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The Persian epic that inspired Eric Clapton's unforgettable love song "Layla" and that Lord Byron called "the Romeo and Juliet of the East," in a masterly new translation
A Penguin Classic
The iconic love story of the Middle East, by a twelfth-century Persian poet who has been compared to Shakespeare for his subtlety, inventiveness, and dramatic force, Layli and Majnun tells of star-crossed lovers whose union is tragically thwarted by their families and whose passion continues to ripple out across the centuries. Theirs is a love that lasts a lifetime, and in Nezami's immortal telling, erotic longing blends with spiritual self-denial in an allegory of Sufi aspiration, as the amenities of civilization give way to the elemental wilderness, desire is sublimated into a mystical renunciation of the physical world, and the soul confronts its essence. This is a tour de force of Persian literature, in a translation that captures the extraordinary power and virtuosity of the original.
The Beginning of the Story
Hear what the teller of this history said
By stringing speech's pearls on verse's thread.
There lived an Arab king, whose excellence
Increased his splendid realm's magnificence;
Lord of the Amir tribe, his virtues nourished
His prosperous country, which grew great and flourished.
The sweet breeze of his fame made Arab lands
More fragrant than the wine cup in his hands-
A lord of virtues, chivalry's copestone,
For worth-in all the world-he stood alone,
An Arab king, successful beyond measure,
Wealthy as Korah, rich with endless treasure,
Attentive to the poor, and to his friends
A generous host whose kindness never ends,
As though Good Fortune were the soul within
His nature, like a pith beneath the skin.
But he was childless still, for all his fame,
And like a candle when it has no flame.
More needy than a shell for pearls, or than
A husk without its seeds, this desperate man
Longed for a son, for Fate to let him see
A fruitful branch spring from the royal tree,
Hoping that when the cypress seed was sown
Another cypress would have quickly grown,
So that a pheasant in the meadows would
Perceive a new tree where the old had stood,
And once that tree's allotted life had passed
He'd shelter in the shade the new tree cast.
A man survives if in the world somewhere
His memory lives within his son and heir.
And to this end he gave in charity
Money to mendicants perpetually,
Giving out gold to gain the moon; but though
He sowed the seed he saw no seedling grow.
He sought and did not find, for all his pains,
And rode straight on, and would not tug his reins
And stop or turn aside, and still it seemed
He'd never find the son of whom he dreamed.
(And if you seek like this in vain, accept
That this is not an outcome to regret,
Whatever good or bad is brought by Fate-
Look, and you'll see that it's appropriate:
That pearl you thought you wanted, look once more
And see that it's not worth your struggling for.
Many desires don't see the light of day
And men are lucky that they stay this way!
Men dash this way and that, all unaware
Of what is best for them and why or where;
The clues to how Fate works are hard to see-
Many a lock when looked at is a key.
Poor wretched man! A breath of wind's enough
To scatter all his dust-a tiny puff!
Be strong within this pit of little worth,
Consign to earth whatever comes from earth.)
But still he longed, like rubies in a mine
That vainly long for light to make them shine,
And since his longing had been so intense,
God gave a son to him, in recompense-
A child whose rosy body blushed as though
It shared a pomegranate's ruddy glow,
A shining jewel that made earth's sullen night
As radiant as the dawn's resplendent light.
When he beheld the son he'd hungered for,
The father opened wide his treasury door,
And as a rose sheds petals, in his joy
He gave out gold in honor of the boy.
He ordered that a wet-nurse take his son
And rear him with her milk to make him strong;
Time like another wet-nurse kindly smiled
And nourished with her strength the growing child;
Each time his lovely lips and milk united
Prayers were both written for him and recited,
And when they gave him food they also gave him
Their hearts that would do anything to save him,
And carefully they dabbed a dark blue dye
Upon his cheeks, to thwart the evil eye.
When milk had touched his tulip lips, they grew
Like jasmine petals with their milky hue;
You'd say his milk was mixed with honeycomb
Or that his cradle was the full moon's home-
That moon in two weeks was as beautiful
As is the heavens' moon when she is full;
Qais was the name they gave the royal child
And faith's rites kept him pure and undefiled,
Growing in grace until a year had passed
And his perfection was now unsurpassed.
Love fashioned him, and love's bright jewel now shone
With greater luster from this royal son.
His happy second year, and third, were spent
In gardens of sweet kindness and content.
At seven, ringlets clustered round his face
Like tulips held in violets' dark embrace,
From seven to ten his beauty and renown
Became the common gossip of the town,
From those who glimpsed his face astonished sighs
And prayers arose like winds into the skies,
A face that filled his father's soul with joy;
He knew the time had come to send the boy
To school, and so he chose a master, one
Who'd day and night take pains to teach his son.
Soon others, drawn there by his reputation,
Came to the same school for their education;
With hope and fear the children did their best
To learn their lessons and to pass each test-
Among these clever boys, a few girls shared
Their classroom, and the lessons they prepared.
From different clans and tribes, from far and wide,
In school they were together, side by side-
And Qais's lips were rubies spilling pearls,
Reading his lessons with the boys and girls.
And from another clan, a different shell,
An unpierced pearl was in his class as well,
A young girl, nobly born, intelligent,
A girl as pure as she was elegant,
As splendid as the moon, as slender as
The comely shape a cypress sapling has.
Her playful little glances were like darts
That pierced not one but many thousand hearts,
Her doe-like eyes each moment seemed to slay
A world each time they looked and looked away,
Her face an Arab moon, and yet a Turk
In stealing hearts and suchlike handiwork.
The hair upon her head was dark as night,
Her pretty face a garden of delight-
Her face framed by her hair appeared as though
A shining torch were flourished by a crow;
A tiny mouth of such sweet elegance,
A sugar grain whose savor was intense-
Her mouth was just like sugar, you might say,
If sugar routed armies in this way.
She seemed to be a charm against disaster,
Worthy to join the pupils and their master;
She seemed life's hidden beauty, and in truth
The best line in a poem praising youth.
Her forehead's beads of sweat, her fragrant hair
Were all the necklaces she chose to wear,
Her mother's milk accounted for her eyes
And blushing cheeks, not make-up's specious lies;
Her tumbling curls, her little mole were all
The jewels she needed to be beautiful;
Her lovely hair was dark as night; her name
Was Layli, and she set all hearts aflame.
And seeing her, Qais gave his heart away
(For love it seemed a paltry price to pay),
And Layli too loved Qais as he loved her,
In both their breasts young love began to stir.
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);
Once they had smelled love's roses, come what may,
They were together all day, every day.
Qais gave his soul up for her beauty's sake,
He stole her heart, his soul was hers to take;
She saw his face and gave her heart, but knew
She must still act as chaste girls have to do.
Their friends were busy studying, while they
Were busy with the words true lovers say;
Their friends were making speeches, they delighted
In other words than those their friends recited;
Their friends debated grammar, their debates
Concerned the noble feelings love creates;
Their friends read learnd pages, while they sighed
Unstintingly, since love was now their guide-
They only saw each other, unaware
Of all their many friends assembled there.
Layli and Majnun Fall in Love with Each Other
As beautiful as Joseph to men's eyes
Each dawn the sun lit up the eastern skies,
Like a ripe orange, lovely to behold,
Turning the heavens from basil's green to gold;
Layli sat with her chin propped on her fist
So beautiful that no one could resist
Her loveliness, and like Zuleikha's maids
Who cut their careless hands with sharpened blades,
Those seeing Layli's beauty felt such thirst
They were like pomegranates fit to burst.
When Qais caught sight of her, his face turned sallow
As if it shared the dawn skies' golden yellow;
Their mingled scents were sweet, as though no care
Or sorrow could survive when they were there,
But even so their mingled, bitter cries
Proclaimed their sadness to the morning skies.
Love came; its sword did not discriminate
But cleared the house, and left it to its fate-
It took their hearts, and gave them grief, and made
Them anxious, and bewildered, and afraid.
Their promised hearts became the subject of
Gossip that spread the rumor of their love;
The veil was torn apart, their tale was heard
On every side, repeated word for word,
From mouth to mouth the secret story flew,
What one man knew, another quickly knew.
The lovers were discreet, and tried in vain
To keep clandestine what was all too plain-
Although the musk deer's navel dries, the scent
Of musk stays richly strong and redolent;
The wind that bears a lover's scent removes
The veil from all the loveliness he loves.
With feigned indifference they tried hard to hide
The naked passion that they felt inside,
And when did feigned indifference work? Can clay
Obscure the sun, or make it go away?
When longing eyes tell tales, how can there be
A story that stays veiled in secrecy?
And when a thousand curls have chained a lover,
There can be no escape, the struggle's over;
The theft has happened; if a lover's wise
He knows it happened right before his eyes.
Now he was smitten, lovesick, wholly caught
Within the tightening collar love had wrought-
He loved her beauty with such fervor, Qais
Could find no rest or peace in any place-
He only talked of her, which made him more
Impatient and distracted than before;
His heart and senses tumbled down pell-mell,
The sack ripped open and the donkey fell;
And those who had not fallen as he had
Called him "Majnun," which means, "A man who's mad,"
While he with helpless cries give witness to
The fact that what they said of him was true.
Like barking dogs that drive away a fawn
To keep it from a newly growing lawn,
They cruelly teased Majnun, and hid the bright
New moon his longing searched for from his sight.
Cut off from him now, Layli secretly
Wept pearl-like tears for him continuously;
Deprived of Layli's face, Majnun's tears dropped
In copious flowing floods that never stopped.
He wandered through the streets and market place
With anguish in his heart, tears on his face,
Singing sad lovers' songs whose melodies
And words delineate love's miseries,
And men yelled, as they teased and laughed at him,
"Majnun! Majnun!" before and after him.
While he, for his part, simply let things go,
Sunk as he was so deep in crazy woe,
As if he led an ass that slipped its reins
And let it wander off across the plains.
His heart was like a pomegranate split
In two, and he'd kept only half of it;
He tried so hard to hide his heart's desire
But who can hide a heart when it's on fire?
It was as if his heart's blood rose around him
Until it rose above his head and drowned him.
He grieved for her who could relieve his grief
And in whose absence grief found no relief;
He was a candle, useless in the day,
At night unsleeping as it burns away.
It was himself to whom he gave such pain,
For whom he searched for anodynes in vain-
He tore his soul out in the search, and beat
His head against the thresholds at men's feet.
As each dawn broke he scrambled to make haste,
To run barefoot into the desert waste.
Apart, these lovers had to be content
With seeking out each other's wafted scent-
He'd leave his house and make his way each night
To Layli's street, and wait there out of sight,
And in the dark he'd kiss her door and then
Reluctantly he'd go back home again;
His coming was the north wind, but his leaving
Was like an endless age that's spent in grieving,
In coming he'd a thousand wings to speed him,
Returning home thorns sprang up to impede him,
He went like water flowing, but coming back
A hundred obstacles obscured his track,
And even when he walked with blistered feet
He felt he rode a horse to Layli's street.
With wind behind him and a pit ahead,
He went back home to torture, tears, and dread-
If Fortune waited at his beck and call
He never would have gone back home at all.