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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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Saints and Spirits: Transformation of Traditions

Saints and Spirits: Transformation of Traditions

(p.127) 6 Saints and Spirits: Transformation of Traditions

Hager El Hadidi

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines saint and spirit songs as “acts of transfer” as well as the most popular zar spirits in Cairo and the different ways through which they are placated in ritual. It first provides an overview of zar songs as “acts of transfer” before discussing the meaning enacted by a song dedicated to Hassan Abul Gheit, the patron saint of the Gheitaniya zar musicians. It then considers the historical context of the Abul Gheit song, along with the cultural memories of a marginal Sufi movement that originated in the nineteenth century. It also explores changes in the articulation of spirit possession by focusing on the spirit pair of Yawra Bey and Rakousha Hanem. Finally, it looks at zar music bands and their styles of singing, along with the history of the song “Banat al-Handasa”.

Keywords:   saint, zar spirit, zar song, Hassan Abul Gheit, cultural memories, spirit possession, Yawra Bey, Rakousha Hanem, zar music, Banat al-Handasa


Egyptian zar has interested travelers and scholars for more than 150 years. However, prior to the present study, no ethnographic work on change within zar tradition or the forms in which such changes have been articulated has been carried out. Early studies looked at zar as cultural survival (cf. Frobenius 1913; Seligman 1914; Gordon 1929) or as material culture (Kriss and Kriss-Heinrich 1962; Bachinger and Schienerl 1984; Kruk 1993). More recent studies have dealt with zar as theatrical performance (el-Eleimy 1993) and as resistance to structural inequalities (Morsy 1993). Studies on Egyptian zar have also overlooked its capacity to absorb and adapt to changing social conditions, and its continuous hybridization and reinvention of itself as a response to changing times. The only exception among the scholars who have worked on zar in Egypt is Richard Natvig. In his 1987 article on the history of Egyptian zar, he suggests a dynamic feature to zar. Following Natvig’s insights, this study shows that zar is infinitely malleable and highly improvisational. The most interesting aspect of zar is its great flexibility in borrowing from and merging with other meaningful practices. Zar is a bricolage (Levi-Strauss 1966; Comaroff 1985; Boddy 1989) of (p.128) signs and symbols that are continuously varying to remain meaningful in response to changing times.

This Levi-Straussian concept captures the improvisational nature of zar and its capacity to continuously incorporate and absorb new and meaningful elements. Thus the zar bricoleur is making do with “whatever is at hand’ (1966:16–17) from a universe of newly discovered symbols while at the same time continuing to follow the logic of the zar system. For example, the recently improvised zar ceremony in honor of the Christian spirits was modeled after a western New Year’s Eve celebration; people sang a ‘happy birthday’ tune to welcome the new year at midnight, drank alcoholic beverages, and ate turkey and cake.

This chapter consists of two parts. The first is a discussion of the meaning enacted (Rappaport 1999) by a song dedicated to Hassan Abul Gheit, the patron saint of the Gheitaniya zar musicians. Following Connerton (1989), the song is discussed as an ‘act of transfer’ commemorating the history of a marginal Sufi movement that took place in Egypt during the nineteenth century. To retrieve the cultural memories of those whose voices went unheard, Connerton focuses on ‘non-inscriptive’ practices transferred in commemorative rituals such as zar songs. Connerton’s concepts are used to analyze the song dedicated to the saint Hassan Abul Gheit.

In the second part of this chapter, changes in the articulation of possession by the most popular spirit pair in Cairo are analyzed by focusing on old and new ritual forms articulating their possession. These forms are practiced side by side in Cairo. As society and culture change in response to global, regional, and local economic and social transformations, these changes are absorbed into zar. Specific examples of changes that are associated with the articulation of the spirit pair Yawra Bey and Rakousha Hanem are presented, followed by a discussion of how these forms signify different aspects of the elite identity of this golden pair. Some of the changes associated with articulation of possession of the spirit pair, as expressed in song, spirit (p.129) paraphernalia, and/or dance, are only changes in form or in signifying symbols and not in essential meaning. These changes not only reflect transformations in Egyptian society as a whole but also constitute the response of zar as a genre of popular culture to global socioeconomic conditions and forces.

About Zar Songs

Zar songs and music are performed in two ritual arenas: in the hadra, and in the public zar initiation ceremonies. The first arena is a weekly gathering hosted in a special room in the home of a zar ritual leader. While sometimes zar initiations with sacrifice and music are hosted in the hadra room on a different day, or at a different time, the weekly ritual activities are limited to the musical part of the spirit placation process. In the hadra, possession dances, which are mostly trance dances, are mainly intended to temporarily appease the spirits. For those whose afflicting spirits have not yet been identified, attending the hadra and listening to songs invoking the spirits may also reveal or confirm the spirits’ identity. The zar leader and musicians monitor the slightest response of a novice to different tunes and attempt to lure her or him to the dancing arena. Today, attending the hadra is the most popular form of public participation in zar because it is less expensive than a full-fledged zar celebration.

Songs are instruments of healing in zar because of their potential to communicate with, and mobilize the power of, different groups of supernatural beings who are literally called into action through ritual singing (Austin 1962). The devotees usually respond with a specific kind of dancing called tafqir, which leads to trance. As previously mentioned, not all trances performed in zar are possession trances. Zar devotees who experience trance while dancing zikr (‘remembrance’) in response to a song that praises the Prophet Muhammad or most of the saints are by definition in direct communion with these supernatural beings (Rouget 1985). The spirits of (p.130) those eminent beings are present but they do not possess the dancing devotees. Only zar spirits possess devotees.

Zar Songs as ‘Acts of Transfer’

Some zar songs may be interpreted as ‘acts of transfer,’ as a kind of history that a community performs to remind itself about its own identity. In How Societies Remember, Connerton (1989) identifies social memory as a dimension of political power. He develops a theory about the ways by which the memory of groups is conveyed and sustained by expanding a hermeneutic interpretation from texts to bodies (1989:1). Connerton argues that people’s struggle against forced forgetting is a struggle for memory. Under such conditions, the record of what he calls “oppositional histories” “preserves the memory of social groups whose voice would otherwise have been silenced” (1989:15).

Social memory can thus be found in commemorative ceremonies such as zar songs. Connerton would describe such commemorative ceremonies as performative habits (1989:4–5). Connerton approaches ritual not as a type of symbolic representation but as a species of the performative. He views commemorative rituals as the reenactment of other actions that are represented as prototypical; what is being remembered in commemorative ceremonies is the community’s identity (1989:70). “Performative utterances are as it were the place in which the community is constituted and recalls to itself the fact of its constitution” (1989:59).

Part of what Connerton calls the “historical deposit” is to be found in repeated commemorative acts and in culturally specific bodily practices (1989:12). Images and recollected knowledge of the past are conveyed and sustained by (more or less ritual) performances (1989:3–4). Accordingly, commemorative rituals and bodily practices may operate as “acts of transfer.” They allow us a glimpse of the past sustained and conveyed by performance. It is these “acts of transfer” that make remembering in common possible (1989:39–40).

(p.131) Although demarcated in time and space, rites, such as those in zar, are porous. Zar songs are meaningful because they have significance in relation to a set of further non-ritual actions, and to the whole life of a community (1989:45). Images of the past—for example, images of the harem system, the indirect indexing of slavery, and references to the struggle of marginalized Sufis such as the Gheitaniya against the ruling power—are just a few examples of memories that have been transferred in zar song performances.

Following Bakhtin, Connerton suggests the possibility of interpreting religious rituals, and particularly the carnavalesque, as ‘anticipative representations.’ Connerton argues that the inversions of hierarchic order characteristic of carnival are to be read as mechanisms of social liberation in which the device of symbolic representation is used as leverage. In this view, carnival is an act in which ‘the people’ organize themselves ‘in their own way’ as a collectivity in which the individual members become an inseparable part of the group (1989:50).

From the historical position in which rites, such as those that constitute zar practices, are viewed as invented traditions susceptible to a change in their meaning, Connerton writes:

This thought has prompted the attempt to rediscover the meaning of ceremonials by resituating them in their historical context. On this view, to set a rite in its context is seen not as an auxiliary step but as an essential ingredient to the act of interpreting it; to investigate the context of a rite is not just to study additional information about it, but to put ourselves in a position to have a greater understanding of its meaning than would be accessible to someone who read it as a self-contained symbolic text. (1989:50)

Following the insight of this conceptual framework, many zar songs may be viewed as ‘acts of transfer’ that preserve the identity of tayfet al-zar (the zar guild). The purpose of this type of analysis is to understand (p.132) songs beyond the boundaries set within the self-contained symbolic texts. In the following section, the context of a zar song dedicated to the saint Hassan Abul Gheit, the patron saint of the Gheitaniya zar troupes, is examined, and it is argued that what is being remembered in this ‘act of transfer’ is the Gheitaniya community’s own identity (1989:76). The song expresses the Gheitaniya’s ‘oppositional history’ to the Egyptian state with regard to the military draft (1989:15).

The Historical Context of the Abul Gheit Song

During the nineteenth century, Egypt underwent traumatic transitions that affected the everyday lives of the rural and urban poor. Many of these changes were the direct result of the reorganization of the modern Egyptian state under Muhammad Ali and his heirs. New measures of control and new technologies of power and administration were introduced to serve the expansionist agenda of the Egyptian state and to insure its control over its subjects.

Recent historical scholarship indicates that the restructuring of the Egyptian state in the nineteenth century had negative effects on the Egyptian population (Fahmy 1997). Peasants were drafted into the army for the first time, and the state reorganized and took control of the Sufi orders (De Jong 1978). These changes created considerable resentment and dissent, particularly among the rural populations. Much-needed labor was taken away from peasant subsistence and diverted to service the Egyptian state and its expansionist and modernizing agenda.

Court records from this period document violent and criminal activity, but there was little recording of non-violent resistance. As a result, memories of symbolic dissent, or what Scott (1990) has called “hidden transcript,” are rarely directly included in the historical archives, and thus are absent from conventional historical reconstruction.

Paul Connerton argues that these “non-inscribed” practices are transmitted in and as traditions such as zar spirit possession. Following his lead, Paul Stoller (1995) has examined Hauka spirit (p.133) possession in Niger as an embodiment of colonial memories, while G.P. Makris (1994;1996) has demonstrated that zar Tambura songs embody images of the traumatic events that followed the rise and the fall of the Mahdi in Sudan.

Makris has analyzed twenty-one zar Tambura songs among devotees in Omdurman in Sudan. He has argued convincingly that zar Tambura is a kind of history and its practices encompass a commentary on the Mahdi wars at the end of the nineteenth century. This was a brutal war waged by Anglo-Egyptian forces partly for the purpose of ending slavery in Sudan. The reproduction of these songs in ritual confirms the identity of the devotees and musicians, who are not only of slave descent and identify themselves as the “original” people of Sudan but who also took a position in the conflict in opposition to the Mahdi (Makris 1994; 1996).

Cultural Memories

Following Connerton, Stoller, and Makris, this section focuses on the cultural memories of a marginal Sufi movement that originated in the nineteenth century by examining a commemorative zar song. Despite the impression that they give of depicting an imaginary world, the ritual song, lore, and bodily practices that commemorate Hassan Abul Gheit, the patron saint of the Gheitaniya zar musicians, actually transfer cultural memories of opposition to the state during the nineteenth century. By placing the transferred ‘images’ and ‘recollected knowledge’ in their historical context, the cultural memories can be discerned from some of their legend-like characteristics.

The Gheitaniya, followers of the spiritual ways established by Hassan Abul Gheit, are one of these specialized groups of zar musicians. The group originally specialized mainly in Muslim saint zikr songs, long before they became engaged in zar in the 1940s. The Gheitaniya singers combined their own Sufi ritual singing tradition with that of zar.

(p.134) Zar song and ritual performances reveal a popular Sufi conception of the world. They express devotion to several interconnected and overlapping constellations of supernatural beings, which have the power to affect the everyday lives of humans and to grant healing and prosperity. At the pinnacle of this universe is God. Just below Him are the prophets. This conception also includes local Muslim and Christian saints and zar/jinns.

Muslim saints, or awliya, are friends of God who mediate between Him and their human seekers. They live as spirits (arwah) in a separate universe, al-barzakh, and communicate with human beings through dreams, visions, and trance. The most powerful saints of this universe are the four axial saints or pillars (al-aqtab al-arba‘a), which are conceptualized as supporting heaven and the Divine Throne. They are also the founders of the most politically powerful Sufi orders in Egypt. Minor Sufi orders trace their spiritual genealogy through spiritual chains of succession that usually stem from one of these pillars.

Among the zar repertoire of saints, Hassan Abul Gheit is exceptional. Not only is he the patron saint of the Gheitaniya zar musicians but he is one of the few holy men who had not been tutored by a Sufi master. Thus Hassan had no particular allegiance to any individual master’s way. Abul Gheit did not belong to any particular Sufi order. In fact, the Gheitaniya way is a synthesis of the four main Sufi axial saints mentioned above. Unlike the saints who are descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and who inherit their spiritual power through this sacred bloodline, he was not endowed with any innate spiritual power. He was an ordinary peasant dervish who became a champion (batal) because he resisted army discipline and the power of the khedive through his enchanting zikr, and also resisted the state reorganization of the Sufi orders by refusing to belong to any particular order.

According to the zar song dedicated to Hassan Abu Attallah Abul Gheit and the lore of the Gheitaniya, one day as he was going to work in his field, he found a naked body floating in the river. It belonged to a woman who had been murdered. He took the body out of the river, (p.135) removed his outer garment, and covered her. Hassan buried her in his field and protected the grave from wild animals for three days. On the third day, God blessed him with His divine protection (al-‘inaya al-rabaniya) and he became a holy man—a friend of God (wali). He was named Abul Gheit or al-Gheitani after the place where he received God’s protection—gheit means ‘agricultural field’ in Arabic.

After that incident, Hassan Abul Gheit began to attract a large following. His miraculous gift—a supernatural ability—was playing enchanting religious tunes on his flute. Every time he played his zikr tunes, those who listened were caught in trance; nobody could resist them. As they danced this remembrance to God, even the corn in the field would sway. Following his tradition, the Gheitaniya musicians still play enchanting tunes that lead zar devotees into certain trance.

By 1827, poor Egyptian peasants from Lower Egypt were being drafted by force into the Egyptian Army, which was fighting wars under the Ottoman flag. This was the first time in a thousand years that the rank and file of the Egyptian army consisted of freeborn Egyptian peasants rather than white or black slaves. The historian Khaled Fahmy (1997) studied this transition in the Egyptian army during the first part of the nineteenth century, analyzing the traumatic effect that the draft had on peasants and their families. Many peasants mutilated themselves to dodge the draft, and others were court-martialed in large numbers for fleeing and resisting army discipline.

The traditions of the Gheitaniya may be seen as ‘acts of transfer’ that preserve the cultural memory of this antagonism to army discipline. The song depicts the Sufi corporal discipline of zikr as an opposition to army discipline. It also locates the power of communion with God in its cosmological place, above the hold of army drills on peasant bodies. When Hassan Abul Gheit was drafted into the army, instead of joining the army’s drills, he played his flute. Everybody around him, even the officers, followed him into zikr, swaying as they became entranced into communion with God.

(p.136) According to the Gheitaniya lore, the khedive of Egypt heard about Hassan Abul Gheit’s contrary actions when he was drafted into the army, and ordered him to be imprisoned. Every time he was locked up, he was miraculously found outside his cell, still playing zikr tunes on his flute. Miraculous escape from prison cells is a motif of sainthood and a further sign of Hassan’s status as a friend of God. Exasperated, the khedive ordered him drowned. The khedive’s men tied Hassan to a large, heavy stone and threw him into the river. The heavy stone did not sink, but floated in the river, carrying him while he played his zikr tunes and sang: “Who can make it difficult for me? I am the Gheitani, Abu Attallah, my God blessed me.” The narrative of the legend is resolved poetically with the khedive giving up on his punishment and offering Hassan Abul Gheit and his followers the islands in the branches of the Nile Delta to inhabit.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Egyptian state had succeeded in reorganizing the Sufi orders. Historians contend that the state attempted to control the orders partly because they had proved themselves very powerful in mobilizing the population of Cairo against the ruler chosen by the Ottoman Porte for Egypt and replacing him with Muhammad Ali in 1805. Contrary to the demands of the state, the mystical teachings of Hassan Abu Attallah Abul Gheit did not follow any specific Sufi order or sheikh. Rather, he was beloved by all four of the Egyptian Sufi axial saints or pillars: Ahmed al-Rifa‘i, al-Sayyid Ahmed al-Badawi, Ibrahim al-Dusuqi, and Abd al-Qader al-Gilani. Until recently, the Gheitaniya musicians wore their hair very long, following the Rifa‘i, and wore a combination of colors—red, white, green, and black—representing each of these four axial saints.

As we have seen from the example of the song dedicated to Hassan Abul Gheit, the narrative of the heroic story of the Sufi Hassan Abul Gheit is transferred as knowledge to the zar community during zar song performance. The song commemorates the actions of the hero who resisted the draft and protected the innocent. At the same time, (p.137) the performance of the song recalls the constitutive moment of the Gheitaniya community and the history of their identity, and locates the Gheitaniya in history.

The Golden Pair

In Egypt, zar spirits are always ritually placated in pairs, each consisting of a male and a female. In the Upper Egyptian zar variant practiced in Cairo, these pairs are all brothers and sisters. But Yawra Bey, who is not part of the Upper Egyptian zar pantheon or tradition, is paired with his daughter Rakousha Hanem. As is typical in zar, the pair is ritually placated together. A song for Yawra is usually followed by another for Rakousha. A reconciliation ceremony for Yawra is always also for Rakousha. If a possessed person exhibits possession symptoms of only one spirit and not the other, he or she is still considered possessed by both Yawra and Rakousha. In such a case the possessed person is required to sacrifice and fulfill the demands associated with both spirits.

I call the two spirits ‘the golden pair,’ not only because they represent elite status but also because one of Yawra’s main attributes is a tall, gilded, European-style chair, a symbol of the power of Egyptian royalty and the associated aesthetic hegemony of European rococo style during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Yawra’s gilded chair signifies the state, the ruling powers, and elite status.

The existence of the golden pair has been documented in the zar practices of Cairo since the early 1900s (Hilmi 1903). They are also known to zar devotees in Alexandria and in many parts of Sudan (Constantinides 1972) but not in Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt, or Fayoum. They have also been documented for the Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century (Hunswick and Powell 2002:160–61; Walz and Cuno 2010).

Today, the most common type of zar initiation in Cairo is called Buffet Yawra: an evening of zar celebration and reconciliation rituals dedicated (p.138) mainly to Yawra and his daughter Rakousha. There are very few initiates who have not suffered from possession by Yawra and/or his daughter.

Because of their popularity, the golden pair is invoked through zar ritual songs by all three practicing musical bands in Cairo. The songs calling on Yawra and Rakousha are the most popular and most frequently performed in all the zar hadras in Cairo.

Yawra Bey

Yawra Bey is portrayed in songs, and represented in paraphernalia and in everyday language, as a handsome, dark-skinned (asmar) Ottoman gentleman, a military officer in the nineteenth-century Egyptian army, wearing a red fez and a red sash. The name ‘Yawra’ is never used for humans in Egypt. It is derived from an Ottoman army rank, yawer, which corresponds to an aide-de-camp. Yawra is a dandy, a gentleman, and a real playboy, known to seduce young and attractive girls by possessing them.

Yawra’s possession troubles are associated with marriage. Typically, he falls in love with a teenage girl, preventing her from marrying until he is placated in ritual, as in the case of Rasha in chapter five. Zar people say: “Yawra makes her suitors see her as ugly, and make her think that her suitors are unacceptable.” Marital problems, sexual aversion to husbands, and homosexuality are also attributed to him.

The relationship between the spirit Yawra and his human host is sometimes described in zar songs as ‘passion.’ The phrase “I have passion for you, O Yawra” (shuqi ‘aleik ya Yawra) is a common refrain in zar songs dedicated to Yawra. On other occasions, such fondness for the spirit on the part of its human host is expressed in song as ‘love’ (hubb). It is interesting to note that such direct reference to ‘passion’ or ‘love’ is never used to describe how a devotee feels about her possessing spirit in everyday life. Instead, possessed girls and women talk only about being subjects of Yawra’s own love, passion, and jealousy. Moreover, the expression of a desire for a black baby in the case of a married woman in everyday discourse is also an idiom of possession (p.139) by Yawra. Such an expression of love is only permissible indirectly, as articulated in songs or expressed in a desire for a dark-skinned baby.

Yawra is signified through his paraphernalia. He loves to smoke either a water pipe or cigarettes. He also likes the smell of perfumes. During the performance of Yawra’s trance dances, the devotees smoke cigarettes and sprinkle themselves and the audience with western-style perfume. Yawra’s altar may include a miniature water pipe, signifying his association with tobacco. Yawra is placated by gold or silver rings set with real red ruby or its glass or plastic imitations. The spirit’s favorite color is red, signified not only by the red fez and the color of the ruby but also by the color of the sacrificial animals or birds that are slaughtered to appease him. These sacrificial creatures are always red: a pair of red pigeons, a red sheep, or a red bull.

Rakousha Hanem

Rakousha Hanem is Yawra’s young daughter. She is not an ordinary child, but a child of the elite. She entices her mediums to the pursuit of luxury and to capricious cravings for expensive things such as silky pink clothing and gold jewelry. She loves candy and toys. The toys among her paraphernalia include a black doll and a ball. Rakousha’s mediums sometimes dance into trance while holding and playing with a doll or a ball.

Rakousha, as a little child who loves sweets, often speaks through her medium in a thin childlike voice demanding candy. In their daily lives, those possessed by Rakousha are often compelled to act like children, telling all and throwing tantrums over minor irritations, with little regard to the social consequences of their action. Rakousha’s color is pink; her ritual costumes are a pink dress and headdress. The sacrifice offered to her is a speckled hen.

Rakousha’s elite status, or her childish and playful nature, always penetrates the personalities, actions, and paraphernalia of her mediums. For example, one of the Rakousha mediums I know cannot keep any secrets because this childlike attribute has become part of her own (p.140) everyday personality. Rakousha’s possession is also articulated in different dance performances that range from trance, to collecting gifts of money, to belly dancing.

The altar set for Yawra and his daughter Rakousha is called Buffet Yawra. This ceremonial event takes place during one evening only. The “buffet” is a rectangular western-style table covered with a tablecloth and set with expensive fruits and food such as apples, cakes, and sweets. It is usually decorated with flowers, a water pipe, Yawra’s red fez, and a gilded chair.

The Military Spirit Pantheon

In Cairo, Yawra and Rakousha belong to the Harbiya (battalion) or Liwa (brigade) pantheon. The Liwa pantheon consists of seven masters, or pashas. The golden pair is part of this military pantheon of the Sudani zar tradition. The word ‘Sudani’ does not always mean ‘Sudanese’ in Egyptian Arabic; it sometimes simply means ‘African.’ In zar songs, the word ‘Sudani’ is quite often used to describe the attributes of spirits who are also described as Nigerian or Abyssinian and as slaves (garya for a female slave; walag (Abyssinian slave) or ‘abd for a male slave). In essence, the Sudani tradition references Africa and slavery in the popular Egyptian imagination.

The origin of this military pantheon is unclear. It seems to have developed during the nineteenth century among members of the Sudanese battalion of the Egyptian Ottoman army. This battalion was composed mostly of freed black slaves captured during the nineteenth century who were often accompanied by their wives and children (Toledano 1998:56; Seligman 1914).

According to the oral histories collected for this study, the Harbiya songs were originally played by all-women bands of slave descent. These bands have now completely disappeared from Cairo. Their style was called zar ‘afnu. They sang in very distinctive zar style, almost like a military drill, with simple lyrics that included (p.141) Rotana and African accents. One of their songs is called “Tabour ya basha tabour bara” and refers to an army drill.

Other songs invoking the Harbiya pantheon are also played in Tambura style by all bands. The Harbiya pashas are also part of the sitt al-kebira (Grand Lady) pantheon discussed in chapter 5. The ritual calling of the Grand Lady is only performed by women. All three zar styles—‘afnu, Tambura, and the sitt al-kebira—are also part of the Sudani zar tradition.

Zar Music Bands and Their Styles of Singing

Tambura bands and style

The Tambura, or Sudani, bands consist of a male leader called san-gak who plays the tambura (an African lyre with five strings), one or two male dancers or suttariya, and two female drummers. Originally, the members of these bands were migrants from Sudan who settled in Egypt during Anglo-Egyptian rule. As they settled in Cairo, they passed their Tambura music trade to their own children. At the same time, they also began to train the sons of both male and female musicians who specialized in other zar styles.

Yawra and Rakousha songs in Tambura style: The song “Haye” for Rakousha

The song entitled “Haye” is very popular, and is sung by all the three types of bands. Each band adds its own variation on the original rhythm. The lyrics that are characteristic of the ‘afnu style and other Sudani traditions are very short and simple and sung with a pretend foreign accent and words. The song “Haye” simply calls on the spirit to make herself visible. The lyrics are:

  • Haye, O Haye,
  • Come on, O beautiful one
  • Come on, O little dear
  • Salay Salay.

(p.142) The Upper Egyptian pantheon and its style of singing

The Upper Egyptian (Sa‘idi) band is usually composed of female musicians. They migrated from Upper Egypt to Cairo, bringing with them their styles of zar music and practices. Over time, these bands have incorporated local women zar singers who have contributed their own zar singing traditions. Today this type of band is referred to as either zar masri (from Cairo) or zar sa‘idi, interchangeably. According to Sheikha Karima, the zar leader, the old spirit Rumi Nagdi of the Upper Egyptian pantheon, is Yawra in the Sudani tradition. Rumi Nagdi’s color is green and his symbol is the crescent moon and the star. Rumi Nagdi and Yawra share the same attributes. Both spirits are warriors, dandies, and womanizers. They both wear fezzes, but Rumi Nagdi’s fez is green and decorated with a golden crescent moon and star. This symbol was also that of the Egyptian national flag, which was green from the end of the nineteenth century until the 1950s. Rumi Nagdi is usually called in song along with his sister Marouma. Unlike Rakousha, Marouma is a full-grown woman. Her favorite color is also green. She wears a green silk dress and a transparent green head cover. Pomegranates are offered to her. She loves gardens and parks.

Within this Upper Egyptian/Cairo tradition and musical style, Yawra is still called in ritual through a song entitled “O Yawra, You Are the Moon; Why Do You Disappear?”) (“Yawra ya amar leih betikhtifi”). Rakousha is called through a song entitled “Hawanim al-Habash” (“The Abyssinian Ladies”). Both songs originated in Cairo.

Abul Gheit band members

The Abul Gheit or Gheitaniya band members are all males. As previously mentioned, they originally specialized in zikr, or Muslim saint songs, and were introduced to the zar music of Cairo only in the 1940s. Today, the Abul Gheit bands consist of many of the descendants of Upper Egyptian Tambura performers and those who played the extinct zar traditions, as well as rural folk musicians. The Gheitaniya (p.143) musicians are mostly the second or third generation of Gheitaniya musicians associated with zar music. Many of their male children are already apprenticing in the zar music tradition, particularly when they do not do well in school.

Each Gheitaniya band consists of a lead singer who plays the mazhar (a large tambourine with brass jingles), a darabuka or dohola (a goblet-shaped membranophone handrum) player, a flutist, at least two mazhar players, and a professional dancer who holds the tora (a pair of brass cymbals held in both hands like castanets) and dances with devotees. All musicians sing the refrain of the song in response to the lead singer. This style of singing is called call and response. The lead singer, or rayes, sings and the rest of the band responds. Many bands include a large number of musicians who are mostly mazhar drum players. There are also bands with a fiddler or two flutes.

In the course of the Gheitaniya association with zar music, they have adopted the most popular zar songs from all traditions to their instrumentation. They are particularly adept at the mixing of zar styles, and they put on a great show; consequently, they are in great demand by devotees and increasing in numbers. They are particularly well known for performing the most crowd-pleasing version of the song “Schoolgirls” for the spirit Rakousha, as discussed below.

The Hybridization and Transformation of Musical Styles

Early in the twentieth century, each zar pantheon was strictly associated with specific zar musical traditions and bands. Each specialized band played very different instruments, and had distinct rhythms and melodies. This stylistic specialization originally reflected different ethnic histories, local variations, and perhaps even different belief systems. An example of the latter is the difference between zar originating in Hausaland and the Upper Egyptian zar originating most probably in Abyssinia. However, since the 1950s zar music has witnessed a great deal of acceleration in innovations, with mixing of musical styles and (p.144) pantheons, particularly for the most popular spirits such as the golden pair. There has also been consolidation of zar musicians from disparate groups through marriage or business interests. Some spirits and zar bands, as mentioned before, have completely disappeared, such as the ‘afnu, the ‘arrussi, and the rongo bands. Some of the descendants of those extinct bands and their most popular spirits, along with their songs, melodies, and rhythms, have been adopted by the surviving bands. Within the living memory of zar musicians in Cairo, specific elements from one specialized zar musical tradition have been juxtaposed with other zar styles and combined with non-zar music and songs popularized by mass media.

Zar song and music in Alexandria, Cairo, Fayoum, and Sohag in Upper Egypt reveal that these different traditions have cross-fertilized during the last sixty-five years in metropolitan settings as migration, intermarriage, market pressures, and assimilation have broken down earlier social and ethnic boundaries among the musicians to produce hybrid genres of zar songs.

The History of the Song “Banat al-Handasa

A good example of this kind of innovation and mixing of styles is a song called “O Girls of the Engineering School,” or simply “Schoolgirls,” dedicated to the spirit Rakousha. The song emerged in the 1950s, perhaps as the Gheitaniya became more involved with zar. According to zar lore in Cairo, the song melody was borrowed from a popular non-zar Nubian wedding song. A zar musical bricoleur (Levi-Strauss 1966) matched the Nubian melody to a zar with an Alexandrian rhythm popularized by the Gheitaniya and to new lyrics more relevant to zar and to transformations in Egyptian society concerning the education of girls. The lyrics of the song also draw on an older zar song, “Hawanim al-Habash” (“The Abyssinian Ladies”) associated with Upper Egyptian/Masri bands. “Hawanim al-Habash” is about the old harem system.

(p.145) The new lyrics of “Schoolgirls” are elaborate in comparison with older Rakousha songs, such as “Haye.” It is performed in clear Cairene Arabic with no regional accents of any sort.48 The song goes:

  • Schoolgirls, hey, pretty girl, hey, teacher.
  • Ah! Hey, girls of the Engineering School.
  • Hey, girls, this evening is the night of zar. Hey, teachers,
  • Schoolgirls. She took her diploma and she is a teacher.
  • Girls, girls, girls, how wonderful you are!
  • Ah! Hey, engineers.
  • Yes, you are beautiful. Hey, instructor,
  • Schoolgirls. You are wearing the collar and the uniform.
  • Play engineers. The night is a beautiful one. Hey, teachers.
  • Hey, school girls. Play.
  • Come on. Hey, pretty teacher.
  • School girls, I am a student in school.
  • How wonderful you are! Hey, teacher.
  • Yes, schoolgirls, you are as sweet as sugar candy.
  • Come on, you pretty teacher.
  • Yes, you are a pretty teacher who took her diploma from school.
  • She is a student and a teacher.
  • Oh, my beautiful roses.
  • Hey, pretty one, you are wearing pink.
  • Hey, dark one, come near me.
  • You are as beautiful as the moon.
  • She is a beautiful and princely girl,
  • If you are afraid of Yawra, hey, clever one, I will manage Yawra.
  • (p.146) Play, ladies (hawanim), while you stay awake all night.
  • The mischief of the ladies, hey, ladies, the ladies.
  • O people, where is he?
  • O people, he is beautiful.
  • O people, he is my beloved.
  • The handsome one is me and my beloved is me.
  • O handsome Mambo and Mambo Kiriya.

The harem system

As mentioned before, Rakousha Hanem is a child of the elite. The image used in this song to portray Rakousha and to describe her attributes is derived from other zar songs. One such image is much older than the image of schoolgirls. It is drawn from the nineteenth-century harem system, and depicts Rakousha as an idle lady (hanem) who plays all night. “Hanem” is a form of address associated with elite women and female children in the harem system of the nineteenth century. These women and girls were pampered ladies of leisure, not expected to do strenuous physical work. In the harem, they became slave concubines or wives of the male members of prominent families. Some of these female slaves were adopted as children and later married off to consolidate political and trade relations with other families. Rakousha Hanem’s old image is that of a child of the harem.

From the harem to the teacher’s college

With the abolition of slavery, the subsequent disappearance of the harem system, and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the roles of elite women were gradually transformed. The modern image associated with Rakousha redefined her social position in a manner reflecting the changed roles of elite women in Egyptian society during the twentieth century.

Rakousha’s new image is that of a student going to school. She is wearing a collar and a pink school uniform. With an education (p.147) Rakousha will become a teacher or an engineer. This image, however, reinforces her old, elite harem attributes, particularly with regard to leisure and physical work. In Egypt girls who attend school are less likely to do strenuous physical labor or housework than their stay-at-home sisters. Thus, Rakousha’s elite nature persists in the more recent version of the song, but with the disappearance of the harem, a new elite female role—that of the schoolgirl, a teacher, or an engineer—becomes the new reference.

The theme of play

As a female child spirit, Rakousha Hanem is the epitome of play. The ritual paraphernalia associated with this aspect of her identity consists of pink clothing, dolls, balls, miniature cookware, and playful jewelry—rings, bracelets, and anklets with jingling miniature bells. More recently, the western-style charm bracelet originally manufactured for the tourist market has become a favorite ritual item for her mediums. An intense desire to own such a bracelet is an indication of possession by Rakousha. The charm bracelet is perceived by Egyptians as a “toy bracelet,” and is called as such. Despite its novelty, it articulates the old idea of play always associated with Rakousha’s identity. Again, the incorporation of the charm bracelet reinforces the idea of zar as a bricolage of signs (Levi-Strauss 1966).

The theme of play is the essence of Rakousha, extending to the divination practice associated with her. When an initiate advances in the zar sequence and becomes a ritual specialist and a diviner, he or she does so with the aid of a particular zar spirit. Divination usually takes place via reading of the coffee cup, prayer beads, or dream interpretations. However, as might be expected following the symbolic logic of zar, those who divine through Rakousha do so by reading playing cards.

Rakousha’s elite identity is not directly articulated in dance performance but rather in her pink paraphernalia, her doll, and her ball. As mentioned before, trance dance is not the only manifestation of (p.148) possession. Zar possession is a permanent state which is not always visible. Possession is experienced by the initiated mediums through different articulations associated with a spirit character and its attributes. In ritual space, a person possessed by Rakousha may also act as a child, performing a non-trance dance while collecting money from guests in response to the song “Haye.” Among adults of equal status, in order to keep face, a person may only receive a gift if it is part of a system of reciprocal exchange. This etiquette of reciprocity, however, does not apply to children. Children receive gifts of money from adults in their social world without shame. When Rakousha acts through her medium as a child, the adult medium is not ashamed to receive gifts of money from non-relatives. Some of the mediums I have seen give the collected money to the musicians after the song performance, perhaps to avoid shaming themselves.

Zar improvisation and hybridization is not limited to song or paraphernalia. Just as Rakousha’s repertoire of jewelry was creatively extended to include new forms expressing aspects of the spirit’s playful identity, such as the example of the “toy bracelet” discussed earlier, a new form of spirit dance performance has emerged.

The playful rhythms of Rakousha’s zar song “Schoolgirls” lend themselves to a generic style of belly dancing, and have increasingly inspired some of Rakousha’s young mediums to dance in this form.

The spread of this particular belly dancing style in Egyptian society is in itself a relatively new phenomenon, which coincides with the emergence and spread of visual mass media. Prior to the introduction of television in the 1960s, there were local variations of dancing styles for both men and women. These have gradually disappeared, replaced by generic styles of belly dancing popularized by television and movies, and inaugurating a class of professional female belly dancers.49 Young girls and female children who were socialized through television into this new generic belly dancing began to entertain female guests on festive occasions.

(p.149) Similarly, Rakousha’s mediums, like real Egyptian girls, sometimes entertain the gathering in a zar ceremony with this generic belly dancing. Trance during belly dancing has not yet been seen. Rakousha’s playfulness and youthfulness are still signified.

There are still a few older zar devotees who prefer Rakousha’s older songs such as “Haye” or the Tambura song “O Rakousha,” complaining that these new forms of song and dance are not true zar. In spite of their complaints, however, the festive performance is satisfying and entertaining to all its participants, even those who complain. This suggests that despite changes in forms and ritual details, the meaning remains the same. Zar people still say, “Zar likes farah,” which means that zar likes joyful celebrations.


The hybrid nature of zar and its capacity to continuously incorporate new and meaningful elements, as well as to transform itself to adjust to changes in the wider Egyptian society, is one of its basic characteristics. Zar is a dynamic system of signs, symbols, and practices. As a bricolage of signs, zar is continuously being tinkered with, using “whatever is at hand” from a limited universe of instruments, to express itself (Levi-Strauss 1966:16–17). Changes in the form and content of zar reflect transformations in Egyptian society as a whole, and represent the zar response, as a genre of popular culture, to global socioeconomic conditions and forces.

In the realm of music and songs, the incidences of cross-fertilization between the different styles of zar, such as the Egyptian, Gheitaniya, and Tambura genres in Cairo, are numerous. All genres have affected each other and have also been influenced by other non-zar singing genres popularized by the mass media: the Nubian wedding song we have seen is but one example. There is also sampling from religious songs popularized by the radio as well as songs made famous by Umm Kulthum, the most popular Arab singer of all time.

(p.150) Zar cannot be viewed as a static phenomenon; its forms and symbols, songs, and paraphernalia are continuously changing to stay meaningful to the people who practice it. As people’s perceptions, aspirations, knowledge, and material world change and transform, so do the form, content, and symbols associated with zar.

This study has shown that zar cannot be understood by reducing it to the functions it fulfills. If we limit zar to its role as a healing cult or as a form of ethnopsychology or ethnotherapy (Fakhouri 1968; el-Shamy 1972; Kennedy 1978), as a means to defuse or redress grievances between men and women (Lewis 1967; 1971), or as silenced counterhegemonic text (Boddy 1989), we are confining it to a functional, rational pigeonhole, and we are blind to its multivocality and dynamism. To perceive zar on its own terms, rather than in monolithic functional terms, entails capturing the experience of the participants and considering it as a fluid, hybrid, and dynamic system of material signs and symbols that reflect changes in people’s lives and their historical conditions.

In this book, zar has been considered as a mode of experience and a concept of reality that fulfills multiple, varied, and sometimes contradictory functions. All the possibilities of interpreting zar have not been exhausted here, but throughout the text several interpretive possibilities have been provided. Zar is related to the relationship between self and others at a variety of levels, always centered on sacrifice. Elements of zar may be viewed as embodied or oppositional history and as acts of transfer (Connerton 1989), as we have seen in the case of the song of Hassan Abul Gheit. Other elements of zar, particularly its ritual, cyclical, and processual forms, produce locality and serve to ground the devotee in time and space (Appadurai 1996). Zar incorporates women and men into a community of devotees who support them in their crises. The process of zar incorporation also empowers adepts (particularly women) to deal with anxieties and hardships by listening to and trusting their intuitive feelings and senses.

(p.151) Zar is also experienced as embodied images of passiones (Lienhardt 1961; Kramer 1993). Zar guides its sincere devotees toward a sensuous epistemology and a moral orientation of their bodies in the world. It is an open, unbounded, and holistic path of knowing and a way of being in the world. Zar provides the devotees with an experience of the sublime stemming from the power of imagination (Wittgenstein 1979:7e). The spirits are experienced, not only in symptoms of afflictions, events, spaces, visions, dreams, cravings, and intuitive feelings, but more importantly, they are embodied experiences knowable only through the senses in ritual sacrifices, zar music, and trance dances.

Zar experiences are varied and very personal. Each adept experiences her spirits in her own way and in many ways. The music and songs provide the devotees with a bodily technique (Mauss 1950) to exteriorize her sense of passiones through trance. When the zar music is played, the dancer is moved experientially to sense and know the spirit possessing her. The adepts experience their masters through their mimetic trance and non-trance dances, visions, dreams, ritualization in sacrifice, cravings, and feelings. Zar rites and rituals socialize adepts into experiencing the sublime. Zar ritual ways are techniques that teach the adept to experience deeply rooted feelings and to reestablish contact with her deepest self, opening her way in the world and attracting prosperity by being generously active in the world. (p.152)


(48) In zar, the original accent of the song is part of the song, so Upper Egyptian songs are sung with an attempt at an Upper Egyptian accent by singers who were born and raised in Cairo.

(49) Professional belly dancers had developed this generic style from older forms of specialized dancing. These old forms of specialized dancing were structured by the ritual procession performances in weddings and were changed in order to meet the theatrical requirements of cabaret performance and later of the film industry. (p.160)