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Leyli O Majnun

part 1


narrative poem of approximately 4,600 lines composed in 584/1188 by the famous poet Nezami of Ganja.

 LEYLI O MAJNUN, a narrative poem of approximately 4,600 lines composed in 584/1188 by the famous poet Nezami of Ganja. It is the third of his five long narrative poems known collectively as the Kamsa (the Quintet).

The origin of the story. Majnun (lit. possessed) is an epithet given to the semi-historical character Qays b. al-Molawwah b. Mozahem of the tribe Banu Amer. The early anecdotes and oral reports about Majnun are documented in Abu’l-Faraj al-Esfahani’s Ketab al-Algani (ii, pp. 1-78) and in Ebn Qotayba’s Ketab al-Shaer wal-Shoara. The relevant sources are described and studied in a pioneering article by I. Yu. Krachkovski, published in 1946, that was later translated from Russian into Arabic and other languages, including German by Hellmut Ritter (1955). Another study of later collections of accounts of Majnun, by Asad E. Khairallah (1980), analyzes Abu Bakr al-Walebi’s Divan of Qays b. al-Mulawwah al-Majnun. Based on various reports in these Arabic books, it can be inferred that the story originates in Arabia in the seventh century. In the Ketab al-Algani, a reference is made to a poet of the Umayyad period who used the pseudonym Majnun to express his unrequited love for his cousin, singing love songs about the pangs of separation, and encountering misfortune.

Long before Nezami’s time, the legend circulated in anecdotal forms in Arabic akhbar. The anecdotes are mostly very short, only loosely connected, and show little or no plot development. They commonly refer to only a few aspects of Majnun’s physical or mental condition, his love-frenzy, his poetic talent and his reclusive lifestyle. In addition to reports about Majnun as a great poet of love, other popular anecdotes in Arabic sources recount the wondrous way Majnun falls in love with Leyli; his marriage proposal to Leyli and her father’s rejection; Majnun’s pilgrimage to Mecca; the intervention of Nowfal b. Moshahiq (governor of Medina in 702) to unite the lovers; Majnun’s strategies to meet Leyli; his swooning on seeing Leyli; his life in the desert amongst wild beasts; Leyli’s marriage to another man; exchanging letters with Leyli; his conversation with a raven and, finally, Majnun’s demise. Despite the large number of anecdotes, the story did not develop as a unified whole in Arabic in medieval times.

The romance belongs to the Udri (Odri) genre. The plot of Udri stories is simple and revolves around unrequited love; the characters are semi-historical and their actions are similar to, and easily interchangeable with, those of characters from otherUdri romances. The lover falls in love at a tender age with his cousin, but the girl’s father refuses to allow their union and marries her off to another man. The lovers are forbidden to see each other. This causes violent and perennial suffering for the lovers. They remain chaste all their lives, expressing their emotions in poetry. Made distraught by love, the lover roams the deserts alone, composing love poems about his beloved. Physical contact is alien to these stories, and when the lovers have an opportunity to meet, they sing poetry for each other while weeping. Sometimes they swoon on seeing their love. These lovers, as Mia Irene Gerhardt (1963, p. 129) points out, exemplify the heroism of sentiment and not of action. The language of Udri stories is direct and devotional, describing the lover’s agony, suffering, but above all, his supplication to God to increase his love. Despite the pangs of separation, the lover remains constant, bemoaning his unattainable union and ill fate in a poignant poetic voice.

In composing his romance, Nezami used many of the Arabic anecdotes and considered several key elements of the Udri genre.

He refers explicitly to his sources seventeen times, at the beginning of each episode, but none of the sources can be identified with certainty: these references are probably a narrative device to emphasize the romance’s outlandish origin to his Persian readers (Seyed-Gohrab, 2003, pp. 55-57). Nezami adds a strong Persian flavor to the legend. For example, the Nowfal episode is developed into a completely different event, hardly resembling the original Arabic account. The Arabic sources portray Nowfal as an official, but Nezami’s Nowfal is a chivalrous Persian chieftain (javanmard) ready to risk his life to bring the two lovers together. Ne??mi threads the scattered anecdotes about Majnun’s love into a finely woven narrative with a dramatic climax. Persian verse romances are commonly about princes, and characters are usually related to courtly circles. Likewise, Nezami portrays the lovers as aristocrats. He also urbanizes the Bedouin legend: Majnun does not meet Leyli in the desert amongst the camels, but at school with other children. Other Persian motifs added to the story are the childless king, who desires an heir; nature poetry, especially about gardens in spring and autumn, and sunset and sunrise; the story of an ascetic living in a cave; the account of the king of Marv and his dogs; the Zeyd and Zeynab episode; Majnun’s supplication to the heavenly bodies and God; his kingship over animals, and his didactic conversations with several characters.

A summary of the story. The plot of the romance is simple. Qays falls in love with Leyli at school but Leyli’s father forbids any contact. Separated from Leyli, Majnun becomes obsessed with her, singing of his love for her in public. The obsession grows to the point that he sees and evaluates everything in terms of Leyli; hence his sobriquet “the possessed” (Majnun). When he realizes that he cannot obtain union even when other people intercede for him, he grows disillusioned with society and roams naked in the desert among the beasts. 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. Meanwhile, Leyli is betrothed against her will but she guards her virginity by resisting her husband’s advances. She arranges secret meetings with Majnun, and when they meet, they have no physical contact, rather they recite poetry to each other from a distance. When Leyli’s husband dies, removing the legal obstacles to a licit union, Majnun is so focused on the ideal picture of Leyli that he runs away to the desert. Leyli dies out of grief and is buried in her bridal dress. Hearing this news, Majnun rushes to her grave where he instantly dies. They are buried side by side and their graves become a site of pilgrimage. In the coda, someone dreams that they are united in Paradise, living as a king and queen.

to be continued ...

Other Links:

The Persian Language (Part 1)

The Persian Language (Part 2)

The Iranian Art of Painting

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