Jewel of Afghan cinema saved from the Taliban

It was 1996. The militants were bent on destroying the country's cultural heritage. But they didn't spot the false wall that concealed Afghanistan's finest reels. And now British audiences can enjoy the films they weren't supposed to see.

Less than 24 hours after decimating two ancient Buddhas carved on an Afghan hillside in March 1996, a Jeep of heavily armed Taliban guards stormed the gates of Kabul's National Film Archive intent on destroying what lay inside.

They had received Mullah Omar's rallying call – "Muslims should be proud of smashing idols" – and this was the next leg of their fanatical mission to wipe out every last remnant of Afghanistan's "depraved" cultural history. Their aim was to burn thousands of dust-covered film reels in the archive's store-rooms.

Word was sent to the nine archivists inside that they would shoot to kill to achieve that end. When the armed guards entered the building, they found a large Islamic poster to greet them and nine placid archivists who handed over thousands of film reels without a fight.

Little did their commander know when he swept through the archives and burned as many prints as he could find that he had been tricked.

Up to 6,000 of the most prized reels of Afghan films were hidden behind a hastily built false wall, onto which the poster had been pasted.

This was supposed to have been a "surprise" visit by the Taliban to catch the archivists out, but the technicians had been forewarned by the horrors of Bamyan and had toiled through the night to build the wall and preserve a small part of Afghanistan's cinematic history. Were it not for their ingenuity, the entire catalogue of films might have been destroyed.

Among the reels was the country's first feature film, Rabia Balkhi, which told the true story of the eponymous first and only queen of Afghanistan, who wrote Sufi poetry infused with erotic allegories, fell passionately in love with a court slave and was murdered by her jealous brother.

Rabia Balkhi became a sensation upon release in 1965 and was shown countless times in theatres and on television. But by 1996 it exemplified everything the Taliban feared and detested: a lavish historical epic with an enchanting queenly figure at its centre who could be seen, most dangerously, as the embodiment of the sexually liberated, politically emboldened woman. Fuelling the Taliban's ire, the role was played by the sultry Afghan actress Seema, clad in sumptuous, tightly tailored costumes, who was cast opposite Abdullah Shadaan, also the director of the film. The pair met and fell in love on set, marrying soon after. (They now work for the Pushto section of the BBC World Service in London).

During the Soviet occupation, the country's Mujahudeen disapproved of the film and by 1990 it had ceased to be shown. When the Taliban was defeated in 2001, a sense of unease about the queen's morality hung in the air. Even though the hidden reels were discovered in 2002, the film has still not been shown to the public in Afghanistan since then, perhaps because its combination of erotic poetry, romance and female leadership is likely to touch on the unresolved status of Afghan women today.

Now, two decades after it was last played before a cinema audience, the epic is to be shown tomorrow at the Tricycle Theatre in London as part of the Afghanistan Film Festival, an event that is little short of momentous for the wartorn country's film-makers. It is the first time the film is being shown in Britain, and the first time it has had subtitles attached.

Siddiq Barmak, the Afghan director of Osama, which won a Golden Globe in 2004, said his short films were also saved by the archivists in 2001. "The Taliban unfortunately got other copies and burnt about 2,500 titles, but these were mainly Russian and Indian films, work from abroad," he said. "One of the advantages for the archivists is that the archive had no electricity in those days so it was completely dark inside. They could hide reels in roofs, underground and behind the wall.

"The Taliban came to search the premises because they wanted to wipe out and destroy Afghanistan's past. They said, quite simply, if they found any hidden films, they'd kill the nine colleagues. These people risked their lives to save the archive."

He said he could remember the excitement Rabia Balkhi stirred on its immediate release. "It was created in the first private studios in Afghanistan and it was about a historical, classical subject that every Afghan learnt at school," he said. "I remember seeing the posters and wanting to go and see it in a movie theatre. It had the most famous names of the day but it also faced a lot of problems in its making, with four directors working on it and no government funding."

Dr Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, an academic at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and author of Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic, said Rabia's story was so enthralling not just because she was an aristocratic female leader but also because of her "magnificent love poetry". "Her love poetry, widely regarded as the first written by a female in Persian, was not only inspired by the culture of the day ... but primarily by her love affair with her brother's guard (some say he was his 'servant')," he said. "The story of her death is intensely dramatic: after her brother killed her because of the illicit relationship she had with his guard, the story goes, she wrote her last poem – an elegiac testament to the impossibilities of love – in her own blood as she laid dying.

"In many ways it has become a prominent folk story passed on from generation to generation especially in the Khorasan provinces of today's Iran and Afghanistan."

Rabia's tomb has become a place of pilgrimage. Many women make the journey to Balkh in northern Afghanistan where her shrine lays.

Zahra Qadir, the film festival's director, said she had visited the shrine and spoken to women whose passions had been stirred by Rabia's story. "When I went to the shrine a few years ago, a lot of women were going there to remember a women who was a powerful figure," she said. "These were sometimes uneducated women from small villages who said they looked up to her and that she reminded them that they had a right to live the way they chose. They went to give themselves strength. She's a really important symbol for Afghan women. None of the extremists had the courage to destroy her shrine.

"It [the film] hasn't been shown in Afghanistan since the early 1990s. It might be inflammatory there. None of the women wear headscarves in the film, the Queen is shown as very powerful. Rabia herself is probably controversial because she was a woman who chose her own destiny."

The symbol of Rabia is not only a reminder of a bygone Afghanistan, but a painful testimony to the freedoms that Afghanistan once had, has since lost, and may yet regain, for women.

Rabia Balkhi Afghan heroine

*Rabia Balkhi, whose life inspired the eponymous film, was most likely the first female Persian poet as well as being a queen. She was born and died in Balkh, Khorasan, a city in modern-day northern Afghanistan, which was also the birthplace of the poet and mystic, Rumi.

The exact dates of her birth and death are unknown but some evidence suggests that she lived during the same period as that of Rudaki, the father of Persian poetry, was a court poet to Nasr II, amir of the Iranian empire, Samanid, and who lived between 914 and 943. Her father, Kaab, was a governor and when Kaab died her brother, Haares, succeeded him. Haares had a Turkish slave named Baktash, with whom Rabia was secretly in love. Historical legend has it that during a court party, Haares heard Rabia reveal her secret and soon after he imprisoned Baktash in a well and then cut Rabia's throat, locking her in a bathroom as she bled to death. Rabia is believed to have written her final poems with her blood on the wall before she died. Baktash escaped from the well and went to the governor's office to kill Haares before committing suicide himself.

Rabia's influence on Afghan, Iranian, Tajik and Islamic culture has been profound, according to Dr Adib-Moghaddam, a writer and academic at London University's SOAS, who adds: "She lived during a period when questions of nationality and identity were rather unimportant. Her poetry, pierced with intensely erotic allegories, was entirely transcendental. Yet today she has become a focal point of the nationalist turf wars in the region. The bottom line is that Rabia was neither Afghani, nor Persian, Iranian, Tajik or anything else. She was the first prominent female expression of a poetic tradition within the Islamic worlds that goes entirely beyond national and confessional boundaries."

Her love affair with Baktash also inspired the Persian poet Reza Qolikhan Hedayat to compose his seminal work "Gulistan Eram".

Some suggest her shrine in Northern Afghanistan has become a place of pilgrimage for many in the country. Kabul's Rabia Balkhi Hospital for women was built in 2003 and named after the country's first and only Queen.

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