Fairy Tales and Long Tails: Middle Eastern & Arab Romances #1

We’ve all heard the classic, archetypal story of Romeo and Juliet (and it’s various versions) and how their romance ends in legendary tragedy. I thought it would be appropriate to write about similar legends which have been carried down through the centuries, but from different cultures, and which are still spoken about today. Some of these stories are pretty passionate (compare Edward and Belle’s pangs of the heart-strings to this lot, for example), and most of them are quite tragic stories, which is probably one reason they have resounded over the years. Here are a couple which are probably the most well known stories in the Middle East, being sung today in stories, being portrayed in paintings and being slipped into popular references and films.

Heer Ranjha
Firstly is the most famous Punjabi romanctic legend which comes to mind, and one that is still depicted in story-telling and pictures today. Heer is a beautiful young woman of the prestigious Jat caste, and from a wealthy family, while Ranjha is the youngest of the four brothers (also from the same caste), who spends his time playing the flute and basically skiving away from working the lands. After an argument with his brothers (presumably about him being a lazy sod), he storms away from his village and travels around until he reaches the village where Heer resides. Offering to look after her father’s cattle, Heer becomes mesmerised by his flute-playing (a olden day Justin Beiber fan, perhaps), and they begin to meet secretly for years. Eventually they are caught by Heer’s uncle, and she is married off to another man (which was always the best answer in those days). A heartbroken Ranjha wanders the Punjabi hills as a jogi until he again finds the place where Heer is living, and manages to convince her parents to let them get married. Mr Meddling-Uncle again interferes, however, and poisons Heer on the wedding day, leaving a heartbroken Ranjha to follow suit and poison himself too.

Layla and Majnun
This is a similar love story, this time of Arab/Middle Eastern descent, and has several (often embellished) versions. The version more familiar to me is one in which the lovers meet as young children in school, where ‘Majnun’ (which means mad-man, his real name was actually Qais) used to get beated by the schoolmaster for not paying attention to schoolwork. Yet wherever he was beaten, Layla would be the one who bled his wounds. Sounds Stigmata-type creepy, but it’s meant to be romantic. This led to a lot of uproar about devilry and a whole lot of scaremongering, and the children were seperated until they met in their youth (so they were teenagers really) and carried on their love affair. Along came another meddling relative, this time in the form of Layla’s brother Tabrez, who refused to let them get married, leading to a fight in which Tabrez is murdered by the crazed-with-love Majnun. The standard punishment is, of course, a good stoning or two, which Majnun is subjected to until Layla agrees to marry another man to save him. See a pattern here? Layla is married off (cattle again) while the boyfriend is exiled to the deserts. Layla’s hubby, however, got fed up of Layla pining after Majnun like an emo, and, with his men, went to hunt him down and kill him. The climax of this story is that when Hubby kills Majnun, at the exact same miment, Layla also dies.
The less dramatic version of this story is pretty much the same except for the mystic bleedings and the lovers both dying after writing a lot of poetry.

There’s a few more stories (to come soon!) which follow a similar theme of unreconciled, noble love and a lot of wandering around/soul-searching/tending sheep which is often the results in tragic endings.

Can any of you think of any more popular romances from non-Western cultures?

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