But, what if two love each other and can not be together? Romeo and Juliet? you say. No, I reply, for they had a brief moment together: they loved and kissed and laughed together. Shirin and Khosrow*, the Persian lovers? you ask me. No, I say again, because, after all their sorrows, they were united at last, and had a few happy years before their tragic end.
I speak of Layla and Majnun. There was a man, who, unable to be with the one he loved, fled to the desert. Nizami, the great, perhaps greatest of all Persian writers and poets, wrote a more than 9000 line poem ( around 4,650 distichs) based on the historical Majnun, and completed it in either 1188 or 1192. Although their love was unconsummated, they loved each other from childhood to death, and perhaps beyond.
Qays was, long ago, the son of the wealthy and powerful chieftain of the tribe of the Banu Amir in the desert of Arabia, Nizami writes. Qays was handsome, well-loved, and had a keen mind. He excelled in schoolwork, public speaking, and music. One day, the daughter of another mighty chieftain was brought to the same school as Qays. She was as beautiful as Qays was handsome. Because of her dark eyes and raven-black hair, she was called Layla (Night).
Qays was lovestruck. He could no longer read or write, but whispered Layla all day long and for many days after. Layla loved Qays in return. They simply gazed at each other. Nizami writes that words were not necessary, because their souls were so perfectly attuned. All day they gazed at each other, and all night they dreamt of each other. They hurried to school each morning to see each other. Qays, however, really lost it. Instead of reciting his lessons, he would shout “Layla! Layla!” He would then run through the streets, calling her name, praising her black eyes and raven hair. That, Nizami writes, is how he became known as Majnun: “possessed by a jinn or genie; a madman.”
How well do I know of that possession!
In Nizami’s story, Majnun and Layla’s love was not to be. Layla’s father, embarrassed by Majnun’s crazy ways, took her home and locked her away from this great insult to his daughter and tribe. Majnun, who could not bear her absence, wandered among the stalls of the bazaars, murmuring her name and sobbing. His ravings became poems, and he composed love songs of exquisite beauty. He saw her once more in the doorway of her tent prison, and they gazed at each other in the moonlight. Then, he fled to the desert, shouting her name and singly wildly.
Now, Majnun’s father saw all this, and was greatly grieved, Nizami says, so he went to Layla’s father with precious gifts to ask for Layla’s hand for his son. Layla’s father was outraged, and fearful that every man in Arabia would laugh at him if he granted such a wish. He asked that Majnun first be cured of his madness. When Majnun’s father returned to camp he found Majnun there, and he told him what Layla’s father had said. Majnun fled again to the desert.
Later, Majnun’s father proposed a pilgrimage to Mecca that Majnun be cured. Majnun, weak from deprivation and exposure, was carried there. When his father asked him to pray that his madness be lifted, instead Majnun cried out as he touched the shrine: “I pray to You, let me not be cured of love, but let my passion grow! Take what is left of my life and give it to Layla’s, yet let me never demand from her so much as a single hair! Let me love for love’s sake, and make my love a hundred times as great as it is this day!”
Layla’s father, on hearing of this, ordered Majnun killed, so once again, Majnun went to the desert alone, where he lived, barely surviving, with bloody feet and sun-blackened skin. It so happened, Nizami says, that a Bedouin prince named Nowfal found Majnun, pitied him, and eventually declared war on Layla’s father, defeating him to obtain Layla for Majnun. However, even in defeat, Layla’s father pleaded with Nowfal not to give Layla to Majnun, and Nowfal was moved to agree to his request, even after having gone to war over Layla. Hearing this, Majnun was greatly angry with his friend Nowfal, and rode out into the desert again, where he gave away his few possessions and lived simply, becoming friends with all the animals there.
Layla, meanwhile, had grown up into the most beautiful woman in all of Arabia, Nizami writes. A great prince desired her, and reluctantly she agreed to her father’s wishes that she marry him. However, Layla refused to consummate the marriage, as she was still in love with Majnun.
After a year, Layla and Majnun were able to exchange letters through an old kindly man. They saw each other again in a grove not far from Layla’s home, and Majnun sang, Nizami writes, the most beautiful love poem he had ever written. But, Majnun returned to the desert, and Layla stayed with her husband.
As it happened, Layla’s husband died soon after from a fever, and Layla mourned. It was customary for a widow to seclude herself in her tent for two years. Layla mourned, but she mourned for Majnun only. After months of solitude, she became so weak that she could not rise from her bed. Her weakness turned to fever, Nizami wrote, and, before she died, she asked that she be dressed in bridal robes for her grave, to wait for her beloved.
Majnun went to her grave when he heard of this. He wept from the depths of his soul. He sang his songs, staying at Layla’s grave until he weakened and died. The animals who had been his friends stayed by him, refusing to allow anyone near him until his body crumbled into dust. Then Majnun’s bones were buried by Layla’s side.
This story, of the world’s truest lovers, has been told over and over again through the years, and I tell it again. I tell it because I am a madman, and I know the love of which Nizami wrote. I was possessed. I loved from the depths of my soul. I lost my mind, my heart, and my soul. I know Majnun. I could be him.