When my husband’s sister Lizzy got married, I did a very Lebanese thing at her very White wedding.
As she and her new husband were announced upon their entrance to the wedding reception to the claps and cheers of their family and friends, I let out a Lebanese trill – loud, lengthy and atmospheric – in celebration.
The sound reverberated through the crowd, and my mother-in-law turned and pinched my arm in affection.
‘Oh you,’ she said, joy on her face. ‘You’ve made me cry.’
A little while later, while I hovered near the cheeseboard, one of the bride’s friends enquired curiously as to the purpose of my performance. The maid of honour, who was once a guest at my wedding and who had heard it there a number of times, smiled. ‘It’s lovely, isn’t it?’ she asked. ‘It’s family, it’s love…’
‘It’s tradition,’ I finished. For someone accustomed to the pomp and ceremony of Arab celebrations, which honour the bride and groom via music, dance and custom, a round of applause just wasn’t going to cut it. There was always room for more ooomf at a party, and my ululation - which is the best way I can describe it in English - certainly delivered.
For someone accustomed to the pomp and ceremony of Arab celebrations, which honour the bride and groom via music, dance and custom, a round of applause just wasn’t going to cut it.
The ululation in question is what we call a zalghouta in my part of Lebanon, but in other parts of the Arab world, with its rich diversity and differing dialects, it’s also called a zaghrouta. That said, what we call it doesn’t matter because it sounds the same wherever you are, and represents a tradition dating back centuries that put women at the forefront of an occasion and left them to be the masters of its atmosphere.
Much like Kiwi men are custodians of the Haka, which brings its own sense of vibrant culture and heritage to an event, the zalghouta is traditionally the domain of women, one that amplifies their presence at a function and reminds those present that they are the custodians of what our cultures cherish most.
A long and high-pitched trill of joy that is produced with a rapid movement of the tongue, the zalghouta is guaranteed energy: a battle cry uttered by little girls, mothers, grandmothers and aunties that has transcended generations, transfixed listeners, and given its recipients - brides, grooms, graduates, Muslim hajj pilgrims – a sound (pardon the pun) awareness of how much they are loved. It’s a marker that celebrates the sense of kinship and affection in our communities.
A long and high-pitched trill of joy that is produced with a rapid movement of the tongue, the zalghouta is guaranteed energy...
The zalghouta is just one part of a traditional Lebanese celebration. But as the zaffeh – the traditional welcome dance performed on arrival of a bride and groom usually with drums and a flute-like instrument called a zamoor – becomes less traditional and begins taking on Western influences (think pop songs, jazz vibes and even the violin), the zalghouta remains constant: a true and unfiltered nod to our heritage.
There’s something so magical about standing in a circle with your community while they zalghit around you, a fierce connection that transcends politics, religion, family drama - and even on the odd wedding phone call to the motherland, geographical boundaries. Hearing a grandmother do it from the other side of the world is a testament to how instrumental and monumental it is.
In some ways, the zalghouta is at once a coming-of-age for young women and a time capsule that amplifies the energy in a space while reminding us of our past. I don’t remember the precise time I started to take the zalghouta seriously, but I remember being happy to do it when my childhood friends got married because it commemorated our passing from one stage of life to another.
Despite her rich Latina upbringing, Shakira’s performance gave a small but powerful nod to her Lebanese heritage, evident in so much more her name (which means thankful).
It’s no wonder then that Shakira’s own version of the zalghouta at the recent Super Bowl – albeit short and quite indiscreet (we usually put a hand over our mouth to minimise both physical and metaphorical tongue wagging) – set the internet abuzz. Despite her rich Latina upbringing, Shakira’s performance gave a small but powerful nod to her Lebanese heritage, evident in so much more her name (which means thankful). But as our identities evolve in our respective corners of the globe, there are so many parts of our heritage that become weak, hybridised or erased.
Thankfully, the tribal origins of the zalghouta mean it is not at risk: the one thing we Western-born Arabs can’t mispronounce, and a profound (and literal) connection to our native tongue that’s easy to pass down as the language of our ancestors becomes more and more distant to us in the diaspora.