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Cultural Tug-Of-War Erupts Over Persian Poet Rumi

One of many billboards of the Persian poet Rumi in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Afghanistan's Balkh Province, where the writer is believed to have been born.

Eight centuries after the birth of the famed Persian poet and mystic, the tussle for the cultural legacy of Jalal al-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, just won't die.

Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey are fighting over the bragging rights to Rumi's epic poetry after Tehran and Ankara reportedly hatched plans to register the 13th-century sage's masterpiece, Masnavi Ma'navi, as joint national heritage with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The move immediately sparked outrage in Kabul, where the Afghan government on June 9 appealed to a UNESCO envoy and sent out word to Ankara of its objections via Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani.

Hundreds of protesters are also expected to take to the streets in the northern Afghan province of Balkh, where Rumi is thought to have been born, to vent their anger at Tehran and Ankara.

The ruins of the house in Balkh where Rumi is thought to have been born in the thirteenth century.
The ruins of the house in Balkh where Rumi is thought to have been born in the thirteenth century.

Rumi was born 1207 in what might be described as the greater Balkh region -- either in modern-day Afghanistan or, as some scholars have suggested more recently, in the village of Wakhsh in today's Tajikistan. He fled the area as a child after the brutal Mongol conquest of the region, and traveled through what is now Uzbekistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, where he settled long enough to study in Damascus in his 20s. Rumi's final stop was Turkey, where he spent most of his life. He died in 1273 in the then-Seljuk city of Konya.

Rumi is widely revered for incorporating poetry, music, and dance into religious practice. His works are seminal in Persian-speaking countries like Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan. But they are also revered in many other cultures and, in recent decades, have proliferated in scores more languages and societies, including in the United States, where he has been described as that country's "best-selling poet."

Diplomatic Frenzy

The perceived appropriation of Rumi by Iran and Turkey before UNESCO infuriated Kabul, which promptly raised the issue with UNESCO and the Turkish government. (The Iranian government has yet to comment publicly on the issue.)

Patricia McPhillips, UNESCO's representative to Afghanistan, has said she will report back to the agency's headquarters in Paris on the topic.

Sayed Zafar Hashemi, a deputy spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, has called on prominent Afghan writers to "please lobby & spread the word" to help reclaim Rumi's heritage, adding via Twitter: "Rumi was born in Balkh, Afghanistan not Turkey or Iran."

Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh, in a letter to Afghanistan's permanent representative to the United Nations on June 9 protested Iran and Turkey's "imperialistic" attempts at appropriating Rumi, whom he described as the "pride" of the province.

"We therefore urge you to submit our earnest protest to UNESCO and cultural affairs officials of Iran and Turkey and please don't let it happen that Balkh's position as the motherland of [Rumi] is disregarded in this record," Noor wrote.

In a June 8 editorial, the Arman-e-Milli newspaper in Kabul wrote that "Rumi is ours. Turkey and Iran must not take illegitimate advantage of him."

"Although his cultural heritage belongs to the whole of humanity, he continues to belong to his birthplace and the birthplace of his ancestors," the editorial said, in reference to Afghanistan.

The ancient walls of Balkh, which was once a major city in the Persia of antiquity. It never recovered from the Mongol invasion that destroyed much of the town.
The ancient walls of Balkh, which was once a major city in the Persia of antiquity. It never recovered from the Mongol invasion that destroyed much of the town.

Omar Samad, a former Afghan presidential aide and ambassador, told RFE/RL the government made a "mistake" last year by downgrading Afghanistan's representation at UNESCO.

"For a long time we had an ambassador and staff assigned specifically to UNESCO, but last year the responsibility was relegated to our embassy in Paris which lacks competency dealing with complex UNESCO issues that matter to Afghanistan," he said.

Rumi 'Whitewashed'?

The cultural tug-war of war comes with another controversy involving the poet.

David Franzoni, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Ridley Scott's historical drama Gladiator, told The Guardian newspaper on June 6 that he wants Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio to play Rumi in a new biopic. Franzoni said he hoped to "challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in Western cinema" by giving "a face and a story" to the late Sufi scholar. But Franzoni's desire to cast a white actor in the lead role prompted accusations of "whitewashing."

Movie fans and critics have even taken to the Twitter hashtag #RumiWasntWhite to express their objections. Here are some of those tweets:

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.