The boy who called himself Majnūn (مجنون) – part 2

By Tariq Iqbal

Majnūn and Laila

And then I met him. The boyfriend.

It was evening. I had already changed into my pyjamas and was getting all set for a nightcap and an early bed when the phone rang.

“Hello, I need to talk to you,” said a soft male voice at the other end.

I was puzzled.

“Who are you?” I asked, with a faint hint of annoyance at the uncanny mystery.

“I’m sorry, you don’t know me,” said the voice, “But I need to see you.”

“It’s important,” added the voice, a little apprehensively.

And thus began an association that has never quite ended, for I still wake up in the middle of the night trying to figure out what the heck he was all about.


“Ever since she said ‘Hi’ to you and told me about you, I had wanted to meet you,” he began a little tentatively, introducing himself. Then he got to talking about her.

“I love her. I’m like Majnūn in my love of her,” he told me.

“Do you know of the Layla-Majnūn (ليلى و مجنون) love story?” he asked, “It’s an Arab folklore from ancient times.”

I had heard the story, but only on the surface, and made a mental note to take a deeper look.

“I don’t care if people think I’m crazy.”

I was aghast. I could not make sense of it. ‘Majnūn’ was an unflattering epithet in the social circles that I frequented. The word alluded disparagingly to a failed lover (نامراد عاشق), a good-for-nothing, unkempt, mentally deficient, Neanderthalic outcast.

And yet this person was immaculately dressed in a plain white thobe (الثوب), the ankle length collarless gown of the Omani national dress, with a scented tarbousha (طربوشه), a decorative tassel, flowing down from the neckline, and a kuma (كمة), rounded Omani cap, embroidered in green, adorning the head.

And he spoke with reason, not my kind of reason, but still abundantly rational and lucid.

“I was smitten the moment I saw her,” he confided in me as I prodded him on.
“There was magic in those eyes,” he said, staring into the void, as one does when reliving cherished memories.
“I would stand outside her window the whole night,” he recalled, the longing clearly showing.
“Finally, I plucked up the courage to send her a poem I had written,” he said, “And that is how it all started.”


And poetry it is what pervades the Layla- Majnūn love story.

It was the 12th century poet Nizami Ganjavi’s epic poem in Persian, written in 1188 AD, about the star-crossed lovers that catapulted the story into the non-Arab literary world.

The story was already well known in the Arab world for centuries, not as a continuous narrative but a collection of love poems attributed to “the distracted lover (Majnūn)” onto whom anecdotes about his frustrated longing for Layla had been grafted.1

The central figure of the poem is Qays, an Arab youth who falls in love with a young woman of a neighbouring tribe, Layla. He gives voice to his love in poetry, unwisely mentioning her name, which he allows to circulate in the community. Layla is equally smitten with him, but his violation of propriety ultimately frustrates their hopes of union, causing him to be afflicted with love madness. This madness yields the name, Majnūn [majnūn means literally “possessed by a jinn or demon”], by which he is henceforth known. Although Layla is an essential presence in the poem, Majnūn dominates the story.2

There is nothing in the poem to suggest either that Majnūn chooses to act as he does, or that he is to blame for the misfortunes that befall him. On the contrary, Nizami makes clear that Majnūn is as much a victim of his disruptive passion as are his parents and all the others who are wounded by it. Love is an affliction that overwhelms and transforms Qays, and one that he is powerless to combat. When his father implores him to put aside his mad, self-destructive behavior, he answers that it is not within his power to change.

What can I do? My fate is dark as pitch.
I have not reached this place through my own wish.
I am constrained, shackled by iron chains.
What use to struggle now? This is my fate.
Nor free my body of their heavy weight.

“The beliefs that love was an affliction, that the lover was helpless to rid himself of it, and that madmen were not legally responsible, were long established conventions by the time Nizami took up the poem and are very much part of the furniture of the story.3

“I am a mystic, a sufi,” he told me. “That gives me power to face adversity with equanimity.”

“I fear nothing,” he said, fixating a disconcerting stare in my direction.

“ Majnūn’s madness, like that of the sufi, liberates him from the ordinary conventions and constraints of society. The passionate intensity of his love for Layla is never limited or shaped by the need to accept the restraints of ordinary, conventional lovers. The freedom to suffer brings other freedoms as well. And in the context of a highly structured and formally constrained society, that freedom may well be seen as worth the price.

Finally, Majnūn gives madness a good name. He is a poet before he is a madman, but his madness magnifies his poetic gift and makes his suffering heroic, even legendary, as his poems circulate throughout Arabia. Poets and lovers seek him out in the desert, not to shake their heads over the ruin of his hopes but to wonder at the intensity of his love and devotion. Like the great poets of pre-Islamic Arabia, he achieves a fame that is normally reserved for extraordinary warriors or men of unparalleled generosity, and adds a new meaning to the heroism of romantic love.4

“I need nothing of her but to have the chance to express that which overwhelms the heart,” he said with passionate belief.

Throughout the great majority of scenes in [Nizami’s] ‘Layla and Majnūn’, Layla is present only as an idol within the mind of Majnūn. In one passage the poet even has him explicitly dispense with the flesh-and-blood Layla. About two thirds of the way through the poem, the wandering lover passes near the encampment of her family one day, and comes upon a scrap of paper with both their names written on it. He slices hers away with his thumbnail. Onlookers ask him why he has done this. His answer makes clear how incidental Layla herself has become to the story of his love.

“This text requires a single name, not two,”
He answered them, “Majnūn alone will do.
If someone delves within a lover’s heart,
He’ll find the loved one in its deepest part.
“But why,” they asked him, “from among the two,
It’s Layla who’s been cut away, not you?”
That hides within itself this ardent lover.
I am the veil for what should be internal.
I am the outer shell; she is the kernel.”

Layla the person has been replaced by Majnūn‘s idealization of her, an entity that he can sustain quite independently.5

“I see God in her,” he said finally.

“We seem to be two very different personalities,” I said to him, not fully comprehending his outlook on life. “I am a materialist, you are a mystic. I believe more in the here and now, you believe more in the hereafter. You pride in thinking of yourself as Majnūn, I would be horrified to be thought of as one. You see God in her, I see ambition and desire.”

“Two persons, poles apart,” I proclaimed.

He laughed.

“It is mind blowing and hilarious how much different our perspectives are,” he said, bemused, “And yet, we are the same in this endeavour.”

I could not help smiling.

And then we parted, he with a reassurance, unspoken, that nobody was in his way.


I met him again one more time, inviting him over. He had started working at a job. Perhaps my involuntary shock the last time around at learning from him that he was not working had something to do with it.

“What work do you do?” I had asked him then, and being told that he was not working, had apprised him of the perils of leaving a handsome young maiden at the doorstep of career wolves who would surely move in at the slightest scent of opportunity.

“You know, with her beauty, she can attract the pick of men just by moving her little finger, don’t you?” I had asked, wanting to put the fear of the Lord into him, whence comes wisdom.

“She’s not going anywhere,” he had said emphatically, “Because she knows there is no one in the world who can love her as I do.” But perhaps I detected more of self-reassurance in his voice than real belief.

“So where do you work?” I asked him this time around.

He shied away from answering, saying only that it was an important government job, and then looked at me with a cynical smile, as if to say I am not answering this one because I know you are going to use it against me.

“I thank my God for you,” he said rather oddly when he got up to leave, “You are a blessing to me.”

I had an awkward feeling that he was showing me some sort of magnanimity, and telling me that I did not really deserve it.

I offered to walk him to his car. In conversation, we walked right past it and went some distance. Turning back, he told me to carry on walking as he wanted to stand by the roadside and watch me go, making it seem like he was honouring me with a venerable parting gesture. It struck me, ever the doubting Thomas, that perhaps he did not want me to see the car he was driving.

“That’s not what it is about, my friend,” I wanted to say to him, “You’ve already got what it takes.”

At the door, I turned around to wave at him. He waved back, still standing where he was, smiling, waiting for me to go inside, creating for me, in the darkening evening shadows, an indelible memory.

I went inside feeling miserable. I had robbed the boy of his innocence. The joyous confidence of young love had been adulterated with the murky apprehensions of treachery and traitorousness. He was now wary of wolves.

And I felt responsible.


The fat lady had sung and the opera was over.

With it, it was all over. She shook hands and told me we would always be good friends. Then she turned and walked away.

I watched her go, the world falling apart with each step. Not wanting to believe that this was where she walked out of my life, I stood there, with helplessness all around, watching her go. Ça fait une éternité. I still see her go.

I had travelled down this road of no returning …

And, having travelled it, willingly, was now standing by the wayside, all by myself, alone, desolate.

“A nice mess you’ve made of things, old boy,” I said to myself.

I sat down on a nearby ledge, unable to think of what to do next, where to go from here.

I called a cab and went home.


  1. The Poetry of Nizami Ganjavi: Knowledge, Love, and Rhetoric, Edited by Kamran Talattof and Jerome W. Clinton, First published 2000, PALGRAVETM, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010 and Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England RG21 6XS; Introduction, page 4
  2. Ibid., Introduction, page 4
  3. Ibid., Comparison of Layli and Majnun and Romeo and Juliet, Jerome W Clinton, pages 20-21
  4. Ibid., Comparison of Layli and Majnun and Romeo and Juliet, Jerome W Clinton, page 25
  5. Ibid., Comparison of Layli and Majnun and Romeo and Juliet, Jerome W Clinton, pages 23-24

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Tariq Iqbal

Tariq Iqbal, aka Tony, is a retired banker who refuses to retire and is, therefore, a freelance consultant (aren’t we all) who advises banks on the profitability, or lack thereof, of their customers. He dabbles in writing, wears his heart on his sleeve, and is generally likeable, if he says so himself.

Recommended reading by Tariq Iqbal:

The Poetry Of Nizami Ganjavi – Knowledge, Love, And Rhetoric edited by Kamran Talattof and Jerome W. Clinton
The Complete Short Stories Of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
This Side Of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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