AMMAN – Every February 14th, people around the world come together to celebrate Valentine’s day. Heart-shaped pralines, marriage proposals or just simple drives into the sunset are different representations of love to each and every one of us.

When it’s time to spread a little extra love, what better way to do it than with riding the wave of art? We looked into the traditional love stories of Arabia’s most well renowned star-crossed lovers to see how different modern artists paid homage to those long lost loves. In calligraphy, sculpture or painting, somehow these different renditions give faces to the names of Layla, Qais and others.

Jamil and Buthayna:

eL Seed, The Mirage, 2020, 16×16 m, Photo courtesy of Wael Baqer.

Our recent talk of the town was the desert X Al-Ula exhibition in Saudi Arabia, which featured a desert playground for 14 regional and international artists creating thought-provoking installations. French-Tunisian artist eL Seed was one of the contributors, championing his calligraphic piece titled The Mirage.

Inspired by a poem from Jamil Bin Ma’amar, a poet from the Bani ‘Udhra tribe, eL Seed‘s calligraphic installation was placed in the middle of an ancient Saudi oasis.  Bani ‘Udhra was known to pioneer the poetic style of ghazal poetry, which is an element of Islamic literature that approaches themes of love in a lyrical style. Jamil’s poetry reflects the hopelessness of intense platonic love that is only breakable by one’s own death.

eL Seed explains the story behind his work on his Instagram account, where he talks about Jamil and Buthayna’s love story. Buthayna was a woman from a tribe residing near Bani ‘Udhra in Hejaz whom Jamil was deeply infatuated by since childhood. Thanks to Jamil’s flattering love poems regarding women, he was given the reputation as a ladies’ man, a title that Buthayna’s father utilized to drive her away from him. Eventually, she married another man, while still longing to be together with Jamil again despite the tough circumstances imposed on them. 

This desire to be reunited was the drive behind eL Seed naming the work The Mirage, because of its relieving nature and the sense of comfort it brings about. It provokes the same feeling of when one finds an oasis after spending a long time in the scorching heat of the desert. 

If only the prime of the youth were new and old times come back,
should my poetry spend a night in Wadi AlQura,
then I’m happy.
أَلا لَيْتَ شِعري هَلْ أَبِيتَنَّ لَيلةً
بِوادِي القُرَى إنِّي إذاً لَسَعِيدُ 
eL Seed, Declaration exhibition view at Tashkeel, 2014. Photo courtesy of Tashkeel.

Being raised around Tunisian dialect of Arabic language, eL Seed gradually grew interested in the usage of standard Arabic and started familiarizing himself with famous Arabic texts. 

In his pursuit of becoming more fluent at standard Arabic, he found solace in classical poems, leading him to Nizar Qabbani, one of the most renowned and romantic contemporary poets of Arab history. Qabbani inspired eL Seed’s setup of Declaration at the Tashkeel in 2014. Declaration by eL Seed is one of his many wall-based artworks addressed as calligraphy with messages of peace and coexistence, but with this piece, the artist embodies love through Qabbani’s words to his wife Balqees

Do not worry, oh beautiful lady
As long as you are in my poems and in my words
You may grow up as the years pass … But
You will never grow up … On my pages.
لا تقلقي  يا حلوة الحلوات
 ما دمت في شعري وفي كلماتي
 قد تكبرين مع السنين … وإنما
لن تكبري أبدا على صفحاتي

Scheherazade and Shahrayar:

Mohammad Ghani Hikmat, Scheherazade and Shahrayar, 1971, Bronze, image courtesy of The New York Times

Heading to Iraq, we come to explore a work of similar sculptural medium with a different story; Scheherazade and Shahrayar’s sculpture set in the heart of Baghdad. This 1971 masterpiece created by sculptor Mohammad Ghani Hikmat is centered in Abu Nawas Park. It is a time machine that transcends its spectator back to the 9th century. Hikmat was known as a contributor to local urban communities in Iraq and was a dynamic advocate of the revival and preservation of Iraqi heritage, art and culture. 

Unfortunately following the Iraq War in 2003, many cultural and historical landmarks were destroyed and one of its drastic events was sadly the defacement of Scheherazade and Shahrayar’s sculpture; causing the King’s left hand to be chopped off as an aftermath of war. 

As legend says, Scheherazade of the Middle Eastern 1001 Nights was the daughter of Shahrayar’s vizier. Their story starts off on a dark note, with Shahrayar marrying a different woman each night and then executing her the next day. When Scheherazade came to the picture, she knew that in order to survive, she had to find her way to his heart by narrating stories and stalling their climaxes, while promising to reveal their endings the following night. This went on for 1001 nights, and by that time, he had become truly fond of her. Eventually, the lovers were married and spent the rest of their nights together. 

Where war was witnessed, Baghdad still protects the statues standing tall in the park, and the sculptures remain carrying on their conversation eternally. The work celebrates Shahrayar’s boundless listening, Schehrazade’s wit meshed with her articulate notion of storytelling and the hidden tricks of escaping what would have been her doomed destiny. 

Qais and Layla:

In the Middle East, it is common to come across the references Majnun Layla. The original story stems back to Nizami Ganjavi, a Persian author born in what is today known as Azerbaijan. The two characters, Qais and Layla, share the same tangent of events from Buthayna and Jamil’s encounters in Hejaz. In the storyline, reckless and lovesick Qais meets the courteous Layla at the Maktab, they both fall in love at first sight, and Layla later becomes Qais’ protagonist in his poems. He addresses all his writings to her as a sign of devotion and admiration. After Qais’ failed attempt at receiving blessings from Layla’s father, the disapproval shatters him and she is married off to another man under her family’s will. Qais then leaves into the wilderness, where he continued to trade letters with Layla. Some other renditions of their story state that Qais was left reciting poetry to himself alone in the wilderness with animals as his companions. Considering the tale’s multiple versions, some editions include Layla’s death from heartbreak and others where Majnun dies near her grave out of misery. 

Mahmoud Hammad, Kais Wa Laila, 1960, Tempera on panel, 48×30 cm, courtesy of artnet.

Various visual depictions of Qais and Layla’s story were made across the Arab world by many artists. Mahmoud Hammad’s version stands as one of the most captivating sights. Pioneering modern Syrian art, Hammad was a participant in the Hurrafiyya art movement, which portrayed artwork combining Islamic calligraphy and modern art elements. It was the highlight of Arab art in the 20th century, in a time when nations were still fighting for independence, detaching from colonialism and being influenced by Sufism.

In his oil painting, Hammad uses cool colors and subtle facial features to show us the two lovers’ personas. With the simplicity of the painting’s composition, Hammad leaves his Kais in the background highlighting Laila in the front. The lovers’ postures tell us about the dynamic of their relationship. Laila at the forefront of the painting evokes dominance and an aura of feminine power. Kais, in the background, is fixated on Laila, directing his gaze only to her like an echo constantly longing to be heard. Moreover, the proximity between the two juxtaposes the distance forced between them.

Kais defines his whole world through Laila, and has an ongoing fear of her loss that tears him inside; accurately suggesting the name Majnun. Indeed, he is “crazy” about Laila and would sacrifice parts of himself for her. Moreover, the contrast between the colors on Laila’s face could suggest two sides of Laila’s personality, with the sense of her living a double life; one with her family and one with her lover. The way she carries herself is more nonchalant and carefree, whereas Kais’ restlessness says that he has his mind busy about how to please Laila

Dia Azzawi, Majnun Layla (Temptation), 1995, Acrylic on canvas, 161 x 201 cm, courtesy of Azzawi.

Another interpretation of Qais and Layla’s story lies in the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar. Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi, who also partook in the Hurafiyya movement, merges different colors and patterns into a representation of the lovers’ complex journey of reunion. Being an activist of promoting contemporary thinking, Azzawi formed the New Vision Group; which created a network among fellow Arab artists for artistic ideological unity. 

Here, Layla and Qais are seen in a more interactive light with each other, speaking with their eyes from afar, which alluded to the letters they send each other, and the poems Qais dedicates to her. Again, Layla is the overpowering figure, drawn larger covering most of the composition to mirror the external problems that are bigger than her; such as her family’s perception of Qais. Azzawi’s use of a vibrant colour scheme reflects Qais and Layla’s devotion and the happiness they were willing to blindly share if they were bound to be together. Although separated by a chunky yellow frame, Qais’ look is more intent and fully absorbed in Layla’s presence. He is left in a more abstracted formation than Layla, conveying his disillusionment with their fate.

Antar and Abla:

Laila Shawa, Antar and Abla, 1975, Oil and gold leaf on canvas, courtesy of Laila Shawa.
Laila Shawa, Antar and Abla, 1989, Acrylic on canvas, 76×102 cm, image courtesy of

Rewinding back to a more nomadic era, the story of Antar and Abla goes back to the Bedouin times when warrior Antar, the son of a slave, was in love with Princess Abla. The Hanged Poem of Antara discusses strife towards winning Abla’s heart, describing her lips as an “ungrazed meadow, whose herbage the rain has guaranteed”. Palestinian feminist artist Laila Shawa deduces inspiration from the ancient poem of Antara and frames it into her Antar and Abla renditions from 1975 and 1989. In both works, the lovers are envisioned as Arabian horses running wild and free, detached from the burdens of reality. The contrast of the horse’s colours are used as commentary on the lovers’ conflicting social classes. They are trying to overcome the obstacles placed in the way of their innocent love through their grace and speed at chasing their future together. 

She passes her evenings and her mornings on the surface of a well-stuffed couch, while I pass my nights on the back of a bridled black horse.
تُمْسِي وَتُصْبِحُ فَوْقَ ظَهْرِ حَشِيَّةٍ وَأَبِيتُ فَوْقَ سَرَاةِ أدْهَمَ مُلْجَـمِ

Through the beauty of language, poets from and around Arabia depicted star-crossed love stories in their purest and most honest forms. Visual artists translated this beauty through visual metaphors and released the work into the world for spectators to dwell on their meanings.

From the artmejo family, we wish you and your loved ones a love-filled Valentine’s Day.

Read more from Zina Qabbani.
Image courtesy indicated in captions.