Blog: Rare Poetry Performance Returns to the Lebanese Stage

“As darkness falls, far from prying eyes/ My beloved to me calls/ Intoxicated, the wine of burning lips I kiss/ Frozen no more, my soul finds bliss.” – An excerpt from one of the most memorable zajal performances by Joseph el-Hashem, the “nightingale of Damur.”

From the restless streets of a country still recovering from a civil war rises the nostalgic voices of Lebanon’s most revered poetic duel.

It is a battle of the most intricate nature, where victory is a matter of how cleverly weapons of words are swung.

This oral duel called zajal reentered Lebanon, a country once torn by sectarian divisions, a few years ago as a peaceful alternative to addressing disparities.

Zajal is sung to the accompaniment of derbakes, a traditional Middle Eastern drum held and played against one’s side.

The poet who follows the initial performer must begin his poem with the last word of the opponent’s while also deploying the same meter and rhyme.

Woven within their voices are strings of insults directed toward their opponents. Victory is a matter of a balanced combination between memory and improvisation.

Some experts claim, according to the Lebanon Daily Star, zajal can be traced as far back as 500 years. However, it began to claim a large audience in the 1960s, particularly in Lebanon, with the advent of television. Ironically, the same device attributed with zajal’s rise in national popularity is blamed for its domestic disappearance.

Zein el-Amine, a lecturer and Arabic studies advisor at this university, witnessed this transformation as a child in Lebanon. In his essay titled, “Zajal on Arak,” el-Amine recalls watching his own extended family members perform zajal before they purchased a television. Awed by the performances of zajal on the screen, his uncles silenced their own poetic voices to bear witness to those who rose to national prominence before them.

In recent years, domestic performances of poetry have transitioned into televised spectacles, which resembles a similar transformation all forms of poetry have undergone. This shift of a poet’s place in society from the center to the peripheral, as el-Amine speculates, has to do globalization.

“It sounds like something holistic and beautiful,” el-Amine said in an interview, “but it commercializes everything, including art. It leaves no room for critical thinking or artistic pursuit.”

And in our global economic endeavours, el-Amine said, poets are abandoned “by the wayside.”

The nostalgic traditionalists have certainly contributed to the strong resurgence of zajal. Although it has returned with all its intricate rules, there are accompanying changes which have renewed its appeal.

Zajal is now most popularly deployed in satirical politics, where opposing political parties carry on a cunning debate while addressing existing disparities.

Often concealed behind puppets, the zajal performers compete against each other, relying on their poetic abilities to convey their messages humorously, as the sensitive political atmosphere of Lebanon requires, but no less powerfully.

“The trick with Lebanese politics,” el-Amine said, “is how to address these issues through satire that does not feed the sectarianism that created the 15-year-long civil war.”

And despite the highly competitive nature of these performances, as they engage in the realm of political satire, zajal remains, as it once was, a conversation between two poets.

“It’s a dialogue, not a monologue,” el-Amine said, “even though they are insulting each other.”

Accompanying the resurgence of zajal is another modern feature.

While the same poetic rules remain in place, traditional ones are challenged with the appearance of women on stage. Long defined as “an emotional duel between two men,” the mere participation of women in this traditionally male atmosphere addresses crucial social issues, though the subjects of their poems may not do so explicitly.

The appearance of women in these poetic duels do not so much challenge a male-dominated performance as they do explore this unfamiliar realm, seeking to enter the “dialogue” on social matters.

Nagham Abi Karam, who competed with poets Elias Khalil and Bassam Harb at the Safra Zajal Festival, noted male performers often speak of women firmly, portraying them negatively because of their “personal perceptions.”

Abi Karam addresses these preconceptions not only through her poetic images of women but also through her participation in this traditional duel.

Zajal continues to address existing conflicts and disparities, minding the sensitivity of the country’s wounds while refusing to allow them to define the country or its people.

headshotAiyah Sibay is a sophomore English literature major and can be reached at

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