Mideast Political Paradoxes Put to Words and Music--Bahraini Democracy Threatened by Majnun Laila’s Musical

Kelly O’Brien.

Proponents of democracy have long championed its guarantee of individual liberties and civil rights as proof of its legitimacy. In 2003, democracy’s promises were used, along with other reasons, by the United States as a justification for overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. The Bush Administration was eager to support elections in Iraq and the Palestinian Territories and happy to see the same process occur in places like Bahrain. The administration embraced the neoconservative assumption that the region’s instability lies in the absence of democratic practices. The outcome of these elections, however, disappointed many in the West, for it showed that free elections do not necessarily ensure genuinely democratic governments. As recent developments in Bahrain have shown, those voted into power under the banner of electoral democracy have sometimes pursued clearly undemocratic policies, including restrictions on freedom of political and artistic expression.  

Widely hailed, free parliamentary elections in 2006 in Bahrain resulted in an Islamist majority holding seats in the Bahraini parliament. Despite this demonstration of democracy, the Islamists have used their newly found power to censor basic freedoms such as artistic expression. A recent case in point: the parliament voted to form a committee to investigate the decision of the Bahraini Ministry of Information – organizers of the Spring of Culture Festival -- to allow the performance of the controversial musical“Majnun Laila” (“Mad About Leila”). 

Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife and Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad are the two men at the center of the storm brewing over their adaptation of the ancient Arab tale “Qays wa Laila.” Some years before, Haddad had written a book of poetry titled “Majnun Laila,” inspired by the original tale, and upon which the musical was based. Khalife composed the songs, while Nadira Assaf choreographed 30 male and female dancers to re-enact the doomed fable of two star-crossed lovers.

The tale of “Qays wa Laila” dates back to the 7th century, and some believe it is based on the true story of Qays ibn Mulawwah, an Umayyad poet famous across Arabia for his romantic works. Qays is born into a prominent family in Najd, in modern-day Saudi Arabia. A privileged young man – handsome, intelligent and popular – he becomes infatuated with his beautiful dark-haired cousin Leila. Leila returns his love quietly and chastely, but Qays’ love burns so obsessively he becomes an object of ridicule among his peers. One day, driven to distraction by his passion, Qays runs into the street yelling Leila’s name, ever after to be known as “Majnun” (madman).

Mortified by Qays’ imprudent behavior, Leila’s parents refuse to allow the two young people to see each other anymore, and despite her fervent protestations, Leila is forced to marry a wealthy nobleman. Her new husband, however, turns out to be a gentle and tolerant man. He accedes to his new wife’s wish never to consummate their marriage, sadly learning to accept that her heart would always belong to Qays. 

Heartbroken over Leila’s marriage, Qays flees into the wilderness. There, he spends the rest of his days alone composing love poems and songs for his cousin. Years later, upon hearing the news of Leila’s death, Qays emerges from the wilderness to visit her grave. There, he lies upon the ground in which she lay until he too succumbs to death, finally able to spend eternity with his beloved.

Khalife and Haddad’s modern-day version of this tale debuted as a musical on March 1, the opening night of Bahrain’s annual Spring of Culture Festival. Within days of its premiere, fundamentalist members of the Bahraini parliament blasted the show as being in violation of Sharia law and Islamic morals. According to the Beirut-based Al Mustabqal newspaper, the Islamist parliamentary bloc described the performance as “lewd and uninhibited, contrary to religious morals and traditions. The poems were a clear violation of the principles of Sharia.” As parliament member Ibrahim Abou Handal explained, “The Bahraini Constitution’s first clause dictates that Bahrain is an independent Arab/Islamic kingdom, and its second clause dictates that Islamic Sharia is the source of legislation.” He added that Khalife and Haddad’s “Majnun Laila” is inconsistent with religious values and traditions and that no activity that clashes with Islamic traditions will be tolerated. On March 13, the Bahraini parliament, comprised of its current Islamist majority, voted to create a committee to investigate how such a performance had been allowed to take place.

The opposition quickly moved from parliament to the mosques, and in Friday prayers speakers railed against the festival from their podiums.

Writers, composers and musicians around the world have spoken out in opposition to Bahraini interference in artists’ freedom of speech. The Lebanese Cultural Forum in France initiated a petition and obtained signatures from artists, intellectuals and media representatives across the Arab world, calling on Bahrain to reverse its decision and dissolve the investigative committee. “This is a dangerous precedent that will take us back to the Middle Ages and the Inquisition,” theatre director Khaled al-Roueie told Agence France Presse.

Khalife and Haddad have issued a joint personal statement in response to the outcry. Like many others, they express their profound concern over what they see as a “premeditated, systematic attempt to terrorize all forms of thought and culture and to suppress every creative endeavor.... This is an open, direct call for intellectual censorship, for the denial of the right of the Other to self-expression, and for the denial of plurality of voices. The irony is that this call has been launched from a parliament, which is presumed to be a forum of diverse voices and orientations…. Hands off our throats!” 

Prominent Kuwaiti writer Mohamed al-Rumeihi is deeply concerned about the long- and short-term implications for democracy in the Middle East. He is openly critical of those he says abuse the democratic process by championing the issue of “societal values” over all others. In an essay published in An Nahar newspaper, Rumeihi wonders if society really is lacking morals, and whether people actually elect their government representatives to preserve morals rather than to provide better services and employment opportunities, or to fight financial and administrative corruption. This controversy, covered by Arab and international media, raises important questions for Rumeihi. He asks, “Are our people unable to utilize the democratic process for their own progress or are the ‘democratic methods’ being used in some Middle Eastern countries actually intended to hinder development? Do they (parliament) realize that ‘morals’ are personal, relative and change with time? As proof, I remind you that not so long ago it was ‘morally inappropriate’ for a woman to go out and work, or even to have her voice heard outside of the home… and it was unacceptable for an educated son to differ with his uneducated father!”

The paradox of electoral democracy in the Middle East was succinctly expressed in a June 6 International Herald Tribune article. “There is democracy, but there are no freedoms,” said a man on a Beirut street, according to Michael Slackman of the Tribune. “It is that view that seems to be spreading, one that has confused the process of elections with the principles of democracy,” commented Slackman.

The Tribune article implies that there is more to democracy than elections. What has been missing from all of the talks about democracy in the Middle East is dialogue concerning minorities’ rights and how they can be protected from the tyranny of the majority, as well as individuals’ rights, such as the rights of Marcel Khalife and Qassem Haddad to share their musical and literary works with the people of Bahrain and the Arab world at large. Perhaps most important is the necessity for an informed citizenry, a condition that must precede elections. Yet, such a condition is unattainable and meaningless in the absence of freedom.



This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, no. 56 (Summer 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid