At mystery festival, Muslims and Christians chant ‘Zambo, Zambo’, wear wigs and body paint. But no one knows why

Marking the start of Lent for Orthodox Christians in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, Zambo is celebrated by Muslims too although its origins are unknown

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 February, 2018, 9:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 February, 2018, 9:16am

Residents of the Lebanese city of Tripoli donned bright, curly wigs and dark body paint Sunday for Zambo, a mysterious festival on the eve of the start of the Orthodox Christian period of Lent.

The origins of the annual celebration remain unclear, even to celebrants. It only seems to take place in a seaside suburb of Tripoli, a Muslim-majority city with an Orthodox minority.

But that has never dampened revellers, dozens of whom hopped and danced their way through Tripoli’s streets, glittery hats on their heads and sceptres in hand, a day before the beginning of the fast for eastern-rite Christians.

“Zambo, zambo, zambo!” they chanted.

“This festival is more than 100 years old, passed on and enjoyed from generation to generation,” said Beshara Hassan, 48. “People come from all over to take part, from all sects.”

Lebanon, a country of over four million, is home to 18 religious communities.

Muslims and Christians often take part in each other’s festivities here – but no one is quite sure where Zambo came from.

Ahmad Sawalhi, 25, is a native of the Mina suburb of the northern city of Tripoli where Zambo is fervently celebrated.

“Zambo is a Greek custom, but it only happens here in Tripoli before our Christian brothers begin Lent,” claimed Sawalhi, who is Muslim but takes part every year.

Ibrahim Touma, another Zambo enthusiast, said that the tradition dates back at least to 1932, but perhaps even earlier.

“There’s no doubt that the real origin of the festival is unknown,” he said.

One theory is that it originated with Lebanese visiting from Brazil and Argentina, Touma said, while another traces it to Senegalese forces stationed in Lebanon during second world war.

“My grandmother used to tell me that Senegalese units used to put on these evening masquerades to calm down people in Mina, who were scared of the Vichy (French) bombing,” said Touma.

After a two-hour parade through Tripoli, the crowd reached the shores of the Mediterranean and ran into the sea, washing off their paint to cleanse themselves before Lent begins.