Lebanese American University


Celebrating the intangible Lebanese heritage of zajal

LAU’s Center for Lebanese Heritage prepares to celebrate the inscription of zajal on a UNESCO list with an evening of sung poetry.


Pierre Sadek’s caricature of an evening of zajal.

On February 2, LAU’s Center for Lebanese Heritage (CLH) will host an evening dedicated to Lebanese zajal, in honor of the inscription of the oral poetry art form on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

“The process of preparing the proposal took four years,” says CLH chair and renowned poet Henri Zoghaib, referring to the document submitted last February by Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture to UNESCO. “It is the only Lebanese entry on the list,” Zoghaib says,adding that he would like to see Lebanese architecture included on a UNESCO list of tangible heritage as well.

Zoghaib was among the cultural actors who contributed to the proposal, which translates zajal as “recited or sung poetry,” a definition that doesn’t do justice to the art form. “The word zajal comes from the word mosajaleh, meaning dialogue,” explains Zoghaib. “It began as improvised poetry with two or more poets mimicking dialogue. The roots of this melodic poetry are in the mountains of Lebanon, where singing, during children’s bedtimes or at wedding and funerals, is part of the daily cultural fabric.”

The poet believes that the addition of zajal to the UNESCO list will enable Lebanese institutions and artists to safeguard and raise awareness of this heritage. Indeed, the decision of the UNESCO committee notes that the inscription of zajal could “encourage dialogue while promoting human creativity and diversity, particularly given that it is practiced by different cultural and religious groups.”

The CLH gathering is evidence of the dialogue the UNESCO decision has prompted. Zoghaib, who is also a writer and journalist with radio shows and a newspaper column dedicated to discussing and promoting Lebanese heritage, has invited scholars and poets to speak at the event.

“Adnan Haydar authored a 850-page book about zajal, Joseph Abi Daher edited a six-column encyclopedia about it and Moussa Zghaib is arguably the most important zajal poet around today,” enthuses Zoghaib. Zajal recitals will naturally follow the introductions, guaranteeing an enlightening and enlivened evening.

CLH hosts one such evening every month, with each gathering focusing on a different heritage topic. The Center extends an open invitation to an evening celebration of zajal to be held in room 903 of the Business Building from 7p.m. on Monday  February 2, 2015.


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