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“It’s carnival and it happens just once a year, so enjoy the moment, be happy and share happiness around you!”
The sounds emanating from their throats were at best primal, their bodies covered in black, glittering golden and bronze paint and nobody in their wake managed to stay entirely clean. Especially the younger ones rejoiced in smudging mature or wrinkled faces. Some of the little ones cried.
Like an invading army, a mix of First Nations, Crusaders, Nubians and Mexicans with a touch of Studio 54 – King Kong in drag donning an electric blue wig –plus plenty of other shady characters in their midst, screaming “Zambo”, marched through and conquered the very heart of Mina this past Sunday.
Men and women, boys and girls, of all ages and various denominations, locals and foreigners claim the streets of old Mina once a year, a day before Orthodox Lent for “Zambo”. Young and also some older men paint their bodies pitch black with charcoal – one painted a big bra on his torso. Participants carried sticks donning slogans, some dressed up.
Throughout the procession, which lasted a few hours, faces of participants or bystanders are used as canvasses – even some of the security forces walking along the march were not spared. Most of the faces leaning from balconies and out of doorways were cheering the procession on, posing for pictures with participants and beaming with smiles. It’s carnival! It’s a fun day and a day where anything goes!
This is what drove Khalil Ahmed to join in. “I just heard about it on the news a few years ago and decided that I wanted to be part of the next event and see it.”
While the significance of Zambo for all of Tripoli is uncontested, bringing a great diversity of people together, including people with physical or cognitive challenges, the origins of the event are not entirely clear…
In recent years, Zambo is no longer exclusively a Christian event, as it draws participants from across the city and the religious spectrum. Ahmed who grew up in Tripoli first attended Zambo three years ago is a case in point. “Before then, I had never heard about this carnival!” Covered in black and golden paint, Ahmed enjoyed roaming the streets with locals and a few foreigners.
“There are many reasons why I attend Zambo,” Ahmed stated. “It’s carnival and it happens just once a year, so enjoy the moment, be happy and share happiness around you!”
As with all carnivals, there is a free spirit that reigns, participants enjoy letting loose and playing pranks. Ahmed pointed out that for him, it was seeing all these people together, enjoying themselves that made Zambo special.
After hours of following a pirate flag,scaring small kids, blackening the faces of “teitas” (grandmothers) and trying to fill the tin, winding through the narrow alleys of Mina, and a bit of “mousseux” (bubbly) along the way, the calls for “al bahr” (the sea) became louder and so the sticks and (plastic) grass skirts were ditched and everyone rushed towards the seafront.
There the boys jumped into the sea, head first or doing saltos and backflips to show off to the crowd of onlookers that had gathered on land and in the water in boats.
Asked about what he knew about the carnival, an older bystander said that Zambo preceded Christianity.
A participant in his twenties said that his grandfather used to join in and that he thought it was about 30 years old. He pointed out that the big tin that one of the older participants carried along and rattled was used to collect money. This money would be used for a feast at the end of the day, the last night before Lent.
Not that long ago, the money collected would be used to cover the prices of the costumes of less well-off participants and the visit to the bathhouse and the feast at night.
These days, there are no longer bathhouses operating and so the parade ends at the Corniche. Standing on the rocks, they scrubbed themselves off with sponges and dishwashing liquid. Getting the layers of paint off required quite some scrubbing!
The black paint is indeed one of the defining characteristics of the carnival. “Two years ago I discovered Zambo,” Ahmed recalled. “I saw how people do it, paint their bodies and faces and everything. On the way home, on the road, the army and people saw me and laughed at me. I loved seeing people laugh about the fact that I had a painted face.”
“Most people don’t know the reason behind it, whether it is racist or not, they want to be part of it,” Ahmed said. “Why do they paint themselves black? Why do they use these symbols and why do they write on the signs they carried? One of them read“KKK”another one “ISIS”….but you know, it’s something funny!”
“I love about the carnival is that all rules are broken in the carnival, they provoke, they drink alcohol in public, especially kids, they are doing all that is usually not done,” Ahmed added.
Jean Rattel, a poet and a resident of Mina as well as a veteran of the carnival, also referred to as “Al Laouba” (adapted from the Arabic word for “play”), said itused to be a social event that would stretch over one week. “After years of terror and intimidation during the war after 1975 all the customs and the social practices were significantly changed,” he stated.
“Through this Zambo there is a relative freedom given for a few hours and this is a very humble reaction to everything that is happening around us, that is very stressful and that limits social behaviour and norms, that goes against traditions and customs. But that is also what is behind Barbara, and many other carnivals. Zambo is a way of leaving everything that is tiresome, your career, religion, morals and reverses everything.During this time, the collective look for themselves and to leave themselves for a few hours they address their instincts.”
Local tour guide Mira Minkara knows three Zambo founding myths: “The first version is that the people from Mina were the first people who emigrated to Brazil. Some of them brought back the tradition of the carnival, which means celebrating before fasting. They brought with them the idea of having costumes and they painted themselves in black because most Brazilians are very dark so it’s probably just an imitation of the Brazilian tradition.”
The second story is rather funny: “One week before the fasting, all the monks from Koura and the surrounding areas,would come down to Tripoli and Mina to get their shopping done before fasting. The people of Mina didn’t like the monks so they dressed up in costumes and followed them and bullied them!” Minkara explained.
“There used to be a prison in Mina. Or so the third story line goes… We never knew of any prison there but according to this version,the prisoners would be taken out before fasting. It actually would make more sense to take them out for the feast after the fasting, if you ask me but they were taken on a walk before fasting started and sincethe prisoners were dark-skinned, people paint their bodies black. Less probable but some people say Zambo comes from that.”
“There isn't one accurate story about the origin of Zambo,” Dr Samer Annous from the University of Balamand also pointed out. “I interviewed some elderly [people] few years ago and they informed me that this carnival started during the French colonization (1920 to 1943) and that the Greek Orthodox locals were imitating Senegalese soldiers serving with the French; that's why they paint their bodies in black. Some also wear costumes that they used to buy from Kaisar Amer in Tripoli (the oldest toy shop in town).”
“They act out the killing of evil spirits and collect money from locals and then jump into the sea. At night they throw a big party using the money they collected and they get drunk.”
Annous also referred to the version Minkara told SoBeirut, regarding some people from Mina who migrated to Brazil and brought this trend back to Mina. Ibrahim Touma who hails from Mina, finds the version with the Senegalese soldiers celebrating carnival when based in Lebanon during the French Mandate the most credible.
“Tradition evolves over time,” he underlined. “My grandmother told me that it used to be very different, that all of Mina would take part in it. These days the carnival is more mixed.”And that is one of the many great aspects of Zambo!
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