Leyli and Majnun: The Persian Immortal Love Story
“Leyli and Majnun” is an immortal love story sometimes compared to “Romeo and Juliet” though it predates Shakespeare in oral tradition by more than 1,000 years. Today, it is still one of the most popular epics of the Middle East and Central Asia among Arabs, Turks, Persians, Afghans, Tajiks, Kurds, Indians, Pakistanis, and, of course Azerbaijanis. The most popular version of this love story “Leyli and Majnun” was penned by Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209), who lived and died in Ganja, an ancient city in Azerbaijan where his shrine stands today. He wrote in Persian as was the literary custom of the day.
The plot of the romance is simple. Qays falls in love with Leyli at school. He soon began to write beautiful love poems about Layla and he would read them out loud on street corners to anybody who would care to listen. Majnun (Qays) becomes obsessed with her, singing of his love for her in public. Such passionate displays of love and devotion and the obsession grows to the point that he sees and evaluates everything in terms of Leyli; hence his sobriquet “the possessed” (Majnun). Contemplating the image of Leyli increases his love so that he cannot eat or sleep. His only activity is thinking of Leyli and composing love songs for her.
One day, Majnun found the courage to ask Layla’s father for his daughter’s hand in marriage, but her father refused the request. Such a marriage, the father reasoned, would only cause a scandal. It would not be proper for his daughter to marry a person whom everybody called a madman. Instead, Layla was promised to another – an older man from a neighboring village.
The Man Who Loved Too Much
Majnun was overcome with grief and abandoned his home and family and disappeared into the wilderness where he lived a miserable life of solitude among the wild animals. It was in this wilderness that Majnun spent his days composing poems to his beloved. Layla was forced to marry this other man, although she did not love him because her heart still belonged to Majnun. But even though Layla did not love her husband, she was a loyal daughter and so remained a faithful wife. Meanwhile, Leyli is betrothed against her will but she guards her virginity by resisting her husband’s advances. While married, she does not share her bed with her husband and even secret arranges meetings with Majnun, and when they meet, they have no physical contact, rather they recite poetry to each other from a distance. The news of this marriage was devastating to Majnun who continued to live a life of solitude, refusing to return home to his mother and father in the city.
Love is known to be an overwhelming, all-consuming, intense passion. But just how intense can love be? No one knows the answer, and examples of such a love are rare. But whenever one talks about the depth of love, the intensity of passion, two names almost immediately come to mind – Laila and Majnun.
Majnun’s mother and father missed their son terribly and longed every day for his safe return. They would leave food for him at the bottom of the garden in the hopes that one day he would come back to them out of the desert. But Majnun remained in the wilderness, writing his poetry in solitude, never speaking to a single soul. Majnun spent all of his time alone, surrounded only by the animals of the wilderness that would gather around him and protect him during the long desert nights. He was often seen by travelers who would pass him on their way towards the city. The travelers said that Majnun spent his days reciting poetry to himself and writing in the sand with a long stick; they said that he truly was driven to madness by a broken heart.
Many years later, Majnun’s father and mother both passed away. Knowing of his devotion to his parents, Layla was determined to send Majnun word of their passing. Eventually she found an old man who claimed to have seen Majnun in the desert. After much begging and pleading the old man agreed to pass on a message to Majnun the next time he set off on his travels. One day, the old man did indeed cross paths with Majnun in the desert; there he solemnly delivered the news concerning the death of Majnun’s parents and was forced to witness what a terrible blow this was to the young poet.
Overcome with regret and loss, Majnun retreated inside of himself entirely and vowed to live in the desert until his own death. Some years later, Layla’s husband died. The young woman hoped that finally she would be with her one true love; that finally she and Majnun would be together forever. But sadly, this was not to be. Tradition demanded that Layla remain in her home alone to grieve for her dead husband for two whole years without seeing another soul. The thought of not being with Majnun for two more years was more than Layla could bear. Leyli and Majnun had been separated for a lifetime and two more years of solitude, two more years without seeing her beloved, was enough to cause the young woman to give up on life. Layla died of a broken heart, alone in her home without ever seeing Majnun again.
Leyli dies out of grief and is buried in her bridal dress. Hearing this news, Majnun rushes to her grave and there he wept and wept until he too surrendered to the impossible grief. They are buried side by side and their graves become a site of pilgrimage. In the coda, someone dreams that Leyli and Majnun are united in Paradise, living as a king and queen.
Nizami’s Voice – Leyli and Majnun
The following are some quotes taken from Nizami’s immortal poem “Leyli and Majnun”. This prose version has been adapted by Colin Turner and published by Blake in London, 1970 (ISBN 1-85782-1610).
The future is veiled from our eyes. The threads of each man’s fate extend well beyond the boundaries of the visible world. Where they lead, we cannot see. Who can say that today’s key will not be tomorrow’s lock, or today’s lock not tomorrow’s key? (page 3)
Dearest heart, if I had not given my soul to you, it would have been better to give it up for good, to lose it forever. I am burning in love’s fire; I am drowning in the tears of my sorrow. . . I am the moth that flies through the night to flutter around the candle flame. O invisible candle of my soul, do not torture me as I encircle you! You have bewitched me, you have robbed me of my sleep, my reason, my very being. (15)
Time passes, but true love remains. The life of this world is, for the most part, nothing but a succession of illusions and deceptions. But true love is real, and the flames which fuel it burn forever, without beginning or end. (31)
Every breeze that blows brings your scent to me;
Every bird that sings calls out your name to me;
Every dream that appears brings your face to me;
Every glance at your face has left its trace with me.
I am yours, I am yours, whether near or far;
Your grief is mine, all mine, wherever you are.