A Story of Chaste-Love
Many literary historians and critics
regard the Umayyad era as the golden stage on which
Arabic literature - mainly poetry - prospered. In fact,
a few years after the Arabs replaced the inhospitable
desert with the green environment west of Arabia, all
aspects of their lives changed drastically.
In their former abodes, mostly tents, and surviving
years upon years of harsh circumstances, poetry was the
haven for the Arabs. A good poet was always regarded
with the highest esteem, as he constituted the first
line of defense of his tribe against other tribes; and
he was the one who extols their ancestors, praises their
achievements and their victories.
The Umayyad era differs from the Abbasid one in being
free from foreign influences, mainly Persian. As poetry
was an essential part of the daily life, it was greatly
affected by the changes of life style. It became more
polished, more romantic, and began to distance itself
from the old traditional doctrines, which were
characterized by lengthy and exaggerated descriptions of
battles, detailed introductory lines about camels and
horses, and attributing lots of merits, mostly
imaginative or overrated, to the poet or his tribe.
History records tell us little about female poetesses
before Islam, but this started to change gradually after
the dawn of Islam. The early days of the new religion
saw the emergence of several poetesses who were equal or
even better than their male counterparts. Most famous
among those were Al Khansa (Al Shindagha, issue 44
Jan.-Feb. 2002) and Laila Al Akhialiya, whose name
actually is Laila Bint Abdulla Bin Al Rahal. She comes
from Al Akhial branch of Bani A'amer tribe. In the early
days of Islam, Bani A'amer was among the first tribes to
embrace Islam. But in addition to that, they gained fame
because of several chaste (platonic)-love stories that
developed among their ranks.
Laila was a contemporary of many important events during
her lifetime, but what reached us of her poetry rarely
records any of these events. She was one of few poets to
have immediate access to the Courts of the Caliphs and
other prominent figures. In fact, most of her poetry
could be divided into two categories: Eulogy and
Love was then a very difficult equation. It had to be
kept secret, because a scandal would break out once a
man confesses his love to a woman. A father would not
give their daughters in marriage to the men they loved
for fear that it might be taken as proof of a forbidden
relationship between the two lovers. One tribe in
particular was so famous for such cases of platonic love
that its name, Othra was given to that type of love,
which eventually became known as othric love, or
Laila, as described by her contemporaries, was a dark
brunette of normal attractiveness, but had beautiful
black eyes, was one of those unlucky girls. She was in
her late teens, when she met a far cousin of similar
age, as he and his comrades were riding back to their
camp after a successful raid, and soon the two were in
deep love. He, Tawba Bin Al Himiar became a famous poet
who dedicated almost all his verses to his beloved, as
Tawba started talking about his love in his verses, and
soon the whole tribe was aware of the story.
Consequently, when Tawba asked for the hand of Laila in
marriage, he was turned down. To avoid further scandals,
her father gave his daughter to another man who was
After this marriage, Tawba used to come to a dune close
to his beloved's tent, and recite his poetry. She in
turn would sneak out, veiled, to listen, and sometimes,
to answer him in her own lines. Once her husband and his
clan decided to kill the lover, and set an ambush to
carry out their plan. When she learnt of this she
decided to warn Tawba, and she did that by going out
unveiled. The man understood the hint and fled to
Her husband died, but still her father would not allow
her to marry the man she loved, and again she was forced
into marrying another man by whom she had several
children. It was after her second marriage that Tawba
was killed while raiding another tribe. Laila received
the news calmly, "for my heart will never stop weeping,
although I have to keep my eyes dry". She wore black
till her death in mourning of her lover, and wrote
endless elegies for him.
That was in fact the incident that changed her life
fundamentally. Her elegies made her quite famous, and
she was soon ordered to go to the Courts to entertain
the Caliphs with her poetry.
At least 42 of her elegies were translated into English
and other European languages. Some of her best known
O eye, weep tears continually flowing,
weep for Tawba in hidden fear;
for a man of Bani Saeed that I suffer for.
What was it that took him to a stony grave,
from the pure grammar and the rhymes
like spearheads and a thing not shared?
And in another poem:
O, bravo the man you were, Tawba,
when the high points met and the low one were raised.
Bravo the man you were, O Tawba,
not being surpassed on a day you were attempting it.
O bravo the man you were, Tawba, as the fearful
came to you for defense, bravo the bravery.
Bravo the man, O Tawba, as neighbor and friend.
Bravo the man, O Tawba, as you excelled.
By my life, you are a man whose loss I weep
as ancestors, though gossips complain of him.
By my life, you are a man whose loss I mourn
increasing my waking for him no end.
By my life, you are a man whose loss I mourn
when great things multiply for the dying.
While lamenting the death of her sweetheart, Laila does
not forget her duty as the poetess of her tribe; the one
who must keep extolling and praising the merits and
achievements of her tribe:
We are those that came early at dawn
attacking steadily on Nukhail's day.
We destroyed the Malik al Jahjaha
forever; we stirred mourners for him.
We left no joy for the stragglers,
neither camps nor dripping blood.
We are Bani Khuwailid without compare;
the battle does not lie nor trifle.
For this, she became a spokeswoman of her tribe,
presenting its pleas, petitions and demands to the
Rulers, and getting rewarded personally as she would
include a praise to the Ruler within her presentation.
Laila became a familiar face in the Courts of Abdul
Malik Bin Marwan and his son Al Walid, the greatest of
the Umayyad Caliphs, and gained unrivalled popularity
with other famous leaders such as Al Hajjaj Bin Yousef
Al Thaqafi. In a later stage she was requested to act as
a judge between very famous poets to decide who of them
is better than the other. It is notable here that her
judgments were accepted without protest, which proves
her high standing in poetry. Several poets who are until
now regarded as the crème of the Umayyad era, such as Al
Farazdaq and Al Akhtal, admitted that her poetry is
superior to theirs.
One day, as the family was traveling, they passed close
to Tawba's grave. Laila decided to visit the grave
despite the opposition of her husband. She stopped her
camel there, and saluted the lost lover. Then she turned
to her family and said: "This is the first time he ever
lied to me.
What do you mean", they asked.
Didn't he say that if I salute him in his grave, he
would answer me, or would send a messenger to answer me?
Why he says nothing?
Suddenly, an owl that was hiding in a bush upon the
grave flew away, hitting the head of the camel with her
wing. The poor animal was startled and threw Laila down.
Her head hit a rock and she died on the spot. The
bereaved family decided to have mercy on the two lovers,
and buried her in a grave next to Tawba; thus ending one
of the most romantic love stories of Arabia.