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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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The Zar Trade: Belonging to Tayfat al-Zar

The Zar Trade: Belonging to Tayfat al-Zar

(p.59) 3 The Zar Trade: Belonging to Tayfat al-Zar

Hager El Hadidi

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the socialization and localization of space and time in the zar ritual complex through elaborate and deliberate practices of performance, representation, and actions. In particular, it shows how zar connectivity builds community within the old quarters of Cairo. The chapter begins with a brief introduction about the relevance of anthropologist Arjun Appadurai's work on the production of locality to zar practices. It then considers historiographical studies of women in Cairo and zar as a remnant of a guild corporation (tayfah). It also explores zar divination practices as passiones by presenting the stories of three diviners as case studies of professional zar activities.

Keywords:   socialization, localization, zar ritual, Cairo, Arjun Appadurai, women, guild corporation, divination, passiones


Although the emergence of zar spirit possession in Egypt during the nineteenth century is associated with African slavery, rapid social change, and the continuous migration of people to and within Egypt, zar is not usually thought of as a transnational phenomenon relevant to global processes. In his book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1996), anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has persuasively linked what he calls “the production of locality” and ritual practices to the cultural challenges posed by globalization.

Appadurai’s concepts of ‘locality’ and ‘neighborhood’ are useful for understanding participation in zar and its relationship to female connectivity and women’s world view. Belonging to a zar network in a particular place lies at the heart of community building. Zar participants and adepts form congregations within and across communities centered on particular hadras and their zar leaders. The relationship between members of any zar cult congregation is characterized by its potential for close-knittedness. For example, a newcomer to a place may be immediately absorbed into local existing social networks of people by attending any zar hadra anywhere in Egypt.

(p.60) According to Appadurai, ‘locality’ is a complex relational and contextual quality which “is constituted by a series of links between the sense of social immediacy, the technologies of interactivity, and the relativity of contexts.” This complex quality expresses itself in a certain kind of agency, sociability, and reproducibility.

‘Neighborhood’ refers to the existing social forms in which ‘locality’ is realized as value. Here ‘neighborhood’ is a situated community characterized by its actual spatial or virtual attributes and its potential for social reproduction (1996:178–79). Appadurai writes: “The long-term reproduction of a neighborhood that is simultaneously practical, valued, and taken-for-granted depends on the seamless interaction of localized spaces and times with local subjects possessed of the local knowledge to reproduce locality” (1996:181).

Appadurai argues that rites of passage such as zar are about the production of local subjects: actors who are members of a situated community of kin, friends, neighbors, or enemies. Ceremonies and rituals are complex social techniques inscribing ‘locality’ onto bodies. They are ways to embody locality and to locate bodies in socially and spatially defined communities.

‘Locality’ is also materially produced. The building of a house, the making and remaking of fields for agricultural purposes, and the celebration of a ritual, among other things, are techniques for the spatial production of locality and are “moments in a general technology (and teleology) of localization” (1996:179–80). Zar rituals socialize space in Cairo and ground the devotees in its landscape by routinely celebrating zar in its river, in its private- and public-inhabited urban space, and in its cemeteries.

Following Appadurai’s insights about the relationship of rituals to ‘locality’ and the latter’s relationship to ‘neighborhood,’ zar can be viewed as a technology of sociability and localization. Zar localizes bodies in time and space. It marks the passing of time and of hard times, and of afflicted bodies in time. Zar also produces a certain type (p.61) of sociability and interconnectivity. Appadurai’s concept of ‘neighborhood’ is a community of interconnected people associated with a particular social space. Zar rites and rituals produce particular subjectivities by localizing and orienting bodies, especially those of women, in space and time. This local subjectivity may be understood as a ‘structure of feeling’ (1996:182) and as a sense of belonging, which is an embodied attachment to particular localities and/or groups of people. This sense of belonging is mobilized, maintained, and modified through time (Lovell 1998:4) and through continued participation in zar ceremonies.

This ‘structure of feeling’ and this ‘sense of belonging’ are an embodied state of being and an orientation in the world, produced by repetitive habitual actions and routine interactions between people in a particular landscape and around a particular cult leader and diviner. One can say that this feeling of belonging is a sense of social connection that is centered on interest in zar and on the relationship to a particular zar leader and the gathering of people around him or her.

A stranger, afflicted, lonely, or alienated, a person who comes to a particular zar gathering for the first time, is taken in by the group. Countless women arrive at a hadra as strangers, but leave having told their story and having received empathy and support. A zar hadra is one of the public arenas available to women to participate in a social network beyond kin and neighbors.

The next three chapters are about the socialization and the localization of space and time in the zar ritual through complex and deliberate practices of ritual performance, representation, and actions. Throughout these chapters, the ways that zar rituals and knowledge localize duration and extension will be discussed. Zar ritual complex gives this duration and extension names and properties, values and meanings, and symptoms and legibility (Appadurai 1996:110) by enacting meaning that is already shared within situated communities (Rappaport 1999). These chapters focus on the different ways by (p.62) which zar rituals socialize certain places and, in the process, ground initiates into the landscape of Cairo. In any given moment of crisis in a person’s life, this zar symbolic structure provides an arena for female connectivity and facilitates the building of communal and economic networks among participants, clients, and professionals and their respective communities. These networks consist of people who share different interests in zar. They are found within the old quarters of Cairo, around cult leaders, and in weekly hadras. They are also cultivated among zar musicians and other zar professionals such as the silversmiths and goldsmiths, the local butchers, and incense and candle specialists.

Historiographical Studies of Women in Cairo

Despite the fact that women played an active role in urban society in the nineteenth century (Cole 1993; Tucker 1985), until this present work, very few scholars have focused on the nature and the organization of zar as a key to understanding women’s everyday political and social role in Cairo. The focus on women in Middle Eastern studies is a very recent development and is a response to feminist pressure in the academy (Nelson 1991; Kandiyoti 1996). Only a handful of scholars have done research on women in Cairo (see, for example, among anthropologists, El Messiri-Nadim 1975; Rugh 1979; Bowen & Early 2002; Wikan 1980; 1996 and among historians, Tucker 1985; El-Sayed-Marsot 1995). Few have focused on women’s everyday politics and networks (Singerman 1994; Hoodfar 1997), and none have reached the sophisticated level of analysis with which Abu-Lughod treats women’s everyday politics and expressive culture among the Awlad Ali Bedouins in northern Egypt (1986).

The present chapter is about the ways in which zar musicians and their leaders, as well as the initiates who learn to use zar knowledge for divination purposes, view themselves as a community and as a tayfah (a guild corporation). For zar symbolic and ritual structure to be (p.63) understood on its own terms, it needs to be analyzed within its own environmental, social, and historical contexts and conditions. Zar initiations and their progressive phases reflect stages in zar knowledge acquisition very similar to the professional stages used in the guild corporation’s apprenticeships in Egypt. The culmination of zar guild initiations produces professional diviners who in turn serve the interest of the group. Professional diviners recruit new potential initiates. As graduates of zar, the diviners help expand the social and economic sphere of zar. It is through continuous zar initiations that zar ‘locality’ is produced and inscribed on bodies, and the sense of belonging to a zar is realized as value (Appadurai 1996; Lovell 1998). Participating in zar rituals over time, adopting their world view, and accumulating their knowledge facilitates the orientation of people in Cairo as zar grounds them in its time and its space.

By examining the ethnohistory of zar in Cairo and the stages and complexities of its rituals, this study demonstrates that zar cults have constituted a female guild corporation (tayfah) as far as memory can be traced. Such female guild associations have apprenticed zar initiates since the nineteenth century, and perhaps earlier, so that the initiates may be gradually incorporated into a group of professional diviners and soothsayers (Baer 1964). Today this organizational structure and its associated guild lore, while not whole or intact, still survives in many ways as it trains some of its long-term initiates to become healers and diviners (El Hadidi 1997).

Zar as a Guild Corporation

Zar musicians and ritual specialists view themselves as a community. As a group, they refer to themselves as tayfat al-zar and their craft as a kar (work). Tayfat al-zar is a guild-like professional organization and a remnant of the way professional associations and religious orders were organized in Cairo until the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. Professional guilds had special (p.64) initiation ceremonies to elect their leaders and honor their patron saints. Zar musicians and diviners are a close-knit group of men and women with a particular hierarchy organized around zar work. They have different roles and responsibilities. At the top of the tayfat al-zar hierarchy are sheikhs, sangaks, kodyas or ritual leaders, and their assistants. These are ritual specialists who have undergone the initiation trajectory of zar and have been chosen by their spirits to become zar healers and diviners. They sell their services as masters of ceremony, oversee the initiations of other zar devotees, organize contracts with musicians, perform the necessary rituals, and are sought for divination purposes. The hierarchy of the tayfah also includes musical bandleaders (rayes/rayesa, sing.; royassa, plural) and workers (shaghaleen).

The musicians are organized mostly by gender into musical bands, each of which used to specialize in the performance of a distinct style of zar music. As mentioned before, today there are only three types of zar bands in Cairo: the Upper Egyptian, the Tambura or Sudani, and the Gheitaniya.

The Upper Egyptian (Sa‘idi) is usually an all-woman band that sings in a distinctive style. The band consists of a lead singer (rayesa) and three to five musicians who also act as a chorus. There is only one darabuka or tabla (doumbek drum) player, whereas the rest of the band members, including the lead singer, play the daf (frame drum). There are also a few male lead singers who have formed Upper Egyptian bands with the help of one or two female chorus singers.

The Tambura band is of mixed gender and is led by a sangak (leader) who plays the tambura (a large, five-stringed African lyre) and is assisted by two women drummers and one or two percussionist-dancers, who are usually males. The patron saint of the Tambura bands is Sidi Bilal, the African companion of the Prophet and the first muezzin in Islam.

The Gheitaniya, the followers of the saint Hassan Abul Gheit, form all-male bands. In the last fifty years there have been new trends (p.65) affecting this traditional typology due to the limited number of female musicians; some cannot find sufficient members to form a band and therefore join male bands.

In 2005, with the help of Sheikha Karima, Anhar’s daughter and heir, we counted around two hundred zar musicians in Cairo and its vicinity. Many musicians, particularly women, were already retired due to old age or because they had lost their band leaders or their sheikhs. There were only around fifteen female musicians still practicing, and approximately 180 men, who are mostly Gheitaniya musicians and singers and Tambura musicians and dancers.

Tayfat al-zar is not an endogamous community, but they do have a high rate of intermarriage. While the career of a zar musician begins with an apprenticeship at a very young age and is mostly inherited from parents or close relatives, the career of a leader (sheikh/sheikha) depends on the person’s degree of involvement with zar and his or her life circumstances.

Members of this community know each other by name, have common work-related memories, and often have reciprocal ritual exchanges and obligations during marriages, birthings, funerals, and sickness. They share a special linguistic code, or seem, that enables them to communicate among themselves without being understood by their customers. For example, the seem code word werish, ‘a novice,’ is used to indicate the ignorance of the ways of zar displayed by a person attending a zar performance. This would require special attention on the part of the musician toward the novice. The purpose of this special treatment is to secure the novice’s attention and interest to the dance arena. In such a case, the musicians intentionally play very alluring beats or rhythms until the novice’s resistance breaks down and he or she joins the dance floor. Another important word is ameh, which means ‘give it up’ or ‘let it slide.’ It is mostly used with reference to giving up contentious issues in order to avoid conflict between the tayfah and their customers, especially during (p.66) performance. This particular code (seem) is also used by members of what is left of the guild of pickpockets.

Historical Roots of Zar and Guild Incorporation Rituals

Many of the zar musicians are of black slave descent, not only in Egypt but all over the Middle East (see, for example, al-Tayash 1988; Moamar 1988; Elyas 1977; Safa 1988). Tremearne (1914) observed some of these black slave associations at work in Libya in the early twentieth century. These were bori (a Hausa and North African variant of spirit possession) musicians and devotees who provided shelter and employment to newcomers, former slaves, and their descendants, many of whom had experienced slavery in their lifetime. Tremearne’s main informants had been traveling between Egypt and North Africa or Hausaland in Nigeria, working as bori musicians.

Members of the tayfah and some of the older devotees remember the existence of certain spirit houses in the Madina (the Gamaliya and al-Darb al-Ahmar neighborhoods) run by former slave women. In one such case, the house was named after the spirit Yawra (Beit Yawra). Yawra is the most popular zar spirit in Cairo. The spirit is a representation of an Ottoman officer dressed in full officer regalia and a red fez. Yawra seduces young girls and prevents them from marrying.

Slavery and slave associations

Zar and other spirit-possession activities in the Nile Valley and North Africa have continued to provide a focus and a rationale for various groups to associate for different purposes at different times. Black slaves and their descendants (Tremearne 1914; Natvig 1987; Makris 1996; Paques 1991), women in multiple generations, and gay men (al-Adly 1984) have formed such associations. These include zar musician groups, zar devotional networks within neighborhoods, and zar congregations in hadras since at least the nineteenth century in Cairo (Natvig 1987; 1991).

(p.67) Women formed zar groups parallel to the Sufi brotherhoods and to the guild-like musicians’ associations (turuq or tawa’if), which acted as a buffer for women and black slaves who needed social and economic support before and after the end of slavery in the late nineteenth century.

Spirit-possession associations share some general principles and organizational features with the Egyptian guilds (Baer 1964; Raymond 1974), Sufi organizations (Moriah 1963), and the neighborhood associations of the nineteenth century in which most of the urban population in Egypt participated (Cole 1993; Tucker 1986; Toledano 1990). Only the rituals of incorporation of zar associations (tayfah) have survived into the twenty-first century without being absorbed or fully obliterated by the Egyptian state, as occurred with other nineteenth-century popular guilds (Chalcraft 2004; Ghazaleh 1999). While certain trades still use the word tayfah to refer to their associations—such as those of the building trades or drivers of animal-drawn carts—none to my knowledge have rituals of incorporation. That is not to say that zar has not suffered many blows in the Egyptian state’s attempts to control its population and its associations, or that it has not changed; it has, in fact, gradually decreased in popularity since the nineteenth century. One such attempt was the decree making it illegal to practice zar in Muslim shrines under the influence of the Sufi orders (turuq). This move was part of the state plan for the reorganization and control of popular Islam, and of trade and Sufi guilds (tawa’if), at the end of the nineteenth century (De Jong 1978).

Egyptian guilds according to Baer, and zar as tayfah

Gabriel Baer provides an ideal pattern of the structure of the guilds in the nineteenth century based on the Gotha document dating back to the end of the sixteenth or early seventeenth century (1964:48). Baer argues that, by the nineteenth century, the model he constructed based on his reading of the document had suffered decline. The guild (p.68) structures were no longer intact (1964:57). In the seventeenth century, there were four stages or gates (abwab), expressed in formal ceremonies, for mastering a trade or a craft. However, by the nineteenth century, according to Baer, it seems that these stages had been reduced to only three degrees of qualifications: apprentice, journeyman, and master of the trade.

In zar, there are three stages or types of initiation grades: novices (werish), hosting (diyafa), and finally the girding ceremony (al-hizam), through which the mastery of the zar art of divination is acknowledged by the wider community.

According to Baer, the ritual called iltiham (‘incorporation’), marking the first stage, was no longer practiced in Egypt during the nineteenth century (1964:59). The second stage, called ‘ahd (‘pact’), became the first stage in the nineteenth century. Here the apprentice or the seeker makes a covenant or a contract with his or her teacher, which is sealed by the recitation of the Fatiha (the opening sura of the Qur’an). This rite was sometimes accompanied by a feast (1964:50). In zar, the initiation ceremonies in the first two stages, for novices or for hosting, are referred to by the same name: ‘ahd, or covenant. The agreement between humans and spirits is also sealed by the recitation of the Fatiha. The ceremony, just like the second stage of guild incorporation, is often accompanied by a feast in which sacrificial animals are consumed communally and distributed to the wider community according to Islamic principles: one-third of the sacrificial animal to the person and his group, another third to neighbors and friends (aqraboon, meaning those who are close), and, most importantly, the final third to the needy—the poor, travelers, widows, orphans, and so on.

According to Baer, in the Egyptian guild system prior to the nineteenth century, the third stage of incorporation is when the apprentice becomes a journeyman. Here the candidate formally joins the guild and becomes a full member. This stage of the initiation is called shadd (‘binding’), hizam or tahzim (‘girding’), or ‘aqd (‘contract’). In the (p.69) hizam or shadd ceremony, the waist of the candidate is girded and a certain number of knots are ritually tied and untied. This initiation was also accompanied by a feast and involved the newly declared craftsman ritually offering presents or payment to different members of the guild hierarchy. The candidate must ask the assembly to accept him into the guild (1964:51). In the fourth stage, the guild member is promoted from a journeyman to a master (mu‘allim or usta). This ceremony was called idhn or ijaza, which is a license to practice the craft or trade on one’s own (1964:52).

In zar, the ceremony that licenses the cult member to become a diviner is also called girding (hizam or tahzim). Here the initiand becomes a sheikh or a sheikha (leader). This final stage of the zar trajectory involves an elaborate set of rites that includes the sacrifice and distribution of several animals (mostly sheep) and the public ritual acknowledgment of the ‘mastery’ of the initiand by the group. The initiand is asked to name her principle zar spirits: the ‘master of her head’ and the ‘master of her household.’ She also has to name the slaves of these spirits as a sign of mastering the secret of the zar trade. The tools and symbols of the zar divination trade are anointed with the blood of the sacrificial animals. These include the incense burner, several boxes of incense, and the girdle itself. The initiand offers the zar leader a comforter in the color associated with his or her spirit. Each musician also receives a garment as a gift from the new sheikh or sheikha, signifying patronage.

The Stories of Professional Zar Diviners

Zar divination retains its professional aspects; as we have seen, it still exhibits remnants of the functions of a guild corporation. Zar rituals apprentice the initiates into zar divination or soothsaying. The following case studies were collected during fieldwork in Cairo.32 They are stories of women who became professional diviners by progressing through the zar initiation trajectory. Each has a different market niche. (p.70) The first is the story of Sheikha Suad, who is said to divine for the princes of Saudi Arabia and earns a great deal of money in the process. Consequently, she is able to give gifts to the sheikha and the musicians who initiated her in Egypt. The second story is about Sheikha Karima, who works from her home in the Gamaliya neighborhood in Fatimid Cairo. Sheikha Karima is not connected to any particular zar group; her business interest is with the silversmiths in the jewelry market, which is not far from her home. The third story is that of Umm Muhammad, who divines for people in her neighborhood for a small fee. While she sometimes attended the zar hadra in Abul Saoud, Sheikha al-Garya Son’oh considered her a competitor who stole away customers from the hadra. The common feature in the lives of these three women is that they all overcame serious illness with the help of zar, and they continued in their initiation trajectory until they became zar leaders themselves. They have taken zar interest and apprenticeship a step further by earning a living through zar knowledge.

The story of Sheikha Suad

When I was leaving Cairo in August 1996 to return to the United States, I went to visit Anhar and her daughter Karima, the zar leaders, to bid them farewell. They invited me for lunch. The previous week had been intense. I saw Anhar almost every day, during which she groomed me continuously in the ways of zar. The following conversation was her last lesson, explaining how Suad became a zar professional. Despite the fact that Sheikha Suad has not contacted Anhar or her daughter Karima for the last twelve years, her zar success story is continuously retold among Anhar’s musicians. The retelling of the story is partly to entice other devotees to become zar leaders through the example of Suad’s successful career. The story contains the ideal of giving back to the tayfah because its members are the source of Suad’s success. The dialogue that follows is based on my own translation of the taped transcript of the conversation that took place.

(p.71) Anhar:

  • Sincerity (ikhlas) is what counts. If you see a vision (ru’ya), it has to come true. I have a client whose name is Suad. She was locked up in the asylum. She told them: “Take me to someone called Hagga Anhar. Her face is round and she wears wide earrings.” She was crazy, just out of the asylum, [really] mad. This happened a long time ago. At the time, the contract cost LE7 [then approximately $11]. I have worked since the cheap days when it [the zar] was five piastres [then approximately $0.08].
  • Karima:

  • This happened thirty years ago.
  • A:

  • After that, they [Suad and her sister] told me: “She has just left the asylum and she has only this much [money]. What should we do?” I told them: “I am at her disposal; we will do it [the private zar] anyway.” I did it and she became well. It turns out that she had one [zar master] called Gado that she divines with (betbayyan bi) for the princes.
  • K:

  • The one of the kabaneh (latrine or toilet). [They sing a few lines of Gado’s song.] He is from Nigeria.
  • A:

  • As it turns out, this Gado had made her crazy and had her sent to the asylum. Jado, his name is Jado.33 When he made her crazy, she came out of the asylum and said, “I have seen [through a vision] a sheikha so and so [referring to Anhar].” By the Great three times—she did not know me and I did not know her, just like what happened with you. One day, I found her coming into the hadra—the one I had first in [the neighborhood of] Bab al-Khalq. And this one [Suad] entered. I started singing and singing [the zar song] until Gado. … She stood up, danced into trance (faqaret), and was happy. She ran to the kabaneh (latrine) and danced into trance inside the kabaneh.
  • A:

  • God fixed her situation and she got married. Where do you think she stayed?
  • Author:

  • Where?
  • (p.72) A:

  • In the capital of Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh. She stayed in Riyadh. She married a good man. And then one day, I found her with him, here in my place.
  • Author:

  • Her husband is Saudi?
  • A:

  • Yes. She stayed in [the neighborhood of] Dokki, that is, the period of her stay. And she told me the moment she saw the black billygoat that she wanted in the neighborhood of al-Madbah,34 “Oh, Mother—let’s go and get the stuff [for the zar].” The goat had long soft hair and horns. She asked the man how much it was. He told her it was LE150. She told him, “No, it’s LE200.” I could not say anything lest I interfere in his rizq [sustenance, God’s blessing, or earnings]. We got Fathi [Anhar’s son] and took the billygoat to my house. And after that, we ran to Imbaba [the district of Cairo where the camel market used to be located]. She saw a camel. Because I cared about her [I wanted to save her money], I told her: “This one is pretty. Get this one; it’s small and we’ll be able to get it into my house and you will be able to dance into trance with it (tefaqqari bi).” She said, “No, I want this one.” I don’t know how much it was, around LE300, and she bought it. She said, “Let’s go to al-Madbah to leave the animals in a pen for the night so that they are all together.” Where else would we put them? We’ll have to leave them in an animal pen somewhere else overnight.
  • And after that, we went to get a calf. Again she chose the largest calf—oh, my daughter. She has nobody who comes with her, no relatives, nobody. Her sister—the one who came with her the first time—had died, the poor thing. She attended her second zar, but by the third zar—may it [death] be far away from you—her sister had already died. The important thing is she got the billygoat, the calf, and the camel.
  • Author:

  • All [those sacrificial animals] for one zar evening celebration?
  • (p.73) A:

  • Yes, for one evening. And we went to find a place for the animals. My son was still alive—may God have mercy on him. I asked him to find us a place to keep the animals overnight and see how much [money] they wanted.
  • The important thing, I saw her going out and coming back with a young man called Kamal from Sayyida Zeinab [a neighborhood]. He is related to her somehow. She got the rabbits. There was an empty room in this house, and we put them there overnight. The rabbits had a litter—I don’t know how many. This is kheir [blessing] and this is also rizq. The rabbit of Gado and his wife had a litter.
  • Author:

  • But this way, she had her contract (it‘aqqad laha) with everything [all the masters] at the same time. And the camel! That means that she became a sheikha.
  • K and A:

  • We told you she divines through Gado.
  • K:

  • And you know when she comes back here—prayers to the Prophet, may you become like her, may God pray on for the Prophet.
  • A:

  • This Osman of the zar got a gold ring.
  • K:

  • And the hagga [Anhar] got one gold bullion?
  • A:

  • A watch and a gallabiya [robe] for everyone.
  • Author:

  • This means that she divines!
  • K:

  • And she says this [prosperity] is from the money of the masters.
  • Author:

  • This is from the money of the masters.
  • K:

  • And she says: “Oh, mother, I gave you these gifts because you are the reason for this blessing that came my way.”
  • Author:

  • Why was she in the asylum?
  • K and A:

  • She didn’t know that the zar existed.
  • K:

  • Her relatives had no idea about zar. And you would feel her like a mad person. She used to come to us, like this, crazy. Her state was really a state of madness. She was married. She left her husband and came out of the hospital. And we (p.74) made the zar and she became well again. She now comes [to Egypt] when God drives her.
  • A:

  • O God! [Let her come to Cairo.]
  • Author:

  • How does she bring the musicians to Saudi?
  • K:

  • She officiates at zar sacrifice without music.
  • Author:

  • Without music. I heard that in Saudi there is zar of all sorts. And they get musicians from Morocco and all other countries. And they drum and descend [into trance].
  • K:

  • When Sheikha Suad went to Saudi they told her, “Oh how we wish you had brought al-hagga [Anhar] with you.”
  • Commentary

    The story in this dialogue between Sheikha Anhar, her daughter Karima, and me tells us that thirty years ago, when the zar contract only cost LE7, Suad was married to a well-to-do man. His family owned a prosperous business. When Suad began to show symptoms of possession, her relatives and in-laws who did not know about zar thought she was crazy. They sent her to an asylum for the insane. Both Karima and Anhar insist that she really looked like a crazy person. After spending some time in the asylum, she had a vision of a woman with a round face and large earrings just like Anhar. Suad had never met Anhar, however. In the zar belief system, the fact that she could envision the image of Anhar before actually knowing her is taken as a sign of real possession and sincerity.

    When Suad was released from the asylum, she insisted that her sister, her only living blood relative, help her search for the woman she had seen in her vision. Before performing in the Nabaweya neighborhood, Anhar used to run a hadra in Bab al-Khalq. In this old hadra, Suad finally found the woman in her vision, Anhar. The story implies that nobody told her where to find Anhar; she was just mystically drawn to the hadra. She sat in the zar room with her sister while Anhar was calling different spirits through zar songs. When the song of the (p.75) spirit Gado was played, the previously unidentified master became manifest in her body. She could not control herself and danced into trance in the hadra. Then she danced into trance again in the latrine, Gado’s habitat. The pit of the latrine or the toilet acts as a portal that connects the human world with that of the spirits. Gado, the spirit of the kabaneh (latrine), is also the messenger of the spirits. After the culmination of her trance, Suad became elated and relaxed.

    Karima and Anhar explained that Gado is a spirit from Nigeria. His tune has very pronounced African drumming. Suad’s angry master Gado had made her crazy because he was not acknowledged. Suad had no money because she had just come out of the asylum. Nevertheless, Anhar accepted whatever Suad and her sister gave her to perform her reconciliation with Gado. Once the zar was done, she became well and her life situation improved. She was no longer crazy. She got divorced from her first, Egyptian, husband, and soon married a man from Saudi Arabia. The new husband was good to her. She left to live with him in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

    According to this story, Anhar initiated Suad twice before Suad’s sister died. Thus, by the time of her third initiation, Suad was alone in the world. In this initiation she became a sheikha of zar. Since then, she divines through Gado and sacrifices without music (in silence). Her clients are affluent people from Saudi Arabia.

    A few years later she came back to Cairo with her husband for a short visit. They rented a furnished apartment in a well-to-do part of Cairo. Suad asked Anhar to accompany her so that they could buy the sacrificial animals together. Suad was very generous with the money of the masters that she earned by divining through Gado. She bought gold presents for each member of the zar band, and watches and expensive clothing for everyone. This was a sign of her gratitude to Anhar and her bands, who had identified the ‘master of her head,’ Gado. Suad was so generous with her spirits that she even paid more than the price the trader asked for the black billygoat. She also picked the (p.76) largest camel and the most expensive calf. She spared no expense for the masters. As a sign of the blessedness of her zar path, the sacrificial rabbits for Gado and his wife Meram had a litter of ten. The initiation ceremony was performed in Anhar’s special zar room where the hadra takes place, and all the animals were sacrificed.

    The story of Sheikha Karima of Gamaliya

    In 1992, during the early stages of fieldwork, before I became a client of al-Garya Son’oh in the Abul Saoud neighborhood, I heard a story about a woman named Karima who was possessed by the spirit of a young girl named Azuz. Sheikha Karima was not born into a professional zar family. She became a sheikha through the spirit of her head: Azuz. She could divine for various purposes, making money in the process. People who want to know about their future need help from the occult in making important decisions, or those suffering from suspected spirit possession pay up to LE50 (then $10) per séance for her services. For the possessed, she identifies the possessing masters and guides the neophytes into the ways of the zar. She officiates at the sacrificial rites, sets the special offering table for the spirits, and contracts the musicians and other zar professionals such as the candle makers, seamstresses, fez makers, silversmiths, and goldsmiths.

    Sheikha Karima is well known to many silversmiths because she commissions a lot of silver zar jewelry for herself and for zar clients. In some cases, she is considered a business partner. I was told that some of the items she commissioned cost up to LE10,000 (then $3,310).

    Several times when I mentioned in the Cairo jewelers’ quarter that I was doing an ethnography on zar, Karima’s story was recounted to me over and over, with very little variation. According to the story, Karima is covered from head to toe with silver jewelry: several necklaces, lots of bracelets, anklets, and several earrings. She is diabetic, and her possessing spirit manifested itself after she lost her only child to a traumatic accident when he was seven years old. After the unfortunate (p.77) accident, Karima became sick for a long time. Once Azuz manifested herself and was reconciled through rituals, Karima became a sheikha.

    A few years later I had the chance to meet Sheikha Karima in the silver market. She was indeed covered in silver jewelry; some pieces were traditional zar silver amuletic jewelry with the attached jingles, but most were modern European pieces that are readily available in the silver market, catering to the tastes of both tourists and the local middle- and upper-classes. Karima was wearing a number of bracelets, rings, chains, necklaces, and anklets. This large amount of silver jewelry distinguishes Karima from other women in her neighborhood, who tend to wear all the gold they own. Karima would not talk to me until I paid her a consultation fee. Her spirit Azuz turned out to be Rakousha, the daughter of Yawra. After I paid her LE50 (then $10) for her divination service, Karima started calling her spirit to manifest herself: “Azuz! Come on! Don’t embarrass me! What is taking you so long? Come on! Show yourself.” Then she started speaking in a thin, childlike voice, which I thought was put on. Azuz took full possession of Karima. Now possessed, she took her prayer beads out of her pocket and asked me to whisper to the beads the question that I wanted answered. Then with a pencil in her hand she drew two crossing lines on a piece of paper. Then she wrote the words ‘Muhammad,’ the Prophet of Islam, and ‘Abi Jahl,’ his arch enemy, on each side of the vertical line of the cross. She also wrote ‘Ali’ and ‘Abi Bakr’ on each side of the horizontal line. She used her prayer beads as a pendulum, moving it between the words ‘Muhammad’ and ‘Abi Jahl’ written on the scrap of paper lying on the table. Abi Jahl is the Prophet Muhammad’s symbolic contrast. The opposition between Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, and Abi Bakr, the first caliph in Islam, goes back to a political conflict over the succession after the Prophet’s death. In less than a minute the prayer beads stopped, facing the word ‘Muhammad.’ Karima-Azuz congratulated me and said that my question was answered favorably and that whatever I desired would be realized. In a few seconds, Azuz was gone (p.78) and Karima was speaking in her normal voice. We talked for a while and then she left. I have not seen Karima since then.

    Unlike other diviners I have seen during fieldwork, Karima did not exhibit signs of altered states of consciousness, such as speaking in tongues or facial expressions, associated with trance. She seemed to me to be performing a well-rehearsed act; however, her divination technique was very interesting. The prayer beads stand out as unique, compared to other zar divination techniques such as cards, coffee reading, Qur’anic verses, or interpretation of dreams.

    The Story of Umm Muhammad

    I met Umm Muhammad when I first started attending the hadra of al-Garya Son’oh in the Abul Saoud neighborhood in 1993. She was with her daughter-in-law who was carrying her eight-month-old baby. We soon became acquainted, and she invited me to her home, a humble two-bedroom ground-floor apartment in the Ibn Tulun neighborhood, in Sayyida Zeinab.

    Umm Muhammad was poor and could not afford extravagant zar rituals. When we met, she was forty-eight years old, and had been a widow for ten years. Her husband had been financially comfortable. He had a fleet of taxis and trucks, and for the first years of their marriage, they lived a prosperous life and had four children, three boys and a girl. Then her husband suddenly became very ill and could no longer run his business. Everything he owned was gradually sold to finance the medical care for his illness. After eight years of being bedridden, he died, leaving her penniless and with four children to raise.

    By the time Umm Muhammad and I met, her eldest son had married and was living in a neighboring apartment with his wife and infant. Her other son was serving his three years of army service outside of Cairo and came home occasionally. She had only two children at home. The boy was working in some trade. Her youngest, the daughter, was fifteen and was still in school.

    (p.79) When Umm Muhammad’s husband died, she had to find a way to make ends meet. At the time, she was possessed by five spirit masters, who included Bedouin, Turkish, and North African, as well as local Christian zar spirits. The spirit Salma al-‘Arabiya and her brother al-‘Arabi are Bedouin pastoralists; Rakousha is a young Turkish girl; Abdel Salam al-Asmar is a male North African saint associated with the Qadiriya Sufi order; and al-Deir (‘monastery’) is a group of Christian spirits. Umm Muhammad’s zar spirits helped her a great deal during bad times. They made it possible for her to earn money by telling fortunes through reading coffee cups. Cup reading (irayat al-fingan) is a method of foretelling the future by interpreting the dregs that remain in a cup of coffee after drinking it. The masters were even more helpful when she was diagnosed with diabetes and needed more money to cover the medical bills. She charges LE2 (now approximately $0.50) for a session of coffee reading where she tells her customers about their futures.

    Umm Muhammad had been possessed since she was six. She told me that the first time it happened she was alone in the bathroom.35 She said that because she had been initiated several times through offering sacrifice (mitzaffara),36 she could identify the possessing spirits of her clients through reading the coffee.

    She did not go frequently to the hadras because it was expensive. However, every year at the same time she performed the sacrificial rites for herself, in the privacy of her home, to placate her masters. As an old initiate who had gone through several zar initiations in her life, she knew what she needed to do. She did not need the help of the cult mistress. She had even helped some of her neighbors in identifying their spirits through cup reading.

    Every year, in preparation for her self-initiation, she went to the market to buy the sacrificial animals, items of clothes, and jewelry. When I asked how she identified the demands of the spirit masters, she said: “I feel it when I see something that catches my attention.” She also had dreams of what she had to bring to the ceremony. She (p.80) performed her own sacrifice following the cult with special formulas, and anointed her own body and the zar amulets in the sacrificial blood. She then went to the hadra the next day.

    The Moral of the Stories

    The moral of these three stories is that the ability to practice divination is the reward of sincere, generous, and devoted initiates. The dramatic sicknesses marking the possession narratives of Suad, Karima, and Umm Muhammad can only be appreciated in contrast with their subsequent prosperity37 once they walk through the path (tariq) of zar. Here we see that some devotees go beyond the appeasement of their possession or affliction. Beyond healing, zar brings prosperity and opens the way to the sincere, devoted initiate. For some adepts, it becomes a religious enterprise and an apprenticeship in the art of divination.

    Zar ideology promises any sincere adept the occult ability to see into the future. Because Suad was sincere,38 she could see visions. According to Suad’s story, her first vision identified Anhar, the key to diagnosing possession and a link between the human and the zar spirit world. Anhar, in turn, was able to identify Gado by calling on him through his zar song. These visions are extremely important, because it is through them that an initiate is drawn to her sacrificial animal and her items of clothing and jewelry, as in the case of Umm Muhammad and Suad. These visions are one of the ways in which initiates experience and communicate with their possessing masters. Zar devotees are socialized into listening to the demands of their possessing masters, which are manifested in their own strong feelings, desires, and reactions to the world around them.

    The stories of Suad, Karima, and Umm Muhammad tell us that they have become sheikhas through continuous ritual devotion to their masters. In short, they have become religious entrepreneurs and zar professionals. By initiating a selection of zar devotees into leadership, the cult perpetuates itself beyond the traditional and inherited (p.81) cult leadership. Each sheikha or sheikh acts as an ambassador for zar interests in her or his own community, and in turn brings more work to members of the tayfat al-zar.

    Devotion to Gado and other masters through continuous zar initiations and generosity had made Suad very prosperous. She made a lot of money divining (tebayyan) through Gado for rich Saudi families. Devotion to her zar masters saved Umm Muhammad from destitution, and helped her develop her divinatory ability, allowing her to earn money in the process. This money is considered the masters’ money (felous al-asyad). Felous al-asyad is circulated back into the community or the tayfah (the guild)—the cult professionals, leaders, and musicians—through gifts and more initiations, and into more generous offerings to the spirits and their people.

    As an initiate, I was told that the master would return to me double or triple the amount of money spent for a zar ceremony. Many of the initiates had stories about miraculous return on investment in zar. In one such story, a young woman needed a lot of money to go to Saudi Arabia to buy merchandise to sell door-to-door in Cairo. A zar spirit that she mistook for a real human appeared in her life for a short time. The mysterious being gave her the money she needed, then disappeared. The spirit was wearing an army officer costume, a direct indication that it was Yawra, the young girl’s master spirit. Umm Muhammad, who cannot afford sumptuous zar rituals, instead sacrifices every year without recourse to zar professionals other than herself. In her story, it is the masters, with the help of God, who provide her subsistence.


    Zar cannot be understood by reducing it to the functions it fulfills. When zar is thought of as a healing cult, a parallel to western psychotherapy (Fakhouri 1968; el-Shamy 1972; Kennedy 1978), as a mystical mode of defusing grievances between men and women (Lewis 1967; 1971), or (p.82) as muted counterhegemonic text (Boddy 1989), it is being simplified to fit functional rational models. To perceive zar on its own terms, and the terms by which it is practiced, the views of the participants and the way in which zar is experienced must be taken into account

    Zar above all is a mode of experience and a concept of reality which may fulfill multiple functions. The path of zar provides a technique for empowering and energizing adepts (particularly women) to deal with their lives by learning to listen to and trust their feelings, by drawing upon their intuitive and innate powers of imagination as well as their sensuous experience and knowledge of the world.

    Following Lienhardt (1961) and Kramer (1993), it can be argued that zar is experienced as embodied images of passiones, as in the case of Sheikha Suad’s visions of Anhar even before she met her, or Umm Muhammad’s desires that signify her angry spirits. Passiones are defined by Kramer as “the opposite of actions in relation to human self” (1993:58). Passiones are an embodied touch of the supernatural. Zar provides the sincere adept with an embodied sensuous epistemology and a moral orientation. It is an open, unbounded, holistic way of knowing and being in the world. The rewards of zar spiritual ways come with sincerity and generosity. Zar masters provide their hosts with an immanent taste of the sublime unfolding from imagination. The masters are experienced, not only in symptoms of afflictions, events, spaces, visions, dreams, cravings, and intuitive feelings but also in zar music, trance dance, and passiones.

    Zar experiences are varied and very personal. Each adept experiences her master in her own way and in many ways. Such experiences are drawn from the power of imagination (Wittgenstein 1979:7e). This touch of the sublime, which in zar is recognized as nadha (mystical call), is not experienced as ‘mental images’ but as impressions of passiones.

    The zar nadha is from God and is considered a divine touch. To understand the dimensions of this experience, we need to look at what Wittgenstein wrote about imagination:

    (p.83) This imagination is not like a painted picture or a three-dimensional model, but 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. (1979:7e)

    To make this point clearer, let us first look at the process of zar identification, the key to the healing process. Lienhardt’s insight is very useful in this regard:

    If the diviner is called in to diagnose the grounds of possession or sickness, it is because the patient has not himself been able to dissociate an image as the active subject of his experience from its affective accompaniments—because, from the Dinka point of view, the Power has not spoken and made itself known through the mouth of the man whom it is presumed to have attacked. The diviner’s activity is here significant for an interpretation of the Powers; for it is his professional task to dissociate the grounds of suffering from the sufferer, either by himself going into a trance-like state or by inducing such a state in the sufferer or his kin or both. The diviner, that is, vicariously makes a division in the experience of suffering and suggests or discovers its image, where the patient is not able to do so. (1961:152)

    The cult leader’s professional task is to dissociate an image of the spirit which is causing sickness, through dreams, trance-inducing music, or other means of divination. We have seen how the affliction of Suad was assuaged when Anhar identified Gado. Until Gado made himself known, Suad was considered crazy. Anhar played the zar music that induced Suad’s trance and made Gado manifest himself. In some other cases, the adept is encouraged to dissociate the image of her spirit through her own dreams. Anhar encourages her adepts (p.84) to “feel” or “sense” (tehess) their spirits by taking account of cravings, dreams, and visions.39

    We have also seen how Umm Muhammad “feels” the demands of the masters when she prepares for her yearly ceremony. Anhar said that for a devotee to identify her own spirit or spirits, she ritually exposes herself to incense (tetbakhkhar) with a clear mind (niya safya) and with good intentions (niya salima) before going to sleep. She will know her spirit or spirits in her dreams.

    In the story of Suad, Anhar was able to dissociate the active subject of Suad’s experience, her master Gado, by recalling his song, because Suad and her group were not able to identify him on their own. They did not know that zar existed. To them, Suad was crazy. She was the active subject in her suffering. When Gado is identified, he becomes the active subject of her state of suffering, her madness. Adopting zar as a concept of reality reverses the equation: Gado made Suad crazy.

    Zar healing is based on the ability of the cult mistress to dissociate, directly or indirectly, the image of a master (or several of them) and to socialize the sufferer into experiencing such impressions, first through zar music and songs, and then by means of other ways of the cult that deal with the innate power of imagination, as we have seen.

    The music and songs provide the adept with the means to exteriorize her impression of passiones through trance. When the zar music is played, the adept is moved and experiences her master. In other words, music socializes trance, which is a special state of consciousness stemming from a certain conjunction of emotions and imagination. The adepts know their masters through their mimetic dances, visions, dreams, cravings, and feelings.

    The knowledge that devotees experience in the ways of zar, enhanced through music, is an embodied knowledge and not mere “mental images.” Music is the language that can speak simultaneously to mind and body without division. It is through music that the cult provides each entranced adept with a space in which she can directly (p.85) experience her spirit identity, and enables her to communicate this identity to the outside world by performing mimetic dances for her audience (Rouget 1985:325–26).

    We have seen, in the story of Suad, how the zar cult knowledge socializes adepts into experiencing the sublime through music, dance, and other means of divination. Zar techniques are about learning to experience one’s inner feelings. Zar cult knowledge reestablishes contact with one’s deepest feelings, perhaps even providing integrity and sincerity (ikhlas), opening one’s way (fath al-tariq), and bringing prosperity. Zar experience offers embodied insights into the world which others recognize as valuable, both materially and spiritually. (p.86)


    (32) An earlier version of this discussion appeared in El Hadidi (1997).

    (33) ‘Jado’ is the Saudi pronunciation of Gado.

    (p.159) (34) Al-Madbah is the neighborhood surrounding the old main slaughterhouse for Cairo. Many butchers and urban animal breeders live there. Their dwellings have courtyards and animal pens.

    (35) The kabaneh (latrine) or the toilet is a standard site of possession, and an early childhood incident is part of the standard narrative formula.

    (36) Mitzaffara here means ‘anointed with the blood of a sacrificial animal.’

    (37) Despite the fact that Umm Muhammad was not financially rich, she considered herself prosperous because her children were well and she could manage her life.

    (38) Sincerity is a state of mind and a quality within the individual that goes beyond devotion to a particular master.

    (39) Anhar said that zar cravings are like those of a pregnant woman. In Egypt, the families of pregnant women go out of their way to secure the foods that the women crave. Children born to women whose cravings have not been met are said to have birthmarks representing the food their mothers craved.