Web Helps Revival of Zajal Poetry in Lebanon

Zajal, an old form of improvised Arabic poetry that enjoyed its heyday in Lebanon before the 1975-1990 civil war, is making a tentative comeback with thousands of fans on Facebook and YouTube.

Traditionally an emotional oratory duel between two men, zajal once drew crowds of tens of thousands who revered its artists as poets of the highest order. It also enraptured fans who sat glued to their black-and-white television sets for the shows.

In the years after the war, however, the art dwindled as more modern forms of entertainment gained popularity and the audience for zajal was relegated to a handful of nostalgic admirers.

But the advent of the Internet with its online forums and popular social networking websites has seen a rising fan base among young people.

"This is pure poetry... may God bring back those days where people used to express pure feelings and love, with no divisions among Lebanese," Fady Hanna Sharara wrote on one of the dozens of Facebook groups dedicated to zajal.

"What a fantastic oral tradition of verbal sparring! What a great atmosphere of joy," wrote another fan who identified himself only as "George Smiley".

Ziad Abi Shaker, a zajal enthusiast who is working to gather and preserve a comprehensive television archive of the poetry, said zajal was a "lost art" that has "few admirers among the younger generation."

Another fan, 40-year-old engineer Abi Shaker, says he has stepped in to fill the void with an ambition to make zajal recordings available in digital format for younger generations.

Video links now abound on Facebook to other sites such as YouTube, where thousands of people have viewed old footage of classical zajal performances such as this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOcMEfq2PYw&feature=related.

Experts estimate that Lebanese zajal, the performance of colloquial poetry partly sung and accompanied by basic percussion, runs back some 500 years and has its roots in Syriac, a now-extinct dialect that preceded Arabic.

In Lebanon, the art originated in the religious services of Christian monks, who improvised partly sung hymns in Syriac. Traces of zajal were also found in 10th to 12th-century Moorish Spain.

While zajal is also practiced in Syria, Egypt, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Lebanese form, with its themes of nation and woman, was the most popular in the region from the 1960s until the civil war began.

-- 'Time to renew our heritage' --

Artists engage in hours-long challenges punctuated by traditional percussion instruments such as tambourines or derbakes, Arabic hand-held drums, and topics can range from the political to the erotic.

Joseph el-Hashem, an 80-year-old known as the "nightingale of Damur," remains one of Lebanon's most famed zajal performers.

"As darkness falls, far from prying eyes/My beloved to me calls/Intoxicated, the wine of burning lips I kiss/Frozen no more, my soul finds bliss," is one of his verses.

Another household name is Khalil Rukoz, who gained fame for an audacity that often shocked religious leaders.

"They say I know no God, my godlessness knows no end/That I rebel against the system, under no shackles will I bend/I say to them: I have no faith in a dull yesterday, in an illusory now/Justice and reason, by these I do avow," reads one of his verses.

Advertisements and billboards for zajal nights have sprouted up across Lebanon, known in the region for its richness of culture, as demand for the shows rises steadily.

While zajal was once staged in theatres, today's version takes on a more festive air, featuring dinner and drinks.

Fans today can enjoy mezza, an assortment of appetisers that include hummus and baba ghannoush, to the rhythm of the zajalists' quatrains, washing them down with traditional arak, the aniseed-based alcoholic beverage.

Private television channel OTV has also played a major role in the revival.

In the past year, 10 young zajal novices have received honorary awards from OTV under the auspices of Mussa Zgheib, a legendary name in Lebanese zajal who hopes to see the art fully return to its former glory in his lifetime.

"The best-known poets have passed on or are aging," Zgheib told AFP. "I wanted to do something for zajal... before I retire."

The winners are already booked for events in Lebanon and Syria, and several other candidates, mainly men, are hoping to try their luck in making a name for themselves in zajal.

Georges Aoun, the creator of a zajal show on OTV, said he wanted to stand apart from local programmes modelled after "American Idol" and the popular diet of reality television shows.

"I remember when I was seven-years-old, I would watch them mesmerized on television," said Aoun, a university professor.

"So I thought, 'why not look for young talent to revive zajal?'" he told AFP. "It is time to renew our heritage.