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A Persian love story and the creation of a rock classic

What is the name of the medieval Persian poet Nezami (✞ ca. 1209) doing on the cover of an Eric Clapton rock album? Asghar Seyed Gohrab, associate professor at the Institute for Area Studies, talks about it in a new blog for the Leiden Medievalists Blog.

“Layla, you got me on my knees”

... A recognizable piece of chorus from Eric Clapton's love song 'Layla'. He wrote it as a declaration of love to Pattie Boyd, wife of Beatles member George Harrison. An unattainable love that almost drove him to insanity. But who would have thought that the origin of the song lies in a medieval love story? Persian poet Nezami wrote Layla and Majnun as early as 1188. But when Clapton received a more recent, free translation of the story from a friend, he immediately identified himself with the pain, desires, frustration, intense madness and poetic virtuosity of the protagonist Majnun. The story inspired him to eventually take refuge in music, through poetry.

A 13th century poet as a fellow song writer

Clapton read the popular translation by Rudolf Gelpke (1928-1972), a small book decorated with several beautiful medieval Persian paintings. A perfect example of how a story for a wide audience can lead to the accessibility of such a medieval work. Gohrab think it’s amazing that the work of a Persian poet from the twelfth century played such an important role in Clapton's album. He finds it even more remarkable that Nezami is named as a fellow song writer for the song 'I am yours'. The song consists of 47 words that are repeated three times and are based on Nezami's romances. The song is not a literal translation, but Nezami must have been the source of inspiration. It is clear that Clapton wanted to express his appreciation for Nezami's work and encourage his audience to read the love story of Layla and Manjun, which changed his life.

Unattainable love

Had Clapton admitted his love for Pattie, he would have betrayed his friend George Harrison. In this sense, Clapton's relationship with Pattie resembles that of Majnun and Layla, in which Majnun, from afar, watches over his lover who marries Ibn Salam, against her will. Nevertheless, Majnun remains faithful to Layla. And Layla remains chaste: during the nights she spends with him, they never touch each other. She never betrays her husband, but she also never betrays Majnun. How did things end between Clapton and Pattie? That love turned out to be less unattainable than expected. George Harrison and Clapton remain close friends, even when Harrison sees that Clapton is threatening to steal away his wife. When Clapton lures Boyd to his hotel room and plays 'Layla', she was in the bag. The two got married in 1979.

You can read the complete blog by Asghar Seyed Gohrab on the Leiden Medievalists Blog. 'Layla' and 'I am yours' can also be listened to there.

Lieselotte van de Ven
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