Autumn 1998 (6.3)
by Jala Garibova
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.
Leyli and Majnun
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."
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
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
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.
Asli and Karam
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."
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.