Valentine, the story goes, was a Christian during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius the Goth. He was caught marrying Christian couples and helping persecuted Christians in Rome, whereby he was promptly arrested and killed. As a result of his martyrdom, he was anointed the Patron Saint of Lovers. (There are other patronages attributed to him also.) Here in the United States and in memory of Saint Valentine, we celebrate February 14 of every year as the Day of Lovers.
The Twentieth Century was a dismal period for the Arab and Middle Eastern worlds. Colonialism, the establishment of Israel, the rise of radical Islam, the continuous and pernicious meddling of the West, as well as the mishandling and ineptness of regional and state leaders of their own people and affairs saw to it that the image of that part of our globe became quite pathetic really, giving off the impression that it has always been so! It wasn’t.
The past century also saw the proliferation of books, movies and music of the Western World celebrating love and lovers. Romeo and Juliet thus became our metaphor for love. I, as many educated Middle Eastern and other people, who had to memorize some of Shakespeare’s, Browning’s and Byron’s poems, forgot that once upon a long time ago, in our stories and literature, we were celebrating love and lovers too, and that we had our own very compelling symbols of love.
Two of the most familiar romantic stories in the Arab-speaking world that have enthused poets, singers and writers for centuries, and, many say, and I agree, that they are even more compelling than Romeo and Juliet are “Kais and Layla” and “Antar and Abla.”
The story goes that Layla was a very beautiful, rich and socially well-positioned young woman who fell in love with Kais who was of a lowlier social stratum than his beloved. Her father declined his offer of marriage, and, rather, married her off to a socially prominent and rich man who moved the newlyweds from Saudi Arabia’s Najd region to Iraq. Layla however, continued to pine for Kais married though she was and, eventually, died from the heartache and pain of her unrequited love. The same was happening to the love-stricken and heart-broken Kais who left Najd and was forlornly roaming around in the desert for years pining for Layla. Ergo, he then came to be known as Al-Majnun (The Madman), and whenever in modern times there is any man who loves a woman to that painful extent we say he is: Majnun Layla (Crazy for Layla). Kais, the story goes, eventually came upon Layla’s grave and, only after thorough searching by his friends, was found to be lying dead right next to it.
In both the stories of Romeo and Juliet and Kais and Layla the young lovers died of grief and heartache; but whereas Shakespeare was merely writing a moralistic play, Kais and Layla are believed to have really existed, their story passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next until it was written. An interesting factoid is that the well-known singer, Eric Clapton, who had unrequited love for his friend George Harrison’s wife, Patti, (whom he later married) apparently wrote his hit song Layla based upon that Arabian romance in which he envisioned himself as Majnun Layla!
Then there was Antar, whose mother was an Ethiopian slave and whose father was an important tribal chief. Antar was strong, handsome and dark-skinned like his mother and, though he grew up in his father’s compound, he was treated like any of the other slaves by the father who sired him, as well as by everyone else. Meanwhile, he had fallen in love with the beautiful Abla and she with him. However, a slave could not marry a free young woman. So when their tribe was invaded, his father, knowing of Antar’s feelings towards Abla, as well as of his warrior attributes and battle prowess told him: Defend your tribe and I will grant you freedom. Antar valiantly did. The enemies were vanquished and he was granted his freedom upon which he immediately married his lady love.
Then, of course, there is the Prophet himself whose love story with Khadije his first wife, remained a classic tale of romance for centuries. Khadije was an astute trader traveling by camel all across the desert bargaining, buying and selling. She was fifteen years older than the Prophet, to whom The Book (The Holy Koran) had not yet been revealed when she met and employed him. Soon enough, Khadije fell in love with her dashing young employee and daringly proposed to him whence they got married. Though he married others later, Khadije remained his favorite and most beloved wife until her death.
All these stories bring to my mind a personal and touching romance.
The date was around 1920, the waning of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and the imminent takeover of that part of the world by the British and French Empires. There, in a very tiny village called Salt (now a big city), serving as a sort of oasis for traders coming in from the hinterland that was the vast Arabian desert and heading towards Palestine, lived my grandmother Soraya at her Christian Bedouin’s family compound. (The Crusaders had passed through Salt at some point and had converted most of its inhabitants through rape and force to Christianity.) Soraya was around sixteen years of age and betrothed to her cousin, as was the tribal custom. One day, her brother becomes very sick and a doctor is called for. That Lebanese doctor happened to have been conscripted to the Ottoman Army and was headquartered in the vicinity of Salt. He arrived and took care of the patient and settled his eyes on the beautiful Soraya whence he fell in love immediately! Friends from the area told him that she was already betrothed. However, after frequent visits to the compound to check on his patient and to get another furtive glance at his beloved, he nevertheless plucked up all his courage and asked her father for her hand in marriage. Naturally in such situations, he was politely told that a reply would be forthcoming. Her egalitarian father later asked Soraya whether she preferred to be married to her cousin or to the doctor. She indicated that her preference was the doctor, whom she, too, had been secretly eyeing! Meanwhile, the tribal chiefs and elders met and were told of the proposal. A furor took place at the compound! This was betrayal! This was reason for a crime of passion! How could her father, a tribal elder himself, allow his daughter to make such a choice? So Soraya was sent away for safety to a nearby convent where she remained until the turmoil settled down, which eventually it did, allowing the doctor, who became my grandfather, to carry off his bride to a happy life in Palestine.
There is no culture, no civilization, no people in the entire world who do not have their romantic (and other) stories and poems. From the days of the Greek Eros and even before that, male to female love has always proven its unshakeable universality; a motivator of passionate crimes; a source for dramatic heartbreak, as well as incredible joy! Poets say that mischievous fairies often sprinkle that luminescent and magical stardust around igniting Love, and . . . what, oh what, would life on our planet be like without that enchanting feeling?
Happy Valentine’s Day!