Sunday, 6 November 2016

The Story of Eric Clapton and Majnun Layla

The Story of Eric Clapton and Majnun Layla by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

Eric Claptons popular hit Layla had always been dear to me. In addition to the music, the lyrics, and simply Clapton, Leila was my first real girlfriend as a teenager and I dare saying, my first love. Much later in life, I met another Laila who is younger and happens to be a true sweet soul. 

However, only recently did I come to learn that the song was inspired by the legendary 7th-Century Arabic poet Qays ibn al-Mulawwah (قيس بن الملوح ) and the famous saga of Layla and Majnun. This sure got me curious to dig more.

For those unfamiliar with it, Majnun Laila is an immortal love story, which is like the archaic Eastern version of Romeo and Juliette — despite predating Shakespeare by a full millennium. You know how history is always recycling its own world stories. And it goes something like this...

Qays ibn al-Mulawwah is a semi-historical character of a young man known to have lived in northern Arabia (Najd) between the year 645 and 688 AD. His full Arabic name is:

قيس بن الملوّح بن مزاحم بن عدس بن ربيعة بن جعدة بن كعب بن ربيعة بن عامر بن صعصعة بن معاوية بن بكر بن هوازن بن منصور بن عكرمة بن خصفة بن قيس عيلان بن مضر بن نزار بن معد بن عدنان، العامري الهوازني ).

The essence of the traditional tale
is about him falling hopelessly in love with a beautiful woman from his own Bedouin tribe, Layla bint Mahdi ibn Sad — better known as Layla Al-Aamiriya. Layla meaning night in Arabic and Persian. The lovers had grown up together and had always been in love; it is widely believed they were first cousins. When the day came and they wanted to get married, Qays proposed but her father refused, which made him go crazy with desire, giving him the epithet Majnun — the mad one; he who is possessed by demons or jinn.
As the story proceeds, Layla is forced by her parents to marry a rich merchant and leaves the area with him to Taif. Upon hearing the news, Qays lost his mind and kept wandering the surrounding deserts to live in solitude and to never return home. Preferring the company of wild beasts to that of men, he would sometimes be seen reciting poetry to them or to himself or just writing in the sand with a stick.

When in some of the many versions of the story Layla got sick and died, poor Majnun got devastated and was later found dead in the wilderness near her grave. Madness and misery got the best of him. He had carved three verses of poetry on nearby rock, which are the last three verses attributed to him: 

I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla
And I kiss this wall and that wall
It’s not Love of the walls that has enraptured my heart
But of the One who dwells within them

Having studied Arabic poetry in school and university, I can add that this type is known as Virgin Love (حب عذري), because the lovers never get to marry or live their love story together. Such kind of non-carnal, spiritual mad love which leads to death and to God is pure and chaste love. “Layla and Majnun” further gave birth to the poetic form of ghazal (غزل عفيف). 

The Story of Eric Clapton and Majnun Layla by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
Layla and Majnun: Images from the Heritage Museum

More than 500 years after Layla and Majnun, the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209) collected the various widely dispersed versions of the tale, both secular and mystical, and wove them into his epic narrative poem: The Story of Layla & Majnun. It remains the most historically famous and complete version.

The poem, the characters, and what it all stands for had a significant influence on Arabic and Persian literature.
While the exact number of translations is unknown, the anecdotes were further depicted in many of the world’s legends, tales, poems, songs, and folklore. The story’s influence extended to Indian, Afghani, Pakistani, Kurdish, Azerbaijani, and Turkish literature. In fact, the Turkish colloquialism, Feel like Mecnun” means to feel completely possessed as he who is madly in love. 

The story and the characters of Layla and Majnun became equally famous within Sufi tradition. It remained an example of the mystical hero the romantic fool, the ideal lover as well as the path of devotion and the experience of the soul in search of God. It was often used to illustrate mystical concepts such as fanaa, or “dissolution” and “annihilation” of the ego self. Lovers may die but true love never does.

In more recent times,
Layla has been mentioned by the occultist and poet Aleister Crowley in many of his religious texts, most notably in The Book of Lies.


Statue of Nizami Ganjavi in Baku, Azerbaijan

Nizami’s version was translated to English by Dr. Rudolf Gelpke, a Swiss born Islamic scholar, and published in 1966. This is how it reached Clapton through a friend of his who gave him a copy of the adaptation. This was the link.

The reason why the story had moved Clapton so profoundly is because at the time he was in love with a woman, Pattie Boyd, then Pattie Harrison, who was the wife of his close friend and fellow musician, the late Beatle George Harrison. After she rebuffed his advances, Clapton isolated himself and indulged in heroin, leading to a three-year addiction. One sure way to numb any unrequited love... in addition to all one’s senses.

Unlike Qays and Layla, eventually Clapton and Boyd got married in 1979. They then separated in 1984 before divorcing in 1989.
I think we should all thank the stunning Pattie Boyd for her inspirational musings
and for having that special

Other than the 1972 version (shared below) with Dereck and the Dominos which Clapton had co-written with Jim Gordon, there is another smooth acoustic one without the piano coda performed 20 years later in Unplugged.  

Interestingly, Pattie Boyd was the inspiration for more of Clapton’s hit songs like “Bell Bottom Blues”, “Wonderful Tonight”, “She’s waiting”, and the iconic “Old Love”. “I am Yours” is another of his where he used much of Nizami’s text, that he gave the poet a songwriting credit.

For Harrison, he had written “For You Blue”, “So Sad”, and “I Need You” about the woman. Also “Something”, which was covered by over 150 artists, making it the second-most covered Beatles’ song after “Yesterday”. Harrison, however, later denied that it was about her.

Still, I think we should thank Pattie for her special musings for all these years. In 2007, she published her autobiography titled: Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me

As such, Love can indeed make us feel like fools. Perhaps too much of it can kill us after all. But love sure also inspires us to express ourselves and to create beautiful art.

The above remains one tale that needs to be told again and again. I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed digging it up then writing it.
Majnun and  Layla: The English Version


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