Separating fact from fiction in an Arabic fairytale

by Dr Marlé Hammond

23 Apr 2020

Screengrab from the film Layla the Bedouin (1944, dir. Bahija Hafiz).
A screengrab close-up of Laylā from the film 'Laylā the Bedouin' (1944, dir. Bahija Hafiz)

Back in 1999, when I had first moved to the UK and was researching my PhD thesis on classical Arabic women’s poetry, a friend who was living in Tunisia sent me a book that quickly became my bible: an Arabic anthology of ancient women’s verse. The contents of the book, much like the figure on the cover – a beauty with big, brown, kohl-lined eyes drawing a veil over her face – were both alluring and inaccessible. Here was a volume featuring underrepresented and therefore highly valuable perspectives in poems, composed in an archaic vocabulary whose social and historical contexts were often obscure. 

Imagine my surprise when I came across a very familiar opening phrase: layta lil-Barrāq ʿaynan or “if only al-Barrāq had an eye to see”. This was the title of a song, a 1930s classic, by one of my favourite singers, the Syrian diva Asmahān. I had always found this song, which describes torture and abuse and the hands of men, to be a kind of feminist lament, but I had not realised that the song was based on a poem supposedly written by a certain Laylā Bint Lukayz, nicknamed ‘Laylā the Chaste’, who, according to the book my friend sent me, died c. 483 AD. How cool is that, I thought.

A knight in shining armour rescues a damsel in distress

Screengrab from the film Layla the Bedouin (1944, dir. Bahija Hafiz). A servant of the Persian king prepares his bride-to-be.
A screengrab from the film 'Laylā the Bedouin': a servant of the Persian king prepares his bride-to-be

Anecdotally, the story behind the poem held that it was a cry for help, addressed to the poet’s paramour and first cousin al-Barrāq, asking for him to rescue her from the clutches of a Persian king who wanted to marry her against her will. Al-Barrāq, upon hearing her words, rallies his Arab tribesmen to war and together they fight against the enemy for her sake. Eventually, through a combination of military prowess and ruse, al-Barrāq singlehandedly rescues her. The cousins marry. He discovers she is a virgin and they live happily ever after. However much it sounds like a fairy tale, the story was received as history in the 19th century. This pre-Islamic maiden became one of the earliest women poets known in the Arabic tradition. In the 20th century she inspired countless cultural products – musical, cinematic and literary – all claiming to be based on the truth, on real life, on history.

Debunking the damsel 

Screengrab from the film Layla the Bedouin (1944, dir. Bahija Hafiz). Laylā cries out for her father.
A screengrab from the film 'Laylā the Bedouin': Laylā cries out for her father

If Laylā’s story sounds too good to be true, that is because it is a fiction. As the Arabic tradition was orally transmitted until the age of codification in the ninth and 10th centuries, all pre-Islamic poets are at least somewhat suspect, but we generally consider them historical figures, albeit mired in legend. But the oldest sources for Laylā do not date back to this era; rather they date from the early 18th century, more than 1,200 years after she is said to have lived. Moreover, an analysis of the text of her legend reveals signs of the explicitly fictional imagination. For example, the name of the Persian king, Shahrmayh, does not match any known historical figure. Plausibility is also, at times, severely tested: at one point al-Barrāq organises a raid into enemy territory and only his friends named ‘Zayd’ are invited.

What this means for the history of Arabic fiction

The existence of Laylā’s story, whether as an epic or a romance, challenges common assumptions about Arabic literature. The most important of these is that idea that fiction, and especially sustained fictional narrative, is a genre that is for the most part alien to the classical Arabic tradition. Originally authored works of fiction to be found there are either episodic, such as the so-called maqāmāt, or they are heavily allegorical. It is only in folklore, such as the Epic of ʿAntar, that one finds lengthy make-believe narratives and even they often purport to be historical. 

Whilst Laylā’s story is anonymous, it seems to have been authored, purposefully, as fiction. We can even read it as a precursor to, if not an early example of, the Arabic novel. Whilst the novel is largely seen as a European innovation, ‘borrowed’ by the Arab world, here is a novelistic text that predates the kind of colonial encounters that shook up the Arabic literary scene during the Arab renaissance or nahḍa. Still it would seem to betray a European influence; for at its heart it features what the Italian critic and scholar Mario Praz identified as the archetypal heroine of the 18th-century European literary imagination: the persecuted maiden.

Dr Marlé Hammond is Senior Lecturer in Arabic Popular Literature and Culture at the School of African and Oriental Studies. She received a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship for her project 'From Fiction to Fact: the Curious Evolution of an Arabic Epic'. Her book The Tale of al-Barrāq Son of Rawḥān and Laylā the Chaste was published by Oxford University Press in April 2020.


Sign up to our email newsletters