Let’s Zambo!

Have you ever heard of the Zambo festival in Tripoli? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. I only recently found out about it from a friend who’s from there.

Upon hearing about this year’s Zambo festival, I marked my calendar for February 26th, got my camera ready and did a bit of online research (just to know what to expect). Covered in black or gold body paint, residents of the port town of El-Mina eagerly plan for this event and go all out to celebrate the start of lent. Wigs, masks and ridiculous costumes have also become a part of the tradition.It’s always interesting to find out about such festivities that are more or less local to the different cities in Lebanon.

Apparently not that much is known about this colorful street charade, but there is a local history behind it and many claim it has origins in Brazil. From what I’ve gathered, a Lebanese man who’d been living in Brazil wanted to bring the spirit of Rio’s carnivals (which take place around the same time) to his hometown of Tripoli. Whatever the reason behind it, it’s become a local tradition and there’s a fun spirit behind it. Families, teenagers and the elderly gather on the streets. There’s no guarantee you will leave unmarked with the black paint of the paraders, but for one day of the year, it’s perfectly fine to be dirty.

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We joined the main group of around 30-40 teenage boys and men in a small alleyway by the seaside before the parade would start into the little alleyways that make up that part of town. Preparations were heavily underway and one of the old houses was transformed into a body painting room. A local tattoo artist was decorating the topless men covered in black with silver tribal designs.

As expected, Zambo was certainly a memorable event. Putting the silly costumers and weird tradition aside, what we enjoyed much during those few hours was the sense of community it brought forth. Along the way, people were either standing by their shops or had brought their families to watch. I can also imagine that the boys spent the few days prior planning for it. It might even be a sort of rite-of-passage for the younger boys to be able to join once they were old enough.

The best part, and for the boys’ mothers definitely, was that all the paraders would jump into the sea after completing a tour of the coastal neighborhood. We missed that part as we had to head back to Beirut, but it would have been interesting to catch it. There’s always next year!


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