Nizami Ganjavi «Leili and Majnun»
«Leyli and Majnun» is an immortal love story sometimes compared to «Romeo and Juliet» though it predates Shakespeare in oral tradition by more than 1,000 years. Today, it is still one of the most popular epics of the Middle East and Central Asia among Arabs, Turks, Persians, Afghans, Tajiks, Kurds, Indians, Pakistanis, and, of course Azerbaijanis. The story’s influence extends beyond Eastern tradition. If we go back to the Middle Ages at the time of the troubadours and crusaders of the 11th-13th centuries, we discover that much of Western courtly literature can be traced to Oriental literature which, in turn, has influenced more recent works such as the 13th century German epic by Gottfried von Strassburg «Tristan und Isolde,» the early 13th century French fable, «Aucassin et Nicolette,» as well as William Shakespeare works of the 16th century and innumerable others. The most popular version of this love story «Leyli and Majnun» was penned by Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209), who lived and died in Ganja, an ancient city in Azerbaijan where his shrine stands today. He wrote in Persian as was the literary custom of the day though few Persians today grant that Nizami was o f Azeri ethnicity.
Jean-Pierre Guinhut (pronounced geh-NOO), the French Ambassador to Azerbaijan, is an Orientalist at heart and a connoisseur of Eastern culture and philosophy. A polyglot, he is fluent in Azeri, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, English and French. For the last 30 years, he has both studied as well as worked in diplomacy in Egypt, Qatar, Iran, Libya and now Azerbaijan. His extensive experience and knowledge give him a broad scope that few contemporaries enjoy or can equal. Publishing such an article as Guinhut’s in Azerbaijan International is rather unusual for us as it is longer than our usual articles and tends to be more academic in style. However, we found Guinhut’s treatment of the topic to be extremely valuable. He not only places the poem in its historical regional context, but also sheds light on its various philosophical interpretations. In the process of
preparing this article, the Ambassador supplemented his own reference works with materials he discovered in Baku’s Institute of Manuscripts. Some of the miniatures featured on these pages are from treasures found there. This year, 1998, marks the 90th Jubilee of the first staging of the opera «Leyli and Majnun» by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov. Its first performance was staged on January 25, 1908 at the Taghiyev Music Comedy Theater in Baku. It was the first work ever created in the Italian musical genre in the Muslim world. Perhaps, some of you have enjoyed seeing the enactment of «Leyli and Majnun» at the Opera and Ballet Theater in Baku a few nights per year and listening to the talented Alim Gasimov play Majnun. Hajibeyov’s version of the story is an enormously successful synthesis between East and West, and between European classical music and Oriental culture. But we ask: What are the origins of this work? Coming from where? And meaning what? To whom? Let me share a few observations and memories about this landmark legend as a former scholar and amateur with the view of giving those of you who liked the play or those who may wish to see it, a hint of its Orientalist luster,