Photos by: Houda Houbeish
Young men move rapidly in every direction, their chests bare, their bodies tinted black and gold. African hair wigs, crowns, feathers or hats adorn their heads. An occasional guerilla or monster mask catches your eye. Giggles, screams, chants, honking, drumming and pop music fill the air, as well as whiffs of sweat and beer.
Called “Lebanon’s Mardi Gras on the Med” by Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper, the Zambo Festival is organized annually by Tripoli’s small Greek Orthodox community. It is held in the Al Mina neighborhood of Tripoli, where most residents are Muslim, and enjoyed by people of all faiths.
Like Mardi Gras and Rio di Janeiro’s Carnaval, Zambo’s roots are in Christian traditions. Zambo is a boisterous celebration on the eve of Orthodox Christian Lent, a season of fasting. Al Mina becomes a space for freedom and fun. Participants choose costumes made available by the organizers from the Greek Orthodox Church. Others bring their own. At the end of the festival, the revelers wash in the Mediterranean, said by some to be symbolic of baptism, before the holy month of Lent.
Not everyone agrees on the event’s history, but there are few facts that locals repeat: this event has been happening since at least the early 20th century, it’s organized by Orthodox Christians and it’s inspired by African and Brazilian cultures. It was celebrated annually, except during some difficult times during the Lebanese Civil War. It resumed after the war and recently has been growing.
“Although this event has been attached to Christian fasting, both Muslims and Christians have been participating in it every year.”
Around 100 people participated this year, according to George Debbes, one of the organizers. “In the recent past, tons of people used to participate,” said Debbes. “The participation increased significantly this year, and next year we’re expecting even more with the advertising and media coverage we have.”
Debbes’ father, Abu George, 67, has witnessed Zambo since his youth. And his father used to tell him “it took place during his childhood, too,” said Abu George. Back then, Al Mina locals used to celebrate every night for more than a month, he said.
“Locals used to prepare big dining tables each evening so people could eat, drink and have fun together,” added Debbes’ mother, Em George. The month of celebration culminated in the Zambo Festival.
“Females have always participated in this event and, like the men, wore Africaninspired costumes,” she said. “But unlike the men, they kept their shirts on.” One of Em George’s favorite memories was the big dragon costume, worn by several people.
Although this event has been attached to Christian fasting, both Muslims and Christians have been participating in it every year. “I came all the way from Bab Al Tabbaneh after my friend Rita, who’s Christian, invited me.
Now I’m waiting for her to get me the costume,” said Dalal, a 19-year-old girl, during the festival.