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Musings on Layli and Majnun, and a soul in love

Reflections on a 12th century Persian poem, family and love.

Who can describe my being, since I’ve none;

Only my friend exists — all else is gone.

My love will last, secure and unbetrayed,

Until the glittering stars in heaven fade.

(Nezami Ganjavi, 1188)

When I was little, my mamani would read me a poem. 

Once upon a time, a girl and a boy, Layli and Qais, met, and fell helplessly for each other. Layli’s beauty was a miracle praised far and wide; her rose-like face and plump ruby lips glimmered in the Persian moonlight. Qais was entranced. He crafted poetry in her honour, professed his adoration time and again, wept iridescent tears for her, and in his flood of passion, he became Majnun — the madman. 

As all love stories go, fate ripped our protagonists apart. Layli, of course, was forbidden from marrying a madman; and as one does, Majnun took to the desert. He roamed the sands yearning for her, singing, a nomad shunned from society. When she became overwrought with lovesickness, her soul destroyed, Layli died. Finding her grave, and cradling her forever sleeping body, Majnun followed her into eternity.

It is the story of our people. Though mamani and babayi are now far from Tehran, separated from the cherry blossoms and the emerald gardens and the barberry trees that stain white linen with scarlet welts, we have stories to take us there. Whenever mamani brought out her well-loved copy of Nezami Ganjavi’s 1188 poem, Layli and Majnun, I saw a little bit of her world — the mosaic ceilings of rich turquoise in mamani’s ancestral home, the cypress forests that babayi would explore as a boy, the glittering sunlight as mum dipped her feet into the Caspian. Iran has since become a different world: even when mum was a child, amidst an Islamic Revolution, the country had begun to transform. She tells me about air strikes, about the police separating her from her father and brother in public, and about being forced to cover up, coming of age in a place of hate. Through Layli and Majnun, we see a better, beautiful Iran, and a cultural artefact to cherish.

Layli and Majnun is a story of young love, but growing up, I was largely enthralled by the poem’s exotic animals. When I heard the tale of Majnun befriending lions, deer, wolves, a King Solomon speaking to all creation, I grinned. Back then, we had a VHS player, and my favourite tape was Disney’s Aladdin, a hand-me-down from an older cousin; listening to the poem always reminded me of the film’s palm trees and palaces, the monkeys and parrots and tigers, and the opulence of that ancient world. 

Over time, my understanding of the poem evolved. As the Italian author, Italo Calvino, wrote, “At every rereading I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time … I experience different and unexpected emotions, and do not find again those of before.” Now, when I read Layli and Majnun, I cannot help but think of love. Ganjavi writes:

Look at how wrong you were to think of you,

Your self, so that this “you” was all you knew!

In love, we lose ourselves. When Layli and Majnun meet, their souls become entwined; any notion of individual being melts away. Here, the poem reflects a distinctly Sufi tenet — to reach a spiritual apex, the self must be destroyed. In the Sufi Journal, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes that Layli and Majnun is an allegory of mystical love: when we unite our soul with that of our “Beloved,” we find truth, and flourish.

As I read this, I wonder how we love. Shouldn’t we all be as mad as Ganjavi’s Majnun? I think of how my dad loves my mum, how he calls her joonam, my beloved, how he draws a lopsided heart in her morning skinny cap, how they hold hands when he drives, how even after twenty years they have oh so much to say to each other, and as I watch them I realise that they have found spiritual truth. They are Layli and Majnun, and they are beautiful. 

I think of my own heart, of the depths I haven’t explored yet. When I read Layli and Majnun, I wonder what is to come. Ganjavi writes:

Love gave them its new wine, which worked within

These two so innocent of guile and sin

(The first time that we’re drunk’s the worst of all,

No fall hurts like the first time that we fall.)

that final line pierces me.

once upon a time, two lovers met,

and fell helplessly for each other.

did they, though? really?

what’s to say that he felt helpless, entranced,

mad in yearning?

who ever really knows the experience of another?

i ask myself this as he says he doesn’t think this is working

and i wonder why i ever felt helpless, entranced,

mad in yearning,

when all it led to was

a broken self.

no fall hurts like the first time that we fall.

Last week, mamani and babayi visited for the first time in months; our first family dinner since bleak June. My cousins came over, and babayi poured me a beer. Mamani had called a few days earlier, and asked what we would like her to make. I suggested my favourite khoresh gheymeh, a lamb stew with tart preserved limes, served with buttery tahdig. As always, it was perfect; mamani wouldn’t have it any other way.  At the dinner table, mamani and I sat next to each other, and we spoke of Layli and Majnun. We marvelled at Ganjavi’s depiction of place, the cherry blossoms and the emerald gardens and the barberry trees. We thought of Layli, with her rose-like face and plump ruby lips, and her soulmate, singing for his love across the desert sands. We mused on true love. Layli and Majnun is our favourite poem.

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