This article was published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 17, 2012.


Layla and Majnun, Shireen and Farhad … these are the lovers of legend, whose romances have been told and retold for centuries. But how many know of the Persian poet Nezami Ganjavi who re-imagined these timeless tales? And how many know that he modelled his legendary heroines after his true beloved, a slave girl named Afaq?

“Under the dark shadow of her hair, her face was a lamp or rather a torch, with ravens weaving their wings around it; And she really did not need rouge since even the milk she drank turned into the colour of roses on her lips and cheeks.”

That is how her lover described her, and the lover was no ordinary man. He is the one who gave the world the legends of Shirin, Farhad, Layla and Majnun. He was the Persian poet Nezami Ganjavi (1141-1209) and the woman whose flowing hair he compares to the Ravens’ ebon wings was Afaq.

Nezami’s worldview was inspired by Sanai, a famous poet from Ghazna who had declared: “The pious man combines two in one but the lover combines three in one.” Here, “two in one” is a reference to the individual and God while “three in one” alludes to the individual, society and God. Hence, Sanai gave birth to a trend in literature where the beloved represented the spirit of collective life.

Until then, Sufis had taught detachment from the world, but inspired by the vision of Sanai, a young Nezami felt that the message could be developed further for discovering a unity between the individual, society and God. It was this view that he applied to his first book, which he finished at the age of 25 in 1176 AD, and about which he declared that it contained “resources for becoming a dervish as well as a king.” Quite aptly, he called it Makhzanul Asrar (The Treasure of Secrets).

In keeping with contemporary tradition, Makhzan was dedicated to a local ruler named Bahram Shah. Since printing had not been introduced in those days, the “publishing” of a book meant dedicating it to a king or a noble who would not only reward the labour but may also want to disseminate a book that contained a preface in his praise. The rewards offered to Nezami for his labours included a slave girl named Afaq.

Nezami fell in love with her, freed her and married her. In an age when men could easily keep harems, he was amazingly monogamous and remarried only after Afaq’s death. One can imagine the passion which the pioneer of love poetry must have possessed, but how can one estimate the allure of the woman whose soul earned, received and (undoubtedly) deserved all this passion?

Actually, that is the catch. When Nezami picked the folklore of Shirin and Farhad for remaking the heroine in the mould of Afaq, he described Shirin as ‘the soul of Iran’. Hence, by analogy, the stonecutter Farhad would become the common citizen who literally moves mountains for the sake of that soul. Shirin’s marriage with Emperor Khusrau Pervez and her falling in love with him would signify that nations were identified by their rulers in that ancient world, which the advent of Islam was bringing to a close.

There was something about either Afaq or Nezami, or both, due to which the poet’s love for her did not remain restricted to the physical existence of a woman. It instead turned into a living experience of the kind of organic unity that makes the death and resurrection of the entire humanity akin to the death and resurrection of an individual.

In 1180 AD, Afaq died before the epic Khusrau-o-Shireen could be finished, and while Nezami did remarry, it seems he could never get over her memory. When asked by King Sherwan Shah to write an epic about the Arabian folk tale of Layla and Majnun, which was in turn probably based on a true story that had taken place four hundred years earlier, Nezami was reluctant. However, young Muhammad bin Ilyas, his son from Afaq, also showed an interest in the story and hence the soul of Iran that had ‘died’ as Shirin came back to life as “the spirit of all human beings” personified by Layla. She also was Afaq, since the “souls” of all cultures were one, as Nezami was going to show in the book he would write after Layla Majnun.

By the time he finished Layla Majnun (1188 AD), in which the heroine did not fall in love with the prince (unlike Shirin), signifying that civilisation was gradually moving away from the kings, Nezami had lost his second wife as well.

The next work, Haft Paykar (The Seven Beauties), featured seven princesses from different lands narrating seven stories. Each story depicted a stage of self-development equally applicable to individuals as well as societies. These stages could be revisited many times.

Nezami remarried for the last time and started his final epic Iskandernameh (The Book of Alexander), a grand combination of ingredients from East, West, Iran, Arabia, Mesopotamia, India and many other climes. Perhaps Nezami was now describing a “final combination” of humanity that might be possible sometime in a distant future. It’s a testament to his vision that this sort of cultural and physical fusion, albeit incomplete, can be seen in the great melting pots of the world.

When his third wife died while he was writing the last epic, he declared that each book had cost him a wife. He had remained loyal to each of his wives while they lived, but the one who assumed a life of her own beyond death was Afaq. If the souls of Shirin and Layla were the collective ego of humanity, their outward forms were modelled on Afaq in the works of Nezami. While her spirit has already been granted a form of immortality, her physical form also found a way of surviving.

In March 1923, Nezami’s grave in his native city of Ganja (now in Azerbaijan) was opened up to move his remains to a newly built mausoleum. Inside were found not one but two skeletons: one of a man and the other of a woman. Experts believed the latter skeleton to be that of Afaq’s, and it was also moved to the new grave along with the remains of the poet himself. On the new grave, someone could have even placed the epitaph that alludes to the combined grave of Layla and Majnun at the end of Nezami’s version of that story:

“Two lovers lie awaiting in this tomb
Their resurrection from the grave’s dark womb.
Faithful in separation, true in love,
One tent will hold them in the world above.”