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The Lebanese popular traditions remain in the soul and the mind of the people and are handed over from one generation to another.By Francoise Hbeyka

The Lebanese Folk traditions

The Lebanese Folk traditions remain in the soul and the        Francoise hbeika
 mind of the people and are handed over from one generation
 to another. Even though some customs and beliefs have
disappeared or are about to disappear, their echoes have
 reached us and stay somewhere hidden and awake in our
deep interior and mind; one makes them relive especially
through artistic events in the local festivals, organized by
some villages and cities; others regenerate of themselves
and are even taking their course to modern times.  This theme deals with the different aspects, activities, customs and traditions bound to the former or to the current Lebanese daily life.

Social relations are at the daily life basis. They have a major importance in the Lebanese mind and soul: from help, to hospitality, to the respect of others feelings, insofar sharing his/her misfortunes or happiness. Although some traditions related to this theme are sadly about to disappear, their principles are rooted in our souls and are reflected in our attitudes. One is ready to provide -without any ulterior motive- help & services to foreigners & strangers.

  The Family: 

The socio-familial life in Lebanon seems to reside in the communicative happiness of the deep familial ties and the close vivacious contact with the new generation. The familial life is very important, the spirit of solidarity is required, the elders of the family are respected and are pampered, and their opinion is taken into consideration. They preside at the table and it is common to meet the three generations strolling and joking together.

Currently, this relation goes in pair with a certain individualism that protects the personal life and secrets of each. If someone of the family is in need, they help him financially. There are even families who created their own association in order to support each other. One lives with his parents until marriage. It  is rare to see unmarried people living alone. The village, feasts, marriages and funerals continue to be a meeting opportunity for all the family members and branches.

 The Bawahirs:

The bawahirs are the old local meteorology which continues until this day. It remains very much alive in the mountains. The Maronites’ Bawahirs  begin on September 15 after the day of the cross and end up on the 27 of the same month. While those of the Orthodox begin one week later and also last 12 days. The rainy day announces a rainy month and the sunny one a sunny month. Every day corresponds to one month, every 8 hours to 10 days etc. One can even predict the weather during such months of the year, its different days and hours. The bawahirs according to the old traditions of the mountains are more precise than the modern meteorology.  Sometimes the amateurs of bawahirs use the salt, put it in a fig leaf and watch it, then according to the changes it undergoes dry or humid, they can predict the weather accordingly

The survey of the bawahirs stimulates the young, they try to understand them and to seize their different nuances.

The Zalghouta:

The  Zalghoutas are popular poems, describing the physical, moral, as well as the social and economic situation, repeated and improvised many times, addressed to the bride and spouse the day of their wedding. Some poems even apply to the parents.

It is only said by women; one says the poem of maximum four or six verses, she can recite as many poems as she likes. The zalghouta starts with “Ewihaaaa”  and ends up with a “Heeeee” at the end of each verse, accentuated and repeated by the women around. Toward the end of the 4 or 6 verse, the women put one hand over the upper lip and make with their tongue the sound: lalalalalalalalalalalalalalalala. In principle they are told to the bride before she leaves her parents’ house, especially when the groom’s parents arrive to drive her to the church (in the Christian tradition), or upon the Sheik’s arrival with the bridegroom (in the Islamic tradition). It is also said at the engagement of a couple or during the wedding party.


Example:  Ewihaaa The beautiful bride, May God protect her Heeeeeee

                  Ewihaaa your skin is white, your beauty is resplendent Heeeeeee

                  Ewihaaa your size is the one of a gazelle, on your chest two pomegranates Heeeeeee

                  Ewihaaa diamond sparkling in the house of your parents Heeeeeee

                  Ewihaaa the purchaser wins and the seller loses Heeeeeeee

 The Zajal: 

The zajal  is an improvised or repeated half sung poem. It starts with an Ooofff and emanates of a situation. It is like a verbal joust and there are usually two person or two teams facing each others. It serves to eloquently praise, attack or to mourn a friend or an enemy, a feeling, a personality, a situation, an event or each other. It is especially exciting when they criticize or praise each other.

One says it at table, in the theater, the fire camp, or in an excursion. A lot of Lebanese evenings, between group, friends or relatives end with a joust of zajal.  Some talented improvisers are well renowned and are much sought after. A zajal is typically Lebanese, only found in Lebanon. 

The Mustaches

Formerly, men gave main importance to having a mustache (chawareb) – considered a sign of virility. Some lengthened them, and turned their extremities up. Swearing an oath by the mustaches is to swear by one’s own virility. It is a serious engagement to fulfill a  promise. To swear, the man either puts his hand over it, or holds its extremity with his hand; he doesn’t even need to say a word. The gesture itself says much. It is a solemn oath to be up to the task or the promise sworn and on which it is necessary to rely. The failure to dishonor the oath, led to consequences, where the mayor or the chief of the village or the clan could require in some situations the shaving of the mustaches. It was a common tradition that could be found everywhere, in the villages and the big cities (Beirut, Sidon, and Tripoli). Hayat Labban Nouwayri speaks of it like a sacred tradition of Beirut. Currently one does not find a lot of men with long mustaches, but even without mustaches it is still a common custom to make a solemn oath by the mustache gesture.

The Hospitality

The warmth of oriental hospitality is known all over the world. “A small house welcomes one thousand friends”. To arrive at ones house at meal time is  to share the meal with the family or the person.

The palace of Beiteddine, of Emir Béchir Chehab II the Great (19th century), contains the welcome wing lodges “Al madhafa”. According to the rules of the Lebanese hospitality, it was a must to house travelers for 3 days without even asking them about their identity.

If someone crossed the region and didn’t have a place for overnighting, he is given shelter, a bed, supplied with food and hot water to wash. They avoid asking the traveler anything before the end of the third day, giving him enough time to rest and to recover. The 4th day the traveler is asked the necessary where he comes from, how long does he intend to stay, how can they help him and so on.

To this day it is impossible, especially in the villages, to pass by someone drinking his coffee or having his lunch and not hear “Tfaddal” or join us, enter, “Ahla w Sahla”,  a welcome with a sincere warm smile emanating from the bottom of the heart.

The Awneh (the help)

The Awneh is a very old Lebanese tradition that reflects the love and fraternity that the Lebanese have toward each other. It is where all social classes meet and help each other.

In rural villages it was enough to warn the neighbors of one’s intention to build a house. On a given free day, all men of the village make themselves available to give a helping hand. This cooperation of the villagers is called “ta’awon” of where comes the word “awneh” (help).To this day the women of the village gather to help in the preparation of “kechek” – a ground wheat mixed with yogurt, then spread on a sheet, on the terrace or on the roof of the house. The women sit around and rub it with their hands. Sometimes one sees five or six spread  sheets of “kechek”; they are exposed for four or five days in the sun until they dry completely. In the evening, they cover them with other sheets. The whole process is usually done within the month of September.

 There is also a “Awneh” at the fruit picking time (grapes, citrus fruits, apples).

 Awneh takes place before the heavy rainfalls. The roofs of clay and straw of the old rural houses of the Lebanese villages are tamped down, by the Awneh men, first by packing the roof with their feet and then with a “mahdaleh”(like a roller compressor)   – a big cylindrical stone which is rolled over the roof.  

The Zaffehs 

The zaffeh is a song or music , or both sung whilst rice and roses are thrown on the bride as she exists from her paternal home. It is repeated thereafter to the couple at the marriage dinner or cocktail:  “Zeffou the bride and make her walk on the roses, her groom is the sheikh of men, congratulate them & wish them a happy life.”

 Marriage, Thread And Needle

In the Akkar area, in northern Lebanon, people are still keeping their former symbolic traditions. At the time of the marriage ceremony, a woman approaches the couple with a needle and a thread (without a knot) sewing the bride’s dress to the spouse’s trousers three times.

These days in nearly all Lebanon, the bride before dressing, writes on the sole of her shoes the names of her unmarried friends. After the marriage she tramples the feet of all her single friends in order to instill in them a luck to get married.

 The Aymeh

When a pretendant asks for a girls hand in marriage, her parents -in order to guess whether he deserves her or not – resort to “al aymeh” which means he will have to lift a heavy stone. If successfully done, she will be granted to him. Otherwise he runs the risk of losing her. It is also a type of joust which gathers the young and the old of the village to participate or to encourage x or y. Another tradition resembles it: the pretendant  is invited to ring the bell of the church, the result is similar either he marries her or loses her for ever.

 The Snayniyeh

The word derives from “sin, Asnan and Snan” in the Lebanese dialect, which means tooth or teeth. It is a kind of sweet dish that one prepares, serves and sends to relatives and neighbors once the baby’s first tooth appears. It consists of strained wheat put on dishes, garnished with sugar, with grilled and colored chickpeas, almonds, walnuts, pistachios and raisins. The empty dish is returned with a gift. Previously, the gift was either a sewn or knitted piece of garment, or a piece of gold or money, or fruits or other sweets put in the cleaned dish and sent back to the baby’s family. The tradition continues till now. Nowadays the gift is usually a toy, a piece of gold, or a clothing.

 The Circumcision (Tathir)

The circumcision, tathir is a very old tradition dictated by the Islamic and Jewish religions whereas it is a personal choice for Christians, mainly used for hygienic purposes. It is sometimes adopted by some Christians of the big cities (Beirut, Sidon, Tripoli) or mixed towns, but rarely carried out in villages. The removal of the foreskin was done  either by midwives or barbers (usually in the Hammam). But it is now mainly carried out by physicians. The operation is followed by a small feast. 

 The Baptism 

The baptism is a symbolic gesture, used by Christians to purify the soul from the original sin. The Orthodox baptize by immersion, with the baptized child totally plunged into water from head to feet. The Greek Catholic, sit the naked child in water, whilst pouring water over his head. Other Catholics denominations such as the Maronites baptize by affusion (pouring water onto the head of the baptized) -. The child is then usually dressed in the baptismal white clothes which are bought by the godmother. A feast is usually organized with the guests bringing gifts.

  The Mourners 

The mourners are a group of women, paid or not, who during funeral ceremonies, cry, moan and act as distressed. They pull their hair and clothes as a sign of mourning. It is a very old tradition, which has been illustrated on the small sides of the sarcophagus of Ahiram, the King of Byblos of 10th century BC. Another sarcophagus called the  Mourners  one, dated to the 4th century BC, (discovered in “Ayaa” to the north of Sidon, and exhibited in the Istanbul Museum), represents 18 mourners women statuaries, 6 on each of the long sides and 3 on each of the small side with their faces expressing a deep sadness.

The mourners usually arrive, one hour before the funeral, dressed in black. They perform in a perfect way a number of very touching expressions that touch straight the heart.  Some women structure folk poems in dialectal or literary language, recalling the so-called great qualities of the deceased. Moreover, they ask the dead to greet the family members and relatives and friends who had preceded him to the other world. Sometimes, they act and weep in a hysterical way as if the deceased was their very own. They overcome making the farewell more difficult. Therefore they are sought after in various villages.

 The Rassad

The “Rassad” is a magic guardian of a treasure, keeping it safe from any man’s gaze. It can be either invisible, or taking human or animal shapes. It’s specifically guarding  hidden treasures. According to local legends, the underground grottos and caves, the foundations of old abandoned homes and ruins, contain wealth of gold and jewelry. In the villages a lot of stories are woven on this subject. Some tell that the “Rassad” needs a secret password, a drop of blood or any material (knife or stick basket of fruits) to be paralyzed and to unveil the hidden treasure. It is told: a man had just bought a so called rassad land, the day after he went, to check it carrying his dagger. Thanks to the efficiency of the dagger, (from which emanated an enigmatic strength capable of invalidating the “Rassad” at such hour of such day), a predestined treasure opened  and appeared before the new owner’s eyes. He covered it and went to look for a bag in order to carry it home. On his way he lost his dagger so the treasure disappeared. However all daggers do not have the same effect. These days few people still believe in it.

 The Hijjab (talisman)

The Hijab is a Protective Kitab or a healers small book, a kind of talisman, that is usually folded in a triangular or quadrilateral shape dressed with fabrics, then framed by a thread to be carried.

It is used by both Christians and Muslims imploring intercessions against devilish forces and curses. One contains “Koranic” verses, while the other contains parables of the Lord or prayers. A group of Lebanese speleologists discovered in 1988 in the North of the country, in one cliff of the Holy Valley of Qadisha, eight mummies lying in the underground cave of “Asi Hadath”. They date back to the 13th century; one of the child mummies had a Hijab imploring the recovery of David, Jasmine’s son. It features a small rectangle folded 6 times in length and 5 times in width,  put on the sleeve of a little child. Two books mention it “La Mémoire des Tissus” of Colonel Figuier and Oussama Kallab “Les Momies du Liban” of the group of studies and underground researches of Lebanon. The “Hijab” is still in use until today. It is distributed in different Christian monasteries and by some Muslim sheikhs. For the religious, the “Hijab” replaces superstitious practices condemned by their religion (NB: do not confuse the “Hijab”  the veil of mostly veiled Muslim women with the “Hijab” talisman here).

Feasts’ Celebration Activities:

It is during a wedding’s eve or Saints feast days that one gets the opportunity to see cherished traditions. Some are about to disappear, whilst others are making a return to such occasions like feast of the village, theaters, or movies. Equestrian competitions, jousting, archery and fencing took place in the “Midan” the Main Square of the village or city. It is an opportunity for social meeting and for choosing a bride; if one of the girls pleases someone, he sends her a rose. If she takes it, it means it is reciprocal (like in Mezyara in the North). If not, it means she is not interested and he must look elsewhere.

 Among the most famous traditions:

1 – “Al-hakam beats” or game of the referee: fencing with saber and shield “sayf we ters”. The strokes and their parades are codified according to a traditional way. This game goes with the “mejwez” (double clarinet) and the “derbakkeh” (cylindrical drum).

 2 – “Lu’bat el-sakakin” or Knives game: is a martial game of knives also accompanied by the “mejwez and the derbakkeh”.

 3 – The “Zajal” is an improvised popular poems’ joust. It is “inseparable of the Lebanese folklore of which it is the most representative expression.” It is mid-recited mid-sung.

 4 – The “Dabkeh” is a Lebanese folk dance, danced by men and women. The steps are small and the strokes are precise and rapid. Lebanese nights end usually with a collective Dabkeh.

 5 – The Aymeh: Or carrying the heavy stone, which can also be a kind of joust.

 6 – The Hrisseh: A kind of food made of rice and meat cooked in a “ Disst” or huge pot for some occasions in some villages. They cook it in more or less 30 huge pots & distribute it to the people. The cost is shared between the citizens and the Municipality.

Francoise Hbeyka 

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