Booknotes: Layla and other assorted love songs

The legend of Layla: From Layla bint Mahdi ibn Sa’d to Pattie Boyd

The legend of Layla: From Layla bint Mahdi ibn Sa’d to Pattie Boyd (pictured above).

The legend of Layla: From Layla bint Mahdi ibn Sa’d to Pattie Boyd (pictured above).

Mike Selby

It is a story most people know, yet at the same time have never heard of.

In 7th century Najd (Saudi Arabia), a young poet named Qays ibn al-Mulawwa fell deeply in love with Layla bint Mahdi ibn Sa’d — the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She occupied his thoughts, his dreams, and soon all of his poetry. Happily for Qays, she felt the exact same way about him. Both could do nothing but swoon in each other’s presence; wedding vows would have been immediately exchanged except for one small wrench in their plans.

They were cousins.

Forbidden to marry his heart’s desire, the young poet’s mind snapped. Crazed with grief, he withdrew from society and wandered the surrounding wilderness. He became known as  ‘Manjun,’ a term meaning ‘one possessed by spirits’ or more simply ‘madman.’

Back in reality, Layla bint Mahdi ibn S’ad got on with her life and married a local official. Still in love with Manjun, she begins to look for him at night after her husband has fallen asleep. Unable to find him, she loses her will to live and perishes. Manjun also perishes; his dead body is found lying across her grave.

The story of these two doomed lovers was orally passed down through the generations until the 12th century, when the poet Nizami Ganjavi decided to write it down. ‘The Story of Layla and Manjun,’ now told through Nizami’s poetic brilliance, was a massive hit. It appeared in hundreds of editions in Persian and Turkish (53 of which miraculously still exist), during Nizami’s lifetime. After his death many more editions in many more languages spread throughout Russia and Africa.

The exact date that the West became aware of it remains unknown, although Byron knew of it, calling it “the Romeo and Juliet of the East.”  While the similarities between the two stories are striking, scholars have been unable to find any evidence that Shakespeare knew of it. It wasn’t translated into English until 1866, but a Latin edition may (or may not) have existed in Shakespeare’s time.

In 1966, Omega Publishing in Britain published a prose edition of ‘The Story of Layla and Manjun by Nizami.’  It wasn’t long after this that a copy found its way into the hands of guitarist Eric Clapton. The story resonated strong with him, as he was suffering the type of madness the tale described, having fallen deeply in love with Pattie Boyd, his best friend’s wife.

With his band Derek and the Dominoes, Clapton wrote the song ‘Layla,’ a mash up of his and Manjun’s feelings. ‘Layla,’ one of the most recognizable and popular rock songs ever written, is why most of us know the story of Layla and Manjun — even if we weren’t aware of its origins. And unlike his Persian counterpart, Clapton went on to marry Pattie Boyd, much to the chagrin of his best friend (George Harrison).

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library