What is a Zajal?
The Zajal is a traditional form of Arabic poetry, sometimes improvised to music.
No one can say for certain when the Zajal first originated, but the earliest records we have date from around the 10th or 11th Century, in particular from Ibn Quzman, the earliest poet currently known to have used the form.
The Zajal took root in Egypt around the 13th Century, and it is here that much of the form’s early usage takes place. This followed Arabic writers fleeing Spain during a period of heavy persecution. Its spread around the Eastern Mediterranean region led to its arrival in Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan, and whilst the Palestinian and Jordanian traditions of the form have remained true to the historical precedent, the Lebanese Zajal has evolved independently.
The Lebanese Zajal has two potential origins: Bishop Gabriel Al-Qlai Al-Hafadi, who lived between 1440 to 1516; or two centuries prior with Souleiman Al-Ashlouhi (1270-1335) and his contemporaries, in particular to a single poem detailing the destruction of Tripoli in Northern Lebanon in 1289.
The modern Lebonese Zajal reached prominence in the 19th Century, and continued to be popular into the 1930s when Zajaleenings would take place. These evening would often take the form of a verbal duel between two or more poets, with each stanza offered beginning with the final word of the preceding stanza, before concluding with the reciting of Ghazals, a form often used for love poetry. This leaves the audience on a high note, focusing on love instead of the often sorrowful Zajals. The whole evening is accompanied by percussion players, such as tambourinists.
During the 60s through to the 90s, audio and video recordings were made of these nights, sometimes broadcast on TV. There has been little effort, however, to catalogue these poems, or even transcribe them. This matter was further complicated by the lengthy Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), and the colloquial language often employed by Zajal was championed only by the ultra-nationalist movement, as they sought to form a culture distinctive from the wider Arab world.
In 2014, the Zajal was included on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The term “Zajal” itself means “to cry or raise one’s voice in song,” so it is perhaps inevitable that the form would embrace musicality, much like the similar Reddadi of Lebanon, which features a chanting chorus of men who repeat key refrains from the poet. The Zajal appears in two distinct flavours: one follows a distinct metrical system akin to classical Arabic poetry, while the other is more concerned with the placement of stress. Both of these forms are fluid in application, leading to the forms popularity with lay folk.
It is perhaps wrong to describe the Zajal as a form; more fittingly it could be considered a genre encompassing many of the literary techniques developed by the Arabic poetry heritage.
Zajal are often sorrowful or lamenting a tragedy. This has led to them representing both personal difficulties as well as grander national affairs. While it may seem like a divisive form, the space of a Zajal evening provides a safety valve, allowing peaceful conflict and debate, while respecting the artistry of those with differing opinions. That is not to say the form didn’t encourage insults or jabs at one’s opposition but all of this was done under the guise of an open dialogue.
In English, it could be a challenge to present political poetry that remains respectful of the other side, though not impossible. It’s easy for the poet to believe that they hold all the answers, however using the Zajal may help one to see why others might disagree with a stance.
© 2019 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.