I recently posted that my friend Summer had often shared stories she had heard from the various cultures she worked with across the world. Summer was a Midwife and an Emergency OB/GYN with Doctors Without Borders. She specialized in extremely high risk pregnancies, and emergency Obstetrics. As she always put it, “Women often have to, if they are having difficulty delivering at home, walk two to three days while in labor to get help. It’s something we see every single day. This to me is the most amazing expression of love and it is my honor to be a part of these women’s lives. I love helping women and their newborns discover the feeling of love in those first moments of life. It’s like a new beginning and all that has happened and all that will happen does not matter in that moment; when a baby opens his eyes for the very first time, or when a mother sees her healthy baby for the first time, an overt peace blankets her. That to me, is pure love. There is a Divine energy that I thrive on. What matters is this precious moment that is so filled with a miracle and who could ever ask for anything more.”
Summer spent long days working diligently in many parts of war-torn Iraq, militant Iran, and even Afghanistan and Yemen in an endeavor to help women and children manage their healthcare. She helped women around the world learn how to care for themselves and their babies and she helped hospitals organize health systems that would benefit entire communities. There is a story that Summer shared with me that is one of the most popular household stories of love throughout the Arabic world.
In the twelfth century, the Caucasian ruler Shirvanshah Akhsetan commissioned the great Persian poet Nizami to write a poem based on the Arabic legends of Majnun and Layla. Nizami’s LAYLA AND MAJNUN, a four-thousand-verse romance, remains one of the most popular Arabic love stories. It is also considered a Sufi allegory of the binding of man, Majnun, and the Divine soul, Layla. The story is often referred to as The Madman and Layla, and the story is from beginning to end a teaching on the path of devotion, the experience of the soul in search of the Divine within one’s own heart.
In the desert of Arabia, there lived a great Chieftan. He had wealth beyond imagining: gold, jewels, silks, carpets, herds of goats and camels. He was generous, welcomed every stranger, and ruled his tribe with perfect justice. He was content but for one thing. He had no heir. So he increased the fervor of his prayers, and after many years, God granted his wife the most beautiful son.
When the child was two weeks old, his face shone like the moon. At that time, the chieftain asked, “Is there anyone on earth more fortunate than I am?”
The boy Qays was sent to school. He delighted his friends with his conversation. His voice was melodious, his wit sharp, his words full of wisdom. Several years later, the daughter of a mighty chieftain came to the same school. She was slender with cheeks and lips the color of roses. Because of her lustrous black hair she was called Layla, meaning night.
From the moment she entered the classroom Qays could neither read nor write. All he could think of was Layla. He tried to hide his love but his eyes returned of their own will to Layla’s face. Layla would blush and lower her eyes, which then returned of their own will to Qays. When his schoolmates teased him of his love, Qays could bear it no longer. In the middle of a class he stood up and shouted, “Layla… Layla!” Then he ran into the streets and bazaars, shouting, “Layla! Layla!” People who saw him shook their heads and said, “He’s a madman.” And from then on, Qays was called Majnun, meaning madman.
Majnun refused to return home. His father went to see Layla’s father with a caravan of precious gifts. Layla’s father was a proud man and answered, “You speak of the outside. What about the inside? Your son is mad. Shall I give a flawless gem to a cracked soul? Heal your son, then return.”
Majnun lived in the desert, wandering from village to village, reciting songs to Layla. When he fell ill and some tribesmen brought him home, Majnun’s father put him in a litter and brought him to Mecca. They stood before the shrine and his father said to him, “Pray to God to release you from your passion so you may be cured.”
Majnun stood up and cried, “Oh God, let me not be cured of love, but let my passion grow. Take what is left of my life and give it to Layla. Make my love a hundred times greater than it is today!”
He then fled into the desert.
Layla’s father married Layla to Ibni Salam, a man of great wealth. On the outside Layla had blossomed into the most beautiful girl in Arabia; inside she burned with love for Majnun. After the wedding, she told her husband, “I have sworn by Allah I will never submit to you. If you force me, I will take my life.” Ibni Salam loved Layla so deeply that he agreed, saying, “I would rather be permitted to look at your face than to lose you forever.”
So Ibni Salam longed for Layla. Layla longed for Majnun, and Majnun sang songs to Layla. Passing travelers brought his songs to Layla’s tents. People mocked Majnun, yet they could find no fault with his songs.
Majnun’s father also longed for Majnun. He was growing old. He was not afraid of death, but he did not want to die before seeing his son. The chieftain crossed vast oceans of sand. At last, he came to a cave and saw what seemed to be a skeleton moving about on four legs. Overcome with love and sorrow, the chieftain tenderly caressed his head. Majnun looked up and saw an old man weeping but he did not know who he was.
The old man said, “I am your father.” Majnun put his head in his father’s lap and wept uncontrollably. The two then held each other, and Majnun begged his father’s forgiveness. “Father, I want to obey you but I am not the same person. I am a stranger to my tribe. I know you are my father, but I cannot remember your name.”
The chieftain realized Majnun no longer belonged to him. “Hold me fast, my son, this hour must nourish me for all time. We will not see one another in this lifetime.” He returned home and died two days later.
Twice Majnun returned to his tribe, to weep at his father’s grave and then at his mother’s. He beat his head against the earth and wailed. But he could not stay. His grief needed the expanse of the sky.
One by one, the animals of the desert came to live with him…..the lion, then the stag, the wolf, the fox, the hare, the timid gazelle. Majnun lived on grass and roots. In Majnun’s presence the animals had no fear and lived in harmony. No place on earth was more desolate, yet Majnun called it paradise because he lived in peace with his friends.
One morning an old man with a flowing white beard approached Majnun’s cave with a letter from Layla. He explained, “I was passing a tent in the desert, and through the palm trees saw a light as if the moon had just risen. When I looked closer, I saw the light was emanating from a young woman who was bent over, weeping. When I asked who she was and why she was weeping, she answered, ‘Once I was Layla. Now I do not know who I am. Majnun is called mad, but I am more mad than he. He is free to wander the desert and I, I have no one to talk to, no one to trust. Night and day I burn with love. Tell me, stranger, do you know of Majnun? Speak to me of him, I beg you. Here are my pearls, will you bring my love a letter?’”
Majnun devoured the letter like a starving man. The old man then led Majnun to Layla’s garden. His faithful animals followed and waited at a distance. Layla was ten steps from Majnun. Neither could move. Majnun sang,
“Our souls wander freely
for all eternity they choose to combine.
Mine is yours. Yours is mine.”
Layla listened but did not speak. After a time, Majnun fled into the wilderness.
When he returned to his cave, a young man who had been wounded in love was waiting for him. The youth wanted to study with Majnun and offered him delicacies to eat and a soft rug to lie on, saying, “Eat, play, in time you will forget.”
Majnun answered, “I’m not a lovesick fool. I’m not looking for comfort. The bundle that is my “self” is gone. You do not see me. You see the beloved. How then can love be torn from my heart?”
The young man stayed with Majnun, writing down his verses. But after several months, he could not endure being without food or sleep. He returned to Baghdad, and as he traveled through the villages, he sang Majnun’s songs. The people who listened copied down Majnun’s poems, and when they knew love themselves it was with Majnun’s words that they sang, for Majnun spoke for lovers everywhere.
In the Book of Life, each page has two sides. On one side are our aspirations; on the other side is what is meant for us. Seldom are the two the same. Layla’s husband possessed the jewel he desired. Yet his possession was an illusion. It was Layla’s husband, Ibni Salam, who let go first. He contracted a fever and died within weeks.
Layla grieved without restraint. No one knew that she was grieving for Majnun. Then she contracted a fever and called to her mother. “Mother, I am like an autumn leaf on the Tree of Life. When I die, dress me in bridal robes so I can receive my beloved as a bride. I know that Majnun will come to my grave. I have loved him all my life. Mother, I beg you, comfort him as you would comfort me.”
When Majnun heard of Layla’s death, he arrived like a thundercloud driven by a storm. For a month he stayed by her grave. No one dared approach him. Then he said, “Creator, let me go to my love. She is waiting.” Majnun’s animals surrounded him, guarding him, until only his bones were left. Then, they returned to the wilderness. Members of Layla and Majnun’s tribes, and strangers of pure heart, tore their clothes and wept for many days. Majnun was buried at Layla’s side.
Every bird that sings brings me your name
Each breeze your fragrance.