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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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Localization of Bodies in Time: Life Cycle and Other Crises

Localization of Bodies in Time: Life Cycle and Other Crises

(p.87) 4 Localization of Bodies in Time: Life Cycle and Other Crises

Hager El Hadidi

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the association between zar possession crises and those that relate to the anxieties around periods of transitions in the life cycle of a person. Symptoms of zar affliction tend to occur during special moments of anxiety surrounding life-cycle transitions. The first episode of possession, or zar ritual crisis, typically occurs prior to marriage, when a woman is still a teenager. The chapter first considers crises related to adolescence, fertility, marriage, pregnancy, birthing, and menopause by using a variety of narratives to present people's varied perceptions and practice for zar. It then links Arjun Appadurai's concept of “locality” to the ways zar orients the devotee's body in time in time and space. It also examines how times of transition—ritual cycle crises—become socialized through zar initiations.

Keywords:   zar possession crises, zar affliction, anxiety, life-cycle transitions, adolescence, pregnancy, locality, zar initiation


This chapter is about zar affliction crises from the point of view of the possessed initiand. Symptoms of zar affliction tend to occur during special moments of anxiety surrounding life-cycle transitions. This chapter discusses zar afflictions that coincide with puberty, marriage, birthing, and menopause, through the stories of women. However, life-cycle events are not the only time that zar possessions occur. In fact, a zar crisis may occur for a variety of reasons; some are very serious and some are trivial.

The stories retold in this chapter are typical and have been selected to show the variation and flexibility that characterize zar rituals. There is a great deal of variation in the ways that each person, under the continuous influence of their situated community, tinkers with zar rites and practices to fit their own social and economic needs. The routine performance of zar rituals results in secondary outcomes: zar deploys a process by which the bodies of the afflicted are localized in time. As we will see in this chapter, times of transition—ritual cycle crises—become socialized through zar initiations. These rites not only bring the person to zar and the social support and network that it provides but they also ground a person in specific times and events (p.88) associated with affliction and healing. Here, the cumulative effect of zar experiences due to a variety of afflictions and the knowledge that comes with overcoming those afflictions gives the passing of time concrete names and values. These zar experiences name these durations and extensions of time and identify their properties. It adds value and meaning to memories of affliction and healing, as well as potential for legibility (Appadurai 1996:110).

The Crises of the Teenage Years

The first episode of possession, or zar ritual crisis, usually occurs before marriage, when a woman is still a teenager. This first encounter with spirits usually occurs in the bathroom. Some people recount that they actually see the spirits; others just scream or faint. Within one’s home, the bathroom is where humans are most vulnerable to spirit attacks, particularly after sunset. The bathroom is the antithesis of sociability and the epitome of pollution. It is sacrilegious to eat or recite the Qur’an in the bathroom because of its perpetual state of ritual pollution. In both rural and urban Egypt, Muslims advise each other to recite the following religious formula before stepping into the toilet, particularly after sunset, for protection from the dangers one may encounter: “I implore God to protect me against malice (khubs) and ugliness (khabatha).” One can imagine the difficulty of following such advice every time one needs to enter a latrine or a bathroom. One even wonders, if the formula is so effective, why people do not use it all the time to protect themselves against possession.

Spirits and the ritualization of latrines

The names of the spirits are not typically identified by the young teenager in the first episode of possession. The identity of the spirit or spirits in question requires ritual identification by zar diviners and knowledgeable initiates. The young teenager is usually encouraged to communicate with her spirits in dreams, followed by a visit to a (p.89) goldsmith or a silversmith who specializes in zar amulets. There the possessed person’s state of mind changes in response to seeing the specific zar jewelry required by her spirits for reconciliation. This reaction confirms what the possessed girl has already seen in her dreams: the particular amulets, the color of the required clothing, and the foods associated with the spirit.

Almost all the first episodes that I collected included possession by the spirit of the latrine, Gado, or the Ottoman officer Yawra. Gado is a Nigerian slave spirit that resides in the pit of the kabaneh or the latrine. The pit acts as a portal connecting the spirit who inhabits the earth and the human world. Gado is the slave of the spirits (‘abd al-asyad) and the messenger between the human world and that of the zar spirits. He and his consort Meram or Maryouma dress in light brown, hooded jute costumes inspired by the Moroccan burnoose. Their paraphernalia used to include a bucket and a broom specially decorated with pieces of jute cloth and silver jingling bells. Gado and Maryouma’s main afflictions are infertility and madness (see the story of Suad in chapter 3). They get angry when hot water is thrown into the pit of the toilet after sunset or when drops of menstrual blood or hymen blood fall into it.

Special ritual attention is given to Gado and his consort during zar ceremonies. During the zar rituals dedicated to their placation, the bathroom is transformed into a ritual space through the use of incense, candles, and other offerings. It is closed off from everyday use for a few hours. Those placating Gado may dance into trance in the bathroom quite often on their elbows and knees. A light brown candle is lit and a black rabbit is sacrificed. Drops of the sacrificial blood are poured into the pit of the latrine or the toilet and left for a time. Sweet candies are thrown on the floor and a few are dropped into the pit as an offering to Gado. Nobody may use the bathroom until the end of the ritual. The rite dedicated to Gado and his consort ends when the initiand urinates and flushes the toilet.

(p.90) At this early stage of the novice’s involvement with zar, she generally lacks control over her trance possession. This stage of uncontrolled possession is expressed in fits, fainting, and screaming. These symptoms fade away as she (or he) engages in zar rituals and gradually and experientially learns to control her/his possession trance. The following case study describes the experience of Umm Ashour. Her first episode of possession, which is discussed below, took place in the bathroom and is typical of many zar devotees.

The story of Umm Ashour

Umm Ashour is a loud, energetic, and gregarious widow. When we first met, she was in her early sixties. She had owned and operated many prosperous family businesses throughout her life. She has been married twice and has seven children—all married—and numerous grandchildren. Umm Ashour has a lot of spirit and charm. Moral and wise, she is a fabulous storyteller with a great sense of humor. Her moral ammunition is informed by an extensive repertoire of proverbs, which she learned from her mother. She is a pious Muslim, a Sufi, and a zar devotee. She prays five times a day, fasts in Ramadan, gives alms to the poor, and has been on the Hajj twice.

She was born in al-Madbah, one of the butchers’ neighborhoods in Cairo. Her parents and many members of her extended family were butchers. Her father died when she was young, and her mother sold entrails at the market to support her four children. At the age of twelve, she moved out of her family’s home in al-Madbah to al-Zarayeb to live with her first husband, Abu Ashour. Soon thereafter, she conceived her first son, Ashour. Thus her name and status changed from Sa‘adiya Dahab to Umm Ashour (‘mother of Ashour’). With her first husband she had four children: Ashour, Nimaa, Kawthar, and a girl who died in an accidental fire at age fourteen. Umm Ashour’s marriage with Abu Ashour did not work out and they divorced amicably. They remained on friendly terms until he died a few years ago.

(p.91) Her eldest son, Ashour, has not talked to her in years. Umm Ashour explains that her son’s wife commissioned a sorcerer to separate them. This estrangement between mother and son is the result of a potent work of sorcery that Umm Ashour had witnessed in the sorcerer’s home in the Mamluk cemetery, east of Cairo. Umm Ashour discovered this because Abu Ashour’s second wife confessed, feeling grateful after she and Abu Ashour were taken in by Umm Ashour for a few months after their house collapsed. Abu Ashour’s second wife had previously taken Ashour’s wife to the sorcerer and now, feeling remorse, she took Umm Ashour to see for herself. Umm Ashour describes this complex work of sorcery as consisting of two parts. The first part is a bundle containing bones from dead bodies, which are buried in a tomb. The second part consists of a piece of cloth tied to a tree in the same graveyard. This latter is of the most evil kind because every time the wind blows, the potency of the hex is renewed. The sorcerer asked for a fee to undo his work, but Umm Ashour refused and told him that his act was evil, and that she would not participate in it. This is because the person who gets paid to undo sorcery can very well be paid double to reinstall the sorcery. He has no principles or morals except to follow the highest bidder, according to Umm Ashour.

Nimaa, her second child, who lives in the same neighborhood, is divorced and has one daughter. Nimaa’s sister, Kawthar, is living with her Saudi husband in Riyadh. She has two teenage sons and a younger daughter. Kawthar is the most prosperous of Umm Ashour’s children. She lavishes her mother with expensive gifts of gold and pays some of her considerable medical expenses. She and her family own an apartment in a middle-class neighborhood in Cairo that they occupy during holidays and school vacations.

With Attallah, her second husband, Umm Ashour had three children: two boys, Sayed and Ossama, and a girl, Azza. Sayed is a truck driver and does not talk to his mother either. He accuses her of injustice with regard to his inheritance, because she recently gave the coffee (p.92) house and the soda shop that she owned to his younger brother Ossama. Umm Ashour does not consider herself unjust because she had already spent more than LE40,000 ($9,500), her life savings, to get Sayed out of jail when he was accused of running over and killing somebody in a car accident. Azza is married to a butcher, has one daughter, and lives in another neighborhood. She spends a great deal of time visiting her mother. Umm Ashour’s youngest son, Ossama, is twenty-five years old. He, his wife, and their two children live with Umm Ashour.

Umm Ashour and Attallah had owned and run businesses together since they got married forty years ago. They tried different business ventures, such as a restaurant and a sandwich store, but they settled on a coffee house and a soda dispensary. Umm Ashour used to work in this exclusively male coffee house every day until after midnight. Once she even miscarried because she was hit while trying to stop a fight in the coffee shop. A few months after Attallah’s death nine years before we met in 1996, Umm Ashour’s arthritis condition worsened; she had great difficulty moving and suffered a lot of pain in her legs. She decided to retire and turn over both businesses to her youngest son.

Umm Ashour’s first encounter with zar possession

The recollections of Umm Ashour’s first encounter with possession and of her early stages of ritual zar placation are typical among zar novices. Umm Ashour is now almost paralyzed from the waist down and housebound. In her last zar in 1996, she realized that she could no longer participate because of her illness and its effect on her mobility. Consequently, she sold her zar amulets and gave away her zar costumes. Today her only relationship with zar is through reminiscing and storytelling, mostly when I or other zar friends visit her. The events referred to in the following transcribed recollections occurred more than sixty years ago (in the late 1930s and early 1940s) and were a response to my probe: Tell me about your first zar; when was it and why did it take place?

(p.93) Umm Ashour told me:

This was before I turned twelve; I had not menstruated yet, before I got married. I was still a girl. My mother had a contract in silence (‘al-sakt) for me [a type of zar contract] and [ritually] disposed of my stuff in the Nile [leftover sacrificial skulls and other offerings such as henna, silver coins, candles, bread, and yogurt or rice pudding]. When they [zar spirits] had just newly possessed me, I used to faint (atrimi) and have fits (batshannig).

And that was that. I then put on weight, became prettier, and got married.

I had gone into the bathroom and I screamed. This is the cause—the original cause. So I became possessed (itlabast). I came out with my arms and legs twisted (ma‘wuga).

In our old neighborhood, al-Madbah, we had zar professionals close by, not like here. They were a few seconds away. There was a woman [zar sheikha] who used to drum the zar every Monday during the day. The zar beat was old style—not like these days.

The sheikha was a black woman. She lived only a block away in the same alley. My mother went to her and got her to come immediately when my arms were twisted. The zar mistress immediately burned some incense and conducted the incense rite for me (mebakhkharani), and she started speaking the language of zar (ratanet). She told my mother: “You have to do a contract for her. She got possessed in the toilet (di malbousa fi-l-kabaneh).” She officiated at the ritual incense and did what was necessary. And then I had a vision in my dream (helmt bi-illi shuftuh).

The next day the sheikha asked [my mother] if I saw something in my dream. My mother replied that indeed I saw a vision but that I said, “Take me to Sayyida Zeinab neighborhood and I will get my stuff [Meaning: Take me to the goldsmith and I will identify the amulets that I saw in my vision].”

(p.94) Lo and behold, we used to have lots of goldsmiths in the Sayyida neighborhood before they demolished the old streets. There was a Christian woman who had a goldsmith shop. The moment I entered the store—my mother was already there, commissioning bracelets and other stuff—I found my stuff [the gold and silver amulets she saw in her vision] and I screamed.

The goldsmith told my mother: “Buy them for her.” My mother bought me the master and mistress [amulets] and a fish, and silver, and everything that I foresaw in my dream. She also bought me the [sacrificial] birds. Within the week she set a kursi [offering table] with hazelnuts, almonds, and walnuts, as well as birds, all the birds [sacrificial birds such as chickens, ducks, turkeys, and pigeons]. She also had the seventh-day celebration. Then I stopped having fits and gained weight and got married. I had no problems for a while. That is because the mistress [the zar spirit] was wearing my gold bangles, my ankle bracelets, and my rings.

Hindrance to marriage: The story of Rasha

Rasha is a very pretty girl in her late teens with fair skin, blue eyes, and dyed platinum blond hair. Rasha’s aunt Shadiya brought her to Karima’s hadra to see whether the family’s suspicions about Rasha’s possession were true. Shadiya, her two sisters, and her eldest brother are all zar adepts. They took after their mother, who has undergone many initiations. They are very proud to tell you that their mother sacrificed a camel in her hezam ceremony when she became a zar sheikha, the highest grade in the zar initiation trajectory.

Rasha’s marriage arrangements failed twice without rational explanation. In the family’s opinion, Rasha is good-looking, comes from a well-to-do and well-respected family, is an excellent cook, and knows how to manage a household well. The two suitors were well-to-do and from the neighborhood. They both canceled their engagements without reasonable explanations.

(p.95) According to the logic of zar possession, when these kinds of unexplained events take place, it is because Yawra, the Turkish officer and dandy spirit, is jealous and doesn’t want the object of his desire—in this case, Rasha—to get married. Other symptoms that point to possession by Yawra could be nightmares, fear of the dark, anxiety, and bed-wetting.

Young, marriageable girls are advised not to use a lot of makeup or look at themselves in the mirror very often, so as not to encourage Yawra to fall in love with them and possess them. Many unmarried girls who already practice zar have had manifested episodes of possession by Yawra, or his daughter Rakousha, or both (see also chapter 6).

Neither of Rasha’s parents knows very much about zar, while the other members of the family—Shadiya’s two sisters and her eldest brother, the zar initiates—do not attend the hadra. The two sisters are old and housebound; they hardly go out at all. The brother, on the other hand, would like to maintain his zar involvement out of the public eye, particularly in his own neighborhood, because it might negatively affect his public image. After all, I was told by Shadiya that it is shameful for a man of stature to be a zar initiate. Whenever he had the urge to attend the hadra, he either came very late at night to Anhar’s hadra or went to another faraway gathering in a different neighborhood where he was not recognizable.

When Rasha came to Karima’s hadra with her aunt and mother, she at first sat quietly next to them for a while, listening to different songs calling various spirits. The Upper Egyptians and the Tambura musicians played, one after the other. This was the first time that Rasha had attended a zar hadra. However, that does not mean that she had never heard zar tunes before or was not familiar with some spirit names. Children in the heart of Cairo attend their neighborhood’s zars from an early age, which helps them build vague notions about zar.

(p.96) When the Gheitaniya started playing the tune of Yawra, Rasha was strongly affected. At first her mood changed in response to the calling of Yawra through song. Her aunt Shadiya encouraged her to descend to the dance floor (midan). Rasha could not resist the music. She danced following the teaching gestures of the group leader; but soon, because it was her first time, she started screaming hysterically and then fell on the floor, almost fainting. All these reactions definitely confirmed her possession by the spirit Yawra.

Now that the fact of her possession was no longer in question, confirmed by her reaction to zar songs, her aunt Shadiya wanted Sheikha Karima to identify Rasha’s atar (trace) in order to determine what needed to be ritually done to appease the spirits of Yawra and Rakousha and to discover the identity of other spirits that might be possessing Rasha. Sheikha Karima took a handkerchief from Rasha to determine the atar (zar divination), and continued monitoring her response to the different zar songs. Rasha also reacted to tunes of Rakousha and the Christian spirits.

Because Rasha is only twenty years of age and is still single, she cannot have her own public zar ceremony with music. In the Batniya neighborhood, it is considered inappropriate for unmarried women to hold a public zar celebration. Girls in the neighborhood usually undergo an initiation called ‘al-sakt (‘without music’), in which animals corresponding to the possessing spirits are ritually sacrificed by an officiating sheikh or sheikha. The body of the initiate is anointed with sacrificial blood and then, if they have already experienced a zar trance in response to music, they join the hadra afterwards. Girls who have never experienced a musical trance do not need to attend the hadra; their relationship to the cult is through the cult sheikh or sheikha only.

From the moment zar possession was identified, it took approximately four years of family deliberation for Rasha to have her first zar initiation. Until then, she was still single, with marriage arrangements always failing because of Yawra’s jealousy. Six months after (p.97) the placation of Yawra in ritual through a sumptuous zar celebration, she was married to a young man from the neighborhood. When she moved to her new house with her husband, Sheikha Karima was invited to conduct the rite of the ‘doorman’s rooster’ (deek al-bawwab) to appease the spirits inhabiting her new apartment. A red rooster is ritually slaughtered and the threshold of the apartment is anointed with the sacrificial blood. The sacrificed rooster is not consumed by members of the family, but has to be given away to the doorman of the apartment building or to somebody who may act in his role (for instance, a neighborhood watchman).

Pregnancy and Birthing

Another zar ritual that coincides with anxieties about an important life-cycle event for women concerns childbirth. Here the unborn child, while still in the womb, is incorporated into the zar community to ensure the protection of God, the prophets, the saints, and the spirits. The following narrative is based on a transcription of a taped conversation between Umm Ashour and the author. Here, Umm Ashour recounts the initiation of her first child when she was seven months pregnant. Unlike Rasha’s rooster sacrifice when she moved to her new home, whose purpose was to protect Rasha, Umm Ashour’s second initiation was to protect her baby.

Umm Ashour’s pregnancy

As recounted earlier in this chapter, Umm Ashour’s first zar placation ceremony was a few months before her marriage. Within the first year of her marriage, at thirteen years of age, Umm Ashour became pregnant. Members of her situated community advised her to hold a protective zar ritual for the baby before it was born. Umm Ashour recounts:

When I married the father of my children, I soon became pregnant. They told me that I had to have a contract for the baby. A (p.98) change of baby clothing, the baby’s cover, and the diaper were all anointed with a drop of blood from the sacrificial birds before I gave birth. The baby was still in my belly; I was seven months pregnant. I was anointed with [the blood of] only two pairs of pigeons for the dastour [zar]: a white pair and a red pair. The change of clothes for the baby, the cover, and the cloth diaper were anointed with blood in silence. Imagine! There are people who descend in response to drums in the seventh month of pregnancy. After that I began to have zar habitually every year.

Getting pregnant: The story of Hagga Umm Ossama

I have known Umm Ossama since 1981 as one of the co-owners of a well-known silversmith’s store in the jewelers’ quarter in Cairo. When I first knew her, she was married to her cousin, and worked side by side with him in their family business. She had four children and is now a grandmother. When I started becoming interested in zar amulets, I spent a lot of time in her family store and we became well acquainted.

Now Umm Ossama is over seventy years old and a widow. She has been on the pilgrimage to Mecca and people call her hagga (‘pilgrim’). Her piety has earned her a great deal of respect in the silver market among clients, dealers, and craftsmen alike.

After her husband died in the earthquake that hit Cairo in 1992, Umm Ossama and her two sons, Ossama and Abd al-Aziz, ran the well-established silversmith store together. Each one of them runs a separate side of the business. Now she is the only one left in the family who knows about zar. The family business still keeps a foot in both the traditional and the tourist markets. It is one of the few silversmith shops in the jewelers’ quarter in Cairo that still cater to zar clients.

Despite meager returns compared to other aspects of the business, Umm Ossama makes sure that zar amulets are salvaged from the piles of junk silver for her clients. She maintains this side of the (p.99) business by placing new orders with specialized craftsmen. Because of her knowledge about zar, many clients come to her for advice. Once I witnessed a very intense possession episode in the store, during which the possessed woman spoke in tongues as a response to seeing the amulets that her spirits required. Unlike Umm Ashour, this client was not a novice; the possession episode was very elaborate and lasted for at least fifteen minutes. Everybody in the two-story shop froze in place until the woman left the store.

Umm Ossama’s sons knew I was studying zar. They told me that she was once a zar devotee and arranged my visit to their mother’s house for tea one afternoon in 1993, as the demands of the business made it impossible to have a peaceful conversation in the shop. One of her sons and two other guests were also present during the visit. She told me that she had stopped practicing zar by the time she went on the pilgrimage in Mecca with her husband in the 1980s. I asked her about her experience with zar. She told me that she was first married in the late 1950s. When she did not become pregnant during the first two years of her marriage, her mother-in-law and aunt suspected zar possession.

In preparation for her private zar ceremony, gold and silver jewelry, clothing, and sacrificial birds were bought to fulfill the demands of the masters. The jewelry included two silver anklets with bells, two silver bracelets, a gold-framed red heart pendant, Sudanese black and white glass set in a gold amulet for the forehead, and an amulet for Sitt Safina (the mistress of the sea). They made a big night of it and brought three bands: Sa‘idi, Tambura, and Abul Gheit. She said she was young and looked like a bride on her wedding night. The zar reconciliation worked, because soon afterward she became pregnant with her first son and never had any more zar problems.

Menopause: The Grand Lady

One of the most important zar rituals is dedicated to the Old or Grand Lady. The Grand Lady (al-sitt al-kebira) afflicts her victims (p.100) with symptoms of aging, usually when they are in their forties. In the following transcription, Umm Ashour had already been initiated into the cult of the Grand Lady. She recounts how the Lady (al-sitt) punished her because she did not follow what the spirits wanted. The spirits had ordered her to become a zar diviner and sheikha and run a weekly hadra, after years of having annual zar celebrations with music and hosting ceremonies. Umm Ashour even bought an incense burner for that purpose and was contemplating following the Grand Lady’s demands. But the pressure of running her household and business made her decide against going through with the girding ceremony to become a zar diviner and healer. The Grand Lady then punished Umm Ashour by making her blind for nine months. She was healed only when she celebrated with a zar night for the Grand Lady. Umm Ashour told me:

Every year I held a zar ceremony and I sacrificed. By the Prophet, they [the spirits] asked me to do the girding ceremony (athazzim). They asked me to divine for others and do a hadra. When I did not follow their commands, al-sitt al-kebira hit me in the eye and I went nine whole months without opening or closing my eyes. So I did an evening of zar. I got some tripe and innards—they [the spirits] love innards and tripe—lots of fish, and a live goose. I had a wonderful celebration from sunset to dawn, and I had the seventh-day celebration on the Nile.

The zar of the Grand Lady

Zar al-sitt al-kebira literally means ‘the ritual celebration of the old woman or lady.’ It is different from any other ritual within the zar ritual complex practiced in Cairo. The rituals associated with the Grand Lady exhibit many influences that originate in the Hausa bori spirit-possession cult of Nigeria, whereas other zar rituals show similarities to the Abyssinian zar spirit possession (Littman 1951).

(p.101) The beginning of the reconciliation rites placating the Grand Lady are performed between midnight and dawn in a single night. The beginning of zar rituals, on the other hand, is usually performed in an evening and the following day. Both rituals are followed by a period of seclusion ending with the seventh-day celebration. To end her seclusion, Umm Ashour celebrated the seventh-day ritual in a boat on the Nile, in a ceremony called zar al-bahr (‘the river zar’). She usually offered fish and a goose to the spirits of the river (muluk al-bahr).

Quite often the sacrificial rite for the spirit Gado, the spirit of the latrine, and his family, or the rite for the spirit of the doorman, is also performed along with the rites of the Grand Lady. In a zar hosting ceremony, the second phase of zar rituals lasts for three days and nights. When the initiand of a hosting ceremony is possessed by a member of the Grand Lady’s pantheon, the first of these nights is then dedicated to the Grand Lady rituals. This first night usually starts very late and has very few guests. The Grand Lady’s zar path is said to be hard and full of pain.

The Grand Lady, or the Habouba (‘grandmother’ in Sudanese Arabic), as she is sometimes called, is the chief zar spirit in a separate pantheon. Some members of this pantheon overlap with the Upper Egyptian pantheon or the Tambura pantheon. The pantheon of the Grand Lady consists of seven old women and seven pashas (‘pasha’ is an Ottoman aristocratic title) or masters. The spirits of the seven old women are exclusive members of the Grand Lady’s pantheon, whereas the pashas are also members of the Tambura pantheons and are placated through song by the current Upper Egyptian all-women bands.

The Old Ladies are six old black women from sub-Saharan Africa: Arzuki, Shurumbella, Rora, Dawa Baba Kiri, Magaziya, and the Lady Inmatan Yaro. The seventh old woman is white and is named Folla. These spirits are all manifestations of the Grand Lady. In conversation (p.102) about possession, none of them are referred to by name, but only as the Grand Lady. A black goat or chicken is sacrificed for each of the black spirits and a similar white animal for the white Grand Lady.

The spirit pashas are Rumi Nagdi, Hakim Basha, Yawra Bey, Rima Basha, Collita Basha, Welzami Basha, and ‘Okashi Basha. The names of the members of the Grand Lady pantheon differ from one zar leader to the next. Sometimes they even differ from one interview to the next with the same person.

Both Rumi Nagdi and Hakim Basha are members of the lineage of Mamma, the paramount chief of the Upper Egyptian pantheon. White sheep or chickens are offered in sacrifice to each of them and to members of their lineage. Rumi Nagdi is a Turkish dandy warrior from the Najd region in Arabia. His name reflects his ethnic origin: ‘Rumi’ means ‘Turkish’ and ‘Najdi’ means ‘from the Najd region.’ Thus his name may be translated as the ‘Arabian Turk.’

Hakim Basha is a physician who is one of the ministers of Mamma. He wears a tall red fez and a physician’s white coat and carries a stethoscope. The administrative title hakimbashi was also used within Egyptian bureaucracy under the Ottomans to refer to the chief physician in a directorate or governorate (Klunzinger 1878).

Yawra Bey was originally a member of the Sudani tradition. Yawer (‘aide-de-camp’) is a rank in the Egyptian Ottoman army. Yawra is a handsome Turkish officer who is mostly perceived as dark-skinned and who loves women. Yawra wears a red fez, and a red sash (yafa) diagonally across his chest. This outfit emulates the Egyptian military costume of the second half of the nineteenth century.

Other than song recordings, I know very little about the other four pasha spirits—Rima Basha, Collita Basha, Welzami Basha, and ‘Okashi Basha—except that they are all black members of the Egyptian Tambura pantheon. They also appear in the Sudanese zar bori pantheon (Constantinides 1972). For these pasha spirits, black chickens or sheep are sacrificed.

(p.103) The logic that provokes possession within all cults of the zar ritual complex, including that of the Grand Lady, is the same: humans unintentionally provoke the wrath of the zar spirits. Humans may accidentally step on spirits or pour hot water in their way because they are not visible. Humans may be disrespectful to spirits by mocking the possession of a person. In such a case the offended spirit retaliates by afflicting the mocker with possession by the same spirit. Humans may also mistreat animals, such as a cat or a dog, that are spirit familiars, who then punish humans with possession.

Every zar spirit afflicts his human victim with a variety of symptoms, which differ from one spirit to another. The Grand Lady’s rage shows on the bodies of the possessed as physical symptoms associated with old age. Messages of her dissatisfaction with her human victims show in their dreams and nightmares. The punishments of the Grand Lady reflect her own attributes: blindness, generalized pains and aching bones, arthritis, and paralysis, among others.

When the Grand Lady commanded Umm Ashour to become a zar diviner, and she did not follow the spirit command, she was punished by problems in her eyes. Until Umm Ashour was able to gather the finances necessary for a reconciliation ceremony, she remained blind.

Unlike other rites within the zar ritual complex—where a zar spirit takes hold of a devotee’s body when called through ritual songs—in the Grand Lady’s zar any member of her pantheon may only possess a ritual specialist called a kodya.

The kodya of the Grand Lady

A kodya is a female specialist within the zar ritual complex. Her job is to embody any member of the Grand Lady’s spirit pantheon during rituals. Not every zar sheikh or sheikha is a kodya. Sheikha Anhar was a kodya whose Grand Lady spirit is Fulla, the only white Grand Lady. On the other hand, her daughter Karima is only a sheikha, who can oversee and conduct the rituals of the Grand Lady but not (p.104) host or receive the spirits of her pantheon. The word kodya has been used by outsiders, including scholars, to refer to any zar sheikha. This misconception has been continuously propagated by the popular Egyptian press since the beginning of the twentieth century. This is not only because journalists write from an outsider’s perspective but also because zar leaders participate in this construction and go along with outsiders’ expectations, as I have witnessed during my fieldwork.

However, within the cult, only a woman who has been afflicted by a member of the Grand Lady’s pantheon and has been healed through several initiation rituals and offerings can become a kodya. The word is originally Hausa and means ‘horse,’ in reference to the bori spirit mounting her victim (Besmer 1983). In the old days there were both white and black kodyas, but these days devotees insist that a kodya can only be black.

A zabia is a kodya’s apprentice or assistant; she must be an initiate of the cult of the Grand Lady. Her job is to prepare the special foods offered to the Grand Lady, such as pumpkin compote and a dessert made by pressing sesame and nuts into finger-like shapes by hand, while extracting the sesame oil to be used as massaging oil for the aching feet of the initiand.

The rituals of the Grand Lady

In the zar rituals dedicated to members of the Upper Egyptian or Tambura pantheons, when members of the Grand Lady’s pantheon are called by their corresponding songs, they inhabit the bodies of the afflicted devotees and possess them in trance dance performances. During the zar of the Grand Lady, however, possession is manifested differently in response to special Rotana (foreign or African) songs. The rhythm of the singing is usually kept by up to six musicians by clapping on hard-packed cotton pillows (al-darb ‘al al-makhaddat). This is because it is said that the Grand Lady does not like loud noise (p.105) (Mazloum 1975:69). The singing follows a call-and-response form. The initiand does not dance but performs a rebirth ritual together with the kodya.

This ritual consists of two parts: a performative rite mimicking birthing, and a possession consultation session. For the birthing rite, the kodya and the initiand are covered by two cloth sheets by the presiding sheikha and the members of her music band. The first sheet is white and may be an ordinary bedsheet. The second sheet is black; in the past, it was usually an outer garment used by urban women, but it may also be a piece of black cloth bought specifically for this purpose. The zar musicians sing and drum on hard pillows, calling on the different spirits of the Grand Lady’s pantheon. The hard pillows are placed on the sides of the sheets, while together the initiand and the kodya go through a symbolic rebirth under the sheets.

During this ritual the initiand is considered possessed and may sleep, yawn, or moan. The kodya, on the other hand, receives one of the spirits of this pantheon. After the removal of the two sheets, the possessing spirit speaks through the medium of the kodya, who diagnoses the troubles of the initiand first and then those of her guests. These are not necessarily possession troubles. I witnessed the kodya’s possession by Hakim Basha, the physician who offered advice and consultation to the zar guests in exchange for a few Egyptian pounds, which the kodya called fizeeta (a ‘physician’s fee’).

The Disintegrated Plastic Flowers

The story of Shadiya is typical not only of non-life-cycle zar but of all zar rituals. There is always a multitude of reasons to finance a zar. Shadiya is one of the zar adepts in the coterie of Sheikha Karima, daughter of the late Sheikha Anhar. The first time we met was in the summer of 2000, when she again became a regular at the Monday hadra after ten years of absence. Shadiya’s participation in the hadra during this period culminated in her second zar initiation, a night for (p.106) the Christian spirits (leilat al-nasara). People call Shadiya by her nickname, Umm Hussein (mother of Hussein), after her eldest son, or Hagga Umm Hussein, the honorary title that women who undergo the Muslim rite of pilgrimage to Mecca receive in their community.

When we first met, Shadiya was in her early forties. She was born and raised in the Batniya neighborhood, in the district of al-Darb al-Ahmar in the historic part of Cairo, sometimes referred to as al-Madina (‘the city’). She is bint bukhour (a ‘daughter of incense’—that is, she has inherited zar possession). Her mother was a well-respected woman in the neighborhood who was initiated into the highest ranks of the zar cult; a camel was sacrificed for her ceremony.

Umm Hussein is very proud of how she decorates her apartment. Every year she has it repainted and redecorated. In particular, the living room is decorated with plastic flowers in various colors hanging all around the walls and pots of green plastic hanging plants in the four corners of the room that she had brought all the way from Saudi Arabia on her most recent Hajj trip there, the winter before I met her. When Shadiya was having her apartment repainted early that summer, a strange incident happened. She had collected all her plastic flowers and foliage carefully in plastic bags to protect them from being painted over. When the job was done and the painters had left the apartment, she went to clean the furniture, put it back in its place, and hang the foliage back on the walls of the reception area. To her amazement the foliage had disintegrated; not one piece was intact. In her mind there was no rational explanation for this mishap. She had stored the plastic foliage very carefully away from the heat of the sun; it was not cheap and was of foreign provenance (implying that it was of good quality), and it had only been on the wall for a short period. The incident, which Shadiya considered out of the ordinary, made her suspect that her spirits—particularly the Nassara (the Christians)—were acting out. She had not had any symptom of affliction for ten years, since her (p.107) first initiation. This episode led Shadiya back to the hadra. When she told Sheikha Karima about her disintegrated plants, Karima responded that her spirits were jealous because she gives too much attention to her apartment, and that she should sacrifice a rooster at the threshold for the guardians (al-horas) of the place.

Shadiya never followed Sheikha Karima’s advice; instead, she held a night for the Christian spirits in her sister’s house. Her decision to hold the more costly musical zar rather than the simple rooster sacrifice for the guardians of her home was motivated by a number of social concerns rather than supernatural ones. These motivations had to do with her relationship with her brothers and sisters, her symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1977:181), her position as a returnee to Karima’s hadra, and perhaps her relationship with her husband, who does not particularly approve of zar.

Shadiya’s zar night for the Christian spirits was a family affair; only three guests from the hadra were invited. It was an opportunity for the two housebound sisters, the brother who does not like to associate with zar publicly, and Shadiya to enjoy zar together. Shadiya’s siblings provided most of the financing: the contract with the three bands of musicians, and the noqta (gifts of money publicly offered during ritual celebrations) to honor the initiand, cost around LE1,200. Shadiya provided the price of the live birds (a turkey and a white chicken) and the food for the altar, which cost around LE200.

By holding a zar, Shadiya reestablished herself as a member of the cult of Anhar after years of estrangement. This estrangement was due to the fact that a few years earlier, Anhar had heard that Shadiya went to another hadra outside the neighborhood and dealt with another sheikha there. There is a great deal of competition between cult leaders over the loyalty of their customary zar devotees. Cult leaders dislike it when their habitués go to other zar specialists and tend to sever relations with the client. In fact, a great deal of conflict arises from the movement of zar clients from one cult to another.

(p.108) Shadiya’s husband thinks that zar is not Islamic and that it is a superstitious practice. A few years earlier he paid for Shadiya’s trip to the Hajj in Mecca on the condition that she give up zar completely. So holding a zar at her sister’s place, financed by her siblings, left Shadiya’s husband no room for objection. Once Shadiya was back to zar, it was easier to hold future zars in her own home. Between 2000 and 2005, Shadiya held two more elaborate zar reconciliation ceremonies in her own home.


As this chapter has shown, many zar crises coincide with anxious times of status transition in the lives of women. A young girl’s transition to womanhood and concerns about marriage may trigger her first possession episode, making her vulnerable to spirit attacks. Here, the pit of the toilet is a portal that connects the human world to that of the zar spirits. It is the habitat of Gado, the messenger of the spirits and controller of fertility. With the first ritual reconciliation, zar ideally becomes a cyclical habit that grounds and localizes the devotee in time throughout her life: her marriage, her move into her husband’s home, her first baby, her infertility, and her menopause, along with any other crisis that may occur. Zar participation and knowledge localize the duration and extension of one’s crises as they unfold, by giving them names and properties, values and meanings (Appadurai 1996:110).

The first episode of possession may not always culminate in a zar ritual reconciliation. Sometimes it can take years before a person suffering from spirit attacks undergoes their zar reconciliation ceremony, as in the example of Rasha. The occurrence of a zar event depends on many social and economic factors.

There are women who have seen zar spirits in the bathroom before their marriage but never placated the spirits. There are also women who, like Shadiya, conduct a reconciliation ceremony to consolidate family relations or to reposition themselves within the hierarchy of a (p.109) hadra congregation. There is a great deal of variation in the ways in which each person afflicted with zar negotiates their situation within their respective community, not only to amass the necessary financial resources but also to convince the situated community of the seriousness of a claim of possession. Ideally, the possessed person should be ready to make a lifelong commitment to zar. (p.110)