A Brief Introduction to Zajal ( Lebanese oral strophic poetry). By Prof. Edgar Choueiri Princeton University

A Brief Introduction to Zajal

Prof. Edgar Choueiri

Princeton University

Zajal is a traditional form of oral strophic poetry declaimed in a colloquial dialect (most notably in one of the many dialects of Arabic) with ancient roots in a number of Mediterranean cultures. Zajal’s origins may be ancient but it can be traced back to at least the 12th century. It is most alive in the Levant, especially in Lebanon and Palestine where professional zajal practitioners can attain high levels of recognition and popularity. Zajal is semi-improvised and semi-sung and is often performed in the format of a debate between zajjalin (poets who improvise the zajal). It is usually accompanied by percussive musical instruments (with the occasional wind instrument, e.g. the ney) and a chorus of men (and more recently, women) who sing parts of the verse.

Lebanese zajal

Lebanese zajal is a semi-improvised, semi-sung or declaimed form of poetry in the colloquial Lebanese Arabic dialect. Its roots may be as ancient as Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, but various similar manifestations of zajal can be traced to 10th-12th-century Moorish Spain (Al-Andalus), and specifically to the colloquial poet Ibn Quzman (Cordoba, 1078-1160). Zajal has close ties in prosody, delivery, form and spirit with various semi-sung colloquial poetry traditions, including such seemingly disparate traditions as those of Nabati Poetry of Arabia and the troubadours of Provence. Many Near-Eastern, Arabian and Mediterannean cultures (including Greece, Italy, Algeria, Morocco, Spain and southern France) had, or still have, rich semi-improvised, semi-sung colloquial poetry traditions, which share some traits with Lebanese zajal, such as the verbal duel (e.g. the jeu parti of the troubadours), the use of tambourines or other minimalist perucssion instruments, and a chanting chorus of men (Reddadi, in Lebanese) who repeat key verses or refrains recited by the poets.

The statement that none of the extant oral poetry traditions can rival Lebanese zajal in its sophistication, metric variety, extended lineage, and continued evolution may be arguable, but it is hard to contest the fact that none of them enjoys its ardent popularity. Today, many tens of professional zajal poets tour the Lebanese countryside and expatriate communities around the world performing to audiences of thousands of aficionados.

Roots and development

The earliest practitioner of zajal in what is present-day Lebanon is thought[1] to be the Bishop Gabriel Al-Qla3i Al-Hafadi (1440-1516), although some scholarship[2] traces Lebanese zajal back almost two centuries earlier to a poet by the name of Souleiman Al-Ashlouhi (1270-1335) and a few of his contemporaries, and in particular to a single poem in 1289, the year of the destruction of Tripoli (in present north Lebanon) by the Mamluks.[3] Many of the early practitioners of zajal in Lebanon were Christian clergymen.

Zajal had its great ascendency as a popular art form in the 19th century when numerous poets contributed to its refinement in content and form. The format of the modern Lebanese zajal evening was set in the 1930s mostly by the master poet As3ad Al-Khuri Al-Fghali (1894-1937), known as Shahrur Al-Wadi (Merle of the Valley), who is also credited for introducing many innovations in form and genre.

The most common format for a modern evening of Lebanese zajal is a debate (or verbal duel) between two or more poets followed by a recitation of love poetry (ghazal). The format typically consists of recitation in the qasid form (ode), followed by debates in the m3anna and qerradi forms (a popular sub-form of the latter is sometimes called moukhammas mardoud [answered quintain]), leading to ghazal recitations in various forms such as the muwaššah, which, in its Lebanese zajal incarnation, is a joyous and flirtatious genre. The whole is accompanied by a chorus with tambourines and other percussion instruments. The meet often concludes with a love lament, typically in the Shruqi form.

The metrics of zajal

There seems to be a consensus[3] among the few scholars who have seriously studied the metrics of zajal that it follows two distinct metrical systems. One metrical system is quantitative and is clearly based on some of the strict so-called Khalili meters of classical Arabic poetry (for instance the m3anna and related forms scan according to the classical sari3, rajaz and wafir meters,) and the other is stress-syllabic (for instance many sub-forms of the qerradi are clearly based on Syriac metrics, such as the syllabic metric of the Afframiyyat homilies attributed to the 4th-century St. Ephraem.) Both kinds of metrics in zajal are subject to fluid alteration by musical accentuation and syncopation[3] which is possible due to the colloquial’s malleability and its inherent allowance (like Syriac) to erode inflections and internal voweling.

Regional and thematic aspects

The regional variation in the appreciation of zajal in Lebanon mirrors to a remarkable extent the ethnic and sectarian fragmentation, which remains despite six decades of national co-habitation. Traditionally cosmopolitan communities (e.g. the Sunnis, Greek Orthodox and Armenians of the littoral cities) have had relatively little affinity for zajal and have produced, with some notable exceptions, few important zajjali. On the other hand, the Maronites, Druze and Shiites who inhabit, or have their roots, in the Lebanese mountains and rural areas, have disproportionately populated the ranks of zajjali over zajal’s centuries-long evolution. This regional bias is also reflected in the imagery of zajal, which mirrors more the bucolic and sensual sensibilities of the rural countryside than the cerebral, and formal concerns of urban intellectuals. However, many colloquial poets were able to transcend these fluid boundaries and have composed verse that expressively tackles virtually the whole spectrum of humanistic concerns.

The language of Lebanese zajal

The diglossic nature (co-existence of formal and colloquial forms) of the Arabic tongue in Lebanon has complicating ethnic and socio-political undertones that have made the question of whether the colloquial language could be an acceptable literary medium a somewhat divisive issue in the multi-ethnic/multi-sectarian Lebanese society.

To the ear of a non-Arabic speaker (and sometimes even to that of a native), a phrase spoken in formal (standard) Arabic (fus-ha) and repeated in colloquial Lebanese often sounds substantially different[4] -considerably more so than in the case of, say, classical vs. (spoken) modern Greek. This difference is due, at least partly, to the colloquial having a clear substratum made up of (extinct or semi-extinct) non-Arabic dialects of Levantine Semitic languages, such as Aramaic, Syriac and Canaanite, as well as having later infusions of Persian (e.g. culinary matters), Turkish (e.g. military matters), French and most recently English vocabulary.[4] Starting with the Islamic conquests in the 7th century, which brought classical Arabic to the Levant, the local dialects were naturally, progressively and, eventually, greatly but never completely, replaced by Arabic, but with the influence of other languages still apparent. The ease with which this Arabization occurred is due to the fundamental kinship between Arabic and the local dialects -all being Semitic and thus based on derivations from triconsonantal (triliteral) roots.

While standard Arabic maintains an incontestable pedigree as the modern version of the exalted language of the Qur’an and the medium for a vast body of written classical and contemporary literature of many nations, the colloquial, in the mind of many Lebanese, especially the educated classes, is still perceived as a parochial dialect that lacks the purity, pedigree, and universalist aspirations of the fus-ha. Furthermore, to many, its murky roots in languages of ancient peoples who never achieved any true semblance of lasting national independence, its infusion of vocabulary from colonial languages, and its difference from the colloquial dialects of other nations that espouse the fus-ha as a formal lingua franca, make it, at most, a threat to a pan-Arabist or regional renaissance or, at least, a sign of parochialism and educational inferiority. This is despite the fact that all Lebanese, including the most educated, converse in the colloquial tongue and almost never in standard Arabic.

Status as a literary genre

The relegation of the colloquial literature, including zajal, to a sub-literary class was further solidified by the rise of pan-Arabism in the 1950s and 60s at a time when the Lebanese schooling system witnessed its widest expansion and standardization. A consequence of this socio-politically-conditioned diglossia is that the rich canon of colloquial poetry, of which zajal is the foremost embodiment, remains mostly unwritten and practically never part of curricula at schools and universities (although a few post-graduate theses have treated some aspects of the zajal tradition). Today, the majority of the educated Lebanese do not know a m3anna from a qerradi (the two most common metrical forms of zajal) and are likely to be more familiar with a few forms of French prosody (e.g. the sonnet and the ode) taught in many private and even public schools.

Although many audio and video recordings of zajal events have been made, especially on Lebanese TV during the 1960s, 70s and 80s, there has been little effort to properly transcribe or archive these recordings at national or university libraries for serious scholarly research. The elevation of this canon to scholarly attention was not helped by the fact that the cause of colloquial Lebanese was espoused only by ultra-nationalists (especially during the divisive Lebanese Civil War, 1975-1990), who sought to claim a Lebanese culture distinct from that of the Arabs.


            [1] Maroun Abboud, Complete Works of Maroun Abboud (in Arabic), Vol. 2, p. 366, Darl Al-Jeel, Beirut, Lebanon,1982.

[2] Mounir Elias Wahibeh, Al-zajal, its History, Literature, and Masters in Old and Modern Times (in Arabic), p. 131, The Pauline Press, Harisa, Lebanon, 1952.

[3] Adnan Haydar, “The Development of Lebanese Zajal : Genre, Meter, and Verbal Duel,” Oral Tradition, pp. 159-212, Fall 1989, and references therein.

[4]Farida Abu-Haidar, A study of the spoken Arabic of Baskinta, Routledge Curzon Publishers, London, 1979.

(Written by Prof. Edgar Choueiri for Wikipedia, 2009).

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