TRIPOLI, LEBANON // In an alley in the conservative Lebanese city of Tripoli, it’s just before 10 in the morning as men painted head to toe in black and gold and dressed only in hula skirts swig from bottles. One young man smokes a cigarette through his Guy Fawkes mask while another prances about with a fake severed head.
You might want to call it Mardi Gras on the Med, but people here call it Zambo.
Every year, Greek Orthodox Christian residents of Tripoli’s seaside Mina district take to the streets in costumes and paint to celebrate Zambo on the Sunday before Lent and its 40 days of fasting and penance.
Pre-Lent festivals are celebrated across the world, with ornate processions like New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval and the Carnival of Venice enjoying widespread fame.
Tripoli’s much smaller Zambo festival has strong traces of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval and Caribbean Carnival celebrations. But it is an anomaly, existing all by itself far from any of the world’s other carnivals. There is nothing like it in the Arab world – or perhaps the whole world – and nobody is really sure how it got here.
Zambo’s hedonistic celebration is even more surprising given that Tripoli is not exactly a city known for its tolerance. A few years ago, you could easily buy ISIL flags from shops downtown.
It is a city that fed Sunni fighters into Syria’s civil war, with many joining hardline and extremist factions. To many, Tripoli is known more for processions of masked men clutching automatic rifles in their hands, not the public consumption of alcohol that is seen during Zambo.
How Zambo arrived in Tripoli is uncertain and everybody seems to have their own story.
It came from Greece and Brazil over 100 years ago, Zambo organiser Beshara Hassan told The National.
Participant Joseph Bahi, 38, said Zambo was influenced by Brazil, but that its roots and sometimes scary costumes went back to the advent of Christianity, when Christians in what is today Lebanon had to appear fearsome to escape persecution and spread the word of Lent’s arrival.
Alberto Rouhana, 25, traced it back to pagan times. “It passed from old religions to Christianity,” he said. “Like when people were worshipping the sun.”
Others believe that Zambo as it exists today was influenced by African troops serving in Lebanon when it was controlled by France, or that it is tied to exorcism or cleansing of the city and its people.
What everyone agrees on is that Zambo is celebrated every year, that anybody who wants to can join in, and that the theme is always “African” – which somehow includes, beyond the body paint, a proliferation of Native American headdresses, hula skirts and ghoul masks.
For hours on Sunday, hundreds of painted participants wove and danced their way through the alleys of Tripoli’s Mina district, beating drums and chanting “Zambo! Zambo!”
Bodies pushed against one another in the procession, as those in more frightening costumes tried to scare onlookers by jumping and hollering. When the procession ended in the early afternoon, men jumped into the cold Mediterranean to wash off their body paint with dishwashing liquid.
Tripoli is a city usually known for its divisions. Between 2011 and 2014, Alawite and Sunni militias fought battles along a war-scarred front line. For the most hardline militants, Tripoli was a city for Sunnis only.
But while a lot of things divide Tripoli, Zambo unites them. While it is primarily a realm of the city’s small Greek Orthodox community, Christians of other denominations and even Muslim residents join in.
The Mina district managed to avoid the chronic unrest that plagued much of the city in recent years, existing, like Zambo, as an anomaly.
At times when shops in the rest of the city were shuttered and masked fighters roamed the streets, Mina often remained an oasis of calm with life continuing relatively unaffected. Zambo celebrations have been held here every single year since the 1980s, when violence in the city last forced the cancellation of the festival.
“In this city, we all live together. Before you look at other peoples’ religion, you have to look at them as human beings,” said a middle-aged Muslim man who gave his name as Sindibad, as he dried off from washing paint from his body. “In my opinion, this is not for Christians, it is for everyone. It has gone on for a long time, before Islam.”