BEIRUT—A business school in the Lebanese capital recently hosted the first round of Lebanon’s inaugural nationwide student competition in zajal, a Lebanese tradition of improvised folk poetry usually heard in social gatherings in the country’s mountain villages.
In promoting zajal as a competitive event, the Modern University for Business and Science brought together high-school and university students from around the country in an event aimed at community outreach, enriching and encouraging innovation in Arabic poetry, and raising the profile of the small, private university.
The originator and organizer of the competition, Fadi Fayyad, is the university’s director of sports programs. He is also a published poet who writes and performs zajal, which he learned while growing up in a village in the Chouf mountains.
Zajal is written and spoken in the local colloquial Arabic of Mount Lebanon and uses traditional Arabic verse forms.
The word zajal comes from an Arabic verb with a range of meanings, including to raise the voice in emotion, praise or song; or, according to Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon, “the low or faint sound of the jinn, or genii, that is heard by night in the deserts, and is said to be a noise like drumming.”
Zajal poets typically perform in pairs, with one poet facing off against the other in a competitive dialogue. Their performances are exciting to see and hear because the poets’ skill is tested not only by the brio and style of their delivery, but also by the requirement that the recited poems include clever and artful poetic improvisation.
The usual setting for a zajal performance is a private party in a home or restaurant, well supplied with food and the anise-flavored spirit arak, and with spectators adding tambourine rhythm and sung responses.
In 2014, Unesco added zajal to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, noting, “The religious and communitarian inclusiveness of al-Zajal promotes its continuity, with poetic jousts serving as a safety valve and playing an important role in resolving conflicts and strengthening social cohesion.”
The modern history of zajal—according to the researcher Muriel Kahwagi, whose grandfather and great-uncle were zajal poets—begins in the late 1920s, a period that coincides with the appearance of Lebanon as a political entity. Starting at this time, poems that had previously only been performed orally were written down, and were published in magazines.
The Syndicate of Zajal Poets in Lebanon, of which Fayyad is one of 14 board members, was founded in 1952 and officially recognized in the 1990s, and zajal performances were broadcast on television from the 1960s onwards. A copyright arrangement enabled performers to get paid for work that was broadcast on TV and radio. The syndicate, which is supported by the Lebanese Ministry of Culture, also organizes festivals around the country and—since 2016—has provided health insurance for older poets.
Zajal is not only a national art form, it is also an element in the Arabic literature courses taught in Lebanese schools, Fayyad said. Although the language of zajal is colloquial, it uses the verse forms and metrical patterns of classical Arabic.
“I became interested in zajal when I was ten years old,” Fayyad said. “We grew up with this tradition and we became professional poets. Now we are searching for a new generation of zajal poets in schools and universities.”
The recent competition was sponsored by the Syndicate of Zajal Poets in Lebanon, and members of the syndicate judged the entries.
Taking part in the first round, at the Modern University for Business and Science here, were 21 high-school students and four university students.
The first stage was an elimination round in which the students were required to compose an eight-line poem on a given theme (in this case, the theme was “mother”), and answer questions about the history and tradition of zajal.
The 10 students with the best results took part in the second round, a live performance held April 25 at Rafik Hariri University at Mechref, south of Beirut. In this round, the students were judged on the quality of their improvised verses and their performance style.
The competition was held under the title: “Your heritage is your identity.” The head of the syndicate, George Abu Antoun, opened the performance stage with a poem praising Lebanon and its poets. It included the lines: “I say it once and I say it twice: my father is the cedar and my mother is the oak/Byblos, Baalbek and Tyre live in my dreams and my faith/And this university in Mechref is now a landmark in poetry.”
Gold, silver and bronze medals were given to winners at the high-school and university levels. The gold medal for a high-school student was awarded to Hussein Obeid, 17, for a rousing performance that included lines that recall the boastful swagger of rap music. “I am not a prophet nor a holy man,” he sang. “The miracles are already written down in books. … But God created me to do poetry. I am the smartest and this job was created for me.”
In the universities category, Qassem al-Husseini of the Islamic University of Lebanon, Tyre campus, took the gold medal.
Video taken during the event can be seen here.