Joobin Bekhrad

Layli and Majnun: Romeo
and Juliet of the East

When it comes to love stories, none are as well known in the English language as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In Iran and elsewhere in the Persian-speaking world, however, another pair of star-crossed lovers reigns supreme. Lord Byron, who enthused over ancient Iran in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, called Nezami Ganjavi’s Layli and Majnun ‘the Romeo and Juliet of the East’. Though given to exaggeration, this was no exaggeration on Byron’s part, and might even be deemed an understatement. Yet, for all the enduring popularity of Layli and Majnun, it remains largely confined to Persian and neighbouring cultures, whereas the play Shakespeare staged centuries later has travelled far beyond the borders of England and the English-speaking world.

Classical Persian poetry has been garnering increasing attention in recent years, however Nezami isn’t nearly as well-known as Rumi, Hafez, and Omar Khayyam. One might dare say he’s somewhat obscure to the modern reader, certainly in the UK. Julie Scott Meisami’s translation of his sublime Haft Paykar (Seven Bodies) is masterful, but the subject matter of the original is perhaps not as appealing to most as Khayyam’s Robaiyat, for instance, or Rumi’s Masnavi (or, more precisely, the cherry-picked, secularised poems from it). And, as for Layli and Majnun, some of the extant English translations leave much to be desired. Dick Davis’s new translation from the Persian was therefore much needed.

It’s difficult to find fault with Davis as a translator of Persian poetry. I would have enjoyed his translation of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (the Book of Kings, Iran’s national epic) even more if he hadn’t abridged it but, that aside, my only quibble is that Davis — who has also translated other Persian classics like Attar’s Conference of the Birds and Gorgani’s Vis and Ramin — didn’t turn his attention to Nezami sooner, especially given Nezami’s importance in Persian literature and the relative unfamiliarity of his work amongst English-speaking audiences. As expected, Davis’ translation of the romance is both accurate and accessible. That it also rhymes, as per the original, is a bonus, as free verse is often favoured by translators of such works these days.

The third work in Nezami’s quintet, known as the Panj Ganj (Five Treasures) in Persian, Layli and Majnun was composed by the poet towards the end of the twelfth century AD in the city of Ganjeh in Aran. Although distinct from Iran and not considered an Aryan land in Zoroastrian scripture, Aran (whose government appropriated the name of the ancient neighbouring Iranian province of Azerbaijan for sociopolitical purposes in the early twentieth century) was in Nezami’s time very much under the influence of Persian culture. In composing his first romance, the poet, of mixed Iranic (Persian and Kurdish) stock, looked to the pre-Islamic tale of the Sassanian Persian emperor Khosrow Parviz and the Armenian princess Shirin, which was also a well-known episode in the Shahnameh. Similarly, the Haft Paykar romance revolves around another Sassanian emperor, Bahram V, who also featured prominently in the Shahnameh. Layli and Majnun, however, stands in stark contrast to such tales, as not only does it have nothing to do with ancient Iran, but is also of completely foreign origin.

True, Nezami’s Eskandar Nameh (Book of Alexander) is also not an Iranian story, having the Macedonian leader at its heart; and though I can’t, as an Iranian, excuse Nezami for penning such a work (considering Alexander’s invasion of Achaemenid Iran and razing down of Persepolis), it’s not so surprising that he did. After all, Ferdowsi, from whom Nezami took many notes, had lauded Alexander (in the vein of the Greek Alexander Romance, which was known to Persian speakers) in the Shahnameh and even wrote about him as a half-Persian king.

But in the case of the seventh-century Arabic story of Layli and Majnun, which had hitherto only existed in the form of various plotless anecdotes, Nezami had no personal impetus. Rather, it was his king, Shirvanshah Akhsetan, who requested that Nezami render Layli and Majnun — which was already known in the Persian-speaking world — into classical Persian verse. ‘Given such a focus on pre-Islamic Iran,’ writes Davis in the foreword, ‘an Arab story would seem to be of limited appeal to him … he clearly did not find the story especially attractive’. As Asghar Seyed-Gohrab mentions in the Encyclopaedia Iranica, Nezami also ‘initially doubted whether this simple story about the agony and pain of an Arab boy … would be a suitable subject for his cultured audience’. Of course, he ultimately conceded, not wanting to offend Shirvanshah Akhsetan. Apparently, his teenage son agreed, and encouraged his father to grin and bear it.

The story is indeed far less intricate than the Haft Paykar, but its simplicity likely played a crucial role in its popularity, both before and after Nezami took to versifying it. It begins with Qays, who falls in love with his cousin Layli at school, but the two are kept apart by Layli’s father. Unable to cope, totally hung up on Layli, Qays begins reciting love poems in public and earns the sobriquet ‘Majnun’ (meaning ‘crazed’ in Arabic). When Layli is given away in marriage, Qays retreats to the desert to live in solitude amongst the beasts there, and descends further into lovesickness while also composing poetry.

Though Qays and Layli (who has managed to keep her virginity intact) arrange to meet, they do not, unlike Romeo and Juliet, consummate their love — or even exchange kisses, for that matter — but instead decide to chastely recite poetry to one another. Even when Layli’s husband dies, Qays doesn’t make a move; he again takes up residence in the wilderness, where he obsesses over a pure, idealised image of Layli. The grief is too much for Layli to bear, and she dies of a broken heart, as does Qays, instantly and by her grave, upon hearing the news of her demise. Buried side by side, one can only hope that, in the words of Jagger and Richards, they’ll ‘do some livin’ after [they] die’. 

Nezami’s doubts were unfounded. Though of Arabic origin, Nezami’s rendition of the tale is ornate and highly Persianised: ‘[He] portrays the lovers as aristocrats … and urbanises the Bedouin legend’, says Gohrab. Comprised of some 4,600 couplets, it is also the first complete version of the story, and by far the most famous. Nezami’s version catapulted the lovers to fame amongst Persian-language poets, who often used Qays as a symbol for the devoted, pure-of-heart Sufi lover, tormented by his separation from his ‘Beloved’, God. It also spawned numerous imitations throughout the Persian-speaking world — the Mughal-era poet Amir Khosrow of Delhi, for instance, tried his hand at it — and elsewhere in other languages, including Ottoman Turkish and the variety of Turkish now spoken in Nezami’s place of birth. None, however, have come close to rivalling the popularity of Nezami’s version.

Layli and Majnun hasn’t enjoyed the popularity of other classical Persian poems in the English-speaking world, and Nezami can’t, like Rumi, count Beyoncé and Madonna amongst his fans, but the story and its author have nonetheless managed to penetrate Western pop culture. The Haft Paykar inspired an opera, Turandot (from the Persian ‘Turan-dokht’, meaning ‘daughter of Turan’). Even more notably, Layli and Majnun inspired Eric Clapton’s 1970 hit ‘Layla’. Nezami’s version of the story more than resonated with Clapton, who at the time was burning with passion for best-mate George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd. While the song is not a rock and roll retelling of the story, the connections are more than apparent, what with Clapton being ‘on his knees’ begging Layla (often pronounced ‘Layli’ in Persian) to ‘ease [his] worried mind’. On another track from the classic Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album, ‘I Am Yours’, Nezami is even credited as a co-author.

It may not be Nezami’s most profound work, nor the one he was the most proud of, but Layli and Majnun is still the story he’s most associated with and that has received the lion’s share of attention outside the Persian-speaking world. Its continuing popularity, as well as the affinity of someone as geographically, temporally, and culturally remote as Clapton for it, speak to the power of a good old, uncomplicated love story — not to mention Nezami’s genius as a poet and storyteller. We have Nezami to thank for the story and Davis for his invaluable efforts in producing an authoritative English translation, but no small debt of gratitude is due to Shirvanshah Akhsetan for the fear he instilled in the poet and the latter’s son, for egging him on to put pen to paper.

Words by Joobin Bekhrad.

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