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Dossier : Voyageurs réels et imaginaires latino-américains dans le monde arabe (XIX-XXe siècles)

A Thousand and One Laylas: The Politics of Narrative Embedding in Laila Neffa’s Ais

Minying Huang


In Montevideo in 1951, the Uruguayan-born Lebanese poet and translator Laila Neffa published the poetry collection Ais. Framed within the semi-historical legendary story of Layla al-ʿAmiriya and Qays ibn al-Mulawwah, two seventh-century Bedouin poets whose forbidden love resulted in madness and death, this was Neffa’s elegiac homage to her brother Ais, who passed away in adolescence. This article reads Ais as a re-appropriation of Jorge Luis Borges’ literary sleight-of-hand, involving mise en abyme, enacted by the Argentine author on the Arabian Nights in his 1949 essay “Magias parciales del Quijote”. I propose that Neffa’s re-appropriative act facilitates a “speaking back to” and an “opening up” of a varied selection of Arab, Arabo-Persian, and Euro- and Spanish-American discursive traditions. These negotiations, translations, and transformations of tradition, I argue, set in motion a recovery of self and others, of Laila and Laylas, in the wake of personal and collective trauma.

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1In Montevideo in 1951, the Uruguayan-born Lebanese poet and translator Laila Neffa (b. 1923/1925) published the Spanish-language poetry collection Ais. An elegiac homage to her brother Ais who passed away in adolescence, this collection of love and loss is framed within the Majnun Layla legend: the semi-historical story of Layla al-ʿAmiriya and Qays ibn al-Mulawwah (known as Majnun [majnūn], which in Arabic means “mad”), two seventh-century Bedouin poets whose forbidden love resulted in madness and death. The author selectively engages, brings together, and speaks back to a plurality of Arab, Arabo-Persian, and Euro- and Spanish-American literary and discursive traditions. These range from the classical pre-Islamic female literary tradition of rithāʾ (mourning poetry) and a form of Arabic love poetry known as al-ghazal al-ʿudhrī that flourished in the Umayyad period, to the Spanish-language sonnet and Argentine thinker Jorge Luis Borges’ (1899-1986) own brand of Orientalism. This article reads Ais as a diasporic negotiation and translation of multiple traditions—gesturing towards the transcultural relations between forms, traditions, and peoples that have elsewhere often been understood as disparate or even dichotomously opposed, rather than as perhaps co-constitutive. At its crux, this article argues that, in Ais, Neffa reappropriates a literary sleight-of-hand Borges once enacted on the Arabian Nights: (1) to lay claim to the world’s tradition, or a particular vision of what is hers to claim as cultural inheritance; (2) to connect her own personal narrative of love and loss to other cultural expressions of such experience from across time and geography; and (3), in so doing, to instigate a textual rebuilding of the relational self in the wake of traumatic loss.

2For Borges, the “East” denoted “algo vasto, inmóvil, magnifico, incomprensible”, and the Arabian Nights an abundant, even endless, source of creative inspiration (Obras completas 1996: 232). At the same time, the Nights, in Evelyn Fishburn’s view, “are [for Borges] not so much an exotic other as a constitutive component of our [Western] culture”, forming part of Western cultural memory (2004b: 213). Fishburn has traced the presence of, and allusions to, the Nights in Borges’ writings. In her article “Traces of the Thousand and One Nights in Borges”, she pays particular attention to his interest in Night 602 and considers the use of the mise en abyme device in his 1948 short story “Emma Zunz” in its light (Fishburn 2004). In The Mirror in the Text (1989), Lucien Dällenbach explains how the device derived its name from an 1893 journal entry by the French author André Gide (1869-1951), in which Gide expressed fascination for “the image of a shield containing, in its centre, a miniature replica of itself”, said in the heraldic context to be en abyme (or, if translated literally, “in the abyss”) (1989: 8). Dällenbach defines mise en abyme as “any aspect enclosed within a work that shows a similarity with the work that contains it” (1989: 8). In the literary space, it can, as Solange Leibovici understands it, involve “the reduplication of images and concepts” and the reflection and illumination of elements of the frame or work as a whole by the core narrative (2017: 88). Leibovici also relates the term to intertextuality, to the referentiality of language “to other language”, and “to other language”, again and again ad infinitum (2017: 88). These ideas of mise en abyme are relevant to a discussion of Neffa’s Ais: a highly allusive text in which the author establishes a relationship between the Majnun Layla story and her own, with each acting as a mirror to, and frame for, the other. After Fishburn’s “playful reading” of “Emma Zunz”, I shall suggest that there is likewise some insight and pleasure to be gained from examining Ais, and especially poem VI of the collection, in the light of Borges’ readings and uses of the Nights and mise en abyme (2004b: 213).

The Form of the Frame: Majnun Layla, From Ghazal to Sonnet

3How did Neffa arrive at the Majnun Layla story and come to see in it an expression of her own life? How was she to translate it into Spanish?

4The Majnun Layla legend was known and of interest to the Arab community in Montevideo. It is the subject of an article titled “Machnun y Layla” that appears in the first issue, dated June 1932, of the Montevideo-based magazine Oriente (whose director proclaimed the publication to be the defender of the Arab colony’s common ideals) (Audi 1932: 4). Oriente hails the story of Layla and Qays as the most famous love story in the Arab East. In its account, Qays and Layla are presented as Arab royalty, and perplexingly Qays is not Qays ibn al-Mulawwah but “Omar-el-Kais” (presumably, the 5th-6th century pre-Islamic poet and king Imruʾ al-Qays) (“Machnun y Layla” 1932: 10). Postulating an Arab precedent for a landmark of Western literature, the writer insinuates that Shakespeare might have taken the plot of Romeo and Juliet from Majnun Layla (“Machnun y Layla” 1932: 10). There follows a summary of an episode in which Majnun tends to the wounds of, and frees, a gazelle caught in his nets, whose “tierna y apasionada mirada” reminds him of the adored image of his Layla (“Machnun y Layla” 1932: 10–11).

5In her introduction to Ais’ thirteenth and penultimate poem, titled “CANCION [sic] TONTA”, Neffa summarises the legend, which doubles as her own story, thus:

Ais y Laila fueron en arábiga leyenda, dos pastores que se amaron desde la infancia en los claros paisajes de los campos florecidos. Llegados a la juventud hallaron la oposición cerrada de sus familias. Ella enfermó de amor y murió. El [sic] enloqueció de amor y también murió.

El destino ha trastocado esta vez los nombres. Y es ella quien enloquece entre el amor y la muerte. (Neffa 1951: 33)

6This synopsis partially echoes verses attributed by the Islamic scholar Ibn Qutaybah (c. 213-276/828-889) to Majnun himself: “I grew attached to Layla when she was naïve and young / and the size of her bosom did not yet show. / As youths, we tended to sheep. Oh, if only, / to this day, neither we nor the sheep had grown up!” (ʿAbd Allāh ibn Muslim ibn Qutayba al-Dīnawarī al-Marwazī 1977: 378, translation mine). Majnun recollects a youth shared with his beloved Layla and grieves their separation. Contrastingly, in Neffa’s life and text, Ais dies first, and Laila is the grieving poet-speaker.

  • 1 Laila and Layla are different transliterations of the same Arabic name.

7Named for Neffa’s deceased brother, Ais begins with a dedication: “Es mi homenaje / en el primer año de tu ausencia. / Tu hermana / Laila” (Neffa 1951: 5). One of the reasons the author might have found herself drawn to the Majnun Layla legend is the unmistakable resemblance between the names Laila and Ais and Layla and Qays.1 Coupled with the legend’s themes of childhood love, loss, and grief, all unfolding in an Arabian setting Neffa may have viewed as an ancestral homeland, this coincidence may have felt uncanny to her. Having said that, Ais was unlikely to have been her lover in the conventional sense of the word, which raises the question of why she would find the Majnun Layla legend to be an acceptable vehicle or container for her own narrative of sibling love and loss. One possible answer could simply be that the fact that Layla and Qays never physically consummated their love was reason enough to justify the choice. Another related and possible answer could have to do with the poetic tradition with which the story is associated. Alasdair Watson has called the Majnun Layla story a story of “chaste love” and, more precisely, an “ʿUdhri love story” (2013: 35).

8ʿUdhri love,” Watson writes, “seems to have been characteristic of Bedouin poets of the deserts of the Northern Hijaz and Najd in the early Islamic period” and was “typified by a man’s attachment and dedication of himself and his poetry to a single woman throughout his life during which his passion burns intensely for her and he seeks union (wisal) with her” (2013: 38). However, in the ʿudhrī love narrative, personal and social circumstances conspire to prevent the union, driving the anguished lover to sickness, madness, and death, often by a desire for self-annihilation (Watson 2013: 38). “In both the popular and the academic view,” Jokha Alharthi remarks, “ʿudhri love is nearly always considered as chaste love” (2021: 1). Although Alharthi herself argues against the popular assumption that “the concept of the body is absent from the ʿudhri tradition”, her literature review gives us reason to believe that Neffa could have subscribed to such a view (2021: 1).

9The theme of ʿudhrī love is associated with a particular literary form: the ʿudhrī ghazal, named after the nomadic ʿUdhra tribe, which counted among its ranks the famousʿudhrī poet Jamil ibn ʿAbd Allah ibn Maʿmar al-ʿUdhri (d. 82/701), otherwise known as Jamil Buthayna (with Buthayna being the name of his love interest) (Alharthi 2021: 2). But it was, Watson speculates, in the poetry and life of Majnun from the ʿĀmir tribe that “the ʿUdhri phenomenon perhaps reached its apotheosis” (2013: 38). He recounts how, from its seventh-century Arab origins, the Majnun Layla story entered into Persian poetry during the period of increased cross-cultural diffusion following the Arab-Islamic conquest of Iran in the mid-seventh century CE—at first orally transmitted by rāwīs (reciters of poetry) and in akhbār (anecdotal or historical narrative reports) (Watson 2013: 42; Seyed-Gohrab 2009; Beck 2018: 331). It was in the twelfth century that it truly began to be popularised, after it was embellished and transmuted further, and indeed immortalised, by the poet Nizami Ganjavi (d. c. 1209) in his Persian romance Layli u Majnun (Watson 2013: 42; Seyed-Gohrab 69–78). Over the course of its development in the Persian context, the Majnun Layla story came to serve as a Sufi allegory of divine, transcendent love—that which facilitates union with God, the ultimate Beloved (Watson 2013: 43–45; Ritter 2013: 384).

10Numerous sonnets throughout the ages have likewise broached the theme of lost, unrequited, or unfulfilled love. One of the prominent Spanish Golden Age sonneteers, Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645), with whom the Argentine poet Federico Peltzer (1924-2009) compared Neffa, composed sonnets to illustrate the torment of his poetic persona’s love for Lisi, his absent beloved (Romero Sosa 2017; Olivares 1983: 120). In Isabel Torres’ opinion, in Quevedo’s sonnets “the speaker as unrequited lover characterises a being that is incomplete or, in broader ontological terms, ‘fallen’”; the anxieties of his poetic voice “reflect the frustrated sense of an inauthentic self” (2013: 177). Yet in something of a paradox, the infernal agony of a death-inducing love, it is implied, will exalt the poetic persona to divine immortality, to completion (Olivares 1983: 120). So intense and “eternal” is his love that it is able to conserve the memory of the beloved—the “beatific vision” of her “glory”—and it will thereby transform the “hell” of separation into “heaven” (Olivares 1983: 120). Thematically, Quevedo’s sonnets seem to have much in common with both the ʿudhrī ghazal and Sufi poetry. More generally, the sonnet shares many similarities with the ghazal: both are brief lyrics that follow stringent metrical norms and rhyme schemes; the emergence of both forms has significantly impacted the lyric traditions of their respective cultures (Sewell 2012: 104). Scholars such as Samar Attar hypothesise that the sonnet’s formation might have had something to do with the transmission of Arabic and Islamic sources dating back to the seventh century (Attar 2018: 198).

11Every other numbered poem in Ais is a sonnet. This, I think, is no coincidence. The three sonnet rhyme schemes used in the collection are: ABBA ABBA CDC DEE; ABBA ABBA CDC DCD; and ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. Poem II is written in alejandrinos or Spanish alexandrines (fourteen-syllable lines that can be divided into two hemistiches of seven syllables each), while all the subsequent sonnets consist of hendecasyllabic lines. The sonnet itself, John Rutherford says, first developed in Italy in the thirteenth century, emerging “as a love poem written in hendecasyllables, with an unusual asymmetric form, an octave followed by a sestet, and with a change in thought and rhyme dividing the two” (2016: 1). In the second half of the 13th century it became common for the octave to have an ABBAABBA rhyme scheme (Rutherford 2016: 1). Meanwhile the sestet could take, but was not limited to, the form of “two tercets rhyming CDECDE” (Rutherford 2016: 1). The second sonnet rhyme scheme we identified in Neffa’s Ais occurs in the Italian sonnets of this period too (Rutherford 2016: 1). From Italy the sonnet, along with these particular syllable counts and rhyming patterns, made its way into Spanish Golden Age poetry (and from there into Spanish American literature) (Rutherford 2016: 1).

  • 2 I use the term “echo” after Walter Benjamin. “The task of the translator,” Benjamin said, “consists (...)

12I contend that the Spanish sonnet form is deployed in Ais as a conduit for the echo of the Arabic ʿudhrī ghazal, of which Majnun himself—as one who figured among the ʿudhrī love poets—could be considered an exponent or source (Watson 2013: 38).2 Aptly, it is in a sonnet that the alluded-to mise en abyme in Ais takes place.

A Borgesian Sleight of Hand: Mise en Abyme in Poem VI

13Neffa grew up in Montevideo, not far from Buenos Aires, and spent time in the Argentine capital. In fact, in the Buenos Aires-based Arabic-language magazine Al Ḥayāt, there appears an account of a lecture she gave on the life of the famous Lebanese writer Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) in the theatre of the Biblioteca del Consejo de Mujeres in Buenos Aires on 16th November 1939 and subsequently again at a tea party in the Plaza Hotel in the Retiro district of the city (“Muḥāḍarat al-fatāt Laylā Rizq Allah Naffāʿ” 1939: 116). In attendance at the first were the Uruguayan ambassador and his assistants, Argentines and Arabs of renown in Buenos Aires (including Arturo Capdevila (1889-1967), Fermín Estrella Gutiérrez (1900-1990), Emin Arslan (1868-1948), and Shukri Abi Saʿab), a bishop of the capital and head of the mission, and representatives of eight women’s associations (“Muḥāḍarat al-fatāt Laylā Rizq Allah Naffāʿ” 1939: 116). The presence of Capdevila, Estrella Gutiérrez, and Arslan, all three of them figures in the world of Argentine letters, points to the mutual awareness and dialogue between the Uruguayan and Argentine literary circles of which Neffa was clearly a part. It would be difficult to imagine that she had not read the work of one very dominant and influential figure of that milieu. I speak, of course, of Borges.

In 1949, two years before the publication of Ais, Borges had published the essay “Magias parciales del Quijote” in the Argentine daily La Nación. He discusses the possible deployment of mise en abyme in the Nights, making reference to an enigmatic six-hundred-and-second night in this oft-quoted section of the essay:

Ninguna tan perturbadora como la de la noche DCII, mágica entre las noches. En esa noche, el rey oye de boca de la reina su propia historia. Oye el principio de la historia, que abarca todas las demás, y también—de monstruoso modo—a sí misma. ¿Intuye claramente el lector la vasta posibilidad de esa interpolación, el curioso peligro? Que la reina persista y el inmóvil rey oirá para siempre la trunca historia de Las Mil y Una Noches, ahora infinita y circular… (Borges, Prosa completa 1980: 174)

14Borges posits that Night 602, placed at the very centre of the Nights, is a revelatory story-within-a-story that not only furthers our understanding of the collection as a whole but is also pivotal to the overarching narrative. Night 602 purports to hold a mirror up to the rey’s own dealings with Scheherazade and thus contains the stories she recounts to evade death. The result is a form of infinity, for the stories must endlessly repeat. Every time we reach Night 602 infinite recursion begins again. This is a compelling passage. More interestingly, however, this six-hundred-and-second tale in its Borgesian description has proven difficult to pin down among the translations readily available. Readers and scholars have attempted to locate this elusive tale and have found the same (Fishburn 2004b: 213; 2004a: 35–37). In a footnote to her article “Readings and Re-readings of Night 602”, Fishburn relates how Italo Calvino suggested that Borges’ explication of Night 602 might be an invented interpolation (2004a: 37n5). Calvino writes, “But even if Borges invented it he did well, because it represents the natural culmination of the enchâssement of the tales” (1986: 117). Ahmed Ararou has sketched out the analogous positions of academics such as Oumama Aouad-Lahrech and Roland Spiller, for whom Night 602 also amounts to a Borgesian invention or strategy (Ararou 2002: 158–59). Borges’ Night 602 would then itself be a “perturbing” act of enchâssement or embedding, illustrating “la vasta posibilidad” that exists within the world of the Nights (Borges, Prosa completa 1980: 174).

15It happens that Fishburn has traced one of the possible origins of this Night to a footnote to Night 602 in the Kamashastra Society’s edition of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s translation of the Nights, which she believes must be a similar edition to the one Borges mentions having in front of him in his 1935 essay “Los traductores de las mil y una noches” (2004a: 37–38). The footnote on p. 199 of vol. 6 of a Burton Club limited edition, also known as the Shammar Edition, is the same as the footnote cited by Fishburn: “This is a mere abstract of the tale told in the Introduction (vol. i. 10-12)” (Burton [n.d.]: 199; Fishburn 2004a: 38). However, as Gabriel García Ochoa notes, Burton’s Night 602 itself “is by no means the ad verbatim account of the framing narrative in the Nights” (2018: 622). Fishburn’s research has unearthed another source for this ad verbatim account: a Night, and crucially not Night 602, in a rare 7-vol. edition of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Supplemental Nights (originally published between 1886 and 1888 in 6 vols.) that corresponds to the last Night in Maximilian Habicht’s Breslau edition of the Nights (5 vols., 1825-1843) (2004a: 41–42). Highlighting the Argentine author’s propensity for rewriting fact in service of conceptual elegance, García Ochoa proposes that Borges could have “extrapolated and exaggerated Burton’s footnote into Scheherazade’s perfect mise en abyme, without being aware of the ‘Tale of the Two Kings and the Wazir’s Daughters’ in the Supplemental Nights” (2018: 624). Whether fabricated or dislocated, Borges’ Night 602 seems to be the result of imaginative liberties exercised by the author.

  • 3 Ais contains fourteen poems in total, twelve numbered poems followed by two further poems under the (...)

16I shall endeavour to show that poem VI of Neffa’s Ais functions similarly to, and takes inspiration from, Borges’ Night 602that, placed at the centre of the twelve numbered poems of the collection, it can be said to serve as an abyssal mirror to the framing story (or stories).3 Of the numbered poems, only poems VI and XII are written entirely in the third person; the rest use the first and second person, privileging the speaker’s subjectivity. In line with Golden Age conventions, the central sonnet (VI) has an ABBA ABBA CDC DCD rhyme scheme and consists of hendecasyllabic lines. The first stanza reads as follows:

Y la rosa adurmió sus lejanías.
Fué [
sic] de pronto la noche sin sentido.
Y fué [
sic] un vivo silencio dolorido
que segó las orillas de los días.
(Neffa 1951: 19)

17Alluding to death and madness, the first two lines alone seem to me to capture, in broad strokes, the frame of the collection. The notion of the rose as the image of the beloved is to be found in Nizami’s epic Layli u Majnun: in one episode, wherein the rose and its counterpart the nightingale are compared to Layli and Majnun respectively (and thus come to symbolise the beloved and the poet-lover), it seems that even nature wishes to emulate the two eminent lovers (Nilchian 2016: 45). In Persian lyric poetry and Sufi symbolism, Annemarie Schimmel tells us, the nightingale is emblematic of the soul while the rose represents an exquisite reflection of divine glory or of the face of the beloved: the nightingale (soul) is full of yearning for the rose (beloved), but the rose’s thorns inevitably thwart the desired union, inflicting agony on the long-suffering, love-intoxicated soul-bird (1993: 115). To complicate matters, realising the longed-for union would entail a surrendering of the soul to silence and annihilation, whereas deep and impossible desire inspires creativity which manifests itself in the nightingale’s tireless songs of love and praise; and so the desirous song of the nightingale—poetry, that is—is the ultimate medium of true expression, of communion with the eternal beauty of the invisible beloved, in life (Asani 2006: 171). Neffa implicitly portrays herself as the poet-nightingale mourning the absence of her brother, “la rosa”, but likely identifies with “la noche”, not least because the name Laila means “night” in Arabic. The rose (beloved), then, has escaped exile on earth and has abandoned the night (Laila) to a senseless existence.

18The second half of the quartet proffers a curious mixed metaphor: silence cuts down (in the agricultural sense of “to mow” or “to reap”, traditionally with a sickle) the shores, banks, or edges of the days. There is, here, a sense of excess and its removal. One wonders also if Neffa collapses conceptual distinctions between “los días” and “los campos florecidos” mentioned in her synopsis of the Majnun Layla story. In an earlier poem (II) of the collection, the speaker had already drawn a link between time and place vis-à-vis Ais and Laila’s shared childhood in an open, rural setting: “DICHOSA edad aquélla de un tiempo sin confines. / Con ágiles caballos en las verdes praderas” (Neffa 1951: 11). In the speaker’s present, the boundlessness of childhood time and place, or the memory of it, finds itself curtailed by the realities of an adolescence cut short. Moreover, this “vivo silencio” conceivably speaks not only to Ais’ death, that present absence, but also Laila’s own silence.

19In lines attributed to Layla al-ʿAmiriya, silence and self-repression threaten psychic injury: “Majnun never experienced a state, / That I did not share with him. / Except that he divulged the secret of love, / While I was burning up in concealment” (Watson 2013: 45). Surveying the history of Persian literature, Farzaneh Milani asks, “Where is the female nightingale in this garden?” (2011: 193). The rose may possess eternal beauty and elegance, but it is the nightingale, assumed or coded as male, that enjoys autonomy and self-determination, “endowed with wings and gifted with a voice” (Milani 2011: 193). While extratextual real-life circumstances will have dictated the gender inversion, it is nevertheless the case that the role reversal in Neffa’s rewriting of the Majnun Layla legend casts the woman protagonist as the devotedly active and vocal poet-nightingale. In legend Qays was left to mourn, and driven to distraction by, the death of his beloved Layla. In Ais, Neffa recovers the voice of the “female nightingale”, to an extent lost and forgotten in the long Arabic and Persian poetic traditions, removing her from the rose’s assigned realm of silence and stasis while also bringing into play the classical pre-Islamic female literary tradition of rithāʾ.

20In pre-Islamic times the role of the female poet within a tribe was to write and perform elegies for the dead. The most famous of these mourning poets, al-Khansaʾ (d. after 644), is in fact primarily known for the elegies she wrote for her brothers Sakhr and Muʿawiyah (Van Gelder 1998: 435). We are also reminded of Layla al-Akhyaliyya of Banu ʿAmir—the very tribe to which, it is speculated, Layla al-ʿAmiriya and Qays ibn al-Mulawwah belonged (Souaiaia 2010: 505; Watson 2013: 39–41). Layla al-Akhyaliyya (d. c. 85/704) was a poet of the early Umayyad period who, like al-Khansaʾ, was chiefly famous for her elegies (Seidensticker 1998: 463). Her story, too, can be said to echo that of her tribal ancestors Layla and Qays: her family would not permit her to marry the poet Tawba ibn al-Humayyir and he, like Majnun, took to composing ʿudhrī love poetry for his beloved Layla (Seidensticker 1998: 463; Sajdi 2008: 188). After Tawba was killed, al-Akhyaliyya began to produce poems of lament (Shahin 2016: 398). As Dana Sajdi observes, while the elegy was a conventional discursive space for women, her elegies were subversive on account of the fact that they were public expressions of her love for Tawba (2008: 187–88). Unlike al-ʿAmiriya who, as far as is known, felt she had to conceal her love for Qays, al-Akhyaliyya openly lamented Tawba’s death (Sajdi 2008: 188). Sajdi comments of the Umayyad poet’s elegiac output that “for once, the female object of ʿudhri love poetry finds a fully-fledged poetic voice with which she reciprocates the lover, even though this voice is only acquired after the lover’s death” (2008: 188).

  • 4 The collection ends with the speaker as the subject of her own speech. The fourteenth and final poe (...)

21The female beloved speaks. Rose becomes nightingale in this other Layla’s story. Layla al-ʿAmiriya burned from her concealment; Layla al-Akhyaliyya could openly proclaim her love; Neffa’s Laila, by virtue of circumstance, trades places with her Majnun (Ais) and composes poems in his memory. Susan J. Brison has highlighted the role of speech, writing, and narrative in supporting trauma survivors’ processes of self-reconstruction. “The undoing of the self in trauma,” she writes, “involves a radical disruption of memory, a severing of past from present, and, typically, an inability to envision a future” (Brison 1999: 214). By acting on traumatic memory and giving it expression in the form of “a more or less coherent narrative”, survivors, she suggests, can restore their “sense of self and view of the world” and reintegrate themselves into a community (Brison 1999: 214–15). The use of personal narrative facilitates, in Brison’s words, “a shift from being the object […] to being the subject of one’s own [speech]” (1999: 214). In Ais the narrative perspective shifts from first and second person into third when we come to poem VI, and back into first and second again in the five poems that follow.4 The core poem that reflects the frame is an anomaly, its difference suggestive of the object-to-subject shift Brison propounds.

22Brison stresses that “some survivors are helped by telling their stories to imagined others—to potential readers, for example”, and avers that “writing in others’ imagined voices […] can be another way of externalizing and hearing not only their narratives but also the writer’s own” (1999: 216–17). Hearing other narratives, she believes, “can enable a survivor to feel empathy for her traumatized self”, while narrative memory gives structure to events remembered, providing survivors with a means of gaining control over their memories (Brison 1999: 215–17). Brison supports a “view of the self as fundamentally relational—able to be constructed, destroyed, and rebuilt through relations to others” (1999: 215). In Ais, Neffa conjoins her personal narrative of traumatic loss to other such narratives belonging to collective cultural memory, in the process making connections between past and present. Through the Majnun Layla legend, for example, the poet-speaker might come to terms with, and envision, a Laila without Ais, just as she envisions a Layla without Qays.

23Like al-Akhyaliyya, Neffa’s poet-speaker, in another life “the female object of ʿudhri love poetry”, is the vocal desiring subject. Like al-Khansaʾ, she mourns a deceased brother. I conjecture, therefore, that the central poem not only reproduces the collection’s frame narrative, but also other narratives drawn from the same vast well of Arabic literary tradition, elements of which can be said to parallel Neffa’s own experience. Like Borges’ Night 602, poem VI signals the possibility of the infinite proliferation of the same story, or variations thereof. Furthermore, intriguingly, as Fishburn writes of Borges’ “Emma Zunz”, “the different versions do not unfold horizontally or consecutively but vertically, embedded in the same surface tale” (2004b: 218). “In the Nights,” she continues, “these would have been separate proliferating stories, which are here [in ‘Emma Zunz’] subsumed into one multi-layered core story” (Fishburn 2004b: 219). “In ‘Emma Zunz’,” she writes, “there is also a central Night, of vertigo and revelation” (Fishburn 2004b: 218). These observations about mise en abyme in “Emma Zunz”, I believe, ring true for Neffa’s poem VI—so (to quote Fishburn) “central and specular to the whole” of Ais (2004b: 213).

  • 5 The association of the gazelle with the beloved is recurring motif in Arabic love poetry and occurr (...)

24I shall even venture to claim that this core poem demonstrates an awareness of the formal histories of the Majnun Layla layer of the frame story. The first two lines of the third stanza, a tercet, are: “Leve gacela de vencido anhelo, / su tiempo en claridades derramado” (Neffa 1951: 19). Since the word “gacela” in Spanish signifies both gazelle and ghazal, in the poem it might refer to both the gazelle in whose eyes Majnun saw Layla reflected and the ʿudhrī ghazal.5 The spirit of Majnun’s ʿudhrī ghazals emanates from Ais’ centre, not formally but levemente. It is plausible that, just as the author of the Oriente article “Machnun Layla” speculated that Romeo and Juliet might owe a debt to the Majnun Layla story, poem VI seeks to root a poetic staple of the Western canon, the sonnet, in the Arabic tradition—in this way destabilising dichotomies of East and West and unsettling more strictly bounded and monocultural categorisations of form and tradition.


25I construe poem VI of Neffa’s Ais as a re-appropriation of Borges’ fabricated or dislocated Night 602 and its recourse to mise en abyme, a device manipulated in Ais to discompose the limits of form and tradition. By way of a Borgesian trick, this central poem allows us to glean the manifold possible ways of reading the collection as a whole. From the outset, one might assume that Ais is merely and straightforwardly a collection of confessional poems written by the author for and to her brother. Before reaching the synopsis of the Majnun Layla story in the penultimate poem “CANCION [sic] TONTA”, however, the chronological reader will encounter poem VI’s shift into the third person. At this juncture, the internal coherence and unity of the narrative perspective is put into question with the intimation of there being more than one voice, a multi-layered voice. Later, once the reader has read to the synopsis of the frame, the synopsis, in turn, sheds further light on the core, which sheds further light on the frame, and so on, giving rise to endless mirroring, remirroring, regression, and revelation. In the confusion of voices and duplication of selves, the poet-speaker speaks and writes as self and other, as multiple and former selves, including as multiple Lailas/Laylas—at once acting on the memory of traumatic loss (as narrator) and bearing witness to it (as reader and listener). Like Borges’ rey on that elusive six-hundred-and-second night, the poet has heard her story from the mouth of the other, from other mouths and other namesakes now subsumed into the speaker of her collection. Embedding her story within others’ stories and pre-existing poetic forms (and vice versa), Neffa stages a textual remaking of the relational self, writing herself into an expansive transtemporal and transcultural poetic identity and community of poets—one that comprises everyone from the Arabic-language love poets and elegists to the Western sonneteers and the Argentine Borges.

  • 6 Here, I would like to reiterate that the name Laila/Layla means “night” in Arabic, which makes the (...)

26Infinity in Ais points to the Lailas/Laylas to come. The “mirror in the text”, to borrow Dällenbach’s phrase for mise en abyme, does not render the poetic persona immobile—imprisoned in the text—like Borges’ rey or like his conception of the “East”; instead, it speaks to agency and life after death, whether of the psychological self or a loved one, in counteraction of the “inability to envision a future” from which an individual might suffer in the wake of a traumatic event (Brison 1999: 214). It is simultaneously engaged in a dialectic of reconstruction and deconstruction, of making and undoing. The author rewrites, as Borges did, to destabilising effect, further muddying the boundaries between fact and fiction—in partial refutation and revision of her Argentine contemporary’s Euro-Spanish American Orientalism and impositions on the Nights, as well as of the gendered gaps and silences in certain Arabo-Persian poetic traditions.6 Neffa’s deft and imaginative re-appropriative act is, I conclude, a reclaiming of a specific Night and, as a consequence of the mise en abyme therein, of the Arabian Nights as a whole; a reclaiming and resurrection of Laila and Laylas (a thousand and one of them, perhaps); ultimately, a reclaiming of the self and subjectivity (and of selves and subjectivities past, present, and future).

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1 Laila and Layla are different transliterations of the same Arabic name.

2 I use the term “echo” after Walter Benjamin. “The task of the translator,” Benjamin said, “consists in finding the particular intention toward the target language which produces in that language the echo of the original” (2004: 258).

3 Ais contains fourteen poems in total, twelve numbered poems followed by two further poems under the headings “CANCION [sic] TONTA” and “FINAL”.

4 The collection ends with the speaker as the subject of her own speech. The fourteenth and final poem of the collection, under the heading “FINAL”, is written in the first and second person (Neffa 1951: 39).

5 The association of the gazelle with the beloved is recurring motif in Arabic love poetry and occurred, for example, in the pre-Islamic poems of the Imruʾ al-Qays (Bürgel 1989: 1). Al-Khansaʾ’s epithetic name (al-khansāʾ) is said also to refer to the gazelle (Van Gelder 1998: 435).

6 Here, I would like to reiterate that the name Laila/Layla means “night” in Arabic, which makes the question of Neffa’s engagements with the Nights, and Borges’ readings and uses of them, all the more complex, beguiling, and interesting to contemplate. Indeed, the Nights’ Arabic title in its transliterated form is Alf Laylā wa-Laylā (The Thousand Nights and One Night).

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Minying Huang, « A Thousand and One Laylas: The Politics of Narrative Embedding in Laila Neffa’s Ais »Amerika [En ligne], 27 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 24 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Minying Huang

St John’s College, University of Oxford (

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