Love … Actually

A Living Heritage Ever After

An Egyptian employee puts copies of "One Thousand and One Nights," known in English as "Arabian Nights," on a shelf at a bookstore in Cairo on May 5, 2010. (Getty)
An Egyptian employee puts copies of "One Thousand and One Nights," known in English as "Arabian Nights," on a shelf at a bookstore in Cairo on May 5, 2010. (Getty)

Love … Actually

February might be the official month of love. However, in our Arabic and Egyptian intangible heritage, love is celebrated all year through the volumes of narratives about love interwoven with legends, wars, epics and folk songs that uncover the love sagas throughout the centuries.

According to Mohamed Helal, Professor of Folk Heritage and Mawal (rhymed stories) in the Faculty of Arts, Beni Sweif University, Egypt, the folk stories and epics are usually based on true stories that the collective memory has trimmed or embellished.  However, the first love story known in Egyptian history was that of Isis and Osiris.


Isis, who cried over the death of her husband Osiris, is the one who taught Egyptians music, agriculture and love. That she managed to collect all of Osiris’ body parts from all over Egypt, and prayed to God to bring Osiris back to life, and her prayers were answered and she conceived Horus who ruled after his father, “this is a legendary love story indeed,” noted Helal.


The folk heritage has a lot of love stories that have defied the test of time. “Take Antara Ibn Shaddad, and his beloved cousin Abla. He was a great warrior and poet who lived in the Arab peninsula and whose poetry was among the poetry hung on the holy shrine (Moaalakat). When Antar asked Abla’s hand in marriage, his uncle refused because of Antar’s dark skin colour. Antar fought the whole tribe and won the heart of his beloved,” added Helal.


Alf Leila w Leila (Arabian Nights) stands as one of the richest sources of folk stories in Arab heritage. The story opens up with the love story that bloomed between the vicious King Shahriar and his wife Shahrazad. Before falling in love with Shahrazad, King Shahriar learned from his brother that his wife was cheating on him. While they were both on a hunting trip, they encountered a beautiful lady who was entrapped by a vicious jinni who had abducted her from her beloved husband on her wedding night. 

Seeking revenge, the woman cheats on the jinni whenever he is asleep and hence seduced Shahriar and his brother. Having shared this experience, Shahriar came back home a different and harsh man, who killed every woman he married on the next morning. All of the people who feared for their daughters fled the country, and there was no one left but Shahrazad, daughter of his vizier.

Shahrazad was a brave woman who did not flee the kingdom because she wanted to stop the violence and spare the girls of her kingdom from death. Through her charming stories, she kept Shahriar entangled in her stories for 1000 nights, and in the end she healed him with her stories and her genuine love. She bore him three children and they lived happily ever after.


In the Arab peninsula, Qais fell in love with his cousin Laila, with whom he grew up. “He wrote poetry in praise of her beauty which in the Bedouin tradition is regarded as slander,” explained Helal adding, “in the old days, when the word spreads that a beautiful woman is in a certain tribe, lots of feuds usually follow because she is perused by the knights of all tribes who would fight to win her hand in marriage.” The story ends on a sad note, where Laila dies and Qais loses his mind until he follows her to death.


This one long folk song tells of an epic love story between a singer and a young girl who fell in love with him and his lyrics. “Back in the day, being a singer was not a high status profession, and hence her father refused to allow them to marry.” However, Naima ran away and went to Hassan’s house where Hassan let her stay with his mother, as he feared for her honor. But her family never forgave this love and her cousin ripped off Hassan’s head. It was Naima who showed the police where Hassan’s head was, as she hid it in her scarf. “When the verdict condemned her cousin, she yelled that it was not enough, because Hassan was such a great singer.”

There are a lot of lessons for us embedded in all such love stories that history has kept alive in our intangible heritage. One outstanding fact is that a happy ending is not a certainty, but another thing we do know for sure – love is for the brave.

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