'I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla /
And I kiss this wall and that wall /
It's not Love of these houses that has taken my heart /
But of the One who dwells in those houses'
- Majnoun Layla
Similar to Romeo and Juliet, Majnoun Layla is the tragic love story of
a Bedouin poet of the 7th century. He fell in love with Layla, whose
"hair was dark as layl [night]." The poet was not permitted to marry
her and went majnoun [mad].
Almost every Arab woman grew up on this poem, expecting this kind of
"mad" love in her own life. But of course, in their minds their own
love stories will end in a happily-ever-after.
I was no different.
In an all-girls school in Saudi Arabia, we were just 15 years old when
we were first taught this poem. Some of us even memorized this
complicated long series of anguished verses.
Around the same time, just one wall away on the other side of our
school, was the all-boys section. They too were being taught Majnoun
It was near that wall that I had what my diary entry calls "my first
real love story." It lasted about five minutes, and it involved a
random boy I never actually saw. He threw me a piece of crumpled paper
with one line: "I love your hair." I had pixie-like hair then.
I had gone over near the wall to get a basketball that had gone out of
our playing field and hit the "boys' wall" in mid-game.
I was the co-captain and popular among the girls, and often would get
letters from them. But when I received this "love letter" I felt
annoyed, excited and angry all at the same time.
I crumpled up the paper again, and threw it back over the wall. I am
not sure why I reacted that way, but I soon regretted not keeping that
In most societies where genders don't mix outside of family, the
relationship between males and females are often tense, muddled with
imaginary expectations and fears about what the other gender is really
People bank on stereotypes and what they have been told represents a
"good man" or a "good woman." They search for those ideals when they
meet. From how a partner should look to what he should say, the list
went on, and was all scripted in our young minds back then.
My father is a former professional athlete, muscular and fit, who
would always be working out in a corner of our house. So I imagined my
future husband to be like him or, if I was lucky, looking more like
I don't think Arnie realizes just how much he influenced Arab boys and
girls in the 1980s and early 1990s.
When Arnie -- with his long hair, animal skins, armor and horned
helmet -- got his big break swooshing his sword about in the 1982 movie
Conan the Barbarian, he left a mark on a whole group of us. I thought,
"Wow, now that is the ideal man," in terms of body shape anyway.
And somehow the muscular man we imagined would also have to be
"sensitive" like a poet, like the writer of Majnoun Layla and other
great poets of the Arab world.
Looking back, I see that before the age of internet and exposure, we
were quite innocent and sheltered. We simply didn't understand the
reality of things and how complicated intimate relationships really
The word "sex" was never mentioned directly, and more scientific words
like "copulation" were rushed through unexplained in our biology
classes. That was the curriculum in most Arabic and Islamic schools in
Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries.
Marriage was presented as the ultimate goal of every human being;
without it one would die "alone and miserable." In Islam, by getting
married you "complete half" of your religion, according to Prophet
We were encouraged by our teachers to get married as soon as possible,
for "men don't like older girls."
So when one of the students in our classroom stopped showing up, we
were told to be "happy" for her as she got married. She had just
turned 15. She was indeed one of the prettiest girls in our class, of
mixed Saudi and Syrian origin. She was often called Snow White, the
fairest of us all.
The obsession with fair skin and blond hair has long existed across
cultures, so it was nothing new that she was considered the most
beautiful cause of her blondish hair, light skin color and green
Being more of a tomboy, I was often dismissed and warned that if I
don't become more "ladylike" I would be rejected by all mothers of
sons, who often came to our school's grounds hunting for brides for
I was into sports and into building cupboards back then, too busy for
this marriage stuff. For some odd reason, I had this urge to become a
I was lucky to have parents who allowed me to take up odd hobbies, for
they believed these things "build character."
But most of my relatives and friends were not this lucky. Their focus
was on getting married as soon as they could.
When we heard the news about Snow White, we clapped and whistled for
the absent bride.
The teacher took us over to our friend's new home. We went in a school
bus to her mansion in the private-villas part of the coastal city of
When we arrived, we were given the royal treatment, each of us getting
a gift bag filled with perfumes and toys. The bride sat in the centre
of a gold and white majlis, a special sitting area. She looked much
older with her face done up in full make-up.
She kept the same smile the whole time we were there. We chatted away
excitedly, firing at her all sorts of random questions, which she
never really answered.
"Can we see a picture of Prince Charming?" we kept asking. When the
massive framed photo was brought in by two maids, it was the only time
the room went silent for a few minutes.
This was no Arnie, no Cinderella's Prince Charming. We saw a really
old wrinkly man, whose traditional dress -- a white dishdasha [long
robe], with a matching head gear (ghutra) and black and gold bsht
[cloak], didn't manage to hid his unfit body and big belly.
Some of us managed a "congrats" or two, but most of us weren't that
diplomatic and simply laughed. I cringe when I recall how I made fun
of his "Muppet-like eyebrows."
The poor bride couldn't hide her tears, and broke down there and then.
Before we could do anything about cheering her up, her mother-in-law
descended from God knows where. We were quickly ushered out and blamed
for making the bride tired with our "silliness."
But before we all left, I spotted the husband leering at us from one
of the balconies. I pointed him out to my close friend, and on cue, we
both stuck our tongues at him and yelled: "You ugly!"
My views on marriage have changed drastically since that time, but I
still feel that there is a widespread perception that Arab and Muslim
men in general are all poetic mad lovers. But then, once they actually
marry, they become "practical husbands," with certain expectation of
what the wife should be like.
Of course this is a generalization, but it would be good to be aware
of this next time you wait for your Majnoun Layla.