Zajal in New York


Introduction and liner notes for a video recording.



Below is a complete video recording of an evening of Lebanese zajal debate between Youssef Abdul-Samad and Edgar Choueiri held at the Dahesh Museum of Art in Manhattan, New York on October 22, 2005. The evening was hosted by the New Pen League, under the aegis of NPL's main patron, H.E. Ambassador Dr. Abdul-Ruhman Gadaia, Consul of Saudia Arabia in New York, and his wife H.H. Princess Loubna Al-Saud.

Lebanese zajal is a semi-improvised, semi-sung or declaimed form of poetry in the colloquial Lebanese dialect. Its roots are ancient and not sufficiently-researched, but various similar manifestations of zajal can be traced to the 10-12th century Arabs of Andalusia in Spain, most notably the colloquial poet Ibn Qozman (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, Morocco, Spain and southern France) had, or still have, rich semi-imporvised, semi-sung colloquial poetry traditions that share many 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 as large as a few tens of thousands of aficionados.

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 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 percussion instruments. The meet often concludes with a love lament, typically in the Shruqi form. The video recording below gives examples of the qasid, m3anna, qerradi, muwaššah and shruqi forms. (Other zajal forms not covered in this video recording are, to name but a few, mijana, 3ataba, baghdadi, buz-zuluf, dal3una and ruzana.)

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 (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 4-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.

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 and Greek Orthodox of the littoral cities) have had relatively little affinity for zajal and have produced, with some notable exceptions, few important zajjali. Even less so the city-dwelling Armenians. 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 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 clearly traceable roots in ancient (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 Conquest in the 7th century, which brought classical Arabic to the Levant, the local dialects were naturally, progressively and, eventually, greatly but never completely, Arabacized. The ease and naturalness of this Arabization are 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 Koran 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, it's 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 worst,  a threat to a pan-Arabist or regional renaissance and, at best, a  sign of parochialism and educational  inferiority. This is despite the fact that all Lebanese, including the most educated, almost never converse in standard Arabic.

 This relegation of the colloquial to a sub-literary class was further solidified by the rise of pan-Arabism in the 1950's and 60's 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 metric 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 hope of elevating this canon to the scholarly attention  it deserves was, alas, not helped by the fact that the cause of colloquial Lebanese was espoused only by ultra-nationalists  (especially during Lebanon's divisive 1975-1990 civil war), who sought to claim a Lebanese culture distinct from that of the Arabs.

The New Pen League  is a secular,  non-political and not-for-profit cultural society that aims at promulgating Arabic literature and art in the USA.  The video recording below features the Dean of the NPL, Mr. Youssef Abdul-Samad, a well-known poet of classical Arabic residing in the US, who shares with his interlocutor the belief that poetry in colloquial Lebanese can be as subtly expressive as any poetic medium, and that colloquial Lebanese and classical Arabic are not competing languages associated with opposite ends of the political spectrum, but rather two linguistic facets of the same culture. The hope is that colloquial poetry gets its overdue respect in the form of scholarly research, proper archiving, non-partisan cultural promotion and adoption in scholastic curricula, and that the invaluable contributions and ingenious inventions of generations of poets become widely recognized and appreciated by the Lebanese, who all use the same colloquial tongue daily to express even their deepest thoughts.

This webpage is dedicated to the living master of Lebanese zajal, the poet  Joseph Al-Hashem  (1925-  )   known as Zaghloul Al-Damour (Squab of Damour),  who has not ceased to sing his exquisite zajal over more than 60 years and more than 130 tours overseas.


[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.


The two debaters in the video below lack at least one pre-requisite of professional zajal poets, and that is the ability to sing their verse -instead they mostly declaim it here with the exception of the amorous Muwashah (chapter 7), which they sing with the help of a chorus. This shortcoming is somewhat alleviated by the superb singing of master-singer Mr. Najsi Youssef, who opens and closes the meet with properly sung zajal.

The video files are in the .avi format

Chapter 1: Introduction by John Madi and Dr. Samira Madi of the New Pen League

Chapter 2: Opening: The Poet and the Scientist (M3anna by Youssef Abdul-Samad sung by Naji Youssef)

Chapter 3: Qasid and M3anna Debate: Earth vs. Space, part 1

Chapter 4: M3anna Debate: Earth vs. Space, part 2

Chapter 5: Qerradi Debate: Word vs. Music, part 1

Chapter 6: Qerradi Debate: Word vs. Music, part 2

Chapter 7: Ghazal I: Muwashah

Chapter 8: Ghazal II: M3anna (Ismik Hafarti)

Chapter 9: Closing: Shruqi by Edgar Choueiri (sung by Naji Youssef)