Important!Several years ago, I watched a video of about a dozen Lebanese elders sitting around a long, rustic table under the shade of eucalyptus trees.
My father later explained these men were taking turns riffing extemporaneous, short poems, almost like rap, inspired by passages or themes in the Quran. Particularly clever or funny choices of words (puns, rhymes, or plays on someone else’s rap) were rewarded with applause and laughter from the audience. Everyone then sang a short refrain to give the next poet/singer a few seconds to get ready for his turn. There was a Darbuka drummer who kept cadence throughout the performance.
I still had questions. What was this called? How much of it was really spontaneous? How much was rehearsed? Were the performers always Muslim (especially if arak was involved!) or were other confessions and tribes playing, too? Was it ribald entertainment or prayerful meditation or something akin to jazz?
My questions were flung into the ether and within minutes answers began returning from generations of online friends and friends of friends. The delightful story that follows is posted with the author’s permission. Enjoy…
— Jacques d’Nalgar, Vendredi 9 février 2024 de l’ère commune
Zajal on Arak
By Zein El-Amine, Jan 26, 2015
I remember when electricity came to my village. I must have been about seven or eight. The government installed a transformer in the village center. The thing was housed in a metal locker. The villagers called it ‘The Clock.’ At first, The Clock was a thing of contention. It was installed in the winter and was prone to overloading. Villagers would shout to each other from their warm perches, urging each other to flip the switch so they could enjoy the warm distractions of their new electric luxuries.
Before the arrival of The Clock, we used kerosene lamps for lighting and wood stoves and charcoal grills for heating. Some villagers would throw in lemon peels on the coals as a detoxifier and the house would fill with zesty carbon monoxide. The nightly entertainment was aunts, uncles and neighbors telling stories, and kids engaging in rounds of Zajal. Today we might call a poetry slam. If you think that the rules of poetry slams are intimidating then you will find the rules of Zajal difficult to follow, impossible to sustain. Basically one poet—and know that we all considered ourselves poets—would recite a stanza, usually loaded with couched or open insults against his opponent. The opponent would fire back with a stanza, flipping the insults back on the first person. Now here is the kicker: whenever someone responds, they must start with the last word of the stanza that was just thrown at them. What’s more: the response had to follow the same set meter and rhyme.
My grandmother’s house formed an L-shape around the concrete patio. One uncle along with two aunts and one grandmother lived on the upper level, another uncle and his family lived on the ground floor. My brother, my cousins and I would play in the courtyard while the grown-ups would talk politics, smoke cigarettes and engage in rounds of zajal. My cousin Wissam was fascinated with the art and I was intrigued by his intrigue. So we would run upstairs every time we heard the cadence that told us a verse battle was starting.
It was miraculous how fast competitors were able to come up with comebacks that sizzled. To do it, you’d have to memorize hundreds of poems and also know how to compose something on the spot. We gasped every time a poet ended with an impossible word. We would whisper to each other, ‘He just ended with MULE! How are you supposed to start a stanza with mule?’ But just when we thought the combatant was stumped, a stanza would shoot back at the attacker. Soccer had nothing on zajal. In our house, the courtyard was the main arena for zajal.
Then came the little clocks. They were like The Clock, only littler and affixed to each home. Our little clock was a fuse box installed above the futon in the large bedroom we all slept in. And with the clocks came the televisions. Around 7PM, at the start of the nightly broadcast, someone would roll ours out onto the vast upper-level balcony. It was a small TV with short telescoping antennas. We turned them in every direction as we tried desperately to snatch bits of broadcast from distant stations. We eventually figured how to use tinfoil to enhance the reception.
Lebanon is the size of Rhode Island, but it contains regions with their distinct cultures, traditions, religious beliefs. You could say it contains small nations.
Our region was distinctly Shiite. We never had the luxuries and Western influences of the nations in the Lebanese north. But now, with TV, us Southerners had a window into their lives.
By the second week, TV had displaced all other communal activities, zajal included. We settled around the tube as my uncle Oun fiddled with the antenna. My cousins were there along with my uncle Abdullah, my two aunts and grandmother. Abdullah, a cleric, sat in his white robe, after shedding his long brown abaya robe and his black turban—all of which marked him as that special kind of cleric who is a descendant of the Prophet.
We were familiar enough with TV programs that we knew that watching it with Uncle Abdallah might get awkward real quick. We knew that those shows might turn sexual or profane at any minute. Uncle Oun managed to get a fairly static-free picture and he took a seat among us to see what we got. It took us a second before we realized what we were watching was the live broadcast of a zajal competition. It was like ours, except that all the contestants were Christians from the mountains of the North.
We were doubly surprised. First, that they would broadcast something like this on TV. And second, that our Christian countrymen did zajal like us. To top it all this was a grand presentation. There were poets seated at tables that faced each other, behind them sat drummers and other musicians. A poet at one end of table would spit his verse and sit back while the drummers taunted the other team with a quick rhythmic volley. A poet from the opposing team, at the facing table, would collect his thoughts through the noise and move closer to the mic. The drums would die down and there would be a minute of nerve-wracking silence followed by a verse thrown back. A formidable response.
We were riveted, this was zajal on steroids. But then we noticed something that whittled our thrill. Something that might result in the whole show getting shut down. It was this: after each recitation, the poets took a drink. They were doing shots of arak, to be precise. We recognized it by the milky color.
Any moment, we thought, Uncle Abdullah was going to do what clerics do. At any moment, he was going to say this was forbidden. At any moment, the TV was going to get shut off.
But nothing happened, uncle Abdullah sat there in silence, expressionless.
We mimicked his solemnity. We stayed stoic. We didn’t want to offend, or appear to promote debauchery. Our part of the country is dry through and through. Alcohol is forbidden, and when consumed, only in secret. Imagine a poetry slam with contestants snorting lines of coke between lines of poetry. That’s what this was like, only worse.
When the competition ended, we were all shook up, exhilarated by what we just saw. We sat back silently. Uncle Oun turned off the TV. No one said a word. Every one of us watched Uncle Abdullah out of the corner of his eye.
Finally Uncle Abdullah leaned back in his chair and said, “The more they drank, the better they got.”
Zein El-Amine’s poems have been published by Wild River Review, Folio, Foreign Policy in Focus, Beltway Quarterly, DC Poets Against the War Anthology, Penumbra, GYST, Joybringer, and Middle East Report Magazine. His poetry was featured in both Beltway Quarterly (in an issue highlighting five up-and-coming DC poets) and in Split this Rock (where his poem “How to Write A Poem According to Souha Bechara” was a featured poem of the week). His poetry will also be featured in an upcoming Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology, to be published by University of Georgia Press. His short stories have been published by Boundoff and Uno Mas magazines.
Zein was born and raised in Lebanon. He presently lives in Columbia Heights, Washington DC at the Ella Jo Baker Housing Cooperative. He teaches Global Literature and Arabic language and culture at the University of Maryland. He leads literary study-abroad trips to Ireland and is now planning a new course for Morocco and Spain. Zein is also the host of the radio show Shay wa Nana at the Pacifica Station in Washington DC. The radio program focuses on Arab politics and culture.
Pierre Sadek’s caricature (above) of an evening of zajal. lau.edu.lb/news-events/news/archive/celebrating_the_intangible_leb/
Photo of Muaddi Arak (below), a boutique distiller based in the Palestinian territories, by Lyric Lewin. cnn.com/travel/article/world-arak-day
Important!Comments from online friends. Thank you all very much!
PCT: it’s called Zahjel (emphasis on first syllable). It’s spontaneous and beautiful. Not religious. A famous performer was Zaglool Al Damur. We watched him on TV every Saturday night. The performers would sip their arak and go back and forth rhyming and singing.
Moi: PCT, if arak was involved and it’s not religious, I have to assume these are Christians. The video I recall was outside and the men were older and dressed more like village Muslims or Druze. There may have been an ibrik of water but I sure don’t remember arak.
XGA: …not necessarily Christisians only. Some well known Zajal poets are also Muslim. Btw, there’s a Facebook page dedicated to it.
XGA: I’m finding it hard to find it for some reason but here’s a YouTube channel dedicated to Zajal.
BK: The dueling can take several forms. I have one somewhere of two fellows in rural Iraq doing a poetry duel over the price of a cow in the market.
JF: This happened to me many times out in the villages of beqaa. The older men who begin to make poems, chanting, sometimes singing in rhyme. So fascinating and fun. Impromptu and extemporaneous.
MP: I experienced something like that in Hofuf by one old man..did not understand a word; but it was marvelous.
XGA: Most likely Zajal. Typically Lebanese form of improvised poetry in Colloquial form. The guys are nothing short of being geniuses as they can, on the spot, come up with astounding lines.
Moi: XGA, very cool! Wish I could understand it all. I’m curious – do Lebanese Muslims sometimes drink arak (I worked with Jews who had no problem eating a ham sandwich)? I remember that when my parents served cake to their Muslim guests in Beirut, some would refuse until my mother showed them that the artificial vanilla contained no alcohol. Was that the norm or were they just like everyone else – sneaking a sip when no one was watching?
An interesting article on the topic
Moi: NS, I’ll try to ask the author first – it’s a funny story!
Moi: I just sent a friend request and asked – we have 9 friends in common so maybe he’ll grant permission. His story reminds me of the village in the late Anthony Shadid’s “House of Stone” where the mosque hired a Greek Orthodox to be their muezzin because of his voice. He has already replied and granted his permission…
Important!Postscript — My interest in that old jazal video was reawakened by a book I am now reading. Wading into the deep waters of Sarah Ruden’s 2021 translation of “The Gospels” has me wondering how many English translations of the Gospels have missed subtle puns, insults, retorts, or even jokes? Just like Jazal…
Sara Ruden is a Quaker educated at the University of Michigan, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins. She is highly regarded for her translations of ancient literary works, among them Vergil’s Aeneid and Augustine’s Confessions and works by Homer, Plato, Sophocles, and others. Formerly a scholar-in-residence at Yale Divinity School, she is currently a visiting researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.