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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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From Abyssinia to Cairo: The Zar Ritual Complex

From Abyssinia to Cairo: The Zar Ritual Complex

(p.35) 2 From Abyssinia to Cairo: The Zar Ritual Complex

Hager El Hadidi

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter traces the history and origins of zar in order to elucidate how it migrated with Abyssinian slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to Egypt. It lays the basis for understanding zar spirit possession as practiced in Cairo from the nineteenth century until today. Following a short overview of the history and origin of zar in the Red Sea region and the reasoning behind thinking about zar in Egypt as a transnational phenomenon, the chapter discusses zar practices in Cairo based on the author's fieldwork. It also considers the relationship between zar and Islam, the zar ritual placation process, spirit afflictions and their symptoms, and the role of gender and class in zar participation. Finally, it looks at zar professionals (leaders and musicians), zar music and dance, and zar paraphernalia.

Keywords:   Abyssinia, slavery, Egypt, spirit possession, Islam, zar ritual placation, zar professionals, zar music, zar paraphernalia

Introduction: Origin and Etymology

This chapter lays the basis for understanding zar spirit possession as practiced in Cairo from the nineteenth century until today. It begins with a short overview of the history and origin of zar in the Red Sea region and the reasoning behind thinking about zar in Egypt as a transnational phenomenon emerging as a result of the continuous movement of people with their cultural practices. This is followed by a descriptive overview of the zar rituals practiced in Cairo, and their characteristic elements based on fieldwork.

There are very few records of zar before the nineteenth century. The oldest written record where the word zar is used to mean ‘possessing spirit’ was found in a religious text written in Ge’ez,15 in the sixteenth century in Abyssinia (Natvig 1987). In the absence of observation accounts, it is impossible to know if zar rituals as we know them had already developed in the sixteenth century. The earliest recorded observation of zar rituals as we know them today is from the beginning of the nineteenth century in Ethiopia. A description of a zar ceremony was recorded by two missionaries in 1839 (Makris and Natvig 1991).

The etymology of the word zar is obscure (cf. Fakhouri 1968; Constantinides 1991). Most scholars agree that the word zar is neither (p.36) Arabic nor Amharic. Various scholars have advanced different hypotheses concerning its linguistic origin. Cerulli (1934) argued that the word is Amharized from a Cushitic language; specifically in Agaw, the word ‘Jar’ refers to the god of heaven (see also Natvig 1987). Nelson (1971:194) follows a mistaken etymological link between the Arabic words zar and ziyara (‘visit’) (for a critique of this etymology, see El Shintenawi 1983:330). Writing about Persian zar, Modarressi (1968:150–51) suggests a Persian origin of the cult, since in Persian, the word zar as a noun means ‘mourning’ and ‘crying,’ while as an adjective, it means ‘thin’ and ‘weak.’ More recently, Abdelsalam (1994: 75) erroneously suggested a link between zar and zahara (‘to appear’).

The movement of people across the Red Sea from Arabia and Yemen to Abyssinia and vice versa has been going on for centuries. The absence of reference to observed zar rituals in the historical, travel, and linguistic accounts before the nineteenth century makes it impossible to definitively locate the origin of zar in only one society.16 Furthermore, local ideas about the origin of zar in Ethiopia point to an Arab origin (Sunsdrom 1909, quoted in Natvig 1987:678) whereas in Egypt, zar songs refer to both Abyssinian and Yemeni origins. Theories of zar origin in both countries follow the logic of zars as alien spirits inspired by groups of familiar outsiders (my emphasis).

The term zar may have been borrowed from Old Hebrew.17 The long-established presence of Jewish communities and their historic influence as merchants and craftsmen in the Red Sea region make this theory plausible. After all, in Modern Hebrew, the word zar means ‘stranger’ or ‘foreigner’ (Baltsan 1992:460). Interestingly, the Hebrew etymology is derived from the root word zwr, which means ‘to turn aside, deviate, go away,’ and its participle zr, the ‘one who distances or removes himself.’ Hence, the word has been sometimes interpreted in different contexts of the Old Testament as ‘foreign gods,’ ‘that which does not belong,’ ‘unchaste woman,’ ‘stranger,’ or ‘outsider’ (Botter-weck and Ringgren 1974:52–58; Ben-Naeh 1993).

(p.37) Silversmithing and goldsmithing were mainly in the hands of old Sephardic Jewish communities in many parts of the Middle East, including Yemen and Egypt. Given the importance of jewelry in relation to zar cults and its association with alien spirits, it is plausible that the word was passed from the jewelers to the participants. If so, then the term ‘stranger’ would refer not only to the ethnic difference between the smiths and their clients but also to the otherness of the spirits with respect to their hosts.

Egyptian Zar as a Transnational Phenomenon

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the etymology of the word zar, there are many indications that zar trickled from Abyssinia to Egypt through the slave trade no later than the nineteenth century and perhaps earlier. Most importantly, some spirit names recorded in Abyssinia in the early part of the nineteenth century appear in the Egyptian zar pantheon. Moreover, some historians have noted an increase in the sale of Abyssinian female slaves in Egypt starting in the eighteenth century (Marsot 1995). These were incorporated into the harems of both urban and rural families, and often married one of their male members. Consequently, these Abyssinian harem women introduced their cultural practices into Egyptian society. Western and indigenous writers during the nineteenth century almost always associated zar with black slave communities (Littman 1950; Natvig 1987; Walz and Cuno 2010).

It is not difficult to imagine that Abyssinian ideas about the nature of zar spirits were easily assimilated into the Egyptian world view. After all, the concept of zar as invisible spirits resonates strongly with the Muslim idea of jinn. To the Egyptian Muslim participants, zar is a category of jinn mentioned in the Qur’an. As zar developed, it increasingly syncretized with popular Islam, absorbing and mixing with local beliefs and practices. Today, zar practice continues to incorporate new elements and new understandings in response to changes in Egyptian society and in Islamic interpretation.

(p.38) Zar is a transnational phenomenon. Not only did it move into Egypt with the Abyssinian female slaves but it has also developed amid the continuous movement of people throughout the Middle East as well as East and West Africa. Elements of other spirit-possession ritual complexes, such as the North African derdeba of the Gnawa (Kapchan 2007), the stambeli (Jankowsky 2010), and the West African bori were also absorbed into Egyptian zar as practiced in Cairo and Alexandria.

Some Hausa bori words are still used to describe important ritual zar elements in Cairo. For example, the word ‘kodya’ designating only the officiant of the zar al-sitt18 ritual originates from the Hausa word godiya, meaning ‘horse’ or ‘mount.’ The word mayanga (the place where sacrificial bones are ritually buried) derives from the Hausa word for ‘cemetery’ (Besmer 1983). There is a Moroccan gnawa tune that was identical to a familiar zar tune from Cairo, only the words were different. Some North African spirits also made their way into the zar pantheon (Paques 1991). Some zar Tambura practices have also been transplanted, traveling with Sudanese migrants during Anglo-Egyptian rule. The complexity and multicultural nature of zar in Cairo and Alexandria indicate that it had a different historical development from the zar practiced in Upper Egypt.

The fieldwork in Cairo on which this study is based reveals that zar is infinitely malleable. The form of a given iteration of the ritual is adapted to the lives and experiences of those who participate, and their reasons for participating in a specific ceremony. Zar reflects the diversity of peoples who have participated in it, and who have introduced to it elements from faraway places. Whatever the details, the central component of zar is sacrifice and offering rites to placate the spirits, followed by a period of liminality and seclusion. These rites may also add several masquerade dances, enhanced by clothing and jewelry, in response to music and songs, each marking the hosting of a specific alien spirit in the body of an adept who may enter trance.

(p.39) Egyptian Conceptions of Zar

Zar spirits are identified by Egyptians as ghosts (‘afareet), a wind (reeh), dastour or zar (‘spirit’ and ‘spirits’), or simply as masters (asyad). Zar possession is conceptualized as an ‘earthly touch’ (lamsa ardiya). The relationship between the possessed person and his or her possessing spirit is expressed in a clothing metaphor: a possessed person (malbous) is said to be ‘worn’ by the spirit. A person possessed by zar is referred to as me‘affrat, maryouh, or menzar.

Zar masters are a category of jinn. These are invisible and supernatural spirits conceptualized as a human double, the qarin. The zar/qarin is a kind of spirit familiar attached to every human being. The nature of jinn contrasts sharply with that of human beings. According to the popular Islamic conception of the world, God created the invisible zar/jinn of wind and fire, and fashioned the visible humans from earth and water (Boddy 1988). He then gave both of them the earth to inhabit and populate.

The zars have since lived in social groups, modeled after, but not of, the human world. However, their world intersects with ours in deserted places, dark areas, doorways, staircases, around water sources, and in the cemeteries. Zar spirits are particularly fond of places that Egyptians associate with pollution (nagasa) and filth (khabasa), such as toilets and garbage dumps. According to typical zar possession narratives, the first experience of possession is often sited in domestic bathrooms when the possessed person is in his or her teens.

Zar and Islam

Alien spirits and Islamic cosmology

The corpus of song and ritual performances collected in Cairo reveal a popular Islamic conception of the world. Zar is a devotional practice to several interconnected and overlapping constellations of supernatural beings which have the power to affect the everyday lives of humans and grant good health and prosperity. At the pinnacle of this universe is God, (p.40) Allah. Just below him are all the prophets. Those mentioned by name are Adam, Noah and his sons Ham and Shem, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. The devotees, who are nearly all Muslims, hold the Prophet Muhammad19 in special honor. This conception also includes local Muslim and Christian saints and zar/jinn of various religions.

Zar spirits form an elaborate organization with several overlapping categories and pantheons. Zar/jinns include the muluk or kings: the kings of the heavens, the kings of the earth, and the kings of the seas. Then there are the salateen (‘sultans’). These include the Sultan of the Red, the Yellow, and the Green jinn. Next comes the hurras, or the guards of doorways or thresholds, and many other categories, not all of which are specifically named. These include some unnamed angels as well as some devils.

The population of spirits is also organized into different lineages which correspond to a variety of human ethnic groups that are culturally defined as ‘other’ by the participants. In Cairo, there are zar spirits from Sudan, Nigeria, Abyssinia, Syria, China, India, and Upper Egypt. Some are Orthodox Christians or Ottoman Turks and others are Bedouin Arabs or North African sharifs, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

The criticism of Islamic fundamentalists

In Egypt, zar practice has been criticized by a stream of orthodox and fundamentalist Islamic reformers, starting at the end of the nineteenth century. In their attempt to reformulate essential Islamic values, to correct practices, and to purge the Muslim nation (umma) from falsehood, zar has been deemed not only an alien superstition and a non-Islamic innovation (bid‘a), but also a heretical practice (shirk). The explicit source of contention is the rejection of the idea of supernatural mediation between Muslims and God.

Associated with popular Sufi understandings of Islam, mediation and intercession (shafa’a) has been practiced by a large Muslim (p.41) population. It encompasses a variety of religious rituals and understandings, including visits to the shrines of saints and the supernatural eminence of ahl al-beit (the Prophet Muhammad’s family and descendants). In addition to theology, fundamentalist Muslims criticize music and dance and the mixing of the genders during ritual gatherings. Their most pressing concern is the heresy of the zar sacrificial rite itself. The orthodox reformers contend that an offering can only be made to God, while the Muslim participants of zar view their sacrificial offering as an act of reconciliation with jinn in the name of God.

The devotees refute the accusation of heresy by arguing within the core Islamic belief and values that God created the zar and its afflictions. To the participants, zars are always secondary to God and the prophets. Despite the fact that devotees regard possession and its symptoms as a calamity, they still consider both zar and other Islamic ritual practice as part of their general religious experience (see also Constantinides 1972; Boddy 1989). The orthodox reformers may be particularly adamant about opposing zar because it is a woman-centered practice.

Spirit Afflictions and Their Symptoms

There are said to be sixty-six zar spirits. No zar leader can name them all; in fact, no leader names all the same spirits. There are always discrepancies between one cult and another. Zar spirits are organized into pantheons of extended families. The basic unit within each family is a pair of male and female spirits, who are usually brother and sister, husband and wife, or father and daughter. They have ethnic origins, professions, personalities, characters, and, above all, idiosyncrasies.

Some scholars have repeated the construction of zar as demonic and evil, which reflects Christian influence on nineteenth-century accounts of the phenomenon. For example, Kennedy states that the zar is a means of dealing with the demonic power of evil (1978:204). Fakhouri (1968:50) and Nelson (1971:197) refer to zar as “evil spirits.” (p.42) Despite the inclusion of devils among the general population of zar/jinn, common zar spirits are not necessarily evil or particularly harmful. However, they are whimsical, capricious, and vengeful.

A wide range of common, everyday human behaviors may provoke possession and its consequent symptoms. Zar spirits become angry at the most trivial human offense, as when the unaware human being steps on, pokes, or throws hot water over an invisible spirit, or wakes a group of spirits from deep sleep by shouting or crying after sunset. Such actions provoke the zar spirits to retaliate with possession and its symptoms. Playboy male spirits may also become jealous and offended when the human object of their affection misbehaves. This is often the case of a teenager who puts on too much makeup or spends a great deal of time looking at her reflection in the mirror and making herself beautiful for others. The polluting drops of menstrual or hymen blood may offend the spirit of the kabaneh or the latrine.20

A person may also become possessed by a particular spirit as a result of mocking or criticizing the possession of others. The consumption of zar sacrificial meat by the uninitiated may also trigger possession. Finally, exposure to the evil eye (nazra) and other types of witchcraft and sorcery (‘amal) may also render a person vulnerable to possession. The angry spirit or spirits punish the human offender through possession and its subsequent symptoms.

Among long-standing initiates, recurring afflictions may sometimes be attributed to their failure to fulfill promises of offerings made to zar spirits or their inability to carry out cyclical zar ritual obligations. Disposing of spirit paraphernalia may also be grounds for anger on the part of a zar spirit that would result in an affliction crisis.

The possessing spirits manifest their anger and execute their punishment by causing a variety of social, psychological, and physical ailments for their human hosts. Persistent symptoms that cannot be explained by common sense, are not readily cured by biomedicine, and fall out of the realm of the ordinary are possible indications of (p.43) zar affliction. These include a wide range of symptoms such as persistent headaches, continuous rheumatic pain, weight loss, nausea, loss of appetite, infertility, and miscarriage. A wide range of psychological behaviors (including unexplainable bouts of anger or aggression) and states of sadness or fear may also be symptomatic of zar possession.

Possession can also be attributed to socially risky behavior such as homosexuality or an inexplicable failure to marry. Unexplainable problems with business or trade may also be attributed to possession. These symptoms require ritual reconciliation and the fulfillment of the demands (talabat) of the spirit or spirits in question.

Zar initiation not only ends the episode of affliction but also establishes and maintains membership in a cult. The physical symptoms of zar may be cured through initiation; behavioral symptoms may receive a social justification, which allows them to be tolerated by the wider community. The socially unacceptable behavior is thus seen as a result of affliction (Morsy 1993).

Gender, Class, and Zar Participation

Zar is a woman-centered practice; women’s knowledge of zar, its symptoms, and its ritual reconciliation is part of the ritual division of labor between the sexes (Lambek 1998; Boddy 1989). Women know much more about zar than men. While predominantly a female cult, zar draws in males as devotees, musicians, and cult leaders. Where possession by zar spirits is inherited, it is mostly passed on through the female line (see also Messing 1958). In such a case, the devotees are referred to as ‘born into incense’ (ibn or bint bukhour).

In much of the Egyptian literature, women are the main participants in zar (Fakhouri 1968; Kennedy 1978; Nelson 1971; Okasha 1966). Men do participate, but they are more likely to participate in secret, and it is thus difficult to know what proportion of the devotees consists of men. What is clear is that men who are involved in zar as devotees have most often been introduced to zar by women. Most of (p.44) the participating men in zar gatherings are accompanied by a wife, a sister, a female relative, or a neighbor.

There are many ways of participating in and identifying with the zar ritual complex. The devotees are known as such because they have passed through the process of initiation into zar. Others may participate by listening to zar tapes or by watching videotapes of zar ceremonies without necessarily attending. Yet others may attend, and participate in dancing into trance and other ritual activities, without having been initiated. And while serious affliction in one form or another is reason for participating in zar, there are a few people who participate without reporting affliction of any sort.

In addition to zar musicians and their families, zar participation includes a variety of professional and social backgrounds. In any given zar ceremony, one may find physicians, nurses, teachers, butchers, businesswomen and men and their families, singers, and actresses from all over Cairo, as well as wives and daughters of the affluent traders and artisans from the surrounding neighborhoods. Public zar is costly, and thus it draws mostly people with substantial means. However, some cults are composed of more affluent devotees than others. For example, the clients participating in zar gatherings located in the village of Abul Gheit, north of Cairo, are more likely to be uneducated peasants or housemaids working in Cairo with limited incomes, while the cult gathering (hadra) located in the older part of Cairo attracts more affluent clients who either live in the surrounding popular (sha‘bi) neighborhoods or come from middle-class neighborhoods. Some dervishes and beggars spend all their income on zar. Most zar leaders in Cairo enjoy the patronage of at least a few affluent clients from middle-class Cairo, even when their weekly cult gatherings attract much poorer devotees.

Zar Professionals: Leaders and Musicians

The key personnel in zar are organized hierarchically and professionally. They include troupes of musicians, ritual leaders of both genders, (p.45) and their assistants. The bands of musicians are organized according to their musical specialization: Sa’idi (Upper Egyptian) or Cairene (Masri) bands, Sudani (Sudanese) or Tambura, zar al-sitt (the zar of the Grand Lady), and Gheitaniya (followers of Saint Hassan Abul Gheit). Each band has at least one lead singer who directs the troupe. The Tambura lead singer is referred to as sangak (a high rank in the Mamluk army), whereas in Upper Egyptian and Gheitaniya troupes he or she is referred to as rayes or rayesa (leader). Some musicians perform more than one type of music. Musicians mostly follow the profession of their parents or other relatives.

Ritual leaders are referred to as ‘sheikh’ or ‘sheikha’; however, those women who specialize in zar al-sitt are referred to as kodya. Not all kodyas are zar leaders. Only those who have undergone several initiations and are members of the cult of the Grand Lady may become kodyas. While the majority of ritual leaders are women, some are men. In such a case, to maintain sexual propriety, the mother or wife of the sheikh officiates at the rites for female initiands in the sheikh’s place, particularly for blood anointing.

Cult leadership is signified by an incense burner and a box of incense that links the leader to his or her main spirit. To become a zar leader, an initiand must identify his or her main spirit, the ‘master of his or her head’ (sid al-ras), in a special zar ceremony called the ‘girding’ (al-hizam). In theory, each spirit is associated with a different type of incense. However, in practice, for example, Sheikha Anhar and her daughter Karima use a mixture of incense concocted by the spice merchant according to their own preferences.

Cult leaders perform several roles. They use a variety of divination techniques to identify the afflicting spirits with the assistance of their own sid al-ras. Ritual leaders also manage the contractual relationship between clients and musicians. They officiate at the sacrificial rite, prepare the offering tables, and guide the inexperienced initiand’s relationship with her zar spirits. Some ritual leaders are also leaders of (p.46) musical bands. Most of these have not really undergone special initiations but act as sheikhs anyway. Others inherit their calling from one of their parents. These have a special ceremony in which they receive the incense burner and box of one of their parents. Some others are old initiates who have advanced in the path of zar. These were chosen by their own spirits to become zar healers and diviners.

When old initiates undergo the special zar initiation that makes them leaders, they prepare a new incense burner and incense box for the ceremony. In this girding ceremony, the incense burner and box are anointed with the blood of the sacrificial animals, which may include two to four sheep, a camel, or a bull.

Not all those who become cult leaders through this type of initiation join the zar profession and receive monetary compensation from their clients. Some initiated sheikhs or sheikhas volunteer their services for their friends and loved ones; they are referred to as sheikh habaybo or sheikhat habayebha. When the diviner does not provide service to others, he is referred to as sheikh nafso (‘his own sheikh’) in the case of a male leader and as sheikhat nafsaha (‘her own sheikha’) in the case of a female leader.

The Zar Ritual Placation Process

Identification of affliction

The first stage of the placation process is the identification of zar affliction. This a long process which is full of uncertainties and experimentation based on trial and error. When a person first begins to show some of the symptoms that can be attributed to possession by an angry zar, her immediate group may not suspect zar possession right away, particularly if they are not affiliated with the cult. They may resort simultaneously to a variety of healing options. For example, a woman who is suffering from continuous migraine may be taken by her group, kin, or neighbors to a Coptic priest who practices exorcism; to a sheikh who heals with Qur’anic amulets or performs an exorcism ritual using (p.47) Qur’anic reading (Sengers 2003); to a physician; or to several of these healing options simultaneously (Battain 1993).

Non-members are reluctant to be initiated into zar as a first healing option, because membership requires long-term commitment at considerable expense. Once initiated, the afflicted person will much more readily consult a cult mistress for recurrence of symptoms rather than other healers or physicians. An initiate may even begin to identify her zar spirits and their demands for reconciliation on her own without help from anybody. This person may continue to consult physicians as well. In some cases, the desire for healing motivates the afflicted person to resort simultaneously to both the biomedical and the zar route. For example, when a cult member undergoes a serious operation, such as mastectomy or amputation, with a successful outcome, a zar reconciliation ceremony would take place after the operation. This is partly a sign of gratitude to the zar spirits for a successful operation. Generally, various healing options may be tried, but if they do not result in alleviation of symptoms, then possession by zar is seriously considered.

In such a case, a cult mistress and/or an old initiate are consulted to mentor the afflicted person in identifying the zar spirits that possess her as well as the demands of these spirits. This identification, which is essential for reconciliation and healing, is not a simple matter, particularly the first time. It may be a long process that continues for years, involving one or more different zar identification rituals over time. A cult mistress may be called to the home of the afflicted person to perform a ritual with special zar incense. Attracted by the aroma of the incense, each possessing spirit may then make itself visible by taking over the identity of the afflicted person immediately, or by making her sleepy and yawning, and/or by appearing in her dreams. If the spirits are particularly stubborn and resistant to revealing their identity, or if the afflicted person did not undergo the home consultation, another ritual called kashf al-atar (‘revealing the trace’) is performed by the cult mistress in her own residence.

(p.48) Kashf al-atar is a divination technique involving the use of a piece of cloth that has been used by the afflicted person and has the smell of her body; usually it is a headdress or a piece of undergarment. The name of the afflicted person and that of her mother are written on a piece of paper and given to the cult leader. Before going to sleep, the cult mistress performs a rite with burning incense, and then she places the atar and the piece of paper under the diviner’s own pillow for three consecutive nights, a process called tabyita. The identities of the possessing spirits are revealed to the cult leader through dreams. Old initiates may also identify the possessing spirits through coffee-cup reading or other means of divination.21

In all cases, the cult leader and the old initiate divine by means of each one’s own principle spirit or sid al-ras. The afflicted person may also attend up to three hadras. The response of the possessed person to particular tunes will confirm the identities of the spirits causing the affliction. Sometimes the cult leaders deliberately summon the spirits of the afflicted through music and incense during the public gathering. Once summoned, they may ask the zar spirits to fulfill their demands (Kennedy 1978). Once the possessing spirits are identified, preparation for zar reconciliation rites may begin. However, in many cases, the reconciliation ceremony does not take place immediately. There are many other social and financial factors that contribute to one’s decision to undergo a zar initiation.

The hadra: the public face of zar

The musical part of the ritual is regularly performed in the weekly hadra (‘presence’), which is a public event held in the home of a zar leader. The hadra is often located near a visitation shrine.22 Quite often, attending the hadra takes place in association with devotion to the local saint. This may involve visitation to the saint’s shrine before the public zar.23 For the initiated, the act of attending the weekly hadra may also be referred to as tazkira (‘reminder’), a token of the bond (p.49) between the initiated host and the possessing spirits. The purpose of this gathering is for old and new devotees to go into trance, dancing to the tunes specific to one’s spirits. The zar spirits love their music and appear when their specific tunes are played.

The hadra attracts old initiates who were unable to finance their yearly zar ceremony, novices who are assessing zar as a healing option, serious cult devotees who attend regularly, and curious observers. It is in a hadra that the uninitiated participant expects confirmation of her possession with zar through her response to the tunes.

Rites of placation and reconciliation

The initiatory rites of the zar are referred to in a variety of terms. They are called ‘edwa (‘feast’), tazkira (‘reminder’) in the case of the already initiated, or madyafa or diyafa (‘hosting’) if the sacrificial animal is a goat, a sheep, or a larger animal. The most common terms, however, are sulha (‘reconciliation’), ‘aqd (‘contract’), and midan (‘vista’). Unlike other possessing spirits in Egypt, the zar spirits cannot be exorcised. When the masters possess someone and reveal their identity, they can only be reconciled to their host, and thus aid rather than torment him or her, if he or she becomes a cult member and undergoes its rituals.

The zar initiation ceremony is a devotional act and an acknowledgment of the power, derived from the God of Islam, of all the masters represented in a particular cult. The goal of the ceremony is to acknowledge and placate the spirits responsible for an initiand’s affliction, in order to nullify the affliction and mobilize the positive force of possession. The masters in question are then placated on behalf of the possessed person by means of sacrifice, offerings, rituals, and/or dance to win their forgiveness (samah) and contentment (reda).

As a whole, the ceremony celebrates a permanent bond between the initiate and her possessing spirits, for whom the animals are sacrificed (Natvig 1987). The rite is described as a farah (celebration).24 The (p.50) satisfied masters protect their host, open her way, bring her prosperity, and may eventually enable her to divine through dreams, visions, coffee-cup reading, and cards.

Zar initiation and its reaffirmation are carried out via a set of reconciliation rites. Offerings to the zar/jinn in exchange for healing and well-being are the essential component of this ritual complex. These offerings include incense, spirit paraphernalia, and blood sacrifice. Each sacrificial animal is associated by color to a specific spirit. The expressed purpose of these rites is to fulfill the specific demands of the spirits and to initiate the afflicted person into a community of zar participants. This is achieved through a solidarity rite called ‘akkam (literally, ‘in a bundle,’ ‘one in all’), in which the sacrificial animals are consumed in unison by the initiand and her initiated guests.

The demands of the spirits include special incense, candles, costumes, jewelry, and sacrificial animals; these serve as signs of identification and association with the afflicting spirits and play an important symbolic role. The zar initiation constitutes a contract (‘aqd) between the afflicted person and her possessing spirits. In principle, the initiate provides annual offerings to her zars, and the zars respond by ensuring the initiate’s prosperity and well-being.

These offerings are made to zars in exchange for the healing of the initiate from the affliction that they had previously caused. No one may consume the meat of the sacrificial animal except the person who is undergoing initiation and others in the group who have already passed through the initiation process. Thus the consumption of the sacrifice is the symbolic expression of a bond; the affliction or burden (himl) of the initiand is distributed and shared by those who eat the sacrificial meal. The blood of the sacrificial animals anointing the body of the possessed initiand binds her to her zars. For the rest of her life, the initiate wears the zar amuletic jewelry that has been anointed by the sacrificial blood.

(p.51) Characteristics of zar rituals

Zar rituals are extremely malleable. Their structure provides scaffolding for a wide range of ritual elements. For example, the use of odd numbers—one, three, five, or seven—structures not only ritual durations but also spirit manifestations and numbers of spirits in different pantheons. The structure of the ritual and its elements is essentially modular. The duration of the ceremony may be expanded or collapsed to fit the financial needs and circumstances of the individual devotee and her reasons for undergoing initiation.

Earlier in the twentieth century, and possibly as late as the 1960s in Cairo, zar initiation occupied up to seven days and nights. The seventh day would be marked by another rite ending the ritual seclusion of the initiate. In this ceremony, a specific part of the skulls of the sacrificed animals is ritually disposed of in the Nile. The most common form of this event now occupies an entire evening and a day, beginning after sunset and continuing on the following day. It marks the beginning of a seven-day ritual. The initiate then undergoes a period of seclusion and liminality where she eats only from her sacrificial animals. From the beginning of the ritual on the evening of the first day until the termination of the rite, she is said to be ‘with the spirit masters’ (ma‘a al-asyad). During this period, she is to abstain from sex and any signs of exchange of affection with both men and women.

Sometimes the seven-day period of liminality is reduced to three or five days to fit with the initiand’s schedule. She may then perform a simple rite by herself to end her seclusion and reconcile with her angry spirits. This rite is called safi ya laban (‘as clear as milk’). On some occasions, the initiand may choose to join the hadra or to have this special zar ceremony performed on a boat in the Nile (zar al-bahr, ‘zar of the river’) to ritually mark the end of her seclusion, and perform a rite to dispose of the bones of the sacrificial animals. In all cases, milk products such as rice pudding or yogurt are used as offerings. The whiteness of the milk signifies a clean slate, the end of the spirit anger.

(p.52) Types of zar rituals

Cairo zar rituals are classified by ritual specialists in two major ways: with or without music and song. The first type of zar is a private ritual called ‘al-sakt, which literally means ‘in silence,’ referring to the absence of music. Zar with music is called ‘drummed’ (daqqet) zar.

The silent zar

The silent form is much more commonly used than zars with music, because it costs much less and is more private. For example, men and unmarried girls in some neighborhoods often placate their spirits through this form so that their association with the zar is not made public. After their sacrificial rite, on the same day or the following day, they go to the weekly hadra to cut down on expenses.

The silent zar is the essential ritual module. It is limited to the part of the ritual complex devoted to fulfilling the demands of the zar spirits in order to placate them. The offering rite has two components: the setting of an offering table (kursi) and the performance of a ritual sacrifice (debih). The offering table is set on the evening before the sacrificial rite. As in other life-cycle rituals in Egypt, henna and procession candles play a major role. The offering includes special food, symbolic objects, items of clothing, and colored candles. During the sacrificial rite, the blood of the immolated animal is gathered in a plate. The ritual leader then anoints specific parts of the initi- and’s body with the blood. The initiand’s zar jewelry is dipped in the same plate and then worn by the initiand. More attention is given to parts of the body that have shown symptoms of spirit affliction: if the angry spirit or spirits have afflicted a particular part of the body, that part will be massaged several times with the sacrificial blood. The anointing of the initiand’s body and her jewelry establishes or reconfirms the pact (‘ahd) and contract between the possessed person and her masters. An adept who has undergone this process is (p.53) referred to as mitzaffar (male) or mitzaffara (female) (anointed with the blood of sacrificial animals).

The sacrificed animal is then cooked and ritually consumed. The silent zar is usually conducted by a zar leader or by the experienced initiand herself in the initiand’s own residence; in both cases an additional ritual module is added. Special ritual attention is given to specific areas of the initiand’s home, particularly to the zar spirits that reside in the toilet and those of the doorway. Sacrificial blood is poured into the toilet as an offering to its spirits. The threshold of the residence or of her bedroom is also anointed with blood.

The drummed zar

The musical zar is characterized by the presence of professional musicians who specialize in a variety of zar ritual singing. Zar ritual singing entices the spirits to manifest themselves in the bodies of the dancing devotees, mainly through possession trances. Zar spirits are invisible; however, during possession dances they take hold of the dancers’ bodies and become visible. Onlookers recognize the trancers’ change of facial expression as that of the zars. Zar music is performed in two ritual arenas: in the hadra and in zar initiation ceremonies.

The first arena is a weekly gathering hosted in the home of a zar ritual leader (sheikh or sheikha). While zar initiations are sometimes hosted in the hadra, the weekly ritual activities are limited to the musical part of spirit placation. In the hadra, possession dances are mainly intended to temporarily appease the spirits of those who are not yet ready for the commitment or expenses of a zar initiation with music, or to identify the afflicting spirits of novices. The second arena where zar music is performed is in initiation ceremonies, which are sometimes referred to as farah al-zar (zar celebration).

The description that follows is of the musical form of zar, referred to simply as zar.

(p.54) Zar Music and Dance

Musical troupes

Until the 1940s, each zar pantheon was associated with different zar musical troupes who played different styles of music and instruments. This zar specialization reflected different ethnic histories, local variations, and perhaps even different belief systems. This specialization has now broken down. During the second half of the twentieth century, there was a mixing of musical styles and pantheons, particularly for the most popular zar spirits. There has also been consolidation of zar musicians of disparate groups through marriage or business interests. Some spirits and musical groups totally disappeared;25 however, their most popular spirits, with their particular songs and rhythms, were adopted by other musical groups.

Today there are three zar musical groups: the Upper Egyptian (Sa‘idi), the Tambura or Sudani, and Abul Gheit. In Cairo, the first group used to consist only of female musicians, originally often of gypsy origin, who migrated from Upper Egypt to Cairo with their styles of music and zar beliefs. With time, they have incorporated many of the songs and traditions of other local women’s groups from Cairo.26

The Tambura group was originally made up of migrants from Sudan who settled in Egypt during Anglo-Egyptian rule. The Abul Gheit group specialized in saint songs; they were introduced to zar in the 1940s. During this period of mixing and consolidation, there was no introduction of totally new categories of spirits. Old songs were adapted to the musical styles and rhythms of the adopting groups, producing newly synthesized songs which contained both old songs and new lyrics, and new rhythms were also included.

Song and dance

Zar music and songs bring the world of the other into the presence of the cult members. The musical repertoire of the zar is a collection of different music, with rhythms and tunes corresponding to the ethnicity (p.55) of each spirit. Some songs are very similar to zikr, the dancing music and mystical poetry of the Sufi orders. If the host is possessed by a Sudanese master, she will be lured by Sudanese rhythms to dance into trance. It is this response to music that identifies the spirit. Trance dance is the existential validation of spirit possession. Onlookers identify the changes in the facial expressions of the dancers as an indication of the presence of zar spirits.

The songs are also vehicles for transmitting the cult knowledge: the possessed person learns about her master, his paraphernalia, and his personality through the lyrics of the spirit songs. This knowledge is necessary for the staging of the trance dance, in which the adept, wearing the appropriate costumes, performs the characters of her masters. For example, the song of the spirit Salila from the Sudanese group speaks to the preoccupation of the spirit by her physical appearance and beauty. The song describes her as coming out of the public bath and combing her hair. The person possessed by Salila dances in response to her tune by acting out bathing and combing. The possessed person sprinkles water on herself and her friends. Sometimes she uses a hand mirror to please Salila and to enhance her own performance.

The songs are also the main vehicle for introducing new spirits to a wider audience. Once a new song becomes popular with one cult, it is disseminated into others through musicians and clients who move among congregations. A zar dies when its song is no longer played. People implicitly acknowledge that they give life to spirits by placating them.27

Zar ritual song performances are prayers and supplications to the supernatural. They are instruments of healing. They attempt to mobilize the power of different groups of supernatural beings: God, the prophets, the saints, and the spirits. These are literally called into action through the ritual singing of the zar (Austin 1962). The devotees usually respond with a specific kind of dancing called tafqir, which leads to trance. Not all types of trance performed in zar are possession (p.56) trances. Dancers who experience trance in response to a song that praises the Prophet Muhammad or any of the saints are in communion with such supernatural beings (Natvig 2014).

Spirit songs played by different bands of professional musicians in different styles often describe spirit attributes. The performance of songs may last for the duration of an evening or a day and involve a number of spirits from specific pantheons that possess the initiand and her guests. While zar possession is a permanent state, zar spirit songs call on each spirit to make its possession visible. The possessed devotees respond by dancing to the praised spirit tune, often moving gradually into trance as their identity merges with that of the zar spirit. The possession trance that culminates is an existential validation of the presence of the spirit in the body of the dancer. Satisfaction for both the spirit and the participants is achieved through each song performance.

Zar Paraphernalia

Zar paraphernalia consists of amulets and jewelry, costumes, and other props corresponding to a spirit or group of spirits. These items are considered part of the demands of the masters for reconciliation. They help to dramatize the enactment of the other, just as costumes enhance the character role in theater.28 In the public hadra, some cult leaders provide generic costumes for spirits that only a few clients use—for example, a red fez and a sash for the Ottoman spirit Yawra Bey, or a black headdress with golden crosses for the Christian spirit.

In the private zar, the bride-to-be buys dresses, shawls, and scarves for her reconciliation with her masters, guided by her strong desires, dreams, and visions. Quite often, items from this zar trousseau are worn every time the possessed person attends private or public zar ceremonies. The zar participant always wears special amulets and jewelry that have been anointed in the blood of sacrifice. The amulets and jewelry are re-anointed at each zar ceremony.

(p.57) One of the common types of zar amulets comes in a tablet form or as a framed glass heart. There are also newer specimens made of plastic, and older ones made of semi-precious stones such as carnelian. Both types of amulet are referred to as ‘heart’ (qalb); they are worn as pendants throughout the life of the adept.

Most of the circular tablets are inscribed on at least one side with a verse from “Ayat al-kursi” (the throne verse) from the Qur’an29 or other Islamic formulaic invocations.30 Some other tablets correspond to specific masters. These may be abstract or anthropomorphic representations of a specific spirit. Even when a cult member drops out, the anointed amulets that she has accumulated throughout her life as a zar devotee are preferably kept until her death so that the asyad are not offended.31


The transnational and hybrid nature of zar—its capacity to incorporate and absorb new and meaningful elements, to reflect changes in the wider Egyptian society, and to adjust to global forces—is one of its basic characteristics. Zar is a dynamic system that can be understood, interpreted, and performed with infinite possibilities. Zar can be construed as a ‘bricolage’ (Levi-Strauss 1966; Comaroff 1985; Boddy 1989) of signs and symbols that are continuously tailored to fit the needs of its participants and manipulated to create meaning in response to local and global forces. (p.58)


(15) Ge’ez is an Abyssinian liturgical language related to Amharic.

(16) I would like to suggest a different way of thinking about the origin of zar. Rather than locating zar in a particular society, we need to think of zar as emerging among societies through repeated cultural contact. Zar is a transnational hybrid phenomenon resulting from continuous interaction among different groups of people in the Red Sea region.

(17) Franke (1913:284) reports that Jewish dealers were selling zar jewelry to adepts in Cairo early in the twentieth century.

(18) Zar al-sitt is one of the rituals in the zar ritual complex. It is a separate ritual and has its own initiation ceremonies practiced separately or on a separate night during several days of a zar ceremony. Not all zar devotees participate in zar al-sitt. Unlike the other forms of zar ceremonies, it is practiced only between midnight and sunrise. The beat of the spirit songs is kept going by beating on pillows, and the songs are not in Arabic. The officiating leader is always a woman, called kodya, who becomes possessed by the spirit and goes into a trance, leading the initiate into trance. The kodya does not sing or participate in the musical performance. Zar al-sitt initiation is a very private (p.157) matter and guests don’t participate in the initiation; instead, the kodya offers them divination sessions. (For more details, see “The Grand Lady’s Procession” in chapter 5).

(19) The Prophet’s family, companions, the four caliphs, the four pillars (aqtab) or axial saints (Reeves 1990), and those who are dear to the Prophet (ahbab) are also included.

(20) I deliberately use the word latrine rather than toilet to express the ritual fuction of the space. The type of toilets that I have seen during fieldwork include a variety of forms and styles which range from an outdoor shared pit to a squat to seated toilets, with or without running water, or a bath tub and shower. These styles also included luxurious, western-style bathrooms with toilets.

(21) Battain reports that different means of divination are used, according to the identity of the spirit. For example, in the case of the Turkish spirit Rokosh (also called Rakousha), cards will be used, while in the case of Christian masters, coffee-cup reading is preferred (1993:110).

(22) By the end of the nineteenth century, the Egyptian state had specifically outlawed the use of shrines for zar purposes (De Jong 1978). However, the hadra of zar are still associated with specific saints’ shrines in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt (cf. Fakhouri 1968). It is safe to assume a strong link between the saint-shrine cults and zar (Natvig 1991; 2013).

(23) This feature clearly distinguishes the Egyptian zar from the Abyssinian one (Messing 1958; Leiris 1958). It might further our understanding to compare zar with other spirit-possession cults in North Africa, such as the Hamadsha and the Gnawa brotherhoods. These are Moroccan confraternities associated with saints’ shrines. Dols, who took the Abyssinian variant as his model, mistakenly distinguishes between spirit possession in the Egyptian zar and the Hamadsha on the basis that only the latter is associated with saints’ shrines (Dols and Immisch 1992:296). It is interesting to note that certain spirits figure in both pantheons. For example, Aisha Qandisha, the central saintly spirit of the Hamadsha, is known as Aisha al-Maghribiya in the Egyptian zar pantheon. Moreover, some of the music performed by Gnawa in Morocco is identical in form to zar music I heard in Sohag in Upper Egypt (Crapanzano 1973; Paques 1991).

(24) Farah also means ‘wedding.’ The wedding between master and host implies the former’s exclusive right over the latter (see also Natvig 1988:58–61). This exclusivity is particularly apparent in the case of cult mistresses, or when a master falls in love with a human host (Fakhouri 1968:55; El-Shamy 1980:178), and in the taboo on physical closeness during the first week following initiation. A traditional cult mistress has to (p.158) be devoted to her master, who demands sexual exclusivity. This entails the engineering of her own divorce or separation from her husband, which is then attributed to the will of the masters (Constantinides 1985:690). A zar initiate cannot kiss or hug anyone or sleep in the same room with her husband during the week following her reconciliation ceremony, lest this action anger the masters (for a different interpretation of zar marriage, see Boddy 1989).

(25) For example, some of the extinct groups are the ‘afnu, the ‘arussi, and the rongo groups.

(26) Sometimes the Upper Egyptian groups are called Masri (Cairene) because their styles and musicians have been incorporated into Upper Egyptian groups (the reverse is also true).

(27) I once asked for a song that I had only read about, and the musicians said that this particular spirit had died long ago. The spirit in question had no surviving hosts any more to bring it to life in ritual performance.

(28) On the theatrical aspect of zar performance, see Leiris (1958), Seller (1991), and el-Eleimy (1993).

(29) “Ayat al-kursi,” verse 255 from Sura al-baqara (the cow chapter), reads as follows:

  • GOD: There is no God but He,
  • the living, eternal, self-sustaining.
  • Neither does somnolence affect Him nor sleep.
  • To Him belongs all that is in the heaven and the earth;
  • and who can intercede with Him except by His leave?
  • Known to Him is all that is present before men
  • and what is hidden (in time past and future),
  • and not even a little of His knowledge can they grasp
  • except what He will.
  • His seat extends over heavens and the earth,
  • and He tires not protecting them;
  • He alone is all-high and supreme.

(Ali 1992:44)

(30) For example, “O God, your mercy,” “There is no God but Allah, O Loving One, preserve the newborn,” “In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate.”