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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 Romance.

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 virginal love!

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 she did.

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 extremely jealous.

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 safety.

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 elegies are:

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.



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