Zajal: When Competitive Poetry Was a Better Sport Than Soccer

Dozens of Arab poets are getting ready to travel to Dubai for the next round of Prince of Poets interviews. Although Prince of Poets may have the biggest purse, televised competitive poetry isn’t a new thing:

zajalFor 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. As Lebanese author Zein al-Amine explains in a charming 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.

Evidence of zajal matches has been found in Andalusia, although many Lebanese argue for a local, Syriac origin of the form. The poetic form has also been practiced in Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates. But the Lebanese contestants were the most popular in the region, and Lebanese versions gained particular traction in the 1960s, when zajal slams appeared on TV.

It lost popularity after the country’s fifteen-year civil war. Other entertainments took its place, and many serious poets turned to “free” verse.

Al-Amine’s essay recalls the zajal matches of his childhood:

We gasped every time a poet ended with an impossible word. We would whisper to each other, ‘He just ended with MULE! How are you supposed to start a stanza with mule?’ But just when we thought the combatant was stumped, a stanza would shoot back at the attacker. Soccer had nothing on zajal. In our house, the courtyard was the main arena for zajal.

When he first watches a zajal match featuring Lebanese Christians — Christians throwing back shots of arak, no less — he and his family are riveted. (Read the whole essay.)

Zajal has seen a small online revival in recent years, with YouTube videos celebrating the literary sport. Women also compete in contemporary zajal duels. There was even a recent zajal duel in Australia.

There is still much to be written about the history of zajal.

Read: Zajal on Arak