Many years ago my friends Almuth Tebbenhoff and Francesca Ryan brought me a copy of the book Yusuf and Zulaikha. I was at that time teaching and performing Raqs Sharqi(Egyptian dance) and we talked together about how great it would be to create some kind of theatrical dance version of the story. That sadly never happened, but now nearly twenty years later this story has found its way into The Light in the Stone, a cycle of stories which I will be telling for the first time this November with accompanying live music from Ilana Cravitz and Elizabeth Nott.
The story or long poem of Yusuf and Zulaikha is by Persian Sufi poet, Hakim Nuruddin Abdurrahman Jami. He wrote it when he was 70 in the year 1483 one year before Sandro Botticelli produced the painting Birth of Venus.

The version I’m telling is adapted is from a translation by David Pendlebury. The language in Pendlebury’s translation is richly romantic and full of lush poetic imagery

“The black crow of the night had already flown, and the cock had greeted the dawn; the nightingale had sung its sweet melody to the rose, inviting it to open up its petals. The jasmine had bathed its face in dew and the violet washed its scented hair. Zulaikha meanwhile, was still fast asleep” p15

The Yusuf of the title is the Biblical Joseph. Christians and Jews may be familiar with the Biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. In Jami’s tale however Potiphar’s wife is allowed to tell her story, and in the telling of it guides us through the perils and pitfalls of love; and the similarities and differences between romantic love and love for the divine.
Jami begins,
“The heart that is free of lovesickness is not a heart at all…..turn from the world to the sorrows of love’s delightful domain”.
And ends….. “The curtain before Zulaikha’s eyes was finally torn asunder and a ray from the sun of truth struck her with such an overwhelming brilliance that Yusef was lost in it like a mote in a sunbeam.”

It’s a story written from the depths of the heart and therefore never loses its relevance. I was delighted to find that it connected up thematically and chronologically with the Jewish mystical tale that I started out with on this Light in the Stone journey, but more of that in another post.

Yusuf and Zulaikha, By Jami, translated and edited by David Pendlebury, The Octagon Press, London 1980.
Picture by Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād –