The Art of the Poetic Duel

post 243/365


I said the matter is love

She said alas love!

I said there is a cure

She said there is none, my eyes

I said I am going to go mad and leave this land

She said there is no land without love

I said I will weep

She said in vain

I said I am going to go mad

She said ah mere words

I said I will vent my sorrows

She said mere words

I said I will moan

She said others have tried

I said where is the compassion?

She said it has been folded away

Sabah & Wadih el Safi

“Few oral poetic traditions have attained the sophistication, formal virtuosity, ad popularity of Lebanese zajal poetry, and fewer traditions have cultivated the art of poetic dueling into a national pastime as the zajal poets have done.” Adnan Haydar

Zajal is a traditional form of oral strophic poetry declaimed in a colloquial dialect. The serb zajala means to raise the voice in singing, to produce a sweet pleasing melody. 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). Many Near-Eastern, Arabian and Mediterranean cultures (including Greece, 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.

Lebanese zajal is a semi-improvised, semi-sung or declaimed form of poetry in the colloquial Lebanese Arabic dialect in the format of a debate between zajjalin (poets who improvise the zajal). It is usually accompanied by percussive musical instruments and a chanting chorus of men (Reddadi) who repeat key verses or refrains recited by the poets.

Today, many tens of professional zajal poets, due to their ardent popularity, tour the Lebanese countryside and expatriate communities around the world performing to audiences of thousands of aficionados.

The earliest practitioner of zajal is thought to be the Bishop Gabriel Al-Qla3i Al-Hafadi (1440-1516), although some scholars trace 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 by the Mamluks.

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. It often concludes with a love lament, typically in the Shruqi form.

Zajal 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 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 religious differences. Traditionally cosmopolitan communities like 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.

For hundreds of years, the zajal was a popular poetic form. It pitted contestants against one another in an oratory duel that forced the poets to create verse out of one another’s final words, and to fit a complex metric form usually in the form of sarcasm. As Lebanese author Zein al-Amin explains in his essay that ran on Jadaliyya:

“Basically one poet — and know that we all considered ourselves poets — would recite a stanza, usually loaded with couched or open insults against his opponent. The opponent would fire back with a stanza, flipping the insults back on the first person. Now here is the kicker: whenever someone responds, they must start with the last word of the stanza that was just thrown at them. What’s more: the response had to follow the same set meter and rhyme.”

The living and vibrant oral tradition of verbal dueling in Lebanon with its complex art form is the language of the common man. Men sing and perform their poetry with a natural inborn sense. Every word, every gesture, and every smile of triumph conceals the many intricacies and beauty of this ancient lyrical form that requires wit and immeasurable knowledge of its language.

Drawing: Pierre Sadek’s caricature of an evening of zajal.

Interesting documentary on Zajal:

Adnan Haydar’s dissertation on zajal:

Zajal duet to watch:


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