As a young child growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I remember the night conjuring up images of ghosts and goblins, and the bogey man under the bunk bed I shared with my sister. The night was a time of eerie silences, punctuated by strange creaks, and a fuzzy, dreamy awareness. For many in the U.S. and west, the night transforms from “creepy” to a time of romance and general revelry as we reach our mid- to late teenage years. As the adult and “middle age” years emerge, the night becomes more of a time of rest, TV watching, the occasional evening out, and earlier bedtimes.
In the Arab region, nighttime is when the world comes alive, regardless of one’s age. Old and young alike can be seen on any given night of the week, typically in family settings, at festive get-togethers normally revolving around massive amounts of food and conversation, and lasting well into the nocturnal hours. The more significant and traditional events, like weddings and engagements, only occur after dark, with all family members joining in the rituals and celebrations. On many a night in the Arab world children snuggle in their mother’s laps or dart around the family courtyard under moonlit skies as extended family members, including aunts, uncles, and cousins gather around a buffet-style table to graze and recount the day’s events or protracted stories of years gone by. On weekends, families and friends often convene in the desert, or alongside the sea, from dusk to dawn in massive burlap tents with one long flap open to the nighttime air and bursts of stars. Some enjoy playing cards sitting cross-legged on intricately designed red carpets spread out along the tent floor, while others might tend to a bonfire where lamb roasts or smoke sheesha near the sea’s edge. [In the Arab Gulf, tents are often partitioned into a family section where both sexes mingle, and a separate section exclusively for females and another for males.]
I have pondered, and spoken with Arab friends and my husband, Bishara, a native of Lebanon, about what makes the night so noteworthy and meaningful in the Arabian Peninsula. The consensus seems to center around the routine of generations of Arab Gulf desert dwellers, or Bedouins, who found it necessary to do their core activities, such as cooking, grooming, or travelling in the evening or early morning hours, because it was simply too hot to attend to these matters during the day. So, it seems, a way of life was established, the remnants of which carry on today with most people in the region living in urban centers, but continuing to reserve the nighttime for important rituals and traditions, celebratory occasions, and special gatherings of family and friends. Certain Gulf establishments and retail shops allow for a several hour afternoon respite before resuming work in the late afternoon/evening, and those in government jobs usually work only until early to mid-afternoon; thereby reinforcing the possibilities for nighttime activities and events in the Gulf area.
My husband, who spent his formative years in Jordan, related that when he was young most nights his family either had friends or neighbors over for dinner, or they went to another family’s home for dinner. Bishara said he had wonderful memories of feeling safe and secure in bed late at night listening to his parents and their friends conversing and engaging in general fellowship. These sorts of experiences and sentiments seem to be commonplace for many others in the larger region.
Not only is the night a singularly auspicious time in the 24 hour cycle of the Arab world, but it is regularly referred to in song, poetry, and assorted stories. Nighttime has been immortalized in the revered folk tales, “One Thousand and One Nights,” originating in the Arab region and Persia, which include stories told by Scheherazade to King Shahryar for 1,001 nights in a bold attempt to save her life. Umm Khultum’s song, One Thousand and One Nights (Alf Leila wa Leila) (1969) utilizes the celebrated title to focus on a passionate love theme.
Selected Verses from Umm Khultum’s One Thousand and One Nights (Alf Leila wa Leila)
“The night and its sky, its stars, its moon, moon and keeping awake all night
You and me my sweetheart, my life.
All of us together are the same in love.”
“My sweetheart let us live in the eyes of the night, let us live in
the eyes of the night.
And will tell the sunlight come on over, come on
over after one year, not before.”
“In a night of love as sweet as one thousand and
one nights, one thousand and one nights, . . . “
“The night after it was loneliness, loneliness, you
filled it up with security. And the life that was
desert, desert, it became a garden.”
Other songs by Umm Khultum, an Egyptian songstress and arguably the most famous Arab singer of all time, that have “night” in the title include:
Night Has Arrived (Aqbal al-layl) (1969)
This is My Night (Hathehe Laylati) (1968)
A Night of Love (Leilet Hobb) (1973)
You That Keeps Me Awake At Night (Ya Msaharny) (1972)
. . . And this list is limited to those specific Umm Khultum’s songs with “night” in the title. There are many more that refer to “the night” in the verses.
Fayrouz, a legendary Lebanese singer, and a favorite of my husband’s family, sings Al Layl wal Qandil, (The Night and the Lantern), Jisr el Amar, (Bridge of the Moon), and Sakan al Lail (The Night Became Calm).
Selected Verse from The Night Became Calm (from Khalil Jibran poem)
“The night became calm
And in the cloak of calmness was hidden the dreams
The full moon widened
And in the moon watched over the days”
Asmahan (Amal al-Atrash), the sister of Farid al-Atrash (another popular Arab singer), who lived most of her life in Egypt (but who was originally from Syria), sang of “the night,” as well. Some of her famous tunes were:
Al-Layl (The Night)
Ana Bent al-Layl (I’m the Daughter of The Night)
Ayna al-Layala (Where Are the Nights?)
Majnoon Layla (Crazy About Layla) – [Layla is name of a woman, and also means “night.”]
Layaly al-Ons fi Vienna (Merry Nights in Vienna)
Ya Layali al-Bishr (Nights of Joy)
Even current Arab pop singers, like Nancy Ajram, (Lebanese), sing of the night. Her tune, Alf Laila O Laila (1001 Nights), again uses the theme popularized in the ancient tales of Scheherazade. . . . Sherine, a young pop singer from Egypt, sings Ah Ya Leil (Oh, night!), and Mohammad Abdu, a prominent Saudi singer, croons the Khaleeji song, Laila, Laila (A Night, A Night!)
The Arab fascination with the night extends to name choices, as well, with Laila (translates to “a night”) being one of the most popular Arab female names. The name Laila appears prominently in the poetic play, Majnoon Laila, (The Madman of Laila) written by Ahmed Shawqi. Shawqi, an Egyptian poet, uses the famous Arab legend relating the tragic love story of Layla and Qays. According to the tale, Layla and Majnoon, which dates back to the 7th century, Layla and Qays’ burgeoning love is quashed as Qays goes mad (“majnoon”) when Layla’s father prohibits her from marrying Qays. “Majnoon” (“crazy” or “madman”) is commonly used in the Arab region to address a person madly in love. Some believe that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is modeled after Layla and Majnoon.
Eric Clapton, singer and guitarist from England, heard about the tale of Layla and Majnoon years ago from a friend, and it became the inspiration for his own song, Layla (originally released in December 1970). Clapton’s Layla was a love song written for Pattie Boyd, an English model, who at the time was married to Clapton’s friend George Harrison (of Beatle’s fame). Pattie Boyd and Harrison ultimately divorced, and Eric Clapton and Pattie did marry, but it did not turn out so well.
As evidenced in many Arab songs, not only are the night hours significant in the Arab Gulf, but the physical properties of nighttime, the moon and the stars, also play a role in Arab culture and traditions. The moon cycles provide the basis for the Islamic lunar calendar. . . . And the Lebanese, or at least my Lebanese husband, Bishara, regularly told me that my eyes were like the stars and my face like the moon when we were first courting. Leave it to the Lebanese!
- Inte Omri (You Are My Life) by Umm Khultum (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
- One Thousand and One Nights: A New Re-imagining, By Hanan Al-Shaykh Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, By Marina Warner (independent.co.uk)