Zaghloul al-Damour: The Glory Days of Zajal Wars
By: Rana Hayeck
Zajal is a form of oral improvised colloquial poetry performed as a semi-sung debate between different Zajjalin. Joseph al-Hashem, better known as Zaghloul al-Damour (The Nightingale of al-Damour, a town south of Beirut), is the most famous of the second generation of Lebanese zajal poets.
There is something in that warm house in Ballouneh (Keserwan district) that propagates an atmosphere of tranquility.
It may be the voice of Zaghloul al-Damour as he hums every time he goes to grab a book from his library. Or it could be that of Salam, the housekeeper, as she sings some Lebanese zajal with her melancholic African voice.
The young Ethiopian woman, who learned the Lebanese national anthem from her employer, was unaware when she came to Lebanon, that she would have a chance to know one of the giants of Lebanese
Zaghloul al-Damour established the second generation of zajal poets in Lebanon, after “Shahrour al-Wadi” and Rashid Nakhle. He still composes poetic debates but retired from “the stage” last year.
Many may not know that Zaghloul (b. 1925), whose title was given to him by locals in Bauchrieh (Keserwan district) where he lived with his family, began to compose poetry at the age of nine.Today at 89, dates and events are mixed up in Joseph al-Hashem’s words, but he does not forget any word from any moanna, muwashah, or qarradi that he had composed during his long poetic journey.
Zajal was the most important thing in Hashem’s life. He got into that field very early on, along with several acquaintances: Philippe Masoud Bustani, his teacher at Jdeidet el-Metn High School, his father, and his grandmother on his father’s side.
It was his father who urged Hashem to tear up a poem written by poet William Saab (Bulbul al-Arz) which was given to him by priest Youssef Aoun, the school director, to recite on stage at the intermediate certificate graduation ceremony.
That night, his father would not allow Hashem to have dinner before writing his own poem to recite at the ceremony. “I was trembling on stage as I read the poem. I had intense fear of the priest’s reaction, until I spotted him laughing and so I was relieved,” he remembers.
It was his grandmother Nimnom that recognized her grandson’s talent early on in his life. That illiterate poet, master of rhyme and song, was his “guru”.
She witnessed the moment of Hashem’s “birth” as a zajjal (a person who recites zajal) in 1936 during summer vacation, which the family used to spend in Dahr al-Maghara (Chouf district).
Hashem was accompanying her during a visit to the neighboring village of Debbieh. There, they found out about an evening of zajal with poets Rashid Daher and Ramiz Bustani. He urged his grandmother to stay.
During the show, Bustani’s “poetic debate” failed to respond to Daher’s. Hashem sneaked on stage and asked Bustani if he could participate in a poetic debate. The challenge provoked his veteran rival, who called him a “rabbit.”
“Poets have praised my name and the splendor of my poetry. The rabbit that you described is throwing stones at the tree of your life,” Zaghloul replied.
After that incident, he received many invitations and requests to write poetry, especially for funerals or weddings, and to participate in zajal challenges. Shortly after his “birth” as a zajjal Hashem left school and devoted himself to poetry.
“I was born with poetry in me,” says Hashem who does not hesitate to consider poetry “a talent not an education.” Today, Hashem seems happy with how his life had turned out.
His poetic journey, which began early in his small village, took him to faraway continents. Hashem became the “Sinbad of Lebanese Zajal,” travelling around the world at the request of his emigrant fans.
Hashem has been in love to the point of intoxication. But speaking of intoxication, the glasses that Zaghloul had on stage all contained water. Contrary to the myth about the zajjalin being drunk at the zajal sessions, he does not drink alcohol.
Love, however, made Hashem drunk very early on. He was destined to be with one woman, Genevieve. Hashem was a child when he fell in love with her and the two eloped and got married when he was 18. She died only a few years ago after a long life together.
“She used to climb the fig tree to pick figs for me when we were kids. Once, she fell because she refused to hang on to the branch, and so the figs that she had picked for me slipped from her hand,” he says, recalling “Zaghloula,” as he used to call her affectionately.
“He brought zajal to those who were not fans,” says his friend Elias Khalil who was a poet in his band for seven years and a professor of philosophy and psychology at the university in Kaslik (Keserwan). The latter acclaims Zaghloul as a composer and performer.The poet Joseph Abi Daher, author of Mawsuat Shoaraa Thorafaa (Encyclopedia of Charming Poets, 2001), says that “[Hashem] was the first to perform zajal on television in the mid-60s. Prior to that, some poets appeared on television, including Omar Zeinni and Abdel Jaleel Wehbe but they did not sing their poems.”
Hashem also stresses the role of national television in circulating zajal. After five consecutive years of broadcasting Hashem’s program, other zajal choirs were introduced to visual media, and thus it flourished on the small screen. That golden age lasted until the late 1970s. It soon declined in a regression that has reached its lowest abyss today.
Hashem is aware of the decline of that type of “innate” poetry, but he does not warn of its demise. He is still living the euphoria of the past and derives from it his belief in the future, for he has lived the glory of zajal and contributed to its making.
Other choirs that include famous names, such as Khalil Roukuz, Zein Shouaib, Edward Harb, Jean Raad, Asaad Saeed, Taleeh Hamdan, and many others, emerged from the choir he founded in 1945.
“The first generation used to compose poetic debates in two lines. We extended it to 12 lines,” he says about his generation that developed the profoundly Andalusian art and excited the audience.
Hashem had a profound impact in major concerts, including “The Great Challenge” evening between Zaghloul and Moussa Zgheib (Khalil Roukuz’s choir) in Beit Meri in 1971.
He later competed against more than 14 choirs at the “Okaz al-Zajal at the Sports City” festival organized by a Lebanese expatriate for two days in 1972. His regular participation in the Jerash Festival in Jordan that hosted Lebanese zajal for the first time in 1978 was also memorable.
Hashem followed the zajal movement since 1958 when he founded thezajal magazine al-Masrah (The Theater) with his colleague Zein Shouaib. It enjoyed major success and only stopped publication in the 1980s.
With Shouaib, Hashem published several books: Khamsoun Sana mah al-Shihr al-Zajali (50 Years of Zajal Poetry, 1995), Omr wa Safar(Lifetime and Travel, 2005), Bayna al-Qoloub (Between Hearts, 1948), and al-Marj al-Akhdar (Green Meadow, 1952).
Throughout his life, Hashem has practiced his passion with sincerity and commitment and built his reputation with care and patience. He still recalls when the Lebanese channel launched a poetry contest in 1945 to select 10 poems.
Back then, he did not participate with one poem but 10, and he won. After all this time, Hashem’s passion is still present in his voice, which takes us on a journey to the happy times whenever he warbles in that warm house in Ballouneh.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.