Layla and Majnun
by Nizami Ganjavi
An epic poem written in 1188; part of Nizami's Khamasa, quintet of epic poems.
A pair of star-crossed Bedouin lovers suffer tragic fates.
IMAGE: Statue of Nizami Ganjavi in Baku, Ajerbaijan, the country where he was born.
History of the tale. Centuries before Romeo and Juliet, the theme of star-crossed lovers preoccupied storytellers on the Arabian desert. Tribes of Bedouin nomads gave rise to oral storytellers who began, in the seventh century, to recite episodes in the romance of Majnun the mad. Only fragments for a few centuries, the tale would finally be stitched together into a continuous narrative by Nizami Ganjavi (c. 1141-c. 1203; also spelled Nezami), writer of Persian masterpieces. In the case of Layla and Majnun, given the jumble of source material, Nizami's achievement was no small feat. He crafted a narrative poem that not only drew on disjointed, sometimes even contradictory, fragments but included breathtaking verse. And, every bit as famous in the East as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet would become in the West, at 4,600 verses, Nizami's tale was not short on details. Like his Arabic predecessors, Nizami based it on a semihistorical poet, Qays ibn Al-Mulawwah, and his love for Layla al-Aamiriya (aka Layla bint Mahdi). This "real-life" Qays is the reputed source of the tale; and, like his poetic counterpart, he had a nickname—Majnun Layla, "Layla's madman."
Plot summary. An adaptation of Nizami's poem, newly translated and abridged for dramatic reading, follows. The focus is the plot, which involves two noble families:
On behalf of his son, Majnun's father seeks out Layla's family to arrange marriage. But her father rejects the boy and marries off his daughter to another man, who loves Layla. Her husband remains with her until his death, though she refuses physical intimacy with him due to her love for Majnun. She sends for him once her husband dies. By then, he has fled to the desert, where, heartbroken, obsessed with love for Layla, he loses his reason yet composes wondrous poetry about and for her. Majnun encounters various characters over the years, the animals befriend and protect him, and others try in vain to cure him. Just once, before she and then he dies, the two meet alone for a memorable night and a day.