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ZarSpirit Possession, Music, and Healing Rituals in Egypt$

Hager El Hadidi

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9789774166976

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774166976.001.0001

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(p.1) 1 Introduction

Hager El Hadidi

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

This book examines how different people in metropolitan Cairo experience zar as spirits, as rituals, and as a spiritual and initiatory path. Zar is a healing ritual complex practiced in societies around the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. It also refers to jinn spirits who possess humans and afflict them with troubles and ailments. In Egypt, the way of zar is one of the healing options that address jinn. People seek out zar initiation when in crisis for a variety of motivations and reasons. Drawing on years of extensive ethnographic fieldwork in different parts of Egypt and on personal experience, this book explores some aspects of Egyptian zar spirit possession that have rarely been addressed in the literature: the zar community (tayfat al-zar), zar rites and rituals, and songs and music within zar communities. This introduction discusses zar and spirit possession from an anthropological perspective and provides an overview of the chapters that follow.

Keywords:   healing ritual, jinn, Egypt, zar initiation, spirit possession, zar community, zar rite, zar song, zar music

Zar is a healing ritual complex practiced in societies around the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. The word zar also refers to any number of jinn spirits who possess humans and afflict them with troubles and ailments. The way of zar is one of the healing options that address jinn in Egypt. Zar spirits are organized into an elaborate pantheon of extended families mirroring known human groups. The zar families are conceptualized as culturally defined ‘others.’ There are Chinese, Indian, Syrian, Turkish, Gypsy, and Christian spirits. Spirits have gender, professions, and personalities but, above all, idiosyncrasies. The word zar also refers to reconciliation rituals practiced throughout the life cycle of an individual to pacify those spirits, reversing the effects of possession from affliction to well-being. Zar possession is a permanent state; a zar can never be exorcised. Zar spirits are not only conceived as alien outsiders to the participants but also as human doubles or spirit familiars assigned to each person. In the words of a zar leader: “We all have zar, only some people don’t know it.”1 In that way, on one level a zar is also both some kind of an inner self and an alien other.

The core of zar initiation rituals is a sacrificial rite which incorporates a person into a sisterhood or brotherhood of zar participants under the oversight of a professional zar leader addressed as “sheikh” (p.2) or “sheikha.” Public forms of zar devotion include dance songs played by professional musicians and lasting for hours. The intensity and rhythmic complexity of zar music is irresistible to participants and spirits alike; it attracts the spirits as it lures the participants into dancing. It is during the zar dance that the identity of a spirit may merge gradually with that of the dancers, often culminating in trance. The path (tariq) of zar is also an intuitive way of knowing and being in the world. Its essence is a flexible structure that allows a participant a great deal of improvisation and a moral orientation that gradually guides the individual throughout the life cycle. Participants are comfortable with zar because it is infinitely malleable: it is always adapted to their circumstances. Zar songs and rituals are improvised to fit their needs. However, zar people say that its power works only if one is “sincere,” “pure,” and “generous” to zar spirits and people.

People seek out zar initiation when in crisis for a wide range of motivations and a variety of reasons; some are explicit and some are idiosyncratic. The first initiation often takes place when a person is still in their teens and sometimes even younger. The initiated person then becomes part of a network of people who share zar experiences, and who orient each other throughout their lives. Zar initiation draws a troubled person into a world where she or he can find solace, resolution, and healing. Most importantly, she or he becomes part of a close-knit community: a brotherhood. This atmosphere offers the seeker advice, acceptance, and companionship, and an opportunity to be generous and charitable while at the same time enjoying zar music, dance, and dining together.

Zar songs play an important role in reconciling the spirits with their human hosts. Songs are instruments of healing because of their potential to communicate with and mobilize the power of different groups of supernatural beings: God, the prophets, the saints, and the zar spirits. The ritual singing of zar calls these supernatural entities into action to help the devotees. The zar devotees usually respond to songs with a special kind of dancing, tafqir, leading them to trance.

(p.3) This book is about how different people in metropolitan Cairo experience zar as spirits, as rituals, and as a spiritual and initiatory path; it is based on years of extensive ethnographic fieldwork in different parts of Egypt and on personal experience. The experience and understanding presented are not only that of an ethnographer and an anthropologist but also that of a zar cult member. It treats some aspects of Egyptian zar spirit possession that have rarely been addressed in the literature: the zar community (tayfat al-zar), zar rites and rituals, and songs and music within zar communities.

The main focus is on the socialization and localization of space and time in the zar ritual complex through elaborate and deliberate practices of performance, representation, action, and the circulation of symbolic and material capital. I show how zar can be perceived as one of the technologies of sociability and localization available to actors in the zar scene of Cairo. Zar connectivity builds community within the old quarters of Cairo (Appadurai 1996). Key participants in zar include cult leaders, professional zar musicians, and devotees.

The research carried out for this book illustrates how participation in zar forges social and economic relationships which transcend conventional class and gender relations. These relationships in turn inscribe ‘locality’ on participants and produce community. Participation in zar rituals creates a communal network of friendship and relationship at the same time that it grounds devotees in the landscape of Cairo, with its narrow alleys, public baths, local saint shrines, cemeteries, and the Nile.

Also of interest are zar songs, their production, and their meanings from various perspectives. This book concludes by examining the hybridization and consumption of zar songs and their relevance to social change, and points to some of the songs as a genre of oral history of African slaves and marginalized Sufis who contributed to zar in previous times. It interprets those songs as a kind of embodied history, as understood in the context of the social formation of nineteenth-century Egypt (Connerton 1989).

(p.4) Anthropological Understanding of Zar and Spirit Possession

Over the past thirty years, an increasing number of anthropologists have moved away from interpreting spirit-possession phenomena as an instrumental strategy for the socially deprived, as championed by Lewis (1986). Instead, scholars have increasingly treated spirit possession on its own terms, focusing on its experiential and epistemic styles, contending that spirit possession is a way of knowing the world. Recent studies have interpreted spirit possession through local lenses and contexts, focusing on cultural logics, human imagination, and human creativity. The cumulative effects of these studies teach us that the spirit-possession phenomena do not fulfill a homogeneous task. They are both more and less than healing therapy, history, art, ethnography, entertainment, or social criticism. Spirit-possession phenomena in Africa and beyond offer their adherents a multitude of open-ended ways of differentiating identity by imitating and expressing ideas about the cultural other (Kramer 1993). These phenomena also provide a means for ritual reordering of the relationship between self and other, whether it is human or supernatural at multiple levels (Kapferer 1983).

In academic literature, zar is known as a possession cult and religious healing practice in the societies around the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Arabian Gulf. Some scholars convincingly argue that zar originated in Ethiopia and spread with the slave trade to other countries in the Middle East (Cerrulli 1934; Natvig 1987; Lewis, al-Safi, and Hurreiz 1991). Since the nineteenth century, zar practices have been observed and recorded in Egypt (Mazloum 1975; el-Masri 1975; el-Eleimy 1993; Kennedy 1978; Battain 1997), Sudan (Seligman 1914), Ethiopia (Isenberg and Krapf 1843), Somalia (Lewis 1966), and Djibouti (Laurioz 1969).

The African variants of zar, particularly those of Sudan (for example, Zenkovsky 1950; Constantinides 1985, 1991; Boddy 1989; Kenyon 1995; Makris 1996) and Ethiopia (for example, Leiris 1958; Messing 1958), have received much more attention from the scholarly (p.5) community than those from any other parts of the Middle East.2 Only a handful of scholars have reported the phenomenon in Mecca and other places in Saudi Arabia (Hurgronje 1931; al-Tayash 1988). In Yemen, zar was observed in Tihama (Bakewell 1985; Mo’amar 1988), Aden, and Lahej (Kapteijns and Spaulding 1994; Ingrams 1949). Even fewer scholars have reported on the zar in Iraq (Elyas 1977), Kuwait (Ashkanani 1991), Bahrain (Dykstra 1918), and Iran (Modaressi 1968; Safa 1988). Zar has even been reported among slave descendants as far away as Baluchistan in Pakistan (During 1997). It has also recently migrated to new locations with recent Ethiopian immigrant communities in Israel (Grisaru, Budowski, and Witztum 1997) and with Sudanese migration to Canada (Boddy 1994b).

Writings about zar in Egypt and Sudan

By the middle of the nineteenth century, a system of beliefs concerning the power of a conceptually distinct category of spirits known as zar was first reported by Europeans in parts of the Middle East and East Africa (cf. Duff-Gordon 1865; Klunzinger 1878; Hurgronje 1931; Salima 1902). In these travel accounts, zar spirits are constructed as evil demons that possess their hosts and cause them illness. Zar was treated as a belief expressed in a group of curative rituals, which, in form and content, were very similar wherever zar was practiced (Constantinides 1991:85). Those early western accounts ignored the local variations. Accounts of the Egyptian zar variant by native commentators, who were mostly men, were critical of the practice and quite often set within a discourse of nationalist reform against colonialism (cf. Chafey Bey 1862; Fawwaz 1892).

Much has since been written about the subject, but it remains only superficially explored (see bibliographies by Khoury 1980; Makris and Natvig 1991; Natvig 1998). Many accounts are merely descriptive, and contain reiterated misunderstandings. They tend to ignore the complexity and multifaceted nature of the practice, reducing it only to the (p.6) healing and cathartic aspects of the cult. The relationship between Islam and zar practices remains poorly explored, despite the obvious and profound connections. Within the lives of individual women, there is a close and intense intertwining of the relationships with certain zar spirits for divination purposes (Abdelsalam 1995; Battain 1993; El Hadidi 1997; Kenyon 1991a; 1991b), the devotional practices of zar, and Islam. The aggregate effects on women’s lives and intuitive faculties and the forging of social relationships in particular localities have yet to be explored.

Zar in Egypt

In Egypt, zar has persisted as an important cultural form, despite more than a hundred years of state repression and rapid, uneven social change and criticism, particularly from the ongoing reformulations of Islamic orthodoxy (Natvig 1991). While predominantly a female cult, zar draws in men as devotees (Chafey Bey 1862; Kahle 1912; el-Adly 1994), musicians, and cult leaders. Where devotion to zar is inherited, it is mostly through the female line.

Most scholarly works on zar in Egypt have also overlooked its symbolic aspect, its clear representation of ‘otherness’ (Boddy 1989; Gibbal 1992; Kramer 1993), and its comparability to other regional variants in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf regions.3 Although early reports compared zar with other spirit-possession cults, particularly those in Africa, these merely reflected the theoretical preoccupation of the time. Under the dominant paradigms of the diffusionists, these reports focused on origin and survival of cultural relics from earlier stages of human development (cf. Seligman 1914; Gordon 1929).

When the paradigm shifted to psychologism, a great number of scholars concentrated on the psychological and therapeutic functions of the cult. They viewed the cathartic zar apart from its religious and social aspects and defined it as psychotherapy without accounting for its healing mechanisms (for example, among anthropologists, (p.7) Fakhouri 1968; el-Shamy 1972; Kennedy 1978; and, among psychiatrists, Okasha 1966; El Sendiony 1974).4

Most of the scholars who have focused on zar have concentrated on rendering the phenomenon intelligible to a western audience, by rationalizing away from the cult’s own terms, rather than building on deep understanding. That is to say, shallow reiterated accounts present zar as an exotic cultural survival, a psychotherapeutic ritual complex, or mere compilations of material culture. Most western scholarly models have not been able to capture the essence of zar. These models are highly rational, and zar simply is not. Apparently grasping that something is being lost in translation, scholars have typically omitted from their accounts aspects of zar that can be readily dealt with without contradiction, thus simplifying zar to the point that it cannot be comprehended. Because they are persons who definitively remain outsiders, their explanations must be based on their own preconstructed notions and valuations; but the ‘otherness’ of the phenomenon calls for a conscious demystification of analytical terms (Boddy 1994a).

Anthropological Theories of Spirit Possession

‘Possession’ is a broad anthropological term that refers to the integration of spirit and matter, power, and corporal reality in a world in which the boundary between an individual and her environment is permeable and negotiable. Recent studies (Comaroff 1985; Kramer 1993; Taussig 1993) suggest that spirit possession is based on epistemic premises very different from “the infinitely differentiating, rationalizing, and reifying thrust of global materialism and its attendant scholarly traditions.” Zar continues to hold the anthropological gaze because it appears dramatically exotic and unrecognizable to those schooled in rationality (Boddy 1994a:407).

Relatively few anthropologists have made serious contributions to the ethnography and theory of zar possession. Among anthropologists, the seminal attempts at analyzing zar come from Ian C. Lewis’s (p.8) peripheral-cult theory (1966; 1967; 1971; 1986; 1991) and Janice Boddy’s ethnography of Sudanese zar (1988; 1989). Sohair Morsy’s analysis of sick roles in a rural Egyptian village provides useful insights (1978; 1991; 1993). However, the most interesting theoretical understanding of the phenomenon of alien spirit possession comes from the armchair ethnological approach of the German art historian Fritz Kramer (1993).

Kramer’s understandings of African spirit possession

In The Red Fez: Art and Spirit Possession in Africa, Kramer (1993) draws our attention to the association between the African cults of alien spirit possession and plastic and performative art forms based on mimetic representation of strangers. He proposes mimesis as a way of knowing, and as an alternative to western rationality. To follow this logic, we have to turn to Lienhardt’s ethnography of the Dinka in Sudan (1961), from which Kramer adopts the concept of passiones.

Unlike westerners, who perceive the past as derived from the mind or the imagination of the remembering self, the Dinka experience people, places, or events of the past as having their own points of reference. These places and events have their own active agency that acts on human beings. In the same way, a ‘Power’ is a kind of presence acting on the self from without. A Dinka images her experience as a passive agent and as an object of Power. The Dinka separates an image, the active counter-part of the passive element in human experience, from the self in order to deal with affliction caused by Power so recognized (1961:149–53). To explain such modes of experiencing reality, Lienhardt writes,

It is perhaps significant that in ordinary English usage we have no word to indicate an opposite of “actions” in relation to the human self. If the word “passions,” passiones, were still normally current as the opposite of “actions,” it would be possible to say that the Dinka Powers were the images of human passiones seen as the active sources of those passiones. (1961:151)

(p.9) Passiones, then, constitute a mode of experience which can no longer be precisely described in modern western languages; it is the opposite of actions in relation to the human self. Kramer explains that the possessed are “being moved by” the alien spirits experienced not as actions or abstraction but as images of passiones. The possessed person experiences himself or herself as an object in which the Power of the cosmos recurs in the person. The agency is with the Power, not within the individual self. Kramer cautions us against translating the cosmological into psychological terms. For him, the passiones are psychic states, transient moods or a lasting mark or imprint which form under the “impression” left by the Power. Such experience can only be understood as particular cosmological encounters which are powerfully impinging in ways that are not obvious or readily understood (1993:60–62). “The powers of the cosmos, both animals and landscapes,” he states, “recur in the person possessed, so that we can truly speak of passiones of an experienced reality” (1993:61).

Despite the lack of a precise word to describe such modes of experience, Kramer finds in present-day western practice a behavior denoting comparable modes resonating in a vocabulary that he views as a remnant of a cosmology. He writes,

The terms possessed, filled and moved refer to mental states which we view as neither normal nor morbid. In all three cases we are talking about passiones rather than actions. Sometimes the individual appears to be a sort of mount, ridden or obsessed by notions or passions, at others a vessel filled with feelings, and in the end as one moved by the sublime, whereby the latter is said mostly either with a touch of irony or in literary speech. Despite the passive formulation, each of the three states manifests itself in its own characteristic patterns of behavior which, however, we cannot simply construe as conscious and deliberate actions. (1993:62)

(p.10) Kramer proposes that Africans have transformed alien phenomena into types, as images of passiones; these have been incorporated as spirits into local traditions. Strangers provide the material for an allegorical ‘take’ whose purpose is to communicate what is ‘other’ to one’s culture. The common theme among these possession cults is not in the social function they fulfill but rather in their representational character and their concept of reality. The mimetic representation through ritual enactment of “otherness,” its personification, and its cult paraphernalia remain the uniting features among these cults. This mimesis stems from an experiential epistemology based on imagination rather than rationality. This imagination is “a complicated structure of heterogeneous elements: words and pictures. We shall then not think of operating with written or oral signs as something to be contrasted with the operation with ‘mental images’ of the events” (Wittgenstein 1979:7e).

The theory of peripheral cults

I.M. Lewis (1971) advances a theory of spirit possession focusing on what he typifies as peripheral cults, based on his study of sar (a local variant of zar found in Northern Somaliland) and his cross-cultural overview of other possession cults which involve spirits that “are not central to the maintenance of morality in a particular society.” He explains that zar is a mystical mode of defusing grievances between men and women (1967:626). Women are passive agents in the religious domain. The prominent role of women in spirit-possession cults is a compensation mechanism for their exclusion and lack of authority in other spheres (1986:27–28). Lewis links the definition of women as powerless and amoral with the peripherality of the zar to the moral order. Lewis’s propositions remain highly contested (cf. Wilson 1967; Kapferer 1983; Giles 1987; Boddy 1989, 1994a; Lambek 1993; Morsy 1993). That is mainly because it is not correct to assume a priori that women’s religious ‘work’ is peripheral to that of men. “Not only do women too practice the central, day to day rites of Islam, but in their (p.11) performances they may carry a religious load often of greater transcendental importance to the community than that borne by men” (Tapper and Tapper 1987:72).

The critics of Lewis’s status-deprivation hypothesis suspect its accuracy and attack his static use of the construct (Wilson 1967:628). Kapferer criticizes Lewis and his followers for unduly reducing the multiplicity of factors that might motivate the preponderance of women in spirit-possession cults to a single limited set which cannot be generalized or explain the pattern as a whole (1983:96–97). Lewis’s use of the term ‘peripheral’ to qualify women’s possession cults reflects a highly subjective and evaluative view. Giles criticizes Lewis for this construct, which assumes that men are central to the moral order while women are peripheral. Attention to the perception of the cult participant would portray possession as a means of establishing contact with supernatural forces that are crucial to society (1986:235–36).

In a recent review article, Boddy argues against the assumption that spirit possession constitutes an independent category of behavior. This assumption has led Lewis to transcend native epistemologies and to replace them with an objective analytical framework under the category ‘ecstatic religions.’ The typologies used by Lewis often blind researchers to the complexities of the ethnographic situation (Boddy 1994a:409–10). Lambek criticizes Lewis for attempting to explain possession in terms of conscious behavior; not only does it violate local perceptions, but it also fails to acknowledge that the very essence of the system is to transcend conscious wishes (Lambek 1993:313).

Women are active in possession, not because they wish to use it in a battle against men or even in a status competition among themselves, but because it gives them greater scope and authority in activities in which they have always taken an interest: articulating social relations, maintaining peace and order within their families and taking responsibility of reproduction. (1993:334)

(p.12) Despite these contestations, Lewis’s work remains very influential and no serious work on zar spirit possession can be carried out without addressing his theory of peripherality.

Variations on Lewis’s theory of peripheral cults

Janice Boddy’s study of zar in Hofriyat, a rural community in northern Sudan, describes the multifaceted influence of zar on the lives of ordinary village women. With ethnographic richness, she explains how zar participation cultivates appreciation for ambiguity in gender constructs, personal relationships, and cultural typification (1989:341–42). However, her analysis suffers somewhat from her interpretation of zar in terms of texts to be read. Boddy endows the ceremony with an intellectually reflective function, when to the participant it is an experiential performance (Abu-Lughod 1993b). Boddy compares zar to the genre of post-Renaissance satirical allegory. Accordingly, zar ceremony is conceived as an “indigenous text that unfolds anew with every ritual performance” (Boddy 1989:341) with multiple levels of meaning, both explicit and implicit. She reads the wedding symbolism5 in zar initiation as an allegorical “pretext.” Its implied meaning is a muted, counter-hegemonic commentary on marriage—the seat of feminine identity and a source of disenchantment—in the lives of the possessed. According to Boddy,

Controversial realities are embedded in overt text performance, and each gains from association with the other. Possession ritual, viewed as allegorical genre, is designed to compel the imagination; in making an adjustment between the apparent meaning of the rite and its multiple connotations, a participant leaps to the significance of the zar and is initiated to its course. This is, and given its potential subversiveness, must be, a personal, subjective, transformation. But because of that it may be therapeutic. For if discovery occurs through a participant’s own (p.13) intellectual effort, if, in other words, she restructures the zar text by reflecting in her own imagination the creative process it embodies, thus renewing the inner consciousness of the work (cf. Honig 1966:29), then her consciousness of her own position in Hofriyati society may grow. (1989:340)

For women, everyday identity or social position may be jeopardized because of difficult circumstances, such as infertility, divorce, or loss of children, a husband, or loved ones. Boddy shows how the Sudanese zar provides an opportunity to redress these problems by stressing that which lies beyond their immediate society. She argues that zar opens the possibility of ‘otherness,’ that of the zar and that of the women who feel jeopardized. In the zar, with its themes of alien spirits, these women’s feelings of personal otherness, caused by specific circumstances, meet with allegory and ritual, which strengthens their identities. Participation in the zar creates a positive appreciation for the existential, as opposed to the ideal demanded in structured everyday life.

According to Boddy, with zar trance the “introjected” and culturally overdetermined self may be repositioned and perhaps transcended. It provides the cult member with the possibility of insight (1989:350). The vocabulary of zar is a metaphoric variation on the themes of daily life (specifically marriage). Zar reflects “a counterreality, wherein salient social values and cultural orientations are played with, reassessed, weighted differently than in everyday life, opened up to other interpretations” (1989:156–57).

The perception of zar in a rural community in Egypt

Sohair Morsy provides a new set of data on the Egyptian zar in her study of sick roles and gender in a village of the Nile Delta. Morsy’s work on zar is less comprehensive than that of Boddy. However, she provides an interesting analysis, focusing on the cultural logic and social context of possession. She proposes ‘uzr (literally, ‘excuse’), an (p.14) Egyptian zar variant, as a “culturally sanctioned dissent” (1993:18). She develops Lewis’s status-deprivation hypothesis beyond its correlation with femaleness by demonstrating that this possession affliction is indicative of powerlessness among both female and male informants. She argues that once ‘uzr is “made social” through the identification of the afflicting spirits by means of ritual, and by securing support of the claim to the sick role from members of the village community, the now culturally legitimated “excuse” allows the transgression of the established power relations and of core cultural principles (1993:124–25).

Morsy argues that the possessed person is then able to resist the socially sanctioned authority of fathers, brothers, and husbands, as well as mothers, sisters, and wives. Failure to achieve core cultural imperatives is among the socially tolerated or justified transgressions. These core cultural imperatives include parenthood, securing family livelihood, and adherence to sexual norms as in the case of incest, homosexuality, and extramarital affairs (Morsy 1993:123–46).

Lewis (1967; 1971), Boddy (1989), and Morsy (1993) build their theoretical approach to zar possession by developing Gluckman’s “ritual of rebellion” hypothesis. Gluckman explained ritual reversal in African societies that he observed as an expression of dramatized structural conflicts. These structural conflicts, which are not controlled in distinct secular institutions, are expressed in ritual to maintain social equilibrium (1963:136). For Gluckman, “every social system is a field of tension, of ambivalence, of co-operation and contrasting struggle.” “Rituals of rebellion” allow “unbridled excess,” an expression within the bounds of social order, to keep the rebellion in check. So the enactment of conflicts, through the inversion of social roles or other symbolic forms, stresses the “social cohesion” within which certain conflicts exist (1963:127).

Lewis’s and Boddy’s models of resistance locate this structural conflict between husband and wife and make marriage, rather than oppression by the ruling elite, the structural principle that zar (p.15) addresses. I do not see that either researcher was able to substantiate this hard-to-prove premise empirically. The conflict between husbands and wives is assumed by both authors, and is their own cultural projection. Unfortunately the sophisticated approach of Boddy, informed by feminist theory and hermeneutic interpretation, leads her back to Lewis’s functionalist position that she rejected in the first place.

The transgressive and subversive mechanisms in zar cannot be interpreted by a simple functionalist conflict model. Zar can best be explored through rigorous sociohistorical analyses and open multiple methodologies. I agree with Scott’s criticism of the ritual-of-rebellion hypothesis to explain complex social events such as carnival (or zar). In his view, such interpretations are “an untenable essentialism.” Carnival (or zar) is “the ritual site of various forms of social conflict and symbolic manipulation, none of which can be said, prima facie, to prevail” (1990:178).

Zar cults buffer the individual caught in difficult structural conditions by creating a community with a shared experience of otherhood (Boddy 1989; Gibbal 1992; Kramer 1993), particularly for the most vulnerable identities, those related to gender and sexuality (Boddy 1989; Morsy 1993). Members of a zar community buffer each other’s pains and misfortunes through friendships, mutual sympathy, communal dance, entertainment, and conversations outside the immediate kin group (Saunders 1977; Eisler 1985).

It makes perfect sense that zar provides a socially sanctioned space for transgressions within one’s own community (Morsy 1993), and that participants find inspiration in images and stereotypes of what is socially defined as other than one’s own. Social norms are only binding to actors whose identities have not been contested. Those who are afflicted, and inhabited by alien beings, are no longer bound by the canons and ideals that govern the lives of members of the wider community. That is to say, those possessed with zar, with their ambiguous identities, are no longer held responsible for their actions. In fact, they (p.16) are no longer themselves. Zar is experienced as passione, as a cosmological encounter. That is why I argue that the key to understanding zar on its own terms is not to reduce it to some function but to consider its representational character and its concept of reality.

From Collector to Ethnographer

My first encounter with zar

I was born and raised in Cairo in a middle-class, professional home, which was exceptionally secular by Egyptian standards.6 It was only when I began to show anthropological interest in zar that family stories about my great-aunt came out, including sumptuous zar parties, of which my mother only recalls the hubbub, the silverware, and the caterers. Before I started working on zar, most of my acquaintances in Cairo knew of zar only from films and television. The Egyptian mass media portrays zar mostly as “superstition,” while newspapers often speak of zar as heresy and the work of charlatans.

The first time I encountered a live zar ceremony was in 1978. At the time, as an undergraduate student in anthropology, I derived great pleasure from pursuing ethnographic adventures and observations of cultural phenomena. One day, as I was driving around with a Belgian friend who was visiting Cairo, we came near the city cemeteries, right where the eastern side of the Nile Valley disappears into the limestone foot of the Muqattam hills. Our attention was drawn by some strange drumming. When we identified the source of the sound, we saw an unusual gathering of people. We parked quickly and walked toward the crowd. Huge tents had been erected near a shrine. They were surrounded by a large number of local women dressed in traditional black gowns.7

We were told that the shrine belonged to a local saint named Sidi Abul Saoud, and that this gathering of people was a hadret zar which was held each Tuesday near the shrine. We came closer and decided to join the action taking place in one of the tents. We paid an entrance fee of LE0.25 (then $0.30).8

(p.17) Inside the tent there was a dance floor and a band composed of six male musicians. As we came closer we realized that one of them was the dancer. He had exceptionally long hair for an Egyptian man, a few inches beyond his shoulders. There was also a lead singer and a chorus. The band included one wind instrument and many types of drums. All the performers were dressed in white gallabiyas, the traditional male ceremonial clothing.9

The drumming was very pronounced. Women made up most of the audience. They sat cross-legged around the dance floor, with their backs to the tent walls, completing a circle with the band. The band was directed by a woman. She did not play music, sing, or dance; I realized later that she was the sheikha (the officiating leader). Instead, she oversaw the performance and the well-being of the people in the tent: her clients. Whenever she spotted even a subtle response to the rhythm of the music by a member of the audience, she would make sure that the dancer lured that person onto the dance floor. When an entranced woman passed out and fell on the dance floor, the sheikha would put pressure on her forehead, and then sprinkle her with rose water.

We took our places among the audience. We watched the trancers and talked with the women around us. To our surprise, the beating of drums soon began to affect us, and we felt compelled to dance. Our upper bodies were swinging with the music. The mistress signaled to the musicians to accelerate the drumming. Then she looked at the dancer, who immediately stepped toward us and invited me to the dance floor. We had noticed earlier that as each woman went to the dance floor, she would give some money to the band; these monetary contributions were dropped into a cloth bag to hold for the musicians. I gave the dancer LE0.25; he swiftly ritually circled the money around my head, kissed it, and put it in the same cloth bag.

The same thing happened to my friend. Each of us spontaneously danced a dance that was very different from that of the other women. With the acceleration of the drumming, we were both induced into (p.18) trance. I lost control of myself. It was a feeling similar to what I felt as a child at the climax of swinging, almost like an orgasm.10 We were no longer aware of what we were doing.

Still etched in my memory is a woman in her late thirties who would not join the dance floor like the rest of us. I identified her as a baladi woman because of her black outer garment. She was wearing a lot of gold jewelry. Her tears flowed continuously every time a particular song was played. Her sobbing increased whenever the singer said ‘fire’ (al-nar), which was a metaphor for describing inner pain. When her tears dried, we chatted a bit. After our trance she looked at us and said, “We go to zar and you go to the disco” (discotheque).

The woman was making a cultural parallel that is very commonly used when zar devotees explain what is going on in zar to outsiders. The relativizing idiom comparing zar to disco is quite interesting because it is motivated by finding the common grounds between different experiences in separate settings: trance dance in zar and discotheque dancing.

After all, attendants in both spaces dance with intensity and let off some steam. In both cases, it is an embodied performance, a practice and a bodily habit in which music plays an important role. In fact, the disco metaphor has also been used in two other scholarly accounts of Egyptian zar. Eisler reports in the voice of one of her informants that some middle-class women go to zar gatherings to relax, to enjoy themselves, and to listen to music—an experience, according to her informants, very similar to “going to a disco” (1985:25).11

At the time of this first encounter with a zar ceremony, more than forty years ago, the event was just another cultural phenomenon of Cairo. Cairo is a complex social space with one thousand years of history that is sensually experienced in its skyline and its noise level. Today minarets, domes of mosques, shrines like that of Sidi Abul Saoud, foreign construction cranes for skyscrapers, and satellite dishes in every conceivable space stand out in the panorama viewed by any observer. People are drawn to Cairo from all over Egypt seeking work, (p.19) recreation, health care, and religious expression. Along with the massive permanent population, an influx of people swells the city’s daytime population to over twenty million people.

Quite often activities for leisure, work, religion, or healing are one and the same, just like the zar gatherings described above. It was not until the fall of 1988, ten years later, that I fully realized that this zar event by the shrine of Sidi Abul Saoud would become important in my life and would constitute the first of a series of encounters with zar. In the intervening years, I had never thought about zar. I had completed a bachelor’s in social anthropology and carried out fieldwork in a number of different communities in Egypt. But now in Minya in Upper Egypt, in the gold and silver market of the city, I came across fadat al-me‘affrateen (‘silver of the possessed’). These were particular amulets and jewelry used as offerings to spirits in the zar ceremony.

Zar amulets

The ‘silver of the possessed’ were particular amulets and jewelry used in zar ceremonies. Most of this amuletic jewelry had small bells in odd numbers. I suddenly remembered that I had seen them many times in shop windows in Cairo but had never associated them with zar or possession. I even remembered that as a child I used to play with a pair of silver earrings that belonged to my mother. Neither of us knew that they were zar amulets.

The discovery of zar amulets sparked my interest. I began to follow the zar trail looking for fadat al-me‘affrateen in the silver markets of Cairo and other provincial cities in Egypt. In the process, I found myself developing an ethnography of zar. Beginning in the first half of 1989, I spent most of my free time in the silver markets of Cairo and Sohag and Akhmim in Upper Egypt until I left for the United States in June 1994.

My early interest in zar was focused on its amuletic silver jewelry. Over a period of five years, I collected more than a hundred different specimens, mostly from my goldsmith and silversmith friends in Upper (p.20) Egypt. These were hand-picked from the many more I had seen in different markets all over Egypt. In my mind, I was building a collection of zar amulets for a future ethnography focused on the amulets. To my silversmith friends, particularly the late ‘Amm Nassif of Sohag, I was writing a large book on zar. Whenever any of my friends introduced me to others in the silver market, he would proudly say: “She is writing a book on zar that big”––stretching his index finger and his thumb as far apart as possible.

In this early period of fieldwork, I was seeking the knowledge of the craftsmen who made or sold the amulets, as well as those who were zar devotees. The latter used fadat al-me‘affrateen in ritual and as a sign of devotion to zar in everyday life. I was hoping to be able to decipher the vocabulary of magical motifs inscribed on the amulets by various silversmithing techniques, but instead I learned about the market.

I had extensive discussions with twelve craftsmen and retailers from Sohag and Akhmim in Upper Egypt and a few from Cairo. Three of the male smiths in Sohag became my good friends and were very interested in helping me know more about zar. Whenever I had a question, they asked around. But nobody seemed to know anything about the symbols in the amulets. The craftsmen were reproducing what their fathers passed on to them without knowing what these symbols meant. I was told that the possessed (maryouheen), and the zar leaders representing them, chose their own zar amulets, mostly by going into trance in the silver or goldsmith store and identifying amulets that the possessed had seen in visions and dreams.

The craftsmen saw the amulets in terms of their functions, places of origin, percentage of silver, and the amount of craftsmanship involved in producing them. The scope of their knowledge may be limited by their gender or their religious affiliation; most of the silversmiths and retailers are Coptic Christian men, and zar is almost entirely practiced by Muslims, and more often among Muslim women. But most important, the silversmiths remain outsiders to the zar cult despite their association (p.21) with devotees and leaders who buy amulets from them. They often get invited to zar initiation ceremonies and can generally describe the over-all ceremony. Only the most knowledgeable retailer was from Cairo—a Muslim woman who had herself been a zar devotee.

I could not learn from the silversmiths the meanings of the motifs on the amulets. Instead I was introduced to the many levels of the zar amulet market, a subject about which they loved to talk and reflect. In this early stage of research, the focus of my ethnography then shifted for me, from the amulets themselves to their systems of circulation.

At least one-fourth of the silver jewelry pieces bought and sold in the provincial capitals of Upper Egypt were locally produced zar amulets. In the Sohag Governorate market alone, in the sixties and seventies, fadat al-me‘affrateen constituted two-thirds of the production and sale of silver jewelry. Most fadat al-me‘affrateen was produced by craftsmen within the same or neighboring governorates as the purchasers. The magnitude of the market indicated the extent and the complexity of zar devotion itself during this period.

With this realization, I tried to attend a zar congregation in Sohag Governorate. I was still motivated by a passionate desire to know about the meaning of the motifs on my collection of amulets. Unfortunately, despite the mediation of my silversmith friends, I was denied entry twice to the Akhmim zar congregation.

The Banat al-Safi (daughters of al-Safi) are the two gypsy sisters who jointly lead the zar cult of the city. They were not comfortable with journalists. The sisters, having no concept of anthropology, thought that I could only be a journalist who was going to besmirch their names in the newspapers. Disappointed, I went back to Cairo, where I lived, and decided to look for a local cult.

Doing the Ethnography of Zar in Cairo: Hadrat Sidi Abul Saoud

In October 1993, I was still hoping that I could learn about the amulets from the devotees. I planned to find a local cult in Cairo so as (p.22) to do some interviews about the amulets. I went to the Abul Saoud neighborhood, where I had had my first encounter, to find the zar tents that I remembered from my youth. However, there were no tents around the shrine of Abul Saoud. I asked around and was told that the government had built a model park for children in the place where the tents had once been pitched. People directed me to the three cult leaders (two women and one man). They were living down the road and were hosting hadras (weekly zar gatherings) in their respective homes. I chose the most conveniently located hadra, which was run by a woman called al-Garya Son’oh.

From then on, I attended the zar hadra with al-Garya Son’oh almost every Tuesday for a period of seven months, until I left Egypt in June 1994. I began carrying out participant observation in the weekly hadra in the neighborhood of Sidi Abul Saoud. Abul Saoud al-Garhi is the saint of the afflicted. There I had my first initiation into zar, following anthropological traditions. Since during the time I frequented the hadra at Abul Saoud I did not have the opportunity to be invited to an actual zar initiation ceremony, I had to stage my own initiation to get a sense of what was going on. Consequently, I began very slowly to develop an understanding of the ritual and its complexity. At the same time, the more I participated in weekly zar gatherings, the more my interest shifted away from the amulets and toward the actual rituals and congregation.

My Upper Egyptian collection of amulets was very different from those used in Cairo. In Cairo, most of the zar amulets were made of gold. The silver ones were not as varied as those of Upper Egypt. I found no participants or cult leaders who knew much about the Upper Egyptian zar amulets. I collected a few possession narratives and observed the interaction among devotees, and between the devotees and the musicians in the hadra. I continued to join this Tuesday hadra occasionally on short visits to Cairo in the summers of 1995, 1996, and 1998.

(p.23) Al-Garya Son’oh died in 2004. I was told that her hadra had not continued, despite the fact that two of her daughters were very much engaged in zar and the eldest, Asma, had been helping her manage the hadra.

Finding Sheikha Anhar

In June 1996, I stumbled across somebody who was willing to take me to Anhar, whom I had wanted to meet for a long time. I had been hearing about her accomplishment as a zar singer from other devotees in Abul Saoud. One of my zar friends played Anhar’s commercial zar tapes for me when I visited her in her home. Other devotees spoke very highly of Anhar; she was the most famous and prestigious cult mistress and zar singer in Egypt.

I was finally taken to Anhar’s hadra in the Bab al-Wazir neighborhood in the al-Darb al-Ahmar district in the old medieval part of the city, which I could never have found on my own. Al-Darb al-Ahmar is one of the neighborhoods that is called ‘the Madina’ by its inhabitants. Anhar’s hadra was near the shrine of Fatma al-Nabawiya, daughter of al-Hussein and the patron saint of orphans, and congregated on Mondays, Saint Fatma’s visitation day.

Anhar was the first cult mistress I encountered in Cairo who also sang zar songs. The three cult leaders of Abul Saoud employed other singers for their zar services. Their singing always seemed to be submerged by the heavy sounds emitted from multiple drums. Anhar’s well-articulated singing and sense of hospitality enchanted me, and I joined her cult. I underwent my second initiation mostly because I wanted her to teach me about zar. I wanted to be part of her group. After my second initiation, I soon became a regular participant in the congregation. For the first time, I was doing more than participant observation: I was really practicing zar. I made friendships and shared interest in practicing zar with others in the congregation.

During these three months of fieldwork in Egypt, I also regularly visited two other zar congregations and listened to singer/leaders in (p.24) Sohag in Upper Egypt and in the village of Abul Gheit in Qalyubiya, at forty minutes’ commuting distance north from Cairo. In Cairo I was also invited for the first time to two initiation ceremonies. It was during this period that I developed a passion for this new world that Anhar had revealed to me: the world of zar songs and music. Without any effort on my part, I found myself memorizing songs. I tape-recorded more than a hundred zar liturgies and songs in different styles from different congregations.

A focus on the songs was essential to understanding the ritual complex on its own terms. After all, songs are played extensively in the hadras and in the initiation ceremonies. Each song entices a particular possessing spirit to manifest itself in the body of the dancing participant, which is crucial to the healing process. Each initiated devotee knows exactly which zars, or saint spirits, possess her. Devotees request the type of music and specific rhythm they need for each zar and spirit to manifest itself in the course of dancing. For responding to the devotees’ requests, the musicians are rewarded handsomely. These songs are mostly praise songs to the Prophet Muhammad, to zars, and to spirits of Muslim and Christian saints (in Egypt, saint veneration is not necessarily based on sectarian divisions).

There are different styles of singing and music as well as different genres of song. Sometimes the same song is set to different rhythms within the same style of music. Some of the songs are very simple and consist of only a few rhymes with call and response. Songs in praise of Muslim saints are very elaborate, and always include a great number of improvised rhymes, which increase according to the mastery of the singer and the mood of the gathering. Unlike the jinn praise songs, this genre consists not only of call and response but also includes a narrative plot, sampling from within the genre, and borrowing from popular religious songs. One never hears a song of this genre sung in the same way twice, even from the same singer. Some other songs and rituals are not even sung in Arabic, and no devotee understands the words.12

(p.25) In the summers of 1997 and 1998, I expanded my visits to other hadras and other leaders, while remaining actively engaged with Anhar’s congregation.13 I was very interested in the zar musicians as a community. I visited six Friday hadras in Abul Gheit, north of Cairo, attended all three Tuesday hadras in Abul Saoud several times, and went to two newly opened hadras in Cairo, in the neighborhoods of Rod al-Farag, north of Bulaq, and al-Leithi, in the City of the Dead. I also attended two hadras in Fayoum Governorate and one other in the city of Alexandria. I interviewed the director of a state folklore dance and music troupe who employed a large number of the male zar musicians and dancers. I went back to the field in the summers of 2000, 2002, and 2005.

By the end of my last fieldwork period in 2005, I knew most of the zar musicians and they knew me as one of Anhar’s ‘daughters’ (a member of her cult). I had many interviews with musicians and many informal conversations with groups of musicians about the history and styles of music. My strong associations within the zar community, centered on Anhar and her daughter Karima, helped me get invited by the musicians to zar neighborhood ceremonies in the old parts of Cairo, to river ceremonies (zar al-bahr), and to the cemetery rituals (qarafa or zar al-gabal). I recorded many songs and rituals, and talked with many women and men about their lives and experiences as zar participants.

In the neighborhoods, I saw how zar public initiatory celebrations attracted all devotees from within the neighborhood and solidified relationships among them. Cash gifts (nuqut, sing. noqta), following the same principles as those exchanged at weddings and birth celebrations, were given to the initiand during the two or three days of the zar celebration. These cash gifts were part of a network of reciprocation that extended over the initiands’ zar careers. I also learned that, until recently, joyful female life-cycle rituals such as birthing, marriage, and pilgrimage (Hajj) were often celebrated by holding a zar night (leila). These are zar performances of songs for entertainment, not to placate (p.26) and assuage the spirits. Today, zar as entertainment is only locally practiced in the Batniya neighborhood.

I began to see zar not only as a healing system but also as a culturally informed, institutionalized way to produce communities grounded in the landscape of Cairo and associated with its local saints such as Sidi Abul Saoud and Sittina Fatma al-Nabawiya. I wanted to learn how zar informed and produced ‘localities’ within a particular ‘neighborhood’ (Appadurai 1996), in addition to my earlier interest in songs and rituals.

After Anhar’s death, I had four more zar initiations conducted by Karima. These last initiations were very different experientially from those I commissioned with the purpose of knowing more about zar anthropologically. When I stopped observing and recording zar, I started experiencing zar techniques (Mauss 1934) beyond rationality. While rationally I cannot acknowledge the supernatural and its grip on our lives except perhaps in an abstraction, the experience of zar rites and rituals touched me from within. I am not acknowledging the existence of zar spirits as such, but I cannot ignore the strong effect some elements of zar rituals had on me. Blood, sacrifice, amuletic jewelry, anointing, songs, prayer, incense, trance, and music are all very powerful experiential ritual tools that move and touch people regardless of belief in the supernatural or the particular form in which they are conceptualized.

Methodological Strategies: Storytelling and Collage

This section introduces the writing strategies adopted in this monograph: storytelling and ethnographic collage. Both strategies are considered not only as styles of writing but also as epistemologies, as ways of knowing the world. The intention is to maintain positionality and preserve a sense of multivocality by weaving spirit-possession narratives in translation by active zar members alongside interpretation of these stories, as well as my understanding of zar rituals and their social world as an anthropologist and as a participant.

(p.27) The art of telling stories

The discussion of the methodological strategies adopted in this ethnography begins by invoking the memory of a paradigmatic conversation in 1992 with Hussein Tamaa, an Egyptian anthropologist and my fieldwork partner for many years. Both of us were facing a bit of an identity crisis. We both felt a great deal of passion for our work as anthropologists, which was an integral part of our respective identities. But the problem was that ‘anthropologist’ was not a recognizable social category in Egypt (and still isn’t). We were asking ourselves and each other if it were at all possible to claim anthropology as part of our own identity when it was not identifiable by the communities where we lived and did fieldwork.

The discussion encompassed ethnography as a way of life, and the ways in which anthropology also exists outside of academia without even being labeled as such. We knew we were ‘arabs (of Bedouin stock)14 and we liked to think of ourselves as organic intellectuals (Gramsci 1971); consequently, we were concerned about matters relating to our intellectual genealogy and kinship as well as with matters regarding our marginality with respect to western anthropological traditions.

Anthropology, unlike sociology and psychology, is an almost unknown discipline in Egypt. In most cases, when you tell someone in Egypt that you work as an anthropologist—which in Arabic translates as a ‘researcher in the science of man’ (bahitha fi ‘ilm al-insan)—your interlocutor will typically immediately correct you: “You mean psychology!”

Despite this marginality, we had no doubts about the part of our identity we shared in common; it had to do with anthropology and Egypt. But we still had a problem. The problem was a multifaceted one. How did we trace our own genealogy? Which tradition were we supposed to claim? Could we claim the anthropological identity that no one in our fieldwork would recognize?

My friend, who had grown up as a member of a sedentary Bedouin tribe not far from Cairo, proposed that we should think of ourselves as mawawis. The mawawi are responsible for the disappearing art of (p.28) the itinerant storyteller; the mawawi made it their job to remember or uncover stories from the past in order to retell them for the benefit of the present and the future. These storytellers collected and retold stories from different communities everywhere in Egypt. What we were doing as anthropologists was precisely following the steps of the old mawawi: collecting and recovering stories from the past for the benefit of the present and the future. The essence of our interest was real stories about changing communities and people’s lives that we had both heard and experienced as children, at a time when time was plentiful and television had yet to enter our lives. It was our interest in our social surroundings, particularly in Egypt and its people and their history, that had made us anthropologists or mawawis and had compelled us to tell tales when we grew up. During our field journeys we both met people who—just like us—were interested in real stories about changing communities, yet they had never heard about anthropology. These people are mawawis too.

Unlike my friend, I had never really heard or seen a mawawi while I was growing up. But I grew up listening to my father tell stories about his village at the beginning of the century, about the changes he had witnessed in his lifetime and the stories that had been passed on by previous generations. My storyteller was my father. For both my friend and me, anthropology named the thing we had liked to do anyway as we were growing up: observing and participating in our respective social worlds. Anthropology rationalized our interest in collecting tales beyond those of our immediate social groups, religious affiliates, class, and gender.

Benjamin, storytelling, and anthropology

Writing in the first half of the twentieth century about a phenomenon that we have witnessed in our lifetime, Walter Benjamin tells us that storytelling has become less and less frequent. The ability to tell tales properly, the most secure of our possessions, the inalienably human medium for the exchange of experience, has been taken away from us. Benjamin tells us that the difference between a true story and (p.29) information is that the latter does not survive the moment in which it was new. A story, on the other hand, does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength. It is capable of releasing a story even after a long time (1968:90). Unlike a report or information, a story does not aim to convey the pure essence of the thing. It sinks ‘the thing’ into the life of the storyteller, so that it brings it out of him. Like anthropologists, storytellers usually begin their story with a presentation of the circumstances in which they themselves have learned what is to follow, whether or not they are telling about their own experience (91–92).

There is a lot in common between the anthropologist and the storyteller, or so we would like to believe. Both weave stories from experience, their own or that which is reported by others; in turn, both anthropologists and storytellers make it the experience of those who listen to their tales and read their ethnographies (87).

Ethnography is a cultural procedure rendered complex by the ongoing act of translation into a textual form. The ethnographer adopts the dual role of participant and of recorder/interpreter. The writing of ethnography is also complicated by the action of multiple subjectivities and political constraints beyond the control of the anthropologist. Such discursive practice enacts a specific strategy of authority that has, classically, involved an unquestioned claim for the anthropologist as the purveyor of truth rather than as storyteller (Clifford 1988:25).

Recent criticism concerning ethnographic authority and the origins of anthropological knowledge has opened the way for anthropologists to experiment with alternative writing styles, particularly those that give, or pretend to give, a voice to the ethnographic other (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Clifford 1988; Marcus and Fischer 1986; Marcus 1998).

Textualization is at the heart of the ethnographic endeavor, both in the field and in the academic setting. One facet of fieldwork is the act of inscribing diverse contexts of oral discourse through field notes and recordings. But we should not forget that ethnography originates in orality and makes its transition to writing with difficulty (Marcus 1986:264–65).

(p.30) Some of those alternative strategies have consciously claimed the art of storytelling as a way out of the mono-vocality of the classical ethnographic texts (cf. Bowen 1954; Taussig 1987; Brown 1991; Ghosh 1994; Scheper-Hughes 1992; Abu-Lughod 1993a).

Ethnography is the formal space in which an academic anthropologist enters into a dialogue with the current theoretical debates of the discipline. Storytelling and theoretical discourse are mingled to represent a personally situated account of what anthropologists have experienced in fieldwork. Abu-Lughod tells us that storytelling, as an ethnographic textual strategy, is a very useful technique to give space to “a different voice” in writing against “culture” (1993a:4). She writes,

If one merit of the textual technique of storytelling is that it draws attention to, even as it refuses, the power of social scientific generalization to produce “cultures” (with their differentiation of selves and others), the other merit has to do with feminism’s second lesson: the inevitability of positionality. A story is always situated; it has both a teller and an audience. Its perspective is partial (in both senses of the word), and its telling is motivated. (1993a:15)

However, it is precisely the motivation of the anthropologist as the new teller of those stories that gives voice, or not, to the original owner of the story, and not the practices of quotations and transcriptions or ventriloquism, to borrow a metaphor from Clifford (1988:46). My motivation is grounded in the desire to know more about Egypt and its people. It is the passion and the commitment of the mawawi that inspired me to seek an anthropological methodology that acknowledges the limitations of any one level of analysis (Marcus 1998:37). With the ethnographic collage of Bateson’s Naven (1958), I found the methodological match for the art of the mawawi.

(p.31) Ethnographic collage

Ethnographic collage is about “saying more by juxtaposing multiple levels and styles of analysis.” It is a methodology that attempts “a comprehensive display of levels of analysis, of epistemological angles” (Marcus 1998:37). Collage brings to the ethnographic text elements that proclaim their foreignness to the context of presentation. These elements are marked as real, as collected, rather than invented by the artist-writer. The present work experiments with writing by combining ethnographic collage and storytelling with analyses. Such experimentation has the potential for undermining my authority as an ethnographer by providing juxtaposed analyses from multiple angles: translations of my research participants’ narratives about zar, narratives that I have constructed about some of the research participants, and anthropological reflections and analyses. Ethnographic story retelling, motivated by the desire to share human experience and a commitment to multivocality, has been a liberating theoretical position for me. However, as an ethnographer, I have to overcome the charm of storytelling as a mere technique of representation and a writing style. I have to resist the desire for homogeneity of the ethnographic texts. On the other hand, a real commitment to ethnographic collage where “the cuts and sutures of the research process are left visible,” (Marcus 1998:37) that is, where the traces and scars and tensions between theory and ethnography are consciously preserved, may facilitate this difficult task.

As a complex social event and as a complex concept of reality that is very alien to western rationality, zar calls for a complex theoretical understanding. That is why I adopt “ethnographic collage” as an interpretive methodology. The value of collage is that it avoids any overarching argument and acknowledges the limitations of any one level of analysis (Marcus 1998:37) that is necessary to avoid falling into the traps of structural-functionalism. Collage allows experimentation with multivocality and with a variety of theoretical frameworks and concepts suitable for grasping the complexity of zar.

(p.32) Description of Chapters

Chapter 2 is about the history and origins of zar and how it migrated with Abyssinian slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to Egypt. It sets the tone to discuss zar as transnational and hybrid phenomena. The chapter also provides an overview of zar practices in Cairo based on my fieldwork. The relationship of zar and Islam and the zar ritual placation process are also discussed.

The third chapter begins with a brief introduction about the relevance of Appadurai’s work on the production of locality to zar practices (1996). This is followed by a discussion of zar as a remnant of a guild corporation. The chapter focuses on the ritual correspondence between what we know about the Egyptian guild lore from historical records until the nineteenth century, following the work of the historian Gabriel Baer (1964), and the practices recorded during fieldwork. In this chapter, zar divination practices as passiones are discussed, and the stories of three diviners as case studies of professional zar activities are presented.

Chapter 4 is about the association between zar possession crises and those that relate to the anxieties around periods of transitions in the life cycle of a person. It discusses crises related to adolescence, fertility, marriage, and menopause by using a variety of narratives to present people’s varied perceptions and practice for zar. Here Appadurai’s concept of ‘locality’ is linked to the ways zar orients the bodies of devotees in time and space.

Chapter 5 presents a sampler of zar rites and rituals using a realist narration style, of the kind that is used in fiction, based on transcriptions of actual recordings of real life. It starts with the art of the openings that open the paths of communication to a cosmological universe of eminent beings, which include zar spirits. This chapter also includes a realistic description of the sacrificial procession dedicated to the Grand Lady, one of the most important zar spirits and leader of a spirit pantheon.

(p.33) Chapter 6 discusses saint and spirit songs as ‘acts of transfer’ following Connerton (1989). It also focuses on the most popular zar spirits in Cairo and the different ways through which they are placated in ritual. (p.34)


(1) Sheikha Karima, field notes, July 2003.

(2) Despite the enormously extensive citation on zar, there are very few published ethnographies specifically on the subject. In addition to the present work, there are three major published works in western languages: Leiris’s on Ethiopia, in French, (1958), Boddy’s on Sudan, in English, (1989), and Nabhan on Egypt, in German (1994). There are also very few unpublished PhD dissertations on the subject. They are mostly from European institutions: Battain for Egypt (1997), Constantinides for Sudan (1972), Ashkanani for Kuwait (1988), and Mallery for a general theoretical overview of zar as psychiatric treatment (1997).

(3) Battain (1997) is exceptional in that she provides comparative ethnographic data based on her fieldwork in Yemen, Somalia, and Djibouti with her more in-depth work on Egyptian zar. She also brings forth the African influence in the cult. El-Masri (1975) has also compared Egyptian zar cross-culturally to other spirit-possession cults. However, her presentation suffers from her use of the concept of ‘primitive rituals.’

(4) Folklorists and Orientalists produced mere compilations of zar liturgies (Kahle 1912; Littman 1950; Battain 1997), or material culture and case studies, with little attention to context, social meaning, or interpretation (cf. Rodinson 1957; Kriss and Kriss-Heinrich 1960–62; Bachinger and Schienerl 1984; Kruk 1993). Even those anthropologists who did not adopt the therapeutic explanation have generally been analytically unsuccessful in dealing with zar (cf. Nelson 1971; el-Masri 1975; al-Guindi 1978; Battain 1991).

(5) The zar initiation ceremony is based on a wedding metaphor in which the initiand is called a bride.

(6) An earlier version that discusses my first encounter with zar is published in my master’s thesis (El Hadidi 1997).

(p.156) (7) In Egypt, the form of clothing worn reveals class and ethnic identities. In both rural and urban areas, the outer garments of most traditional married women are black or dark in color. In general, with a high-school education and a job, an Egyptian woman or girl may avoid the traditional black outer garment in favor of more colorful clothing of a different style, and she may work as well. In Cairo, the black outer garment marks the baladi, or traditional, as opposed to the educated class (see also Rugh 1986 on Egyptian dress modes).

(8) The exchange rate from US dollars to Egyptian pounds (le) has steadily increased since 1978. In 1978, one US dollar was worth LE0.65, whereas today the rate is almost one US dollar to LE7.83.

(9) A gallabiya is a long robe that resembles a western shirt, reaching to the ankles. By the 1990s, the white gallabiya was the most common male attire, due to the influence of the Arab oil states.

(10) El-Eleimi also compares zar trance to sexual intercourse (1993:51).

(11) El-Shamy states that in some sense the zar ritual “resembles Western rock festival cults or night clubs with psychedelic music and dance” (1980:176).

(12) For instance, some songs are sung in a language called Rotana, which refers to any language spoken by black or African peoples. When I asked a singer who was of African slave descent if she understood the meaning of the words she was singing, she didn’t answer.

(13) Anhar died after a short illness in August 1998, while I was in Cairo.

(14) ‘Arab is an ethnic category within Egypt.