The princess and the slave—how love kills in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, where four-fifths of the population is illiterate, poetry has always had a strong position—especially among women. The Afghan writer and journalist Nushin Arbabzadah writes here a letter to the poet and Princesse Rabia Balkhi, who lived in the 900's and faced a tragic fate. She fell in love with a slave and was imprisoned by her own brother because of it. She wrote her most famous poem in prison right before she died. She wrote it on the wall with her own blood.

July 2 2012 Text: Nushin Arbabzadah

Nushin Arbabzadah was brought up in Kabul during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and became a refugee as a teenager. She is a Research Scholar at UCLA's Center for the Study of Women and regularly writes for the Guardian. Her most recent book, The Afghan Rumor Bazaar: Secret Sub-Cultures, Hidden Worlds and the Everyday Life of the Absurd, is due out in September 2012.

Dear Rabia,
I am writing to you across centuries—from the land of the living to the realm of death. The year is 2012 and my calculation says that you were murdered exactly a thousand and sixty-nine years ago. You have the dubious honour of being our first recorded case of honour killing.

Let me tell you, Rabia, that I don’t care for your poetry. I know that you are the first female Afghan poet. I know that you are famous, a saint and a celebrity. I know that men and women worship at your grave and that you were there when our language, Persian, was born. But let me tell you that I am not interested in your poetry. After all, everybody is a poet in this land of love, lies and blood. Everyone writes poems, even the warlords. Our girls write poetry, too, —sometimes in their prison cells, other times behind the mud-brick walls of their village homes. There is even a radio station for women’s poetry and our girls sneak out of the kitchen, to call the station on their cell phone and read their poems. They use poetry to tell the truth and to veil it at the same time. I believe that our language was shaped in response to dread. It is full of ambiguity, perfect for a people who dare not speak the truth. Everybody escapes into poetry, saying everything and nothing. It is a questionable kind of bravery. Let me tell you, Rabia, that I believe among us, Afghans, poetry is the language of cowards.

I am not interested in your poetic legacy, the seven ghazal poems and the scattered verses you left behind—not even the ones that you wrote with your own blood. I am Afghan, a woman from the land of self-immolation where the soil is soaked with the blood of accidental martyrs. I am interested in the gory side of your story, the carnage and the blood. I am interested in your brother Haris, the king who was your murderer. He issued orders that both your wrists be cut. He planned your murder carefully, and he loved you. You were, after all, his only sister. Let me tell you that the year is 2012 and Afghan brothers still kill their sisters. We have remained loving and passionate, cruel and murderous at the same time. We love, honour and cherish our girls and we stab them with knife wounds, burn and drown them. Let me tell you, Rabia, that we haven’t changed. The love-hate carnage still goes on.

I am interested in Baktash, your lover. Legend has it that it was you who saved his life. There was a war (there still is a war) and you came to his rescue. You were a rider in an armour suit with your face covered. The story is, Rabia, that your cries frightened the men, making the war come to a standstill. As you grabbed Baktash and took him away from the battleground, the soldiers took you for angel. I smile at the way Afghans write about you. She was a high-flying dove; a maiden with ruby lips and pearly teeth. Worse of all—she was a girl whose bird of a heart was imprisoned in the cage of love. Let me tell you, Rabia, that we are still full of platitudes.

And Baktash, was he worth it? I know how you ‘met’ him. There was a party in the court and being a girl, you were not allowed to take part. You came to the rooftop, lured in by music, laughter, and perhaps, by the deep voices of men. You saw Baktash, watching him from the rooftop as he poured wine, played music and sang songs. He was tall and handsome and you fell in love—what a cliché! You got yourself a problem there, Rabia. Baktash was your brother’s slave and a court entertainer. A princess in love with a slave? Only over your brother’s dead body.

Let me tell you, Rabia, that we are still like that. I saw a photograph of a boy and a girl because it was shared and re-shared endlessly on Facebook. The caption said, “This boy and girl were friends”. Their bodies hang listlessly from trees, like ripe, forgotten fruits. One of the comments left underneath the picture said, “This is how it should be!” Many other men agreed with this ruling and the girls remained silent. If you were alive today, a century later, chances are, Rabia, that you would still be killed. Afghanistan is still no country for love.

Legend has it that when you saw Baktash, love hit you like a “hurricane”, making you sick and turning you into a fine poet in the process. You were a girl with a secret now and the secret was killing you. The story is, Rabia, that poetry poured out of you with such vengeance as if a damn had been broken open. You didn’t eat; you didn’t sleep; you didn’t drink. You nearly died, silly girl. It was your nanny who saved you. With care and compassion, she coaxed you into revealing your secret. She let you get it off your chest but this saving you was also your demise because your secret was out. Let me tell you Rabia, that life is still like that for us. We are doomed if we don’t tell and we are killed if we tell.

 You listened to your nanny and wrote a love letter to Baktash. I smile when I think about the way you drew an image of yourself in the letter. Legend has it that you were beautiful—eyes bewitching, teeth like pearls, mouth like ruby, blah, blah, blah. I don’t care for your beauty, Rabia, and maybe you were not even pretty. Maybe, our poets beautified you because who, after all, likes a story about an ugly girl in love, or a princess who is plain? I don’t care for your looks but I am interested in the bloodshed that was the consequences of your love.

Baktash was just an excuse, some kind of divine inspiration that made Rabia write poetry. You see, Rabia, our men of pen, even those who lived closer to your time, twisted your love and turned you into a spiritual seeker, a Sufi. They declare that in truth and reality, the love you felt was for God but not for his handsome creature made of flesh and blood. There is even a story that when Baktash recognized you in a crowd, he came to you eagerly but you were cold and hostile to him. The story is that you confused him, spelling out to him that yours was not lust but love and how dare he get close to you and that he should be content with just being your source of inspiration. The receiver of numerous love letters with which you bombarded the man. You see, Rabia, since your death, a campaign has been underway to protect your reputation even from beyond your grave. You had talent, and your being the first recorded Afghan poetess makes you a figure of historical importance. But how can such gravitas be reconciled with a young, infatuated girl whose own brother killed her to save his reputation? And so your story was edited to “purify” you, turning you into a “respectable” saintly woman. Let me tell you, Rabia, that we still don’t respect the dead. On the contrary, it is only when the people are dead that we start properly telling lies about them.

The story goes that one-day you bumped into Rudaki, the court poet par-excellence of the time. The two of you conversed in poetry, with ex-tempore verses to show off your command of rhyme and syllabus, metaphor and innuendo. He was impressed with you, so much so that he memorized your poems. Or perhaps he had a fine ear and a solid memory because he was blind. Did you get carried away in the heat of the moment, Rabia, and revealed too much? If love was on your face, he could not possibly have seen it. But he was sharp, shrewd, and intelligent. He had memorized the entire Quran by the time he was eight and he learned his craft with … blah, blah, blah.

I don’t care for Rudaki’s poems even though others worship him. I am interested in his part in your death. Legend has it that it was during the post-battle party (the same battle during which you saved Baktash) that Rudaki told your secret. Was he too drunk to curb his tongue or was he jealous of your gift for words? Perhaps he was both. Either way, his tongue was loose that night and he launched into reciting your poems. The crowd of poets and warriors was intoxicated, uninhibited and asked Rudaki to come clear. “Tell us, whose are these fine verses?” It was then that your fate was decided, in your absence, without your knowledge. That’s what they do to us, Rabia, they still plot our murder while we are asleep.

The story is, Rabia, that Rudaki blurted out (or maybe he carefully chose his words), “These fine verses belong to Rabia, King Ka’ab’s daughter. And let me tell you, they are fine poems only because the girl is in love. With Baktash, the slave, of all people!” This is how it happened, Rabia, at night, during a drunken party in the town of Bukhara, far away from your hometown. Rudaki not only betrayed you, he also belittled your talent and put your life in danger. He was a co-culprit in your murder plot. I know that some people almost worship him for his poetry but I don’t care for his verses. I am interested in how he, wittingly or unwittingly, launched the first stage of your murder plot. Let me tell you, Rabia, that we still can’t be trusted with secrets. 

Your brother was there when Rudaki made you famous and infamous at the same time. He left the party, keeping a straight face but inside, he was murderously enraged because you had “dishonoured” him. Rabia, if only you knew how your story is told today—in textbooks, web-blogs, and old women’s tales. The tone is matter-of-factly. There is no honour, no sense of wrongdoing, only the usual submission to the self-generated carnage that is sold to us as destiny, as the tragedy of life.  

This is how the end of your story is told: Your brother ordered that you should be taken to a bathroom and that both your wrists should be cut. He ruled that you should be left alone in the bathroom, and that the bathroom door should be locked from the outside with rock stones. As blood streamed through the cuts of your wrists, outside they heard your cries, Rabia. But no one came to your rescue. Your body was picked up the following day. You were drenched in blood and so were the walls of the bathroom where you had written poetry, dipping your fingers in pools of your own blood.

Let me tell you, Rabia, that in death you became harmless. They call you ‘the mother of Persian poetry’ now, even though you died a young, infatuated maiden. We are still liars, Rabia, and the love-hate carnage and the poetry goes on.

Rest in peace, Rabia. I just wanted to tell you that love still kills in Afghanistan.