Rabia Balkhi – The Legacy of a Medieval Poet in Afghanistan

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Readers of EJIL will be quite familiar with our regular rubrics – Roaming Charges and The Last Page. The photographs and poems we publish in these sections of the Journal aim to remind us, as academics and human beings, of the ultimate subject of our scholarly reflections, the world and the people who inhabit it.

We are especially pleased to publish in this issue a poem by Rabia Balkhi, a medieval female poet from Balkh (now northern Afghanistan), and a photograph representing the poet in present-day Kabul. The story behind this poem and the photograph is well worth recounting.

We came across some writings attributed to Rabia Balkhi during a search for a poem related to Afghanistan and the devastating situation there following the Taliban takeover of the country in late August this year. An illuminating article by Munazza Ebtikar, a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and originally from Balkh and Panjshir, Afghanistan, gave context to the history and legacy of Rabia Balkhi.

Rabia, the daughter of an Emir in the Balkh court, most likely lived during the 9th or 10th century. Her family’s noble status enabled her to receive an education and develop her poetry. Whilst Rabia’s actual poems no longer exist, her poetic work lives on in the narrations of male Persian poets through the centuries. The longest narration of Rabia’s life and poetry is in the poem of the Elāhi-nāma (Book of the Divine) by the 12th-century Sufi poet, Farid al-Din ʿAttār. This is the poem that we are publishing in this issue, beautifully translated by Munazza Ebtikar.

Rabia’s fate was sealed when she fell in love with her brother’s Turkish slave, Baktash. Her poetry lyrically speaks of longing for her unattainable love. Jealous and envious of her poetic mastery, Rabia’s brother imprisoned her in the hamam and threw Baktash into a well. It was there, it is said, that Rabia slit her wrists and wrote her last love poems with her own blood. 

Today Rabia Balkhi continues to be revered in Afghanistan, and depending on the person’s perspective, she is seen as as a passionate feminist who defied power and injustice, a martyr who gave her life to divine love or a tragic victim of the patriarchy.

This brings us to present-day Afghanistan and the photograph in our Roaming Charges section of a poster of Rabia Balkhi on the protective wall of Afghanistan’s Supreme Court. The Pashto text beneath the picture reads, ‘Rabia Balkhi 4th hijri century poet’. The photograph was taken by a young Afghan woman, Farhat Chira, who left Kabul in September this year with her parents for the long and difficult journey to France where she is currently seeking asylum.

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