rights activity, and has been twice nominated for the Nobel Prize.
Barack Obama closed his greeting on the occasion of the Persian New Year in 2011 with Behbahani's words: "On this day – a celebration that serves as a bridge from the past to the future – I would like to close with a quote from the poet Simin Behbahani – a woman who has been banned from travelling beyond Iran, even though her words have moved the world: 'Old, I may be, but, given the chance, I will learn. I will begin a second youth alongside my progeny. I will recite the Hadith of love of country with such fervor as to make each word bear life.'"
Simin Behbahani wrote most of her works in the shadow of Iranian censorship. "Notwithstanding my age, I have almost never had the possibility to raise my pen without being worried by censorship. Under both the previous and the Islamist regime censors would read every text, and every writer would always have this sentence in mind: Do not write this, we will not let it be published," Behbahani said in an earlier interview. Yet at the award ceremony she told the audience that despite having lived under oppressive regimes for decades, she was not angry with her oppressors. "I am happy to be in such a circle of intellectuals," she commented after the ceremony.
This article was originally published in Hungarian at Litera.hu. Photos by Szabolcs Csortos.
Translated by: Ágnes Kelemen