1 Rumi is from Afghanistan2018-12-12T20:39:44+00:00



Rumi is immensely popular in Afghanistan, also among the country’s millennials. There are a number of ways to explain his fame, but for starters there is an obvious explanation: Rumi was born more than 800 years ago in what is now Afghanistan.

There is a common belief and pride in Afghanistan that ‘Rumi is one ours’: ‘Rumi once walked where we now walk. His poetry is in the language that we now speak. And Rumi proudly called himself ‘Balkhi’, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhi to be precise; a man from the province of Balkh in northern Afghanistan. Afghans simply call him Mawlana, which means ‘our master’.

The credits for Rumi’s descent are, however, contested. Both people from Turkey and Iran claim that their country was Rumi’s home. This is because Rumi lived in Turkey most of his life, and Iran was the centre of the Persian Empire – of which Afghanistan was still a part back then. Plus, the appropriation of Western celebrities leaves few reminders of his roots as well: Rumi’s competing namesake is now the baby of Beyoncé and non-Muslim Leonardo DiCaprio was cast to play the role of the poet in a Hollywood film production.

Click on the icon on the bottom right of the Youtube video for English subtitles.

Walid (20) and Yekta (23) wonder: would people change their minds about Afghanistan if they knew it was the home of peace-loving Rumi too?

Living proof of Rumi’s origin can be heard on the streets in Afghanistan: ‘Man Balkhi, Balkhi, Balkhi ast!’ – ‘I am from Balkh, Balkh, Balkh!’ To be pronounced with a hard and rolling ‘Kh’. It is said that Rumi once cried out this line overcome by homesickness. The words are also a loving joke stubborn Afghan men tell their loved ones today: ‘I can’t help it, darling. It is because I am from Balkh, this is how we have been for centuries already.’

800 years after Rumi’s departure, it is still possible to visit the ruins of his birthplace in Balkh. Only with the exact coordinates at hand, because it is easy to drive straight past the place. There is no signpost, guides or entry fee to pay. The poorly maintained ruins are testament to the way Rumi’s heritage lives on in Afghanistan: with little resources or ambition to turn it into something tangible or commercial. Instead, Rumi’s stories have been shared and conveyed for centuries, through word of mouth – and through word of heart.

Masooma lives in Kabul and travelled to Balkh to visit the old house of Rumi: ‘He never forgot where he came from.’

Balkh was once named ‘The Mother of All Cities’: a flourishing hub along the Silk Road and where Buddhism thrived in the seventh century. It is also the place where Alexander the Great married the daughter of the king of Balkh (only after killing him first). The Mongolian army leader Genghis Khan was similarly drawn to the metropolis that was Rumi’s home. The violence of the Mongolian army caused the departure of Rumi’s family in the thirteenth century. When Rumi was around six years old, the family fled towards to West, with Konya, now in Turkey, as their final destination.

Today, it takes some imagination to recognise the epic history of Balkh. The province used to be relatively safe for years, despite the War on Terror that started in 2001. But as the Taliban is growing stronger and Isis plagues Afghanistan too, the sad reality of terror and insecurity in Afghanistan is becoming more and more true for the people of Balkh province as well.

Picture: Mazar-e Sharif, capital of the province Balkh 

Another explanation for Rumi’s fame in Afghanistan is that his poems were written in Persian. Meaning that if you master Dari, the Afghan version of that language, you experience Rumi’s wondrous world first-hand. Rumi’s poems are no ‘neatly kept Persian gardens’ – as Rumi expert Annemarie Schimmel once described them. The 50,000 lines of the Masnavi, his biggest masterpiece, are not the the result of painstaking intellectual work. All lines were instead written down hastily by someone else as Rumi, sometimes dancing too, called them out loud: ‘My mouth was torn open’, as Rumi said himself.

The Masnavi is one of the most important sources of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. Sufi’s belief that this stream of words originates from Rumi’s Qalb – the ‘mind inside the mind’, the spiritual heart that holds someone’s deepest wisdom. Reading the Masnavi in Dari then offers an poetic escape from daily life into a giddy fantasy world with talking animals and chickpeas on a single page. And skipping from one subject to the other, with unexpected changes in language, style or rhyme.

Why are Nasanin (23) and Yekta intrigued by eight century old poems? ‘We are drawn to Rumi’s poetry for the same reasons the entire whole world is.’

Rumi and Afghans not only share the same soil and language, there is a religious connection too. The Masnavi is also known as the ‘Persian Quran’ in Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world. Especially for older generations, the Masnavi exclusively represents a religious book on Rumi’s search to fall in love and become one with God. According to Rumi, God can be experienced in anything and everything. So in Rumi’s  cosmos, each animal, blade of grass and small chickpea is tasked with teaching you something about  God.

These everyday metaphors also lead to popular entertainment. Afghan children are read the Masnavi before bedtime, with stories about mice, elephants and vain princes. The Masnavi contains jokes about wine and drunkenness too, as well as about delirious lust and love. Rumi’s poems are thus part of daily life in Afghanistan as wise proverbs, jokes and sayings. And this is exactly as Rumi would have liked it, since he created the Masnavi for the ordinary man: ‘Why else would I deal with poetry? Good God, why would I care about the art of poetry at all?’

In recent years, young Afghans have started to recognise and identify with Rumi’s life story for yet another reason. Listen to Farkhonda explaining what is happening in her country.

Photo: A roundabout in Mazar-e Sharif with a Rumi mosaic 

If your day of birth is after 1980 in Afghanistan, you lived in a continue state of war or under the Taliban regime. Just like Rumi did centuries ago, young Afghans are fleeing violence and try to make their way to the West. And just like Rumi, many of these highly educated youngsters end up in Turkey, where Rumi spend most of his life too. Because of this this sombre parallel, Rumi has now also become an adventurous role-model for young Afghans. With Rumi playing the part of the Afghan refugee who achieved world fame, with admirers and recognition all over the world.

This story of the world, about Rumi’s poetry being part of life at the ends of the earth, brings us back to the debate about Rumi’s real roots. Because he himself probably would not have been too bothered. After all, Rumi’s home was everywhere – and nowhere – in this world.

About the next chapter: ‘Gamble everything for love’: 

Young people in Afghanistan are reading Rumi’s poetry with new eyes – just like every generation did before them. Today, Rumi’s poetry is more than ever used for inspiration in daily and material life, way beyond its traditional religious purpose. In the next chapter, five youngsters from Afghanistan tell personal and intimate stories about what Rumi means to them their everyday lives.