Arabic Language Blog

Zajal el Zajjalin Posted by on Feb 6, 2013 in Arabic Language, Culture

Marhaba (مرحبا)! As promised in an earlier post, today I would like to introduce you all to Zajal (زَجَل), one of the most popular iconic and cultural traditions of many Mediterranean countries. In a nutshell, zajal is a traditional form of oral poetry  (شعر) in colloquial dialect (اللغة العاميّة ) . Most notably this form of oral poetry has roots in a number of Mediterranean cultures (ثقافات البحر المتوسط). In the Levant, it is popular in Lebanon and Palestine. In North Africa, zajal is popular in Morocco and Algeria. Zajal is in part semi-sung and semi-improvised (مُرتَجَل) and in fact reflects a debate between zajjalin (زجّالين). These zajjalin are the poets that improvise the zajal, which is usually accompanied by percussive musical instruments (أدوات موسيقية ايقاعية). In addition, to the different percussive musical instruments, in some places like Lebanon, the ney  (ناي)– type of wind instrument – is also used in zajal. In addition to the zajjalin going back forth among one other, there is usually a group of men that sing parts of the verse or repeat the chorus throughout. In new forms of zajal in Lebanon and Palestine, women have also joined the zajal by repeating parts of different verses or the main improvised chorus.


There is a degree of consensus between historians that zajal goes back to pre-Islamic times. However, many recent accounts have traced zajal back to 10th century and specifically to Cordoba, Al-Andalus (الأندلس) in Southern Spain. The different conquests between Arab countries, Spain and parts of Europe, and the different historical linkages through wars, invasions and conquests between Western and Eastern cultures has led to the preservation and continuity of zajal in various forms and in different countries. Countries like Greece, Italy and France (parts in the South) still have a form of zajal manifested in semi-improvised and semi-sung colloquial poetic traditions (تقاليد شعريّة).

One of the most recognized and modern forms of zajal is to be found in Lebanon. Lebanese Zajal like other forms of zajal is also semi-sung and semi-improvised in the colloquial Lebanese Arabic dialect. Many claim that its origins in Lebanon began within religious seminaries (مدارس لاهوتية) and orders of Maronite monks (رهبنة مارونية), and was at first sung and improvised in Syriac (سرياني), rather than Arabic.


In most cases in Lebanon, zajal is performed during lunches and dinners. These meals include traditional Lebanese mezze dishes and platters. It is also performed in urban villages between different men that engage in musical debates (حوارات موسيقية) on a variety of topics ranging from love, food, patriotism to married life. In some instances, zajal is performed at wedding parties and could go on for hours and hours. Zajal usually begins with the famous ‘…off…’ marking the beginning of the poetic duel. The Reddadi – the chanting chorus of men – accompany the verbal duel between the zajjalin. The derbake (دربكّة) and other traditional percussion instruments like the Daf  (دَفّ) usually accompany a Lebanese zajal session.

In Lebanon, zajal has evolved and changed over time. Its heyday in Lebanon was before the Civil War which erupted in 1975. However, in the recent years, zajal has made a comeback to the Lebanese cultural scene. Zajjalin in Lebanon are reviewed as top rated poets that are genuine artists with their ability to express pure feelings of love and patriotism. The advent of the internet has popularized older shows and performances of prominent Lebanese zajjalin. It has become a national sensation and has been a great influence and point of convergence for many people. As a matter of fact, several Lebanese TV programs are hosting zajal tournaments (مباريات), where different individuals are invited to improvise and sing on spot in front of thousands of people.

I have added two YouTube videos from two different eras.

The firstvideo features Zajjalin from Mairouba, including the famous Mussa Zgheib.

The secondvideo features the Nightingale of Damour with new young artists which include women performing zajal in a competition on a national Lebanese television. (Listen to how she begins with the ‘…off…’

I hope you enjoy these videos and stay tuned for more upcoming posts.

Have a great day!

نهاركم سعيد


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About the Author: jesa

Salam everyone! Born as an American to two originally Arab parents, I have been raised and have spent most of my life in Beirut, Lebanon. I have lived my good times and my bad times in Beirut. I was but a young child when I had to learn to share my toys and food with others as we hid from bombs and fighting during the Lebanese Civil War. I feel my connection to Arabic as both a language and culture is severing and so it is with you, my readers and fellow Arabic lovers, and through you that I wish to reestablish this connection by creating one for you.