Layla, Majnun, Clapton and Me.
1.2.10 30 °C
Every time a Turkish person hears my name they ask the same question: Oh, Leilla? Where are you from? They seem disappointed, almost offended, when they hear my name's inspiration: Eric Clapton. But why? Surely they cannot dislike one of the most influential guitarists of all time. Perhaps, full of Turkish pride, they wish that my name were more relevant to their grand Ottoman history. Little do they know by being named after one of the greatest rock and roll songs in history my name actually predates the Ottoman Empire and most of the Middle East as it exist today, dating back to the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century.
In fact, my name was indirectly inspired by Persian poetry, as this was the inspiration for the legendary song. Clapton had fallen in love with Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend George Harrison, and was completely consumed by it. Another friend of Clapton's who was in the process of converting to Islam, Ian Dallas, introduced him to the 12th century story of Layla and Majnun, written by the Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi.
Little known in the West, Layla and Majnun is one of the most popular stories in the Islamic wold. Considered by some to be the original Romeo and Juliet, it has inspired legends, poems, songs and epics from the Causcasus to Africa and from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. As is common with Turkish names, the hero’s name mirrors his fate; 'Majnun Layla' means ‘driven mad by Layla.’ The story also inspired a Turkish colloquialism: to "feel like Layla" is to feel completely dazed, as might be expected of a person who is literally madly in love. The story also struck a chord (so to speak) with Clapton and inspired the name of his song, and indirectly, the name of me.
As the story goes, Qays was a beautiful boy who met his fate, Layla (named after the Arabic word for night for her large, dark eyes), at the age of ten. At that young age they both succumbed to a devastating love that would last their entire lives. Here there are differing versions of the story. In one, Layla's father had already promised her to another man and thus refused Qays' request to marry Layla. In the alternative, their love was noticed by others and became the object of gossip and scorn, so Qays refrained from seeing Layla and harming her reputation further. His heart broke and he slipped into melancholy until he heard that Layla's tribe had denied her right to see him in order to protect her (and their) honour.
Upon hearing that their love was forbidden he tumbled into madness; Qays became Majnun. "A madman he became - but at the same time a poet, the harp of his love and of his pain." Poetry became his salvation from the sorrow of heartbreak, the same instrument used by Clapton 13 centuries later.
Majnun retreated into the wilderness where he became unkempt and did not know good from evil. His father took him on a pilgrimage to Mecca to seek Allah's help in freeing him, but his madness only intensified. He struck the Kaaba and cried, "none of my days shall ever be free of this pain. Let me love, oh my God, love for love's sake, and make my love a hundred times as great as it was and is. Love is all I have, all I am, and all I ever want to be!" He thus continued to wander "like a drunken Lion" chanting poems of Layla's beauty and his love for her. He remained in the wilderness, preferring the company of animals to men despite the pleas of his mother and father as they lay on their death beds. Many people came to hear him and wrote down the poems he spontaneously spoke.
These poems eventually reached Layla, who had been holding their love quietly. As the poem goes, "she lived between the water of her tears and the fire of her love, yet her lover's voice reached her. . . . No tent curtain was woven so closely as to keep out his poems. Every child from the bazaar was singing her verses; every passer-by was humming one of his love-songs, bringing Layla a message from her beloved."
Layla refused suitors and instead wrote answers to Majnun's poems and cast them to the wind. Eventually a passer-by realized their hidden meaning and for whom they were intended, so delivered Layla's replies to Majnun in the hopes he would be rewarded with some of the poems that had become so popular. "Thus many a melody passed to and fro between the two nightingales, drunk with their passion."
Eventually Layla was married to another but refused conjugality. Majnun heard of her marriage and of her faithfulness. You can almost picture Majnun in the wilderness, scratching Clapton's lyrics into the dirt:
Like a fool, I fell in love with you,
Turned my whole world upside down.
Let's make the best of the situation
Before I finally go insane.
Please don't say we'll never find a way
And tell me all my love's in vain.
After the death of Layla's husband she openly mourned her love for Majnun and died shortly thereafter. Madder still with grief, Majnun died at Layla's tomb and was buried beside her.
Clapton was profoundly moved by the story of the boy who fell in love with a beautiful, unavailable woman and descended into madness without her, as it mirrored his own life. Clapton wrote 'Layla' based on his reaction to the story and hoped its message would convince Boyd to leave Harrison for him. Eventually she did just that, but the marriage was not to last.
His is but one chapter in an extensive list of great works inspired by the 7th century story, a list which I am happy to report includes me. So, my apologies to all the locals who mistook me for a Turk, but as it turns out, my story goes back to a time when the Ottoman Empire and Islam itself were but babies in the womb.