If you thought Laila and Majnu was just a fable. Think again. These Persian star-crossed lovers lived in an obscure village in Saudi Arabia, and it is called Laila Aflaj, named after Laila. This Valentine's Day let's revive their immortal story and revisit the caves where Majnu had inscribed his love poems for his sweetheart.
"Laila, are you able to see the night sky? Stars are littered with golden stars. It is surreal to watch, like dreams taking flight. On this full moon night, lamps from heaven are gleaming at me. Even now I am staring longingly at the moonlit mountains thinking about you. Can’t you see the wind wafting over the rocks which have your name inscribed on them? My mind is burning despite the mist looming on this dessert. My heart is bleeding, I feel restless…Laila, are you aware of my dilemma and angst?
Look at how the words flow unchecked, sharpened by the angst-ridden love layered in it. Majnu is filled with love, longing, and hope that his love will return to him one day.
This Laila-Majnu love story, about the 7th century Najdi Bedouin poet Qays ibn al-Mullawah and his ladylove Layla bint Mahdi always fascinated me when I was a child, an age when I had not discovered romantic love. Qays and Layla fall madly in love with each other when they are young, but when they grow up Layla's father does not allow them to be together. Qays becomes obsessed with her, and his tribe Banu 'Amir and the community gives him the epithet of Majnūn (or possessed by Jinn in Arabic). Though it was widely brushed aside as just another Arabic folklore (Lord Byron called it the Romeo and Juliet of the East), for some reason I kept hoping that the story was true, that Laila and Majnu lived in this world. And then years later in Saudi Arabia, I discovered that their story was no myth.
Apparently, the beauteous Laila and Majnu lived in a village called Layla Aflaj. It was said that a heartbroken Majnu who fled the tribal camp and wandered in the desert after hearing about Laila’s marriage lived there, reciting poetry to himself or writing in the sand with a stick. There are different versions of the story. Some say Laila died pining after Majnu and that he was later found dead in the wilderness in 688 AD, near Laila's grave. While living inside a cave, he had carved three verses of poetry all dedicated to Laila on a rock near the grave, which are the last three verses attributed to him. Most of his recorded poetry was composed before his descent into madness.
“I pass by this town, the town of Layla
And I kiss this wall and that wall
It is not Love of the town that has enraptured my heart
But of the One who dwells within this town”
We were not too clued-in about the roads leading to Layla Aflaj. We passed the quiet villages of Saudi, flanked by date palms and dry mountains, meandering through the narrow-tarred roads, and stopped at a petrol pump. The signboard in Arabic read Najjad Village, which existed much before Saudi was declared a Nation, when Arabia, which stood between the Red Sea and Persian deep sea was one single Nation. Persian poet Nizam has mentioned Najjad in one of his works. And that is the land of Laila and Majnu and was later rechristened as Layla Aflaj. From Riyadh, if you take the Wadiwazir road you will reach Khamis Mushait, a city in South-west Saudi Arabia. When you take the National highway to reach Abha, is when you reach Layla Aflaj, almost 350 km from Riyadh. Interestingly the heart of Layla Aflaj is known as Laila. Eventually, the town came to be known for its famous lovers. Aflaj is the Arabic name for River. And Laila means night in Arabic. Roughly in the context of Arabic poetry that translates as “love for midnight and solace for the river.”
10 km before Layla Aflaj town is the Algail village and a few hours' drive will get you to Tabouda or where a row of barren mountains stand. And in one of those mountains we are told, lived Majnu, inside a cave. But then unfortunately we found none on the way to ask for directions. After nearly 1 and half hours a mud-spattered car, driven by an Arab came that way. Straightening the creases of his thobe (traditional dress worn by Arab men) he looked curiously at us, raising his eyebrows as if to ask- “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Wayne gaur Laila” (Where is Laila Cave) we asked him. He smiled warmly in response, rolled the sleeves of the thobe, and pointed to the mountains. “The caves are there on the top of one of those mountains,” he supplied adding that it was also called Gor Ashikeen. When we wondered if he knew the way, he offered to help provided we pay him (Fuloose) 10 rials. And then we started the climb to the mountains.
We followed him, braving the scorching heat, mind already rejoicing at the thought of seeing the monument of love. In the middle of the trail, the Arab turned and demanded an additional 10 rials and when we protested, he smiled- “But there are four of you.” That done, we continued the walk and by the time we reached the top of the hill, he had already pocketed 40 rials. When we again protested at his deviousness, he gave us the same smile and reminded us yet again that there are four of us- "Don’t you all want to see the cave?” That made us wary of him as we had heard of guides who would take tourists all the way to the mountains and then rob them. And that doubt persisted when he insisted on taking us to the other side of the mountains.
But then weren’t there four of us? That thought gave us courage as we followed his direction. He pointed to the foot of a mountain strewn with rocks and sludge. There was a cave with an opening shaped like the alphabet U turned upside down. And to our pleasant surprise, the entrance of the cave had detailed engravings. There it was, the love monument of Laila and Majnun. You can get a panoramic view of Al Aflaj right from there- the date palms, the yellow desert, hills, villages, houses. It was a stunning sight! The guide pointed to a direction and started narrating the folklore- "That’s Laila’s house. That is the route Laila took to meet Majnun discreetly at the mountains. And he would come on a horse.”
At that iconic spot which was widely regarded as the meeting point of Laila-Majnu, we recalled their romance and felt strangely satiated. The romance that fought many battles and still ended tragically. A tragic virgin story (virgin because the lovers never married or consummated their passion) of undying love that blossomed in the backdrop of moon and stars. “There is a version which says when Majnu used to get beaten in school, Laila would bleed from his wounds. Laila's brother, Tabrez was against the marriage as he believed that Majnu was beneath their status. Tabrez and Majnun had a huge argument and in anger, Majnu kills Tabrez and is sentenced to be stoned to death by the villagers. Layla agrees to marry another man on the condition that Majnu be excused from the punishment. They agreed and Laila got married to a man from the Thaima community in the North of Saudi Arabia. A heartbroken Majnu wandered in the wilderness in search of Laila and carved her name in the rocks on the way. Meanwhile, Laila never stopped loving Majnu which infuriated her husband who rode into the desert to find his wife’s lover. It is said that in the dual that followed, he stuck a sword into Majnu's heart. Laila collapsed in her home. The lovers were buried next to each other and it is believed that they reunited in heaven,” the guide who called himself Abdulla Al Dosari, efficiently narrated the story, as if to consolidate the extra 30 rials that went into his pocket. The Dosari community belonged to the Badhukka clan and they are the oldest descendants in Saudi Arabia. In the Laila Aflaj, the community majority are Dosaris. Wadidawazir really means the valley of Dosaris.
Soul of love
By the time we got down, we had become friends with Abdulla. “Have you ever been in love?” we asked him to which he replied soberly- “She died.” When we did not know how to react, he continued, with a smile, not meeting our eyes- “She died due to an illness a few months after our marriage. “Didn’t you feel like marrying again?” we persisted. “Those two souls of romance residing in the mountains would have never forgiven me,” he replied keeping his hands to his heart. A farmer by profession, he has never been to school or a madrasa- “We are badhuvas and education is prohibited for us.”
When we got back into the car, his words kept ringing in my mind. How can it be that a village that had a girls’ school would deny education to a man because of his caste? But somehow, we decided not to prolong that conversation. Abdulla wanted to know where we are going from there. His face lit up when we said Riyadh- “That’s one place I want to see before I die.” Just imagine, his house is just 350 km from Riyadh and it remains a dream destination for him. As the car moved towards Riyadh, our mind suddenly went back to the 7th century- the desert, the village, mountains, hills, and the immortal love story of Laila and Majnu.