From their cover, American desert romance novels conspicuously depict the Arab man berobed in his loose Arabian attire and kuffiya and Igal headdress. This cultural and racial marker serves to arouse the fantasy of the reader towards exotic Arabia; the land of camels, sand dunes, despots, concubines, and harems in many orientalist accounts. The Arab man in these novels is more often than not a rapist rich alpha male who enslaves women, but easily succumbs to the seduction of the white heroine with whom he falls in love and indulges in endless erotic adventures. Cross-cultural sensual encounter in these novels serves to consolidate the old orientalist tropes about Arabia and Arabs, affirming that the Arab man is an atavist, quaint, and lawless barbarian.
As we read the romance stories of pre-Islamic and medieval Arabia, however, we find that the Arab man is by no means comparable to the image Western desert romance novels paint of him. These Arab romance accounts tell the tales of men with unparalleled grace and stunning courage and gallantry. Some of the ancient ones have gained worldwide popularity thanks to translation and film adaptations, but many others of no less aesthetic and moral value remain hitherto largely unheard of. It was in ancient Arabic poetry that these stories were enshrined and preserved.
If many literary genres have thrived elsewhere in the world, poetry was the main literary expression in the Arab culture until the introduction of modern prose literary forms in the beginning of the 20th century. During the pre-Islamic era, poetry was celebrated and cherished, and poets enjoyed a privileged position in society.
Poets were both feared and revered for their propagandist power and ability to influence and shape “public opinion.” The best seven odes of pre-Islamic Arabia were written on parchment with gold ink and hanged on high in the Kaaba in Mecca, something analogous with winning the Nobel Prize in literature today.
Literary historians and critics, however, assume that 70 percent of Arabic poetry is on romance. In both ancient and modern Arabic poetry, love narratives with romantic outpourings and vivid emotional sensibilities are predominantly present. In fact, poetry enshrined and preserved some of the most epic love stories in Arabia; stories in which both fact and fiction beautifully dovetail.
Antarah Ibn Shaddad and Ablah bint Malik
One of the oldest love stories of pre-Islamic Arabia took place in the tribe of Bano Abs (the second most powerful tribe after Quraysh). It was a story of forbidden love, deprivation, and racism that ended with the impossibility of marriage between Antarah and his much-loved Ablah.
Antarah Ibn Shaddad was born to an Arab king and a Black Ethiopian slave. However, because of Antarah’s skin color, his father denied him paternity and saw his blackness as a stigma. People also ostracized him and treated him like a slave despite his descent from the chief of the tribe. He writes:
If I am black, then that is the color of musk
And no cure is there for my black husk
But immorality is far from me though
As the sky is far from the earth below*
Antarah was known for his unrelenting spirit, physical strength, magnanimity, bravery, and fearlessness which he invested to regain his father and people’s recognition after their tribe fell under the raid of another rivaling tribe. Though it may sound hyperbolic, many accounts report that Antarah alone did what a whole band of warriors could do in defending his tribe. Antarah’s self-sacrifice, courage, and swordsmanship skills eventually gained him the recognition of his people and an advanced position in the army.
His fame and popularity grew in the tribe and much attention was drawn to his heroism as a warrior poet. In love, however, Antarah was not as fortunate as he was in war. His infatuation with his cousin Ablah bint Malik did not culminate in their conjugal union. His uncle asked for an impossible dowry of 1,000 rare “bird camels” bred only by King Al-Nuaaman Ibn Al-Mondir in Al-Hira, Mesopotamia. After doing his utmost and facing immeasurable ordeals on the way to Al-Hira and back, Antarah managed to bring the 1,000 camels but to no avail. This time his uncle offered Ablah to the white Arab knights in return for Antarah’s head.
There are different contradictory narratives as to whether Antarah and Ablah ultimately united or not, but most literary historians believe that the conflict between Antarah and his uncle escalated and his passionate longing for Ablah was never fulfilled. In one of his poems, Antarah laments his failed love story writing:
Oh Abla! Your frivolity has gone much afar
And your people today torture and scar me
Your love continued to grow though
Just as greyness sweeps over my youthfulness, O! *
Majnun (Qays) and Layla
Qays ibn al-Mulawah belonged to the tribe of Bani Amer al-Qaysiyah al-Adnaniyya in medieval Arabia. He lived in Najd in the seventh century AD during the Umayyad era. He was an Arab prince and poet whose love for Layla Al-Amiriya has become a legendary epic in the history of Arabic literature.
The story was adapted several times by many modern artists, playwrights, and filmmakers. Qays is mostly known by his nickname Majnun Layla (literally meaning the one who was driven mad by the love of Layla). The love story between Qays and Layla started when they were little playing kids growing together in the tribe of Bani Amer. Smitten, he writes in one of his poems:
Your love struck me, O Layla, when you were a little kid
When I was seven and even before I reached eight, yes it did!
They say Layla is in Iraq, sick and weary
O! if only I were the healer, oh beloved!
They said you are of a black Ethiopian mold
And if it were not for the blackness of the musk
It would not be sold like gold *
When Layla grew up, her father locked her inside and forbade their meeting. As the days went by, Qays’ love and affection for Layla grew increasingly intense and he started writing and reciting love poems about her in public. People would gather around him and listen with awe and amazement to his outpourings and platonic expressions of love and affection.
I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla
And I kiss this wall and that wall
It is not love of the walls that has enraptured my heart
But of the one who dwells within them.*
Conflicts between Layla and Qays’ families made it impossible for them to marry. Besides, it was a disgrace according to medieval Arab traditions for a girl to marry a poet who had mentioned her by name in his love poems. Layla was ultimately forced to marry a wealthier merchant called Ward Althaqafi belonging to the Thaqif tribe in Ta’if (modern day Taif in Saudi Arabia). When Qays heard of her marriage, he deserted his family and tribe and wandered in the wilderness where he lived in solitude and grief.
Brokenhearted, Qays used to roam the desert of Arabia north and south; he was seen by caravan merchants in Najd, Hijaz, and the Levant. When Layla heard of his departure to the desert, she was shattered in mind, body, and soul. She wanted to join him in the desert and spend the rest of her life with him but it was easier said than done. After the death of her husband she thought it was finally the time to leave in search of Qays but again strict Arab traditions forced her to remain homebound.
Lonely and pain-stricken, Layla succumbed to death without being able to meet her lover. When Qays heard the news from a friend, he journeyed until he reached her grave upon which he fell crying and mourning inconsolably. A few days later, Qays perished on a rock nearby his beloved’s grave. The following verses could hardly convey the depth of Qays’ love for Layla:
They tell me: “Crush the desire for Layla in your heart!”
But I implore thee, oh my God, let it grow even stronger.
My life shall be sacrificed for her beauty,
my blood shall be spilled freely for her,
and though I burn for her painfully, like a candle,
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 as it is!
The stories of love between Antarah and Ablah, and Qays and Layla had sad endings and unfulfilled desires. None of these couples could marry because of strict traditions, family, and tribal conflicts. The love stories handed down to us might have been far from the truth or simply exaggerated fictional oral narratives of common love stories. What is certain, though, is their aesthetic, poetic, and historical value.
The verses in which such stories were enshrined provide a deep insight into pre-Islamic and medieval Arab societies and their value systems. Unlike the stereotypical orientalist image of the Arab man as being barbarian and immoral, hankering ceaselessly after women and sex, romance stories of pre-Islamic and medieval Arabia represent him in more positive terms as being loyal, loving, self-sacrificial, romantic, and platonic.
*Translations from Arabic are by the author