In September, Belladonna did a wonderful thing and published a small chaplet of my poetry. Many friends are aware that I have been intrigued in myth making and in resurrecting Central Asian woman heroes. This stems from my childhood immersed in fairy tales, my father’s stories, and my adulthood fascinated by all things magical and fantastical. Also, teaching epics for these three years have made a rather deep imprint on my imagination.
The chaplet is Woman. Hand/Pen (chaplet #217). A few of the poems come from my myth making series… here I want to share an excerpt from the poem “Balkh, the City of the Poet Saint of Love and Unions”:
In Mazar, I write
with the dark shimmer of kohl
The book of Rabia, Rabianama
and sign it with my bloody thumbprint.
The book of their love, queen and slave,
was named Baktashnama (the Book of Baktash)
rather than Rabia.
In Mazar, I tear down
the ribbons and strings tied by hopeful lovers.
She is no benevolent saint of love,
her grave spiritualized for the lovelorn.
Rabia is the angry spirit of the betrayed.
The wronged sister
who was bled in a bath house by usurper brothers.
In Balkh — her last poem was left on the wall
written in her own blood:
My struggle ended before ripening…
I transgress with a hardened face.
This is no poem left by a saint of forbidden love.
Instead, she is a saint of all that was forbidden to her,
Saint of Choice. Rabia, the Saint of Desires.
I hear in her catastrophic pulse,
The story of Rabia Balkhi has caught my imagination since girlhood. This is mainly because of the way my father had heard the story and the way he told the story. He recited a story of a young queen chosen by her father over her brothers to rule. And for this she was resented. This young poet queen went onto to lead a harmonious year until her brothers decided to meddle and through intrigue regain the throne. Her weakness was that she was in love with her Turkic slave Baktash (make note world and do not conflate Turkish with Turkic. Because Turkic is Central Asian Turko-Mongolian and Turkish is the western land of Turkey). Her brothers plotted to show her unfit, and thus they presented Rabia as a queen lost in love rather than demonstrate her gravitas as a ruler. After the people turned against her, she was caught and her arms were slashed. She was then put in a bath house to bleed to her death. With her last breath, she wrote a poem for Baktash and for the world. In 2013, Laimah Osman and Wazhmah Osman translated poems by Rabia Balkhi and other medieval Afghan women poets in their artbook, Ishqnama, Book of Love:
I follow a tradition.
I was thrilled to read the poems with fellow Afghan American poet, Mina Zohal, whose poems are in chapbook #216 (Narinj, orange) and to have the brilliant Youmna Chalala ask such thoughtful questions during our Q&A.
(painting: Turkestan by Hovsep Pushman, Armenian American artist)