Qassim Haddad

Translated by:
Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden

Majnun Layla:


Qassim HaddadBahrain is a small island-state in the Arabian Gulf, east of Saudi Arabia, that has witnessed radical changes in the last fifty years or so, having moved from traditional life styles to modern ones. No one has captured these drastic transformations and lived them out as expressively as the Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad. He partook of traditional life of Gulf Arabs as a child and grew up to teach himself—thanks to his position as a librarian and to his autodidactic impulse—and to assimilate a contemporary outlook, adapting his vision to modern modes and beyond without sacrificing local setting or erasing traces of past legacies.
Qassim’s family name “Haddad” which means literally “Blacksmith” comes from the profession of his father who turned into a blacksmith after working as a pearl-diver—the dangerous and typical profession of the simple people of Bahrain before the discovery of oil. As a child, young Qassim helped his father in his work and developed a mastery of techniques in forging and fashioning iron and other metals along with his extraordinary talent for poetic forging of words and texts.
Born in 1948 in al-Muharraq—“the source of life in Bahrain” as Qassim put it in his description of his city in a memoir Warshat al-Amal (The Workshop of Hope)—he spent the first decade of his life there before modernization swept away traditional life leaving “an unannounced nostalgia for a world that is no more.” In his early childhood, al-Muharraq—located between sea and desert—was a close-knit community. In the popular neighborhoods, doors of different households were open to anyone and all. His own house was the locus of many criss-crossings: social, sectarian, and economic. The women of his household held the Shiite socio-religious rite of Husayniyya where the martyrdom of Imam Husayn is ritually re-told in an elegiac mode--reminiscent of the passion of Christ on Good Friday. Adherents of various religious orientations frequented the house. The men in the family, as pearl divers and craftsmen, had contact with other craftsmen and middlemen who traveled in the Gulf—all of whom visited the family. It is in the midst of this openness and multiplicity of professions, faiths, and social groupings that young Qassim grew up, partaking in the heterogeneous world and its differences. It is not surprising that he did not grow to be single-minded or fundamentalist.
Qassim joined al-kuttab—the Quranic informal school to which children are sent before they enroll in formal schooling. What might be significant in this experience is that his first teacher in this Quranic school was a woman who supervised the kids as she carried on household tasks. Only later did Qassim move to have a man instructor, so religiosity was not a monopoly of males. He would also hear his father reciting the Quran particularly during the holy month of Ramadan as well as his aunts chanting the elegiac stories associated with Husayn’s martyrdom. Qassim was not given to the culture of memorization prevalent then, but he was deeply touched when listening to the charged rhythms around him. Later he enrolled in formal schools, which opened the horizons of his knowledge to a more up-to-date world.

Qassim did not feel at ease with the restrictions of formal instruction and chose to read on his own. He dropped out of secondary school and joined the national library as a staff member (1968-1975). This offered him a variety of reading material and he explored it passionately. As a youthful Bahraini, he was impatient with the political system and its restrictions at a time when the Left and pan-Arab nationalists were going beyond the narrow confines of statehood or the interest of a dominant class. He was a political activist and paid for his convictions by imprisonment. Later he devoted himself to cultural activism and opened new vistas for Bahraini arts and culture.
In 1969 Qassim Haddad participated in founding the Bahrain Writers Association and played a pivotal role in it. In 1970, he co-founded Awal theatre in Bahrain. In 1980, he became involved in literary journalism, writing a weekly column. He became the Editor of the journal Kalimat in 1987 and started a website on poetry called Jihat Shi‘r [Poetry Directions] in the 1990s. He received the prestigious prize of poetry awarded by Al-‘Uways Foundation in 2001. He has published more than a dozen collections of poetry and works of critical prose, interviews, and a memoir, being an agent of literary innovation as a poet and an initiator of literary platforms. Arguably the best poet in the Gulf and one of the best in the Arab World, he has participated in conferences and poetry festivals in the Arab World, Europe, and the US.
Moving from the specifically political to the vastness of the cultural sphere, the poetry of Haddad evolved from political mobilization in the 1970s, using commonly circulating symbols, to more speculative and allusive poetry at the turn of the century, creating a language of captivating ambiguity. Given his own trajectory from traditional roots to global horizons, it is not surprising to find the urge to integrate the ancient with the contemporary, and the desire to undertake new interpretation of past legends. This is particularly evident in his rendering of the story of Majnun Layla in a collection published in 1996. He revived this classical work of Arab love while liberating it from its puritanical dimension.
Qays of the tribe of Banu ‘Amir of Arabia became known as Majnun (madman) because his infatuation with Layla, his cousin, led him to insanity. Not permitted to wed her as he had violated patriarchal and tribal conventions by making his love known through his poetry, he roamed the wilderness until his death. He has become synonymous with the martyr of love, with the pining lover— devoted yet unfulfilled. Partly historical and partly mythical, the figure of Qays and his beloved Layla have been recorded in chronicles in different variants, first by literary historians and later by poets of different tongues. This perennial love story has been admired, retold, and adapted in different ages and cultures since its inception in the late seventh century. It has been rendered in Persian, Turkish, various Indian languages, modern Arabic, and in English and French. Critics and comparativists have written about different versions of the literary manifestations of the legend. Miniature painters and singers in the East and the West have represented the story. Each individual writer or artist emphasized an aspect of love seen in this story and adjusted it to the ethos of the context and the genre. From being a narrative about unfulfilled pastoral love in a tribal setting it has since been set in an urban milieu adding to the protagonists a more sophisticated and metropolitan characterization. From a story of human love for an inaccessible woman, the story has been turned into an allegory for the mystic yearning to unite with the Divine. More political and autobiographical dimensions have mingled with the Majnun story in modern Arabic and French renderings.
The earliest extant account of the story of Majnun Layla was reported in the ninth-century by Ibn Qutaiba (828-889) in his book, Kitab al-Shi‘r wal-Shu‘ara [The Book of Poetry and Poets]. Another and a more elaborate variant of the story of Majnun Layla is narrated by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani (897-967) in his book, Kitab al-Aghani [The Book of Songs]. Al-Walabi, a rather enigmatic figure who is difficult to anchor historically, collected the poetry of Majnun Layla. The story became an exemplary narrative of intoxication with love.

As the story moved from its original setting in the desert to more urban locations, it changed in details but not the general outline. Qays meets Layla at school in the version composed by the Persian poet Nizami (1141-1209) who succeeded in turning the story of Layli-o-Majnun from a series of anecdotes interspersed with poetry to a romance with an organic plot. Jami (1414-1492), influenced by Nizami and like him reversing the title of the story to become Layla and Majnun, gave Layla a Sufi connotation, associating her with divine beauty. Thus Majnun’s longing for Layla is presented as allegorical of man’s yearning for God. Jami’s version intimates this by comparing the insane gestures and ravings of Majnun to those of a dancing dervish; his peaceful association with wild animals to a monastic existence in the desert; and finally in the conclusion of the work Jami explains the Sufi inner meaning of the story. Other authors before and after Jami also adapted the legend to their worldview such the Indian Amir Khusrow Dehlawi (1253-1325) and the Azerbaijani Fuzuli (1483-1556), again inclined to redirect the story towards divine love. This identification of the beloved with the divine is akin to the way Dante elevated his worldly Beatrice into a quasi-holy figure in his Divine Comedy. In 1797, Isaac D’Israeli published Mejnun and Leila: The Arabian Petrarch and Laura, based on Islamic sources but it is also his own creative version of the romance. This English adaptation mixes prose with poetry--as the legend often does when narrated in medieval Arabic literature. Heinrich Heine uses the legend of Majnun Layla in his dramatic work Almansor published in 1821. In more recent times, critics have been able to document the scholarly interest in the legend of Majnun Layla in Europe which culminated in several creative works, notably Louis Aragon’s Le Fou d’Elsa (1963) and André Miquel’s Laylâ, ma raison (1984). There has been a number of adaptations of the legend in Arabic drama and poetry including ones by Egyptian poets, Ahmad Shawqi (1916) and Salah Abdul-Sabur (1970), and one by Iraqi poetess, ‘Atika al-Khazraji (1954). Egyptian poet, Salah Jahin also adapted it as an operetta with music by Muhammad Nuh (1982).
The figures of Majnun and Layla were represented in miniatures and in paintings all over western and central Asia and many of these art works are found today in Western museums. Folk artists also presented the lovers and their agonizing passions. Music and dance have also played their part in diffusing the work. An operatic work based on Majnun Layla was composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyov and performed in Azerbaijan in 1908. A Malay film based on Majnun Layla was produced by Bombay Chemical Co. in 1933. Indian cinema has produced several films based on the story of Majnun Layla. Eric Clapton composed a love song entitled “Layla” in 1970. Alan Hovehaness composed in 1973 “The Majnun Symphony”; contemporary Dutch composer, Rokos de Groot composed two musical works, Majunun’s Lament and Layla and Majnun; Taieb Louhichi directed a Tunisian film based on Miquel’s Laylâ, ma raison in 1989. In 2007, a ballet based on Qassim Haddad’s Akhbar Majnun Layla was performed in Bahrain.
Qassim Haddad’s Akhbar Majnun Layla rewrites lyrically Majnun’s love story delineating its sensual dimension. The erotic passion has religious fervor that defies the ritual practices of religion. The devotion of the lovers to each other subverts tribal conventions and ideals. Haddad builds on the different historical accounts with their inconsistencies and contradictions to re-imagine a modern Qays for whom the pleasures of the flesh are as important as the correspondence of the psyche. His Layla is not a helpless kept daughter but a daring and articulate woman who dismisses the worn out customs of her people. Haddad’s lyrical version of Majnun Layla has inspired visual artists and composers, including the Iraqi painter Dia’ al-‘Azzawi and the Lebanese composer Marcel Khalifeh. Of course, it has also received in its musical operatic rendering the wrath of conservatives and reactionaries in Bahrain’s Parliament and in the Gulf media.
This English translation strives to add a new voice to a classic of world poetry, and to a traveling work of literature that has found home in many settings and various genres. It offers another inflection on the legend; in Haddad’s hymn to Love, the legend is refashioned where love becomes the prime mover of the world. In a Dantesque glorification of the supreme power of love, Haddad undermines both the established and the conventional, poetically and thematically. He uses a variety of poetic modes—narrative, lyrical, aphoristic, and philosophically speculative. The translation is faithful to Haddad’s exquisite text and to the cadences of the original, reproducing the meandering phrases and the dialogical structure—all rendered poetically in English, in the conviction that poetics of both source and target language have to be articulated in a translation.

Of Qays

I sing of Qays—
an ardor dwelling in flames,
his shaping me
in its color, name, scent
its spark and settling.
A mist primeval,
I straightened in his hands,
bore fruit.
He summoned me.
Later when he wept
complaining about me
I dispersed the crowd
—his listeners—
and considered them
never again.
In me he invested
all his pride.
His verses the people chanted yet.
So I ask: Did he ignite me
or did he choke my fire?
I sing of Qays
of a paradise
disappearing between my eyes,
of an air
making us lighter
like birds borne aloft,
choosing us.
I sing
of when he clutched me in his mind,
when I wandered in him
proud to celebrate our sameness,
the rapturous love on which the Hijaz languishes,
which the Gulf shores
love in turn.
I sing of Qays
his blood-red grieving,
night pursuing his cadenced pace,
water singing his qasida.
He wept for me
went on weeping
prepared my howdah
stepped aside to ask the beasts
about me
as if his eye were not on the caravan
but on the half-wild horses.
I sing of Qays
of the disowned ‘Amiri,
of his free-to-be-squandered blood
of a sword he unsheathed from his heart
before hurtling me across Najd to smash all arms.
Of the rare pleasures
of ecstasy, longueurs, nocturnal moaning
of horses neighing in me by night,
of scalding fire washing me
by morn.
O Qays
either you’ve driven me mad
or else it’s you who’s lost his compass,
noth of us night-blood
soaked in the remnants of the qasida.

He Is No One

He is Qays. And he is Mu‘adh, son of Kulaib, and he is Qays, son of Mu‘adth al-‘Uqaili. Then again he is al-Buhturi, son of al-Ja‘d; is al-Aqra‘, son of Mu‘adh; also al-Mahdi. No—some said—he is the Qays who’s son of al-Mulawwah from the Banu ‘Amir tribe. On being queried, those clans denied it: “Not one of us. Baseless.”
Then it was said he was no one really. He slogged through life with an unrequited heart—possessed. Al-Asfahani tells us—his words being based on one of the oral transmitters, a known liar whom we believed nonetheless—of a man who could apprehend the presence of invisible people. Thusly empowered, he relates the following: “Three men are known to exist who have never existed: the son of Abu al-‘Aqib, the author of the epical qasida; Ibn al-Qiriyya; and Majnun of the Banu ‘Amir.”
As for us, it was as if we assembled the man out of paper scraps tossed away by copyists—flung on the floor then celebrated in dreams. Our native compassion, girded by imagination, revealed him to us more than any rattling storyteller could. In such a way we first heard from Abu Bakr al-Walibi who referred us to others in the oral chain. We seized the juiciest parts of the legend: from Abu Miskin, al-Shibani, Abu Ishaq, al-Jawhari, al-Riyashi, Ibn Shabba, al-Madaini, al-Muhallabi, and al-Asma‘i, who based his key work on al-Asfahani, the author of al-Aghani. Al-Asma‘i invited us to exercise doubt; we took full advantage. We fell on whatever suited our dispositions: God led us to the truest of all the fictions. For every part taken from this or that storyteller, we celebrated with a toast. The best parts we inflated to our taste. The Majnun enjoyed it. We had a great time with him.

Of Layla

I sing of Layla,
of the honey that lounges coquettishly on the forearm,
of the lazy pomegranate,
of the fatwa whispering its sweet nectar simile,
of the Bedouin eyes, the fire, the cheek.
She is for me
an adventure stirring the desire of poets should they sing:
‘East wind of Najd, when did you start to blow so briskly?’
Of flimsy slumber that betrays us,
of our rapturous love,
of her,
so the desert might know only aloe and laurel.
I sing of Layla,
of the slain
and the blood squandered,
of the beast-friend
and the lure of lovers,
of wakefulness seeking night
and two children timid to meet.
When the apple trees blossom
they tremble in correspondence
until timidity feels embarrassed.
Layla possesses a sweeter moan
when passion takes us astray
and flames race the length of our limbs.
Whether living or dead,
when told we’ve committed a sin,
a sigh will cry within us
should they forgive.
I sing of Layla,
of the traveler weeping to no end,
of the rapturous magic manifest in the message of her eyes,
of a blessing beseeching me to my end,
of her manifold mirrors stirring the desires of young men,
of her inner balance having turned erotic,
of her justice in injustice,
of my travels while raving,
of a female djinn selecting a slain man.
My Layla—if only her hand fall upon me.
And if my hand is consecrated
granting me the office of Messenger
then of her will I sing—if mad, songs of madness.
I have an excuse if I exaggerate
my death a little.


First Lightning

Truth, which is pure doubt, says that Qays and Layla were from the Banu ‘Amir tribe. They met as child herders—in Najd of the Arabian Peninsula—in two vales connected on one side by a clutch of palms, on the other by fierce desolation.
He: disposed to premature sorrow, inclined towards solitude, often socializing with his pasturing beasts of burden, and composing for them emotional poems that people considered speeches memorized from other shepherds. He dared not claim the poetry, for fear that he, a boy, would be cast as a liar. She, a dreamer, owned prolific imagination, was eccentric; her age-mates maintained she was almost entirely djinn, only partly human. She had contact with her paternal cousin and his early poetics in those two valleys where he was her partner in children’s games, while growing into young manhood, his poetry becoming inflamed with her. She was captivated by him. She used to hue to the belly of the vale, so they could meet next to the brook where their sheep flocked—he with his brothers, she with her girl friends. So they became attuned to each other. Passion flourished between them like a glow in the hearth of love. It was said that Qays narrated:
“In the creek of the two vales where we brought the sheep to drink, we would crowd the watering place with clamorous play. Each of us would get water and spray the other, we would plunge headlong at each other, our tender bodies becoming agitated. It happened that I approached her one day and my shoulder touched her breast, which was yet to perk or become round. Nevertheless, a delicate thread of lightning seared through my parts, and I saw that she quivered. Out of her mouth came a strange cry as if she’d been possessed by a boiling anxiety. I knew she had happened upon the poetry of my soul, which had not yet turned on my tongue. Each of us ran towards our sheep, driving them back to the campsite. For a long while, I did not see her. I did not believe I would see her, ever.
“I was close to the dream.”

Not of any Place

Doubt mingled with the biography of Majnun, causing oral transmitters to differ with regard to his poetry. Some claimed it belonged to a Banu Umayya poet who fell in love with a governor’s wife. Afraid their story would become public, he attributed his verses to two names not to be found in any place. Thus the poetry circulated of Layla and her Majnun. Along the way, untruths resembling truths were added, so we believed them. Amin, author of al-Hujra, said in his version—without stamp or document of authority—that a man called Radwan al-Jinn claimed that Qays was real but his poetry was a fabrication, that he knew a calligrapher, Jamal al-Layl the scribe, who copied these poems. He said their composition was the act of a poet who fell in love with a young woman of the Arabian nomads who migrated between Najd and al-Ta’if. This young woman, however, was forced to marry another, so the poet, afraid of igniting fires among the tribes, took to the Peninsula’s open air creating verse and legend wherever he wandered. He attributed everything to ‘al-Majnun’—the madman—a figure outside of blame or criticism. Thus it came to pass that whoever had quill or pen fashioned his fancies under the heading of madness. So many were these poets that no one can say there was any period lacking rhapsodic and agonizing lovers. The color-mad fell upon the poetry-mad. Flames arose on every side and heat was born anew in the blaze of memory, just as wind reddens the smoking embers.


He is waiting, sitting on the roadside, his things scattered about while people pass around him like ether. Through windows in their bodies, he sees her running towards him. But she does not reach him. And he, running towards her, cannot reach her either.
Meanwhile people step over his scattered objects—a pointed sand grouse feather/a green silk thread his mother tied around his forearm when he was a child/a wedding ring worn thin from frequent removal/a talisman wrapped in hyena skin/a dry siwak-tree twig/a rough sapphire laced with coal/a saddlebag punctured by wind/remnants of a bridle oozing wind horses/solitude—absorbing what their feet come across.
Women sitting next to him ask for poetry. He asks for knowledge of Layla. They say she is among them, though hiding so the tribe won’t be scandalized. He says that the invisible Layla appears to him clearer than were she visible. They say, ‘Recite!’ And he raises his voice so that she may notice him. She is there. She hears him recite verses that crush boulders, while the women sigh and he laments, giving them his innermost, and the women ask for more. All the while she listens.
People pass by through cracks in their bodies, taking his dispersed things—an old turquoise stone/a pot of ambergris dregs/a child’s kufiyya worn out by sand/a mysterious lock of hair /battle loot heaped on a saddle/anxiety—and they pass by.
Women flit about him, suffused with admiration, intrigue. He recites his poetry, they laugh with joy. He wails his lament—she listens. The women realize Qays is being taken beyond human limitations: he is close to being ruined by the silence of his beloved.
Meanwhile people pass by and his dispersed things—an empty scabbard/traces of blood on a rag holding a broken bolt/a swatch of the Quran’s ‘Amma yatasa’lun on yellowish paper/a love amulet/a shrunken water skin/an eagle’s talon/frankincense gum/a strip of jerked meat—have almost dwindled to nothing. And she listens. The women say: “O Qays, your beloved is abusing you without mercy. Leave her! It is your right. She deserves it.”
He shouts back: “By God, no! My sole concern is my unworthiness. It’s her right to hear me boast of being nothing more than a thread slipped from the fringe of her belt. If she accepts it, then so do I.”
Suddenly a sob from among the women: one soul is seized by a fit of weeping. The women turn to locate the source. From a corner among them a small sun rises and slides out of their midst as if through a tent door. So it is made apparent: Layla circling around them, taking away the rest of his dispersed things: a burnt stone from a three-piece desert stove/a siwak twig/a tuft of camel hair/a date pit pierced by horse’s hair/a slipper drained of its pigmentation/sparse sleep/pale rainbow.
Qays is strung so tautly, so captivated that he can scarce control his body. Meanwhile she drifts away from him like a chemise eased off the body. He shudders: a chill wind touches his chest. Stripped now, naked to the elements. Sitting on the roadside, watering the women with poetry, he cries from thirst. They—the women—are in raptures from the love aroused in their beings, waters no fire can evaporate.
Rejoicing as he weeps, his little sun moving away.

The Crystalline Sweetness of Flesh

They told Qays: “The entire desert knows of your passion for Layla–so enough of your protestations.”
He said: “But Layla does not know it.”
They told him: “The passion of Layla for you is the talk of the Bedouins and the city dwellers. That should be enough.”
He said: “But Qays does not know it.”
One night she said to him: “What I have for you is more than what you have for me. I say unto God: I shall not sit with another man until I taste death—unless I am forced to.”
He spoke with her. She listened. She wept with him and ran her fingertips through the saffron of his hair until dawn readied its unveiling. She then noticed: she was the prisoner of his forearm. Strong, it contained no violence; stern, it held no harshness. She wallowed in his hard chest, her hair loosened, her gowns stripped. He was granting her what she came for, what she had never known, what had been forbidden to her.
When time caught her up, she pranced like a blazing flame. She got up drawing tight her robes as he looked for her sashes and cloak; along with her hand he tied her waistband and belt. Her things, scattered around the mats, yielded to the tent their colors of night and day—she gathered them up. She bade him farewell and left.
Thus he inherited madness by tasting her crystalline sweetness.

Now You Have Heard, Now You Have Seen

The day when the exact date of the Feast was established—so it is said—was a Tuesday, the twentieth of Dhu al-Hijja in a Hegira year when the Feast eve fell on a Friday.
On that day more Pilgrims gathered than ever before. Qays was frightened when his father, taking the advice of their people who looked to God to remove Qays’ love for Layla, took him to the Kaaba. His father asked him to hang on to the drapes of that holy edifice and pray for God’s relief. Qays stood on a slight elevation in the yard and yelled into the Sanctuary, pilgrims milling about, “O God, may you increase my love for Layla and my devotion to her. Let me never forget her. Do nothing to distract me from her.”
His father was startled. The multitudes, astonished and roused to anger, turned on Qays. They had never witnessed such a prayer in this most holy of places. They deemed it a grave business, an inadmissible godless confession, a wild wantonness that could not be ignored. They encircled Qays and seized him while he kept repeating his supplication—in fact now with increased fervor. His father rose to protect him, asking for mercy and apologizing, asking that the crowd excuse him for his son’s madness, the consequence of excessive love.
The Pilgrims did not listen. While Qays was bodily carried away from the Sanctuary, his blood already washing the road, he repeated in a weak, barely audible voice: “Now You have heard, now You have seen.”
Back among his kinsfolk, what he had done and said in the House of God circulated to Layla. She yearned to see him and sent a summons for him. He flew to her despite his disbelief at being invited. Entering her place, he was flushed.

The Citadel’s Garden

He is not flesh, but the citadel’s garden.
Wounds blossom like roses at the touch of her hand.
This body is for gathering into arms, not for rending. It was made for fingers having mastered the dream and its interpretation.
These eyelashes are meant for evening’s repose, to cushion woe’s tiny remnants. For you this shoulder to cry upon—may the rivulets intoxicate. Get limbs and elements, add to them this increased issuance of my breath. I will protect you with kohl, with the innermost folds of the heart, with the jewel of the howdahs.
They don’t take you from me, or me from you.
She strips him of his shirt, applies two balms: love and poetry. She passes her fingers over his body as if reading it: “All these wounds on such an emaciated body?”
He says: “I await far more. If you will be patient, if you listen to me, if only you are mine, I can endure everything.”
What she uttered next
erased from his book
all despair
just as it was nearly crushing
all hope.

You Covered Me, Now Expose Me

Qays ibn al-Mulawwah was asked: “What is the most extraordinary thing that happened to you with Layla?”
He said: “One night guests knocked on our family’s door, but we had no provisions. So my father sent me to my uncle al-Mahdi’s to ask for help. I stood by his tent, and he said: ‘What do you want?’ So I told him. He called out: ‘Layla, dear, bring out the vat. Fill this boy’s container with ghee.’ So she brought forth the vessel and started pouring the clarified butter. While close to each other we began to whisper. Our fingers entwined. Suddenly the ooze poured over my small pot gushing everywhere. I kneeled sipping the excess from her fingers, moving my mouth up the inner side of her arm. She was pushing me away, but I continued to her shoulders from which her breasts swelled—the unguent liquid leading me to her throat. She was shaking, pushing me away. I inserted my lips where the breasts joined together; her chemise had begun to fall down and away because of the butter racing everywhere. I was tracing its flow finding panthers and tigers bouncing at my face. She said: ‘Take my chemise.’ So I did, and she said: ‘Take me,’ so I took her. She said: ‘You covered me, now expose me,’ so I exposed her—not knowing how the butter made us gush and clot. She said: ‘By God, your madness measures well against the reason of the Banu ‘Amir, and the first of them is sitting inside this tent’—meaning her father.”


Night. Yearning so intense he couldn’t sleep. Like a he-wolf following a she-wolf’s scent, he began wandering toward her place. Loping ahead, he began chanting her name, over and over, like a paean. As he recited his latest verses to her, his voice shook—he uttered a prayer as if the time for dawn’s prayer had come already.
He found her tent, roaming its perimeter, peering into the dark for the special aperture, which she opened for him whenever she was maddened by excitement.
He lifted the slender shred. Her outstretched arms took him in. In a whisper he begged her to speak to him. Her limbs quaked, casting out her insides split by passion. The supreme sigh escaped her lips. Like a bridge she stretched herself to him and he listened to the gurgling flask, deep within her, bestowing its water. And he was the vessel into which she poured and he drank.
Every time he would say to her: “More!” She seemed to multiply as the sweat oozed between them. The tent posts swayed, shook as if a hurricane were whirling, clutched at the tattered fabric so that the tent might not fly apart. He had become an overflowing vessel, the sides of their bodies exulting in froth, overcome by sobbing and moaning.
Then she spoke with him about everything and he listened, obtaining such dazzling pleasure that any lover might feel exalted. The crown that kings brag about became his to wear. She said to him: “What name do you have for this night that stretches out forever?” He said: “Love.”
He was the first human to utter the word. He ushered in its meaning. In the language of the Arabs it came to mean: the description of intimate emotions that dwell beyond description. Never again would the Arabs catch up with such a word of beauty. As for Layla, she fainted when she heard it. She never recovered.
Layl–night—without end.
She became more the metaphor than Qays did
It was said that her name became synonymous with the timeless lovers’ night in which desire crackles into exploding madness.

The Wolf

Distracted in the wilderness, he was asked: “What have you seen in this wild place that’s been most beautiful?”
“Yes, yes. But what else?”
“No one but her, I swear.”
But then he said: “Only once I did meet a wolf of agile manner and a pleasing odor. I was bent over a young female gazelle stroking her, talking to her—she resembled Layla very much. This wolf waited until I took my hands off her, then the chase was on. I ran, trying to drive him away, but my legs gave out.
They bounded away from me.
“For a time I had to rest. Then I picked up their tracks in the sand. At last I found him. The gazelle had been devoured. I seized an arrow, struck him down. I cut open his belly, extracted the body he had gulped, clutched it to my chest. I stroked it, colored a rag I was carrying with its blood. I drew the rag through my shaggy locks sighing—experiencing an erotic craving like nothing I’d known except with Layla. The pleasure was exquisite to the point that I fainted. When at last I awoke from my swoon, there stood the wolf, as if he had roused himself from a deep nap instead of the death-wound I had dealt him. Even more handsome than before, he came with tearful eyes and rubbed his head on my shoulder. I got up, moved alongside him, letting him lead me to the place. From that day on, the wolf never left my side. If I recited verses about Layla, tears would gather in his eyes and a howling more beautiful than the wails of a love-struck human rose from his throat.”

The Wedding Night

Majnun wove poetry for Layla that diffused its magic like perfume. Everyone knew his verse–the Bedouins who moved from pasture to pasture, as well as the city dwellers throughout Jazira–and at last a man called Ward heard of it. He came out of Thaqif of Ta’if, lured by the tales of Layla, searching for her among the tent settlements of Banu ‘Amir, from the borders of Jazira to its heartland. They say Ward memorized the lines of Qays to the point that when he implored her father for her hand, he kept inserting the poet’s verses into his own prose; that, in fact, he possessed an intercessor—Qays’s verses. It was related that al-Mahdi, the father of Layla, found in the wealthy Ward of Thaqif a person of worthy rank, a person holding the power to join or forbid. Moreover, a marriage to Ward would re-establish the limits of tribal tradition, which Qays and Layla had been flouting. So al-Mahdi, threatening Layla with the cruelest of punishments, forced her to take Ward.
On her wedding night, in the center of the tent, she stood up and addressed Ward: “You have married me because of them and not because of me. You know my love for Qays and his passion for me; I warned you about it. But now what’s done is done. You know I possess Qays more in my soul than you will ever possess me in my body. You accept this now, so you accept it forever. You know Qays owns the half, the two thirds, and whatever is left of me. Your grand office, which gives you the power to join and forbid—this power with which you came to buy me—holds not the least sway over me. I announce these things on this night, Ward. If you hear and accept what I say, then you are my husband in front of God and man and this is sufficient for you. But Qays is my true beloved—in front of everyone else—and that is neither sufficient for him nor me.”
It was said: when Ward heard Layla’s words, he bowed his head for a long time. Then he looked at her. Standing in front of him, she was a dream trickling between his fingers. He couldn’t stanch the flow. Some said Ward saw such a failure was fated, since no one else knew and grasped what lay between Qays and Layla. Still, his ardor for Layla assuaged his loss. So it was that Qays came to inhabit Ward until the man was transmogrified into a shell for the poet-madman. People went on to say that Ward’s whole reason to marry was nothing but a doomed desire to possess a dream—the dream that Qays had created in his poetry. And because Ward did not want to squander his fragile, ghostly possession, he had to accept that Layla would never give him more than was her wont.

Crown of Sacrifices

He walks oblivious of things falling—his things—onto the road.
Throat aching. They have told him about the wedding. His skin is on the verge of cracking apart. His hands shrivel, thirsty for water; his innards make music like chants of love-charmed rocks. All the while, howdahs are trailing Layla to the wedding, and the wedding is putting him to death. Covering his inner fires is a tunic of air. He has God. His beloved is prisoner to another man. He walks carrying his corpse. Gazing at dust—the dust of caravans spurring on camels with wedding songs. He is left with remains.
We saw you, O Qays, Crown of Sacrifices.

The Night Described

What emerges—some of it glaringly obvious—from fragments but also from deep readings of the fuller narratives is that Qays did not refrain from Layla after her marriage nor did she abstain from him. When her husband was away, she either received Qays or, if the man were at home, fled to Qays’ desolate flatlands or met him on the mountain. It was related by the author of al-Aghani, that once, when Layla’s husband and her father went to Mecca, she sent a message to Majnun telling him to come right away. He stayed the night, leaving only at dawn, in a state of enchantment. She said to him: “As long as my folk are traveling, come to me.” So it was until they came back. It was related that Layla was in such rapture after their final night that she was unable to conceal her intoxication. Freshly home from his travels, Ward was bearing gifts. He was still trying to win her affection: “How do you find this silk fabric and how do you like this perfume, this necklace, and this pendant?” She said: “None of it means anything to me.”
Seeing that she kept her distance, he sniffed out what had happened and gathered that Qays had claimed her completely. He folded his gifts away and left.
They say a woman neighbor asked Layla about that night. Layla said: “By God, it was beyond description.”
The neighbor said: “How so?” Layla said: “Upon my life, no woman has ever been so completely taken over by a man like him. Never.”

Acts of Raving

The record has it that when passion erupted and the ecstatic visions rolled out of him, he would remove all the tent flaps from main rooms and women’s quarters alike and cry out to the Banu ‘Amir people: “O ye of hard heart, let love penetrate your innermost and you too will know the splendid shudder. Let your limbs and joints be gratified. Upon your hearts the Angel of Heaven and Hell will flutter its wings. Drop your manual labors, your trading from hand to hand! Let your bodies tangle and ignite. Call everything by its rightful name. Say ‘it is love’ and maybe you will be granted the reality, and its blessings. Then maybe you will savor a little of what possesses me right now. And don’t hope for a cure. Don’t wish for escape.”
Then he went to the tethered horses and camels and undid their ropes while no one was aware. Suddenly they realized that none of their beasts of burden were held down.
That was an act of raving.

Divine Guidance

He did not despair but remained waiting, enchained by her promise of more rendezvous. Layla watched Ward for moments of inattention or distraction, sending word to Qays inviting him to her place. He traveled and came to her as if possessed, while people crossed the road taken by Qays with his things scattered on it. During each moment of waiting she had been flushing with desire.
He enters her place. She rises to the entrance, tying it closed and letting the curtains down. Qays roves about, enraptured, is on the verge of possessing her like some phantasm guided by magic, goaded by waiting.
They sit clinging to each other, joined by silence more than speech. When he does speak, she pours for him and he says: “Which—you or the drink—will set me on fire and which will put the fire out?” He wonders which part of his body will take in what she next offers and how he can celebrate the grace she bestows. As he talks, she pours herself onto him and no sooner has he sipped a draft than a tumescent sigh erupts from him, honing body and soul. Then the sparks cascade and fires are set ablaze in their garments until they have no escape except to unburden themselves, unwinding the strapping chemises, the cinched coverings over shoulder and the bags lashed to waists. The sheets are yanked apart, cascading here and there. Layla is wallowing in the folds of his remaining garb, he is stealing up her sleeves. She is shoving around with him, he is shaking ecstatically with her in his grip. Her voice quavers, his nocturnal vigil is anointed by frenzy: they ingest the germ of delirium.
The nocturnal wake takes place in a tent with no ceiling until they are touched by day’s first prayer call. Then they come out from each other as dreamers come out of a dream.
Worshippers walking to dawn prayers see the madman on their road. “We see you’ve finally received divine guidance!” they say.
“Oh yes,” he says: “I’m now rightly guided.”
Each party goes his own way, never again to meet.

The Sun

He was told: “She is but one of many.”
He said: “Can there be anyone like her among women?”
He was told: “Many. Many if you want, and they will love you too.”
He said: “But I love no one but Layla; among women there exists no substitute.”
Annoyed, he moved away from them. “I reveal to them that she is the sun, but they stray from her and become confused. I’ve almost rolled their noses in her light — perhaps they feel what hell might do to the body. I gesture to them to look at her, but they gaze at my finger and see nothing. They fix on the point of the finger, their pupils dilating until they become night-blind. Their eyeballs start melting, losing sight. In the end perhaps they lose it all. “

Water Mirror

She disrobed to bathe. Gazing into the water mirror she said: “Woe unto him! His attachment to me has devastated him. I am unworthy of such sacrifices and praise. I ask you, by God, is he truthful or lying when he describes me?”
The water-mirror said: “By God, he is truthful. He is not praising but simply describing what his eyes have fallen upon, what his hands have caressed, what all his senses have tasted. He suffers no blame for being crazed by you, and over you.”
While she found the answer agreeable she said: “By the truth of these waters, he deserves from me more than madness. By God, I will give him what he is entitled to, and I will suffer no blame for it.”

God Will Forgive

He was told: “Love has led you to this life of suffering.”
He said: “And it will end in more than what you see.”
Truly his despair was greater than hope; also more beautiful. However, he knew love’s path and along it he was making his progress. What he most loved was the playful breeze soughing through his soul.
He was told: “Why don’t you pray for God’s relief?”
He said: “Were I to ask Him for His forgiveness as often as I think of her, He would forgive my past as well as my future. But no sooner do I pause for prayer than Layla diverts me. God tolerates no partner, just as she tolerates no partner — this I know. But even though polytheism is haram, God will forgive me as long as Layla forgives me.”

All the Weeping

He was told: “What if Layla were not?”
He said: “I would have wept her into existence.”

On Hajj

Various stories have transmitted to us situations that Qays encountered when he was on hajj, suggesting that he travelled to the Holy Sanctuary more than once.
However, our Shaykh Abu Salah Khalaf al-Ghassani—having heard from a villager near the shrine who himself had heard anecdotes about Qays—related:
“He went no more than once, or so we think. And I say ‘went,’ because he never intended fulfilling hajj. He performed none of our rituals and ceremonial rites. I repeat, this Pilgrimage, led by his father who hoped to cure his predilections, was the only one. The trustees of hajj and the custodians of the Holy Kaaba, knowing his awful deed, forbade him entry again into the Sanctuary. He acted strangely, reciting poetry—an unprecedented behavior amounting to heresy. This turned people against him, as if he had stirred up the very stones of the Kaaba. If you ask me, Qays came not to publicize his passionate love for Layla and disseminate his amorous poetry—deeds not infrequent during this time. Rather—and God knows best—he came for another purpose. On that day, despite their reticence, many attended to Majnun’s poetry, and were touched with a wonder akin to having been charmed. Had it not been for God’s almighty power, it would have turned into sedition.”
He said: “The villager informed me that when Qays was brought to Mecca, he spent a night talking to himself, like someone raving in his sleep, reproving a woman who was present, though no one saw her. When asked the woman’s identity, he swore it was Layla—not as a person but as a she-ass. She was leading an enormous herd of cattle around a turbulent spring that gushed hard upon them, washing but also striking them with force. The cows were driven to circumambulate this spring. They raised a voice to God begging Him to rescind Layla’s wrath and to elicit her mercy. But the she-ass did not stop her furious running. Qays asked why she was taking this shape. She said, ‘There is in the she-ass something of the scent of prophets.’”
Also it was said that when Majnun’s father instructed him to hang on to the Kaaba’s sacred drapes in order to forget his love, he obeyed. But no sooner did his hands touch the velvet than he sensed a mysterious life behind them, something spreading between his hands and in front of his eyes, piercing him with sparks of desire. He began wallowing in the drapes as if upon a luxurious couch and cried out so loudly that it shook the entire courtyard of the Sanctuary; those on mountaintops heard him:
“O, such enormous clothes! The tiny essence behind this magnificent, spacious chemise is she!” As if in a fever, he began to rhapsodize, sweat flowing over his brow. No one understood how satisfying the moment was for him.
“Another version: ‘Ali ibn Muhammad said: ‘Then Qays was running between Safa and Marwa, when a call came from above a boulder. Pilgrims stopped running. They hovered around him. I approached and saw a person, whom I learned later to be Majnun; he was calling for a Temple to be constructed within the hearts of the people. No sooner did his construction reach to undo the existing Temple than I felt my limbs cracking and I was unable to carry myself. My body collapsed from the vehemence of what I heard. My friends carried me to the side, sprinkling water over me to bring me back to consciousness. That was the last I knew of Majnun.’ “

Something Other than the Mount

No one knew where Layla was, no news about her doings reached him—he who had grown used to her amorous welcomes. In his eyes, vast spaces narrowed. Her family was working to annihilate him by secreting her away. He began roaming day and night, on the alert for her tent. If he met someone, he said: “What have you heard about Layla, where have they managed to hide her?” Then: “They should have killed me, death would have been easier.”
He made for the open spaces. At the same time her people used the land’s vastness to stay away from him. For them, the land expanded. For him, it narrowed. When he inquired about her, the land answered with the shadow of her fugitive steps, with the traces of her perfume sprinkled on her howdah just at the moment of departure. He tore his clothes, fastened his chest to these remnants of her being. He ground his cheeks in the desert’s dust and wept out a lament in that newly moist highland. His agitated footprints were drawn across the Jazira sands as he traversed its deserts stretching onward and outward. In his mind, he ascended Mount Tawbad. He decided to set out for the Mount, wandering, lingering between vales and virgin wilderness in the hope that a mirage would arise, then be materialized. Enveloped in loss, he staggered upon the outskirts of Damascus. “Where is Mount Tawbad in the land of Banu ‘Amir?” he asked people.
“What do you mean, Banu ‘Amir? This is Damascus,” they said.
They guided him by the stars. So he wandered beneath the haze of the planets, arriving at the land of Yemen. He’d never seen such country. The people were foreign to him. “Where is Tawbad in the land of Banu ‘Amir?” he said to them.
“What land? What Banu ‘Amir?”
They steered him again using the stars. Once more he became lost beneath the galaxy. He’d moved beyond what a man can do. Still he went on in his grievous, distracted state until he fell upon the actual Tawbad. He saw something other than the Mount.

Speaking Your Heart

Snippets about her fly in on their own, further confusing his search until he feels he is hearsay’s toy. No sooner one account—which he believes—than another greets him. No clear picture forms itself, there is no certainty he can count on. One man told him Layla had been abducted to Iraq. There she became ill, but what could he do, considering where he was? Another voice said she was in Hijaz, then it came about that she was in al-Sifah. Each transmitter embellishes his report according to his inclinations. Qays shouts at them: “You of hardened heart; you conscience-lackers: what you’re doing is unacceptable. Someone tell me the truth! In what land dwells my heart? Help me. Stop playing with my soul, it’s been devastated by suffering. You point me toward every direction, inciting me to take up nothing but wandering, making certain I find only mirages. Isn’t there one among you who possesses the truth? Are you out to make a Majnun crazy? Woe unto you!”
Passion roiled. Home, neighborhood, desert—they narrowed in on him. The deserted places that he’d been raised on, became a refuge large enough to encompass his love, offering him noble friends. He found in wolves, mountain goats, birds, and trees the kindred natures in which his soul could be calm and his body relaxed. His shade followed the sun, his eyes fascinated by the power that grants grass its color. He never asked the spring’s water where it came from or who it was, knowing water washes the heart’s affairs, erases from shoulders the dust of the road. Such a desolate region furnished his room with quietude, safeguarding his dreams a place to sleep. He who dwells in the wilderness owns it. Those who glimpsed him saw a herd of wolves trotting in front and behind, guarding his every step; for love implies that you can only be moved by passion. The desolate place: a citadel that envelops and protects.
He was dragging his limbs across the bulges at the foot of Mount Tawbad, in a tattered condition, eating nothing but the grass shoots among the rocks and taking his drinks with mountain goats. He met a wolf that sat next to him. The wolf sought to guide him, to pacify his soul, to allow the humors a chance to recover their balance. He began following the wolf as if he were charmed. Together they set out for the Place. When they got to it, they entered so that Layla could come to them. The Place was a clean reception hall. You step on its floor and you hear the thrumming of feet. Beside it are velvet-like carpets of delightful herbs, telling you this is yours—and you feel it is yours. A light wind clasps you. You take my hand to guide you but you find your own way and your eyes are not bedazzled by the horizon of the reception hall. A languid blueness calls you, you go.
Qays sobs: “I saw her! Layla was in a howdah and I sat next to her. Tell me she is here, then go.”
The wolf said: “Stay and speak your heart. She will hear you and come. You will never be alone.”
The wolf leaves and Layla appears as both water and angel. It seems that he is seeing it all.

The Text and the Account

I am coming—coming to you—you who are not in doubt and I who am not unaware. The road and its icy hardships, this silence and its single inferno, have tormented me. I have suffered from too much wilderness, too much desert. Your expectations of me are unfulfilled. Your messages to me remain unanswered. For I am coming: there is no escape, no salvation from what we chose, except to recall that we did choose it. I am coming so grant me time without limit, be excessive with your affection, afflict us both with pleasure; as for others, let them choose their own afflictions. Let me have all the downy feathers of your shoulder. I will lay my head there and weep out all the weeping until my liver combusts, shooting out flames, fervors, vapors of longing. Attend to all the forged, erroneous accounts—attend but don’t believe. Defeated knights with their armies of assertions lay heaped upon your shoulder claiming their absurd victory. But you: mind your delicate shoulder and its downy softness. Listen for the howling of the wolf, be sensitive to the lament of the heavy heart. You owe me a debt, which I shall pay instead of you; and I owe you a debt, which you will pay to me. Both of us are now in an enchanted world. What we’ve become, we can’t escape. Believe that I am coming one night with shuddering heart, eyes aching, crazed within my breastbone, my bared body searching for your bosom, storing its paradise for me. Come! Part the chemise yielding me total entrance when I come and total release when I must go. Re-pledge yourself to the night vigils; don’t doze or miss the dream. In the hour when I descend on you like an archangel bearing annunciation, believe that I worship only you, never given to doubt; he who emanated from you, he who sings paeans to no one but you, possessing no goal but you. Make your tent a cosmic reception hall, a galaxy pavilion. Turn your bed into a nebula. Tie the tent flap open. Let all dwellers—of desert and city alike—enter and witness the fighting and contending of our bodily parts. They rub against each other, flare up, smacking together—light flying, flames gushing out. Leave the tent unguarded, as if you were no longer there, so they can descend upon us and gulp at what we do. This way they will no more doubt the text and the account.

Heart Madness

“If I swore Majnun of Banu ‘Amir was not mad, I would be telling the truth.”
So saith Ibn Salam and we believe him. Not because he swore, but because intimacy forms its own argument. Something in the heart points us that way. It is a blessing that someone disputes his madness. His verse does not contain the thread of madness—not if that term means folly, insanity, or abnormal mental fragility. Manifestations of extreme craving and mounting fascination for the Other bordered his life like two ends of a parenthesis. From the days of yore, poets have owned such a nature, here multiplied by the passion of love. Look to his verse for the indications, the interpretations. We write what appeals to our spirit, what stirs our imagination with its strangeness, what corresponds and makes sense in linking the text with the account. When a statement emanates from the sense of heart-craziness, we accept it, take it up, add to it and hyperbolize it. So when a like statement is taken to reduce Qays to pathology, we dismiss it and pay it no further heed. The tale we have brought together appeals to two types of people: poets and lovers—and in all of us, there is a measure of both.

Madness as Mask

“A little confused, yes. But not mad.”
Al-Asma‘i, O God, wants us to keep confusion apart from frenzy. Do words overflow with meanings beyond those which the carafes of dictionaries pour out? Does legacy mean anything other than the inheritance of first sayings? Aren’t texts—body and notes—controlled by their exegeses? Should we say that we are mad while they are confused? Are we the cups and they the carafes? Which of us is the wine and which, the intoxication?
He found madness to be a convenient cover for that which others could not comprehend. This cover allowed him to pursue his desires beyond the pale of accepted reason. He was dedicated to Layla’s comprehending this chosen posture, and she did intuit that his madness was like a mask that allowed them the privacy in which to utter secret messages and recite verses together. Madness became that mysterious coda that branded the being of Qays and granted Layla her peculiar essence. “Verily, my mad passion for Layla has triggered her madness.”
She whispered to Qays alone: “The love I have for you is more than the love you have for me.”
Should we consider her pronouncement a form of madness because it is passion-driven? Or is her love so passionate because it is, in fact, madness? Our long-standing knowledge is that a madman does not say such things about himself, unless he, by negating negation, ends up affirming.

The Royal Road

If being mad would spare him their evil, then let him be mad. Far stronger than this ruse, however, was their violence. Separating then concealing Layla from him, they forced her into an impoverished union. He, detained and oppressed, became an animal to chase, disowned, expulsed by edict from the tribe. Madness became the only reasonable refuge from what they condemned. Most probably Qays contributed to the dissemination of his madness in more than one place. His verses, which alluded to madness as God’s will—quoting al-Kalbi’s vindication of insanity—were often used by those who wanted to categorize him as mad. Al-Asfahani transmitted an incomplete account, which we have supplemented:
“A man from Najd heading to Damascus was caught by nocturnal rain in the desert. He saw a tent, made for it, and was welcomed by the guardians of a caravan. Among them was a middle-aged woman whose comeliness had not been compromised, as if she were holding onto a beauty that refused time’s victory. She said: ‘What do you know of the Banu ‘Amir of Najd? Do you know of their kinsman called Qays, known as Majnun?’ He responded: ‘I was walking with a person who had been his companion when young. He caused me to stop near Mount Tawbad and told me—based on his father’s account—that Qays used to frequent this place, finding comfort in its desolateness. This man, Qays, would not divulge his feelings nor leave his besotted dreams of infatuation unless Layla were mentioned.’
“The woman wept so much that I worried about her. ‘Why are you crying?’ I said. She said, ‘I am Layla of whom Qays sang, teaching the Arabs to love.’ I said, ‘And what of his madness?’ She said, ‘It was nothing of the sort, just my way of resisting the tribe and his way of feigning distance from its authority. Madness was the silken weave of our royal road to paradise. What could folk do with two people dwelling outside all assigned meanings, enveloped like sword and sheathe—outside the measures of right and wrong. Their propriety locks away any intimacy of the soul, while our kind of madness sets free the fated heart. The honey of joy rises like an essence from the text, like some rose of ecstatic flesh. What does it matter if one is called mad when the spirit has been untethered? I was crazier about him than he of me, but little do they reason such things. He is, by God, the most rational, most brilliant man that a human female on earth or a she-djinn beneath the earth has ever embraced. For he who declaims such poetry is, by God, mad-hearted—but they took it further than that. We reveled and relished our rendezvous while they painted him askew.’
“I asked her: ‘Are you still in love?’ She said: ‘As ever. Never have I come across a man who can love like him, can warm my flesh with poetry as he did.’ I said: ‘What about your desire for him now?’ She said: ‘Desire lives on, though the instrument be damaged.’”

A Two-Way Lantern

And it came to be that they were deluded. They couldn’t detect the gulf between madness of mind and the madness of heart that contains all poetry, all love.
A mind that overcomes gold took wing, bearing an annunciation of its heart-madness to those sick with love in the air of al-Jazira, but jolting those whose insides were toughened against love, while awakening the somnolent-hearted, tempting maidens to part their chemises to youths almost as ruined by love as they—these young men, fondly, relentlessly pushed their shoulders toward the most obvious of perils; getting women to denounce their husbands, siding instead with the shari‘a of love.
Thus people discovered joy. Undulant sighs rose behind every screen to fill the night. A whole people, possessed; every lover snipping off strips of his woman’s garments from every side and every woman raising the first toast to her deep cavern, swaying the lantern of crystallites that guides the lover while confusing all others. There was no madness. There was a woman named Layla, of whom it was said she was all women. And it was said she was queen of djinns who revealed herself to one person, gave herself to one man, so he took her. Then he passed his spirit into every passerby, every resident, every coward who ever concealed his love for a woman, exposing every woman hiding her infatuation for someone other than her husband.
His name became synonymous with infamy: Qays. All around the land the shedding of his blood became lawful. Swords sought him out. But no sooner did these weapons find him than their holders appealed to him, “Don’t stop.”
And he did not stop.


Abu al-Faraj al-Asfahani—most prolific transmitter of Majnun’s accounts with brilliant command in constructing and deconstructing Majnun’s sketches—related in his Aghani everything obscuring a complete report, firm account, coherent text, definitive position. No doubt this was a sign that al-Asfahani’s narrative failed to verify the full account, opting for the pleasing text. Thus the truth of such assertions contains no significance. Transmitters monkey with the truths of lives, their anecdotes making monkeys of us, while poetry entices.

Towards It at Every Turn

Inmates of an asylum report: Qays spent time with them. He was the sharpest in intelligence, the most competent debater, even among seasoned physicians. He divulged a secret, swore the inmates not to disclose it while he lived. He had found the mask of madness to be the safest, most elegant garb for winning Layla. All subsequent tales of this madness had sprung from an initial ruse to camouflage the satirical verses he composed, as a youth, about al-Mahdi, Layla’s father. “When al-Mahdi complained about me to Caliph Marwan ibn al-Hakam, a certain man of letters named Asma‘i fashioned the story of my madness, thereby preserving me from the Sultan’s wrath. But al-Mahdi did not forgive me. When al-Asma‘i was asked later about me, he denied my madness in a locution that suggested, in fact, a total affirmation of my madness. Thus he succeeded in disseminating this rumor, which lives on to our day. I suspect the majority of chronicle transmitters coming after him did not accept the claim of my madness, dismissing all accounts and considering only my poetry as evidence. In madness they detected a disposition concealing more than it reveals. For them, the more ambiguous an account, the more its dissemination multiplies and the more its audience is held in thrall. I am sure that al-Asfahani himself was quite certain in al-Aghani that the claim of madness was false. But he was oblique about it so that subsequent readers would not sneeze at his compositions.”
The transmitters did not bother to verify this record of the asylum inmates until a shaykh of indefinite time and unknown place, a man called ‘Abd al-Rahman Sahib al-Muluk, came along and documented the issue.
Tayyib al-‘Ud related to us, on the authority of Dhabih al-Jund: “Sahib al-Muluk addressed me, saying: ‘The chronicle transmitters unconsciously used to negate what they wove of Qays’s accounts of madness with verse of his that they transmitted. His is a poetry that cannot be composed by a deficient mind. In fact, it points to a serene disposition, to an alert intellect, and to a refined sensibility. It reveals an imagination of sublime beauty and originality. There is no muddling or yammering—the likes of which characterize the mentally deficient—anywhere in his text. For this reason the madness attributed to Qays was probably the outcome of the troubled link between inconsistent accounts of Qays that repel readers who, on the other hand, find themselves entranced by the poetry’s well-calculated, proper images that pique and captivate the imagination. Any attending tales of madness will sound amiss, thereby crumbling into nothing when we encounter the contradiction that surfaces in the statements about the dictated lawful shedding of Qays’s blood on the one hand and his madness on the other. For it is commonly known that the lawful shedding of blood applies only to men of sound mind who have gone outside customary law. I mean criminals, highway robbers—fugitives wanted by law, tracked down by those who seek justice in blood revenge or who hunt such men for reward. So how could Qays’s blood be lawfully shed when he suffered a mental affliction that disqualified him from awareness of his actions, hence responsibility as well? I believe the Qays legend that transmitters wanted to convey through their Arabic narratives slipped out of their hands and took directions no one could dream of. So Qays—thanks to his madness—became free not only from the power of the Sultan and the tribe, but also—and especially—from the boundaries imposed on him by the transmitters of his story. We still find him stepping out and escaping, over and over.’”
If Qays is unpredictable in his behavior, if he is untamed and appears as a wild man, this is the very nature of poets and lovers. Such behavior is accepted since these two follow the dictates of their imagination, roving, taking all paths to enticement.”

Love: So Many Doors

So many doors. The lot crossed by Qays. The rest of us, lingering at thresholds.
The door of affection: Your preferred garment when getting ready to feast. The fur of the air kissing, wounding you. You wend your way to intimacy. Childhood’s in the vicinity. Its shadows flicker at the edge of your eye, you glance its way. Become tame.
The door of longing: Nocturnal waves gather round you like a strange boat. A good swimmer, you drown. No distractions now. Yours alone. The smoldering rose blooms as the wind picks up strength.
The door of craving: Sighs of heaven. Souls entering the realm of magic. Nothing else exists but It. Tattered slumber, a half-existing dream. You fly in the feathers and wings, no way to truly rest.
The door of infatuation: It torments you, makes you calm as indigo; you become transparent. A delicate mind, a lofty madness. You alone are for It. You recall, you forget; you don’t return. You luxuriate in delights of the senses.
The door of desire: Wedding of humors. The Terror of elements. Heaven and Hell and everything between. The two of you, alone. You tremble in absence and presence. A malady without cure. All of it, yet not enough.

Herself Eroticized

It was related, on the authority of Abu Anmar Ibrahim Ibn ‘Abdallah, that he came upon verses of Qays, which he considered candid, unrestrained descriptions of his love affair’s core. Even Abu Anmar—known for his fine taste in reading poetry of glowing desire, examining it with the throbs of his own heart—considered these lines of Qays some of the most powerful love poems of his time:
“Let it be known, if the husband of Layla is among you:
By His Throne, eight times I have kissed her dew
I swear by Him, the Almighty, I have seen her
When twenty fingers, hers, were on my back askew.”
Abu Anmar, unlike his habit—belabored—said: “We have only to imagine the twenty fingers of Layla, entangled on Qays’s back as she is clinging to him, his forefront in her lap, to grasp that they did not pass their time weeping and lamenting whenever a chance meeting was offered, as successive stories try to claim.”
Some condemned this interpretation and considered such unlawful acts far-fetched and alien to what Majnun’s poetry exudes. When they were asked: “Honorable Masters, what is intended by unlawful?” arguing along Ibn Jawziyya’s position in his work on Women that “some claim that the lover is entitled to the upper half of his beloved’s body, from her navel upwards, and can obtain from it what he wishes—hugging, kissing, and sucking—while the other half is for the husband.”
Such were the conventions of pre-Islamic Arabs. It was related that Layla’s female neighbors entreated her to tell them about her relationship with Qays and whether he confined himself to the upper half. She retorted: “Haven’t you called him the Madman? You don’t know one tenth of what I experience unless there be madmen like him around.”
They asked for more details, so she added: “At that moment, halters and bridles slip away, and the steering is neither limited to one nor can the two together handle it. Boundaries become senseless as mist descends erasing all signs and contours, coming neither to the aid of sight nor to the aid of insight. Un-numbered senses begin to engage such that we hardly know if we are in a dream or we, ourselves, are pure dream. Those who utilized an astrolabe to tell the time and pattern for love failed to articulate for us which of the two halves is lawful—halal—for the woman-beloved in the body of the man-lover. At that moment we know not who kindles the body of the other and who quenches, who is the ember and who is the air.”

Kalam ibn Wahsh

So it was said: Qays frequented a jurist, a faqih, named Kalam ibn Wahsh seeking juridical counsel, fatwa—concerning people’s ever-multiplying indictments—if indeed his relations with Layla amounted to fornication.
Kalam said: “Fornication is the granting of your body to someone you don’t love. But when love and true yearning are present, then proceed with union. It is not fornication. Not in God’s decree.”
The account goes on. Kalam leaned over Qays whispering: “O my son, be in love as much as you can, enjoy what is feasible by Islamic Law and, as long as possible, don’t turn off the firebrand of love by marrying.”
That Majnun followed Kalam’s edict is further recorded.

The Account of Laughter

Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir ibn Salih ibn ‘Aqil—ardent chronicler of love-madness—said, ‘Abd al-Hamid, the leading biographer — though unreliable as such—told me on the authority of our own Shaykh Abu Salah Khalaf al-Ghassani who, in turn, received word from Abu Anmar Ibrahim ibn ‘Abdallah, asylum inmate, himself repeating the words of a man who did not reveal his name and it was of no import to us:
“Once I happened upon the tents of Qays and the palm trees of Layla’s family. A summer’s night. Suddenly laughter from afar. I hurried along, the laughter becoming clearer though blended with a sobbing that brought me up cold, if but for a moment. Drawing closer, I detected derision in the laughter. It was Qays ibn al-Mulawwah from Banu ‘Amir tribe. He was alone, sitting on the earthen floor giggling continuously. No sooner did a burst of laughter end than he was sobbing, exhaling, kicking with arms and legs in the sand. On mastering his breath again, yet another burst of laughter seized him. I could not believe my eyes. It didn’t make sense: Qays never smiled. I drew closer, studied him. The man was in another world. Occasionally he wound down, seeming to reflect on something. But not for long. Another attack of impudent, resounding laughter would yank him out of his surroundings.
“At first I thought, ‘here is Majnun of Banu ‘Amir gone mad.’ Then I thought, ‘But how can the man go mad when he’s mad already?’ I stayed put long enough to make sure I wasn’t assailed by confused dreams or by the muddling delusions of the solitary desert. But this Qays was no convenient phantom. ‘Listen, man,’ I said, ‘are you Qays ibn al-Mulawwah, associated with Layla of Banu ‘Amir?’
“Bubbling and gurgling, he was swept over by laughter again. He swayed, tossed himself on the sand, toiled to control himself, then turned to me and said, with no interest: ‘I may be he, but God knows best.’
“Then a fresh attack tore him away from himself. He rose to his feet, moving away while the laughter radiated like a struck gong into the night. Impervious to my question as to what provoked such laughter, he left me bewildered, a state typical of one who cannot believe his eyes. I got hold of my limbs, ran to the tents shouting: ‘Get up! See what wonders have befallen Qays; the man who doesn’t smile is laughing.’
“No one believed me. They gathered round in a state of agitation. Just as I was swearing by all things sacred, the echoes of his resounding laughter reached us. Lo, the figure of a man materialized. It was Qays ibn al-Mulawwah himself. Everyone began asking about the condition in which he was roving. ‘By God Almighty,’ he said, ‘I don’t know why I haven’t done this since I first fell in love with Layla, because what’s happening now is exactly what happened when I first became infatuated with her. God—O God!—perpetuate in me this condition until the Day of Judgment.’
“He walked away without the matter getting any clearer.”
Transmitters differ in their interpretations of this incident. One said he sat with Majnun in one of his half-present moments and listened while he went over the event:
“‘I was spending the night with Layla in her tent. When our time was done I left in the direction of my people on the other side of the valley. As soon as I entered my tent I saw, to my amazement, Layla sitting on my mat. I came out like a madman, walked straight back to Layla’s tent. Storming into it—I had to know immediately whether I could trust my eyes—I was struck down again. There she was, fixing herself after our rendezvous. With no further delay I turned and retraced my steps. There again I saw Layla. I went back to Layla’s tent, found her there; then again to my tent to find her in that place also. I came and went more than nine times. She was in both places at once. I wavered between believing what I saw and denying what I wished. I was bewildered, almost senseless. How to account for such a thing? I was plunged into a state of mind I’d never encountered before: gongs began bursting from my jaws like a spring whose seal has been ripped off. The next thing I knew a voice was asking: Why are you laughing?
“‘No transmitters of my story, not once in their compendious accounts, mention this incident. I shall not conceal from you that my laughing spells were the most beautiful thing for me after my love for Layla.’
The chroniclers, apparently, disavowed the laughing account. They based their logic on the fact that Qays’ essential portrait is the same in all chronicles; it does not change, should not change. No, they said, a passionate love like Qays’ does not admit smiling. Laughing, giggling, jeering? Impossible.
“An interpolation in the biography of Majnun, they called it: sullying the grave and melancholy image associated with his name.
“There was a consensus among chroniclers of authority and those lesser chroniclers who imitate them: the account of Qays’ laughing spells is considered frivolous, needlessly confounding. If Abu Anmar claimed such an incident really happened, then his stay in a mental asylum says the rest.
“However, we—your poet and his ilk—have found in this variant something we can trust without confirming, despite the probability that it may well approach lying. We hold this position because of an auspicious fragment by Qays:
“‘As some lovers falsify…’
“As poets, like Qays, we must say there is more to a created corpus than factual history.”

The Argument

It’s said that people told Qays: “Wake up, for lovers have woken up”
But he did not do so.
“…and he who once owned flames of the heart watched them die out”
But he did not do so
“…and he who suffered the anxiety of lovers has calmed down”
But he did not do so
“…and he who preoccupied himself with women now knows boredom”
But he did not do so
“…and those who went too far in their cravings came back”
But he did not do so
“…and those enslaved by love forgot”
But he did not do so
“…and those excessively lured gave up”
But he did not do so
“…and those at fault repented”
But he did not do so.
Good for him. If he’d done any of these things we’d have no argument against those contending we love too much.

The Discerning Lantern

A Banu ‘Amir tribesman was asked: “Do you know the madman among you murdered by love?”
He responded: “What you say couldn’t be true. Love kills the weak-hearted only. If Qays were killed, the agent would not be love. Look for a person.”
This disavowal is a lantern guiding us to what our hearts know already. The obvious injustice that befell Qays led to his premeditated murder. Qays was watched in every vale by many enemies who might well have spared him that long wait for a natural death. The author of al-Aghani related that Qays had two paternal half-brothers. Among them, he was the one famed for love, poetry, and good conduct. The youngest, he was also the highest-minded, the loftiest in esteem. He enjoyed solitude. After he’d been denied the pleasure of human company, he embraced the wilderness. He befriended the beasts.
“By God,” his father was recorded as saying, “he was my favorite. He of all the young men was the most handsome, the most youthful, the most eloquent, the most charming, and the best declaimer of poetry. When the young men conversed, his articulation rose above the others. I was proud of him. And still am.”
Being the preferred son made his brothers jealous. After his poems and love became famous, their jealousy turned to spite. They conspired with his enemies and incited the authorities against him. As for Layla’s rigid folk, they did not find in Qays a man of sufficient rank—they who have the august right of gathering and disbanding people. Social rank had never drawn Qays nor concerned him. In childhood he persisted in playing with Layla, in youth he became enamored of her, and when the flames of love began to move in her blood, he flirted with her. This condition tore at their very being, while maligning their reputation in the desert. It is said that when love overpowered Qays and when al-Mahdi’s rejection agonized him, he journeyed among the tribes. He announced his love for Layla and tried to mobilize people against the wrongs of those who don’t esteem love, those who value it less than commerce.
So al-Mahdi and his toadies raised a hue and a cry with religious authorities saying his faith was in question.

Never or He Dies

According to al-Aghani, Qays “abandoned prayer. When asked, ‘why do you not pray,’ he said nothing. We fettered him, but he bit his tongue and lips so terribly we freed him to wander.”
People railed that his poetry dishonored religion, thus they dubbed him ‘sinner’:
“You—who are enraged by God’s will, objecting to His verdicts.”
They cited his deeds at the Kaaba when he invoked profane love instead of reverence. They said he attended to the soothing east wind instead of meditating upon the Prophet’s grave, where he stood. Al-Aghani’s author, adding to what we’re seeking now, said the kinsfolk of Layla announced that Majnun might never again enter their domiciles without dying—the Sultan having legalized the shedding of his blood.
This threat, alongside rumors vended by slanderers, melded with various wishes in the tribe to ruin Qays. At times their pretext was his violation of the tribe’s customs and at others his irreverence for religion, but mostly it centered on his relationship with Layla.
So they came together from all sides. On the one hand, they confined Layla to her husband, while on the other hand they tightened the grip of isolation in the wilderness on Qays. He prolonged his stay there, escaping the Sultan’s terror and keeping secret the few nights when Layla stole to him, unbeknownst to others.
It is said that for a period there was no news of him. Then in a valley where there is no sown land someone stumbled upon his corpse, surrounded by stones, head cracked, brains scattered about, limbs beaten and throat cut, the blood still forming a rivulet where a she-gazelle stood, drinking of its crimson, shading his body from midday’s solar immensity.
The maidens in the vales and from the towns poured forth—forgetting their veils—screaming and lamenting. Young men huddled together weeping and sobbing. The kinsfolk of Layla came forward to offer their condolences; with them the uneasy al-Mahdi was saying: “He killed himself” and “I did not have a hand in his misfortune. God, grant no forgiveness to he who pushed us all to such an ending.”
It is said no day ever witnessed more women weeping or more men sobbing as the day when Qays died.

It is Love

Proclaim: It is Love,
compelling air and glass,
exposing the soul’s psalmody,
the doves’ recitation.
Proclaim it: It is Love
and listen not but to the heart,
flee from indifference,
cast off afflictions of anxiety
invoked by the water of words.
Tell them now: Between
God’s Book and Desire
your exhortations flow
and the mist of creation rains
upon the fire of the tents.
Proclaim while they slumber
in dreams:
you will see in the desert narcissus,
in the lute’s melody,
in the mist of poetry,
narration and wreckage.
proclaim it: It is Love
and what collapses, collapses,
there being naught beyond perfumed spice
except the unknown of deserts,
the details of escape,
naught but the sand-crown
deposed at our feet.
The eye of the dust reads
what is left for us
and what has no end,
Let it not end
like death’s secret—
what remains for us
being mere suicide.
Proclaim it: It is Love,
An angelic road for which we cry
and on which we cry,
if only we had a tent
in the earthly paradise.
If only we have God’s apple
we would kneel between His hands.
Whenever he divulges a secret to us,
we become intimate
and glorify Love for Him
and take a night journey to Him.
Proclaim it: It is Love
as if God did not sympathize
with other than you,
did not listen except to you,
as if there were no madman in the world
but you,
as if God existed to erase people’s
sorrow in your heart,
to redeem you with what will place
your secrets in the angel’s crown.
Proclaim it: Love
led Layla to a night journey,
guided Qays to the waters of ruin.
Proclaim it: It is Love that sees you.


From Qassim Haddad, Al-'Amal al-Shi'riyya (Poetic Works). 2 Vol. Beirut: Al-Mu'sasa al''Arabiyya lil-Dirasat wal-Nashr, 2000. "Akhbar Majunun Layla" Vol. II: 181-254
American University in Cairo, December 2012


vi Akhbar Majnun Layla is the title of this cycle of poems around the well-known legend of Qays who was known as Majnun Layla -- the Madman of Layla -- so enamored of his beloved that he was named after her. The crucial term in the title that resists easy rendering in English is Akhbar, plural of khabar. Khabar suggests a report that is factual, narrated, and disseminated through oral transmission. Since this collection is in verse, one can call it a Narrative Poem. But this does not cancel the factual and historical dimension of khabar. Haddad, like many poets before him, is rewriting the historical legend, embellishing it, restructuring it, or adapting it.
2 Hijaz is an extensive region in the west of the Arabian Peninsula. Najd is on the East of it and in the center of the Arabian Peninsula. The collection refers to many locations in the peninsula associated with the roaming of Majnun in the Arabian Peninsula desert.
2 qasida stands for a poem. In its classical use, it stood for an elaborate poem compared to the Ode. Based on one single meter and characterized by monorhyme and two hemistiches, it addressed various themes.
4 Majnun Layla is identified in Arabic lore with different names. The most dominant of them is Qays ibn al-Mulawwah.
4 Walibi is a figure in literary Arabic literature; he is said to have collected the poetry of Majnun Layla. Very little is known about his life. Abu Faraj al-Asfahani (897-967) is the author of Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs), a multi-volume work of literary history and of sung poetry.
4 The term “oral transmitters” is a reference to a chain of transmitters in order to authenticate the actuality of an incident or a saying that is communicated orally (X said according to Y who heard it from Z, etc). The chain of transmitting knowledge (known as isnad) is often used to establish the authenticity of an oral text, but in this case it is used ironically to raise doubts as to the authenticity of information about Majnun Layla.
5 fatwa is a juridical ruling based on interpretation of Islamic Law.
5 The line “East wind of Najd . . .” is an intertextual use of a verse line of a poem about yearning and longing for the location of the beloved.
10 siwak-tree is commonly known as Salvadore Persica, a plant found in Arabia. Its twigs are used to clean the teeth.
10 kufiyya is a traditional headdress worn by men.
11 ‘Amma yatasa’lun is a Quranic section of several short chapters that is often recited and memorized. It starts with the verse ‘amma yatasa’lun (of what do they question one another?)—the opening verse of Surat al-Naba’ (Chapter LXXVIII: The Tiding), and thus is named after it.
13 Dhu al-Hijja is the last month in the lunar Islamic calendar. It is the month in which the Hajj (Pilgrimage) to Mecca takes place coinciding with Eid al-Adha (The Sacrifice Feast).
13 Kaaba is the Noble Cube in the Holy Mosque of Mecca. Muslims orient themselves towards it when they pray. It is the central destination of pilgrims.
14 kohl is an eye cosmetic made of grinding natural ingredients. Its use has long been widespread in Asia and Africa.
28 haram is Arabic for unlawful or forbidden.
31 The reference to she-ass as an allegory of Layla might have biblical allusions related to Christ entering Jerusalem on a she-ass.
31 Safa and Marwa are elevated sites in Mecca. Muslims travel between them seven times during hajj as part of the religious ritual.
32 Mount Tawbad is situated in Najd in the Arabian Peninsula in the proximity of where Layla is supposed to have lived.
42 Shari‘a is Islamic principles and rules of law.
44 Marwan Ibn al-Hakam (623-685) is the fourth Umayyad Caliph.
47 Ibn Jawziyya (1292-1350) was a prolific Islamic jurist and theologian.
48 halal is that which is permissible in Islamic law.
49 faqih is an Islamic scholar specialized in jurisprudence.
58 The expression “legalized shedding of blood” refers to a tribal custom where someone who has broken the law of the tribe can be put to death (i.e. have his blood shed) by anyone.

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