Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1998 (6.3)
Pages 42-43

Loyalty, Bravery and Passion
Personal Names From Legendary Heroes

by Jala Garibova
Sketches by Gunduz

Parents the world over face the same dilemma: What to name their children? What single word can encapsulate all the dreams for this newborn that will serve it well throughout the duration of its life? And so a long list of possibilities is gleaned from historical and religious figures, from natural phenomena (flowers, birds, celestial bodies) and from characteristics deemed positive in the society (freedom, seabreeze, clever) and numerous other categories depending on local traditions.

In Azerbaijan, it's not unusual to name children after characters in well-known legends. The following is a sampling of some common Azerbaijani names and the legends they come from.

Azeri namesLeyli and Majnun
One of the most widespread love stories of the Middle East is Leyli (LEY-lee) and Majnun (maj-NOON). Its plot is similar to that of "Romeo and Juliet," but it predates Shakespeare's 1597 version of the story by centuries. Though "Leyli and Majnun" is Arabic in origin, the most famous version of this story is the verse form penned by Nizami (nee-ZAH-mee) of Ganja (a city in Azerbaijan) in 1188. Nizami's version was written in Persian, which was the state language of the region at that time. (Scholars often refer to him as a Persian writer but Persian was the language in which he wrote.) Nizami's work contains 8,000 lines of verse and has been translated into many languages including English (For a prose adaptation, see "Layla and Majnun" by Colin Turner, Blake Publishers: London, 1997, ISBN 1-85782-1610).

Leyli (or Leyla as she is known in Persian and Arabic literature) came from a rich and famous tribe in Arabia. Gais (pronounced Guy-EES) was the son of the leader of another rich and famous Arabic tribe. Leyli and Gais attended the same madrasa (school), where they fell in love with each other. The couple was not discreet, and word of their relationship spread like wildfire. When Leyli's parents heard about it, they refused to let her return to school. They considered her affection for Gais to be a great shame for the family.

And so the two young lovers were forbidden to see each other anymore. This affected Gais so deeply that he went insane. People started calling him "Majnun" (madman). Gais' father went to Leyli's father and tried to make arrangements for the couple to marry, but Leyli's father would not comply: "I've heard of your fame and it would be an honor to be a relative of yours, but everybody says your son is the one they're calling 'Majnun.' My daughter does not deserve to marry a madman."Farhad and Shirin

From that day onward, Majnun left his home and family and went to live as a hermit in the desert. He found it more satisfying to commune with animals than with cruel, heartless people. Gradually, he became addicted to the pain of unrequited love and nourished it as something sacred. He did not want to be cured of it. In the meantime, Leyli's parents engaged her to a rich man - Ibn Salam. But the thought of marrying him caused Leyli great pain because she still loved Majnun.

Legend of Farhad and Shirin.

Majnun's father took his son on a long journey to Mecca, hoping to distract him. There he pleaded with the distraught lad: "Ask God to ease your pain and solve this problem." But instead, Majnun implored, "God, make my friendship with the pain of love even stronger!"

A young warrior named Nofal witnessed this strange scene and asked Majnun's father what had happened. Once he heard the story, Nofal decided to kidnap Leyli and bring her to Majnun. He took his warriors to Leyli's father's region and started attacking them. During the battle, however, Majnun sided with Leyli's people and tried to help them.

Nofal was shocked and went into a rage: "What are you doing? Are you crazy? My people are dying for you and you're helping the enemy."

Majnun replied: "These people are not my enemies. These are the people from my lover's family. I won't allow any of them to get hurt."

Leyli's father approached Nofal and asked him to stop fighting, telling him that his daughter was already engaged. Nofal was sorry that he had not known this beforehand. They made peace, and Nofal and his army left.

After Leyli married Ibn Salam, she became ill. Her health worsened until she died. When Majnun learned of Leyli's death, he rushed to her grave. In great distress, he mourned her death. The last scene shows him dying at her graveside.

Names commonly used from this legend include Leyli, Majnun and Nofal. The name Leyli is popular in two versions: Leyla and Leyli. "Leyli" means "night." For Arabs living in desert regions, "night" meant quietness, serenity and coolness. Night was desirable after the heat of the day. The concept of "night" did not have evil or sinister connotations.

Curiously, Majnun, meaning "madman" is also a very popular name. Despite his insanity, his ability to express extraordinary passion in verse form makes his name extremely popular today.

Nofal is honored for his loyalty and his willingness to be of assistance to his friends - a man of deed, not just word.

Farhad and Shirin
Farhad (far-HAHD), a young craftsman, and Shirin (she-REEN), the sister of the queen, were in love. The queen, Mehmanbanu (Lady Mehman), was also in love with Farhad but she hid her feelings from everyone in deference to her sister whom she loved very much.

Then one day, Mehmanbanu invited Farhad to the palace and told him: "If you really love my sister and want to marry her, you must successfully carry out the following task: There is no water in the area and this is causing great anxiety for our people. We know there is water deep within the mountain. Break open those rocks and clear a channel so that the water will surge forth."

Farhad agreed. He worked night and day for many months which stretched into years. Finally, he succeeded in creating a channel for the water. Water gushed forth as if from a fountain. Everyone celebrated and praised Farhad. But, alas, Farhad fell off a rock and died. Shirin went to the tragic site and killed herself. Both names, Farhad and Shirin (Sweet One), are taken from this legend.

Roshan and Nigar
Ali, the father of Roshan (ro-SHAHN), was very knowledgeable about horses and had the responsibility of taking care of the khan's stable. One day the Turkish sultan visited the khan who decided to present him with a horse. Ali was ordered to make the selection. Ali chose a young, skinny colt that had just been born. Upon seeing it, the sultan burst into laughter and the khan became very embarrassed. But Ali defended his decision: "Don't pay attention to how skinny it is now. In the future, this horse is going to be a prize animal - very beautiful and very healthy."

The khan was so angry he ordered Ali to be blinded. From that day onward, Roshan, his son, began calling himself Koroglu (ko-ro-GLOO) and put all his energy into revenging his father's plight by organizing the peasants to fight against khans and rich landowners.

Koroglu then took the horse that his father had tried to present to the sultan. He called it Girat (Fire Horse). This horse would become legendary for its remarkable speed. Whenever Koroglu was pursued by his enemies, the horse would enable him to escape by spreading wings that it had sprouted and covering great distances in just a few moments. Girat could also understand human language.

Roshan, Nigar (nee-GAHR), Eyvaz (ey-VAHZ) and Hamza (HAM-za) are all names associated with the epic of Koroglu. Roshan is the real name of Koroglu which means "son of a blind man," the hero of the story. Even though the name Roshan is seldom mentioned in the story, it is quite common as a name. Nigar is Roshan's clever, loyal, strategizing wife. Eyvaz is Koroglu's adopted son. Hamza, traditionally a name associated with Islam, is a character who in the end shows great loyalty to Koroglu.

Seljan (sel-JAHN) is a name taken from the epic "Dada Gorgud." Beyrak (bey-RAK), one of the heroes of the Oghuz tribe who was captured by the enemy tribe. (Azerbaijanis originate from the Oghuz tribe, which was one of the Turkic tribes.) Seljan was the daughter of the head of the tribe. She loved Beyrak, but he loved another woman. Despite this, Seljan helped rescue him.

Asli and Karam
Once there was a khan who had an adviser named Gara Keshish who was a Christian. The khan's son Karam (ka-RAM) and the adviser's daughter Asli (as-LEE) fell in love. The khan, who ruled a traditionally Muslim region, was very happy about the union. Gara Keshish, on the other hand, was very much against the marriage, but he couldn't oppose the khan. And so the wedding day was set.

As a wedding gift, Gara Keshish presented Karam with a garment and told him to put it on before going into Asli's room. Karam did so but suddenly the garment caught on fire. Karam understood too late that the garment was under a magic spell, but it was impossible for him to take it off. Asli went up to her lover and embraced him, and they both burned to death. Today, ashugs (wandering minstrels) sing a song called "Yanig Karami" which means "Burnt Karam."

There are several legends associated with a hunter named Pirim (pee-REEM). This hunter understood the language of birds and animals. They were not afraid of him, even though he was a hunter. One day Pirim chased after a deer and shot it. The wounded deer began to run; he followed it until suddenly the deer stopped at a spring to wash its wound in the water. Then again, the deer began to run again, but this time, it ran even faster. Pirim realized that the water in the spring was not ordinary water, but that it was endowed with healing power.

Once the region of Mughan was occupied by an enemy shah. The shah's army plundered the land, burned down houses and captured a beautiful girl named Sara (sah-RAH). Sara's lover, Khan Choban, a brave young man, was out of the country at the time. When the shah tried to kidnap Sara, she begged to say good-bye to her father one last time. The shah consented. Sara left the camp and threw herself into a rushing river, choosing rather to drown than to be captured by the shah. The folk song "Apardi Seller Sarani" (The Flood Took Sara) is based on this story.

According to a legend, Aykhan (pronounced eye-KHAN) was the name of a boy born from the union of a Turk and a wolf.

For more information about Azerbaijani naming practices, see "History in a Nutshell: 20th Century Personal Naming Practices in Azerbaijan," (AI4.3, Autumn 1996). Below: Painting of Farhad and Shirin by Gunduz.

From Azerbaijan International (6.3) Autumn 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.

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