It’s easy to see why Ferial Ghazoul and John Verlenden would choose the “Chronicles of Majnun Layla” as the centerpiece of their Qassim Haddad collection, which brings together work that spans the Bahraini poet’s career. The cycle of thirty-nine poems is not just compelling and controversial, but also moves beautifully from Arabic into English:
It’s perhaps impossible for an English-language reader to get the full texture of this reworking of the ancient tale, built as it is on a thousand previous tellings. The “Majnun Layla,” which loosely translates as “Driven Mad by Love for Layla,” has seeped into English, inspiring Isaac D’Israeli’s 1797 Majnun and Leila and a 1970 love song by Eric Clapton. But this hardly compares to the tale’s influence in Arabic or Persian. In Arabic, the Majnun Layla narrative has been gathering meaning since at least the ninth century, and has inspired major artworks and dozens of adaptations, including by popular modern poets like Ahmad Shawqi and Salah Jahin.
So when Haddad writes his Majnun Layla, he is writing against and inside all that literary and cultural history. But while an English-language reader misses much of what came before, we can snatch at the essence by reading the translators’ brief introduction.
At its core, “Majnun Layla” tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers, Layla and Qays. The legend presents itself as a history of the real Umayyad poet Qays ibn Mulawwah, who is obsessed with his beautiful cousin Layla. Indeed, Qays loves her so passionately that he is branded a madman. Layla’s father, mortified by his nephew’s excess of affection, marries his daughter to another man. She never consummates her marriage, but remains faithful to Qays, who flees into the wilderness to compose poems about his true love.
Writing with, and against, history
In the legend, their love is chaste, and the couple is united only in death. Literary and visual adaptations have maintained this chastity, and many retellings of Qays and Layla’s story developed Sufi overtones, where Layla becomes a stand-in for man’s desire for God.
Haddad turns against tradition and takes the story in a completely different direction. In his poems, Qays’ desire is definitely not for God: It’s for a flesh-and-blood Layla. Qays here is not a madman. Instead, he is a knowing violator of societal taboos.
The cycle of poems plays on the spaces between imagination, official histories, and unofficial ones. They cite historical sources, but then undermine these sources’ credibility. In the end, Qays and Layla are so subversive that even Haddad’s narrative cannot contain them. In the long prose poem “Towards It at Every Turn”:
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.
The thirty-nine poems span the length of Qays and Layla’s story, as well as stories about their stories. One of the most beautiful poem-chapters is “Things,” in which:
She disappeared on him; he is waiting 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.
The poem contains a litany of “scattered objects” threaded throughout the narrative. As we consider these objects, women demand that Qays recite his love poetry, and he does so in the hopes that Layla will hear him. The women who listen to his poetry don’t seem particularly chaste either. “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, fires no moisture can smother.”
Layla is here as elsewhere is the secondary character. But, unlike in other retellings, she isn’t virginal, and she certainly isn’t a passive receptor for Qays’s affections. She also desires him, calls out for him, and arranges for them to meet. She is not just the object of affections, but is a subject as well.
In an interview with SJ Fowler for London’s Poetry Parnassus festival, Haddad said that, in his cycle of poems, Qays and Layla’s love “became more joyous and free than the old one, and the woman also became freer and more daring and beautiful than the old Layla.”
Just as Haddad was inspired by earlier versions of the tale, his versions inspired new interpretations, including visuals by Iraqi painter Dia al-Azzawi and an opera by Lebanese composer Marcel Khalifeh. It was Khalifeh’s opera that brought Haddad’s poems to the attention of conservatives, which led to the poet and composer being excoriated by Bahrain’s parliament in the spring of 2007.
This reaction, Haddad told Fowler, “deeply affected me. In our society, any fundamentalist can turn a writer [in]to an enemy of the public, and this writer finds himself subject to humiliation and oppression simply because he spoke freely about love.”
‘Foreignizing’ the translation
The English translation, the joint effort of a significant Egyptian scholar-translator and an American writer-translator, is beautifully done. Ghazoul and Verlenden are not chained to the dictionary, but spend their effort recreating the poetry’s fine details and epic-realistic tone. If there is a point where the translation snags, it is in the overuse of transliterated words. Sometimes, these work well enough, such as kufiyya. In other places, like the use of the Arabic loan-word fatwa, it is jarring. Other places, transliterated terms are simply a distraction, a pointed reminder that “this is foreign.” In truth, the reader needs no reminder.
The text is sufficiently marked as foreign by the references to older Arabic poems, by the unfamiliar settings, and simply by the characters’ Arab names.
Beyond the ‘Majnun Layla’
After the Majnun Layla cycle, Ghazoul and Verlenden include another twenty-some selected poems. But while many of these are sharp and rich, they are anticlimactic after the sustained emotional high of the “Chronicles of Majnun Layla.”
One of the poems, “Memory of All That,” seems to comment on why Haddad chose to re-write the Majnun Layla story. It begins: “They can forbid coffee, aperatures, and notebooks / they can fence the trees, the river, the legends” and ends:
They can do all that
but not forgetting
they have done all that
is ours to choose.
This review previously ran on the Asian Review of Books.