Forbidden Love

Another look at "Vis and Ramin"


Forbidden Love
by Majid Naficy

The Persian version of this essay was first published in "Book Review", Los Angeles in 1991 and later in my bookPoetry and PoliticsandTwenty-Four Other Essays Baran publisher, Sweden, 1996. Recently, a new version ofVis and Ramin has been translated into English in heroic couplet by Dick Davis, Washington DC, Mage publishers (2008). [See introduction]

The Persian romance ofVis and Ramin, which has influenced the European legend of Tristan and Isolde and the Georgian tale of Visramiani, was composed in 1050's by Fakhraddin Asa'd Gorgani in Isfahan, Iran. It is one of the oldest examples of forbidden love in Persian literature in which a man passionately falls in love with his sister-in-law. For this reason,Vis and Ramin has not been welcome by the Persian literati in the past and present. Nezami Ganjavi (1141-1209), who wrote his romanceKhosrow and Shirin, more than one century afterVis and Ramin tries to distance himself from Gorgani as follows:

Since Vis distanced herself from good name

She became infamous as evil in the world


If I treat Vis less harsh for a moment

I will become infamous like her worldwide too (1)

Among our contemporaries, Vahid Dastgerdi (1877-1942), a neoclassicist poet and scholar thus scolds Gorgani and admires Nezami in a convoluted language:

By composing Khosrow and Shirin

and Leili and Majnoon, Nezami perfectly defined, described and encouraged love and chastity. It seems that Nezami was extremely hurt by Fakhr Gorgani's composition,Vis and Ramin. In fact Gorgani's work is a dirty legend, and an enemy of chastity in opposition to the historical majesty of Iranian moralities. Compensating Gorgani's criminal failure, Nezami wanted to safeguard the ethical majesty of Iran, through his own legends of love, chastity and purity. In all fairness, Iranians followed the opinion of Nezami, the philosopher, and threw away the legend ofVis and Ramin. (2)

Of course, Gorgani himself does not claim that he wants to write about a "forbidden love". This is a term that I use to describe the way his romance,Vis and Ramin, has been received by Persian men of letters. He is basically a poet without a sense of mission. Neither like his predecessor, Ferdowsi (935-1020), the author of the epic, Shah-Nameh, he wants to purify Persian language from Arabism nor like his successor, Nezami, the poet of Khosrow and Shirin, he considers the sudden loss of his wife as his source of inspiration. Gorgani renders this romance from middle Parthian/Persian prose into (new Persian verse, only because he finds it a beautiful narrative which can be sung by a "gosan" (minstrel) in the royal court:

One day that center of the world asked me

What do you know about the story of Vis and Ramin

They say it is a lovely romance

And everybody loves it throughout the country

I said that it is a very beautiful narrative

That was collected by six men of knowledge

I haven't seen a story as lovely

It's not comparable except to a green garden (3)

This is the plot of the story: An aged king, called Mobad son of Mani in the eastern city of Marv, wants to marry a woman of high nobility named Shahru, from the western town of Mahabad. But she has a husband and children. To please the king Shahru agrees that if she gives birth to a daughter, Mobad will marry this girl. She is named Vis. Ramin, the younger brother of Mobad, and Vis are raised as milk-siblings by a nurse in the southern province of Khuzan. After reaching puberty, Vis, advised by her mother, marries her brother Viru. Mobad becomes angry and sends an army to Mahabad and kills Shahru's husband, Qaren. However, Mobad's army is pushed back and defeated by Viru. After a while, the king regains the heart of Shahru by sending her gifts. The mother opens the gate of the castle, and gives Veys and her nurse to Mobad's emissary, that is, his younger brother, Ramin. While returning to Marv, the wind opens the curtain of Vis's coach and Ramin sees her face and falls in love. From here to almost the end of the book, we read the tales of hidden, and sometimes opened love between Vis and her brother-in-law, Ramin. At the end, while the two brothers are waiting to fight each other, a boar attacks the tent of Mobad and causes his death. The kingdom passes to his brother, and Vis and Ramin live together for eighty-three years. After the death of his beloved, Ramin leaves the throne, and retires to her mausoleum where he lives three more years.

What makes this narrative "forbidden",is neither its overt sexual scenes nor its blunt language. In fact, Gorgani's romance is not pornographic at all. It has a "bad" reputation because of some of the existing non-traditional sexual relationships in the story, specifically relationships of Vis and Viru, Ramin and the nurse, and most importantly that of Vis and Ramin. Let us look at these relationships as well as that of Vis and Mobad, one by one.

I. Vis and Viru

The social setting of the story belongs to the pre-Islamic Iranian dynasties of Parthians (238 BC-226 AD ) and Sassanids (226-651) when Zoroastrianism is the dominant religion. In some periods of that era, marriage between brothers and sisters, or between fathers and daughters is not considered "incest" among aristocracy, as can be seen in the legend of King Bahman, son of Esfandiyar from the mythological dynasty of Kayanians, who, according to Ferdowsi in the epic Shah-Nameh, marries Homa, his beautiful daughter and successor to the throne. But this type of relationship is prohibited in Islam. To justify the taboo of marriage between Vis and her brother Viru for his eleventh-century Muslim readers, Gorgani presents some reasons from the tongue of Shahru, their Zoroastrian mother, who acts as a matchmaker between the sister and her brother:

When the mother saw her beloved Vis

Who had destroyed the flower of her cheeks

She told her, you are good and cultured

And the throne of the world is honored by you

Your father is king and your mother queen

I find no husband to match you in our country

Nor anyone in foreign lands

How can I give you to someone unequal to you?

In Iran there is no one to become your mate

Except Viru, who is your brother

Marry him and light up the eyes of your fortune

And through this union, bring happiness to our family

It's fine that Viru's wife will be his sister

And my daughter-in-law will be my daughter (4)

Although the siblings married each other, because on the night of wedding Vis has her menstruation, they cannot have intercourse and Vis remains a virgin. The description of woman's monthly cycle (which makes vaginal sex unlawful both among the Zoroastrians and Muslims), exemplifies one of the "forbidden" aspects of Gorgani's work,

That night that Viru was the groom

And everybody was overjoyed

His bride appeared to have her period

Which turned the groom's fortune around

Heavenly fate fell upon them

So the door of enjoyment became closed

That silver body was infected with disease

The lily of the valley was polluted with blood

In the middle of the month she was so for a week

Her blood resembled a stream of ruby.

Among Magians (5) when a woman is in this condition

A man cannot have sex with her

If the woman hides her period from him

Marriage to her becomes unlawful forever (6)

II. Ramin and the Nurse

The sex between Ramin and the nurse is more unexpected than the marriage of Vis and her brother Viru. Ramin is infatuated with love for his sister-in-law, Vis. But he does not know how to realize it. To lighten his heart Ramin goes to a garden. There, he sees his old nurse and asks for help. But he hears nothing from the nurse except contempt. Then he embraces the old nurse in despair, and the body contact leads to intercourse:

He said so and then embraced her tightly

And kissed her head a few times

Then he kissed her on lips and cheeks

The demon came and went into his body

He attained his wish with the nurse, soon

Thus, he sowed the seeds of love in her heart (7)

In order to justify this affair, the poet repeats the usual misogynistic belief:

When you fulfill your desire with a woman once or twice

She will become yours as if you have bridled her

As soon as Ramin got up from the side of the nurse

She wholeheartedly began to find a remedy for his pain

The moment that the veil of shame was torn

His cold words became hot and effective (8)

"There is nothing personal in sex." When a man approaches women with this attitude, all women seem to him the same:

She said to him: you speak so seductively

Winning everybody's heart in the polo of words

Your heart seeks fruition from one and all

Each woman whom you see is called Vis

You were my sweetheart yesterday

But I fall more in love with you today (9)


I have no excuse for you, my love

Because the arrow of lust hit its aim

From now on, command as you wish

I won't disobey what you order (10)

The nurse is almost a jack of all trades. She not only breast-feeds Ramin and Vis, but also maintains the role of a dominant nurse throughout the story. Influenced by the spell of the nurse, Mobad and Vis gradually break up and Vis starts to visit Ramin. Here, using Freudian psycho-analysis one can take the nurse for a mother, and interpret her sex with Ramin as a manifestation of the Oedipus complex. Or, on the contrary, one can consider this relationship a simple reflection of illicit relations between master's sons and their maids within feudal homesteads. In any case, in order to reach a mature love, Ramin has to pass through periods of immature relationships. This also holds for Vis. Viru can symbolize her father, and Vis's love for him can be understood as the reflection of an Electra complex. But childish loves are not the only obstacle.

III. Vis and Mobad

For maturity in love, Vis not only has to pass through an immature relationship with Viru, but also she must resist a non-consensual marriage in which her desire has been completely ignored. The contract of this union had been agreed upon between Mobad, the king and her mother, Shahrow, even before her conception. To please Vis the king makes her the custodian of his treasuries, but the young girl who is a victim of child marriage, never comes to terms with the old man's love. In one occasion, Vis expresses her emotions as follows:

The king of the world is my husband and my master

But he is bad-tempered and revengeful

He is indeed a very unpleasant husband

Because he is old and evil in thought and action (11)

Mobad is moody, sometimes rigid, sometimes flexible, but relatively "tolerant". He is aware of the love between Ramin and Vis, but he does not commit the customary "honor-killing". He does not go beyond banishment and whipping of his wife (in the tale of "The Castle of Ashkoft-Divan"), or instead of killing Ramin he only touches his brother's neck with a dagger (after the serenade of a minstrel). However, his arranged marriage is based on political expediency, and his love for Vis remains unrequited.

IV. Vis and Ramin

It seems that Ramin's love for Vis is at first sight when the wind opens the curtain of her coach, but in fact, it is based on their previous intimacy, when both were raised as playmates by the nurse in Khoozan. Furthermore, even after the spark of love, Ramin and Vis must overcome different obstacles until they can finally "legitimize" their "forbidden" love. Ramin is amorous, a lute-player and the creator of a harp called Ramtin. Although he frequently promises his brother, King Mobad that he will stop visiting his wife, Vis, he cannot resist his burning love. Ramin is ready to pass the most arduous roads and climb the highest fortresses in order to join his lover. Once Vis and Ramin decide to separate forever. Ramin goes to the town of Goorab and marries a woman named, Gol. but the experience of this union brings him back to his real love. When the nurse tries to talk Vis, into dating Ramin, she resists temptations and does not violate the norms of chastity and marriage. However, when she becomes infatuated with love for Ramin, she reveals her secret and is not afraid of her husband's anger:

She told him: Oh, King, may the city of Marv be prosperous

Whether it is bad or good, may you have it

I stay here, because I've given my heart to hopelessness

As if I am an onager snared by a hunter.

If you bar me from visiting my beloved Ramin

You will hear the name of Vis from the other world

It suffices me to see the face of Ramin, once in a while

whether I live in Marv or in Mahabad

The garden looks a desert to me without him

And the desert looks a garden when I am with him

If my heart was not at peace with him

You could not see me alive now

I care for you for the sake of Ramin

Since I fell in love with that cruel lover

I am like a gardener looking after flowers

Bearing the pain of thorns for the sake of roses

When the king of kings heard that response from Vis

The color of anger suddenly appeared on his face (12)

But Vis has the heart of a lion and is ready to die for her love:

She told him: Oh King, may you be happy

Why do you scare me with your punishment?

Now you can kill me or make me banished

Or you can pluck out my eyes with your hands

If you wish, hang me on the scaffold forever

Or you can drag me naked into the marketplace

Ramin is my choice for this world and hereafter

He is the life of my body and the soul of my life

He is the light of my eyes and the peace of my heart

He is my lord, my friend, love and mate

No matter if I give my life for his love

Because I live only for the sake of love (13)

In most cases, when their love escapades are disclosed, it is Ramin who escapes the place and leaves Vis alone to face Mobad. Nevertheless, Vis does not abandon her forbidden love. In ten letters that she sends to Ramin after his marriage to Gol, of which the first one is the most beautiful love letter in classical Persian poetry, Vis expresses her love as follows:

If the expanse of sky were my silk

And the stars were all my scribes

If the night were my ink and the air its well

And the words of my letter were leaf, sand and fish

If the scribes until the day of reckoning wrote

To my love, of my hopes and wishes

I swear on my life, they couldn't write

Half of my sorrow at separation (14)

Finally, when Ramin leaves the town of Goorab and comes to Mahabad (or Mah) to see Vis, his beloved does not receive him. Instead, she expresses her complaints to Ramin's horse, Rakhsh:

Again she told Rakhsh the trip is over

And now apple of my eye, you can rest

You are like my child lighting my heart

And I cannot bear your suffering today

Why did you seek bad company, a spiteful man?

You should first choose company and then your path

If you didn't have this co-traveller

You would rest here all by yourself

Now your hopes and dreams are gone with the wind

And you have no resting place in Mah

Go and seek food and rest from others

And ask lovers for your lost heart (15)

Gorgani's work has many flaws and shortcomings and is not comparable to Nezami's masterpiece, Khosrow and Shirin, especially in its poetical diction and narrative techniques. Nevertheless, Vis and Ramin stands out among classical Persian romances because it dares to express a forbidden love. Today, even after a thousand years Gorgani's voice reaches us from within the walls of religion and tradition. (16)


[1] This is taken from an introduction by Mohammad-Ja'far Mahjoob to:
Vis-u-Ramin ,by FakhradDin Gorgani edited by Mohammad-Ja'far Mahjoob,
Tehran 1958, P.95. The English translation is mine.
[2] Ibid P.94
[3] Ibid P.20
[4] Ibid P.32
[5] Zoroastrians
[6] Ibid P.54
[7] Ibid pP.91
[8] The same
[9] The same
[10]The same
[11]Ibid p.126
[12]Ibid p.129
[13]Ibid p.122
[14] Ibid p.263
[15] This last quotation is taken from a new edition of the book,
published by National Bank Printing House, without the name of the
editor, Tehran
1976 p.317
[16] This text was written in October 1991, and first published in Barresi-yye Ketab, Vol.2, No.8, Winter 1991-92, Los Angeles.


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Nazy Kaviani

Dear Majid

by Nazy Kaviani on

Thank you so very much for this beautiful piece about a beautiful and complex story. As you say, the story of Vis and Ramin has been kept from becoming a national treasure, as Khosrow and Shirin's tale has become. You mention the incest, but you only imply the adultery, which by religious and moral standards, was in full operation through the story of Vis and Ramin. Though Nezami is a master storyteller and a gifted poet, I don't think Fakhraddin Asa'd Gorgani's less robust poetry is the reason Iranians have treated the gem less kindly. I agree that it is the story's challenging the Iranian sense of morality which has kept it from the attention it has deserved.

I think what both Nezami and Asa'd Gorgani had going for them in their storytelling about sexual scenes was the fact that these Moslem poets were telling stories about a time in the pre-Islamic era and so much of the talk about sex and even drinking wine, playing music, and dancing were only acceptable tales if they had happened to non-Moslems and a long time ago. Nezami feels compelled a few times in his poems to mention that he is not a drinking man, though the scenes in which Khosrow and Shirin drink and their intoxicated actions are almost too perfectly depicted for a non-drinking storyteller!

This was really delightful to read, and I thank you for my late night story tonight!

P.S. I think you might find it interesting that over the past 10 years, I have met at least three young Iranian women who were named "Vis!" Perhaps the story is not as obscure in Iranian minds as we think!