A Contemporary Zar

A Contemporary Zar in Old Cairo

By Eva Cernik

As Oriental dancers, we are familiar with zar: images of women thrashing their hair nearly to the floor to increasingly frenzied music. This “trance dance” is part of the heritage of the Dervishes, members of a Sufi branch of Islam, which came to Egypt from Morrocco and the Sudan. Originally ascetics, the Sufis were devoted to coming closer to God through austere living. One of their practices was called zikr (“remembrance” or “praise” of God) in which they would gather together for chanting. They also learned to achieve a trance-like state of contact with the divine through whirling, which was also practiced during zar, or exorcism. (Sue Pitt, “In a Spin,” Cairo Today, July, 1988, pg. 36)

The whirling dance is a spiritual dance, long looked on askance and often outlawed by governments and orthodox mutawas and mullahs, who view it as an indulgence in the lower spiritual world, producing powers which can only be feared, if not understood. Being viewed by its practitioners as a direct tap to the source, it bypasses, and thus renders powerless, the proponents of The Book. Islam has discouraged the shift of power from Allah to mankind; for example, allowance was not made for a priesthood for this reason (although somehow in the aging religion men have found a way to do just that). A practice such as the whirling dance, which purports to produce such a mystical connection directly between man and God, is threatening to the established religious hierarchy.

The dervishes have seen on their spiritual path a plane where spirits distract “mankind” (mostly “womankind,” as it seems at these zars). According to their belief, lowly, misguided spirits enter the bodies of people at moments of weakness, and cause psychic problems, disease, infertility, etc.

In addition to the whirling dance, dervishes also use rhythm, music and dance to produce trance states, as they have been used in many cultures, some cultures achieving a high degree of sophistication and effectiveness. For instance, the rhythms of the Samburu Turkana warriors of Kenya produced trance states in European audiences, and “seem to be equally effective in putting nontribal people into the same trance states. Comparisons have been made between these patterns of sound and the old iambic rhythm, which was thought to be so powerful that it was banned in ancient Greece unless a priest was in attendance.” (Lyall Watson, The Romeo Error, Dell, 1974, p. 79)

Theories attempting to explain the development of trance states abound. Watson states that most trance states are “conditions of dissociation produced by strongly exciting one focal area of the brain until this produces a reciprocal state of inhibition in other areas.” (Ibid.) Firewalkers inhibit the signals of pain from their feet in this way, according to Watson. In a worldwide study of trance states, William Sargant found that they are “induced everywhere by a combination of rhythmic stimuli and overbreathing.” (Ibid.) For example, forced rapid and shallow breathing under a smoke-filled blanket produces hyperventilation in a traditional Zambia exorcism practice. (Ibid)

There are few western historical accounts of zars in Cairo available. However, a Mr. McPherson described a zar which he attended in Cairo in 1920. He made reference to non-Islamic singing, seemingly exaggerated postures, and erotic singing and dancing. He further elaborated that slaughtering of animals occurred, and blood from these was smeared upon the participants’ faces and bodies. (Wendy Buonaventura, Serpent of the Nile, Saqi Books, 1989, p. 162) Buonaventura states that sacrifices are still made today at the start of zar ceremonies in Cairo. She states that dancers often totally cover their heads at the beginning of the dance for better focus.

As Buonaventura writes, “The trance dance is not for the eye to appreciate, but for the body’s well-being. It is a social dance rather than a theatrical spectacle.” (Ibid., p. 161) A normal housewife in Cairo today has only occasion to dance at family weddings and parties, and has little time or energy left to dance just to dance. In addition, dancing for show or in public is not acceptable there. But at the zar, it’s therapeutic.

Photos from video footage by Cara Koure

In my fourteen years of travelling to Egypt, I had never been invited to observe a zar. When the opportunity arose this year, I agreed to go without the slightest hesitation. Gathering those who remained after one of my tours was over, we drove a long way with our contact man, Ahmed Khalil, Sakti Rinek’s business partner, to the south of Cairo on the Corniche el Nil, nearly to the old city walls. We turned inland from the stylish buildings by the Nile until we were surrounded by the small one story houses of the poor area they call Sayidina Zainab. We turned into a small, unpaved street, and in a clearing behind some buildings, paid our taxi driver. We watched him drive away, attempting to shrug off creeping inner panic. We were led to a doorway covered only with curtain, just behind a small candy store front.

Our hearts were consoled (and settled back into place) when we saw a couple of famliar faces: the Dervishes from last week’s show at “El Ghouri Center for Legacy.” Our two favorite and most charismatic players were there: the sweet, smiling cymbal player, and the tall, stern and dignified darbuka player, now in bright yellow sweat suit. He no longer wore his tightly wound turban and glasses, revealing an ungroomed Afro and a scar across one brow. Though occupied with preparing things, he beckoned us in.

It seemed they were at a stopping point in their zar, which lasts from noon until midnight every Tuesday at the will of a very old woman who has sponsored these zars for as long as anybody can remember. Just inside the door, sitting in her black dress on the straw-matted floor (looking about 78 by my guess), she motioned for seats to be cleared for the six of us upright-sitting foreigners. Next to us on a bed by the wall sat five or six very flashy women and a couple of quiet men. The small room was full. Over by the armoire in the opposite corner were at least five musicians holding Nubian tars and tambourines of every size. On the floor were seated many older women looking serious and uncurious. Coming and going from a cotton print curtain in another corner were men with small glass tea cups, looking for direction on delivering them from the old woman, who motioned to us. Later in the night, a heavy, modestly dressed woman dripping with gold accessories entered almost ceremoniously. She sat down prominently on a blanket, and didn’t move the whole night. We were told that she comes every time and contributes much money.

With some urgency to get started again, our darbuka player approached us with “smudging” apparatus. (In the Southwest of the U.S., “smudging” refers to an Indian practice of burning sage and swishing it in the air to purify it of any unwelcome spirits.) He came with a squared-cone of sorts, with fuming herb and resin. Holding it in front of me, he quickly urged me to lift my shoulder wrap up over my head and make a tent of it to well-fumigate my hair and face. I probably should have inhaled for maximum effect. My wrap went to serve the others, as only the newcomers were “smudged.”

The Dervishes began their chanting. Our darbuka player, now mastering a tambourine, sang strongly, sometimes in words unknown to Arabic. Our cymbal player, still smiling as if in heaven, was chanting and playing his six-inch zills as if they were ripe peaches. Other musicians surrounded them with sustained rhythms. A week ago, we saw these same people in a government-sponsored show, all tidy and in brilliant form. With full sincerity and devotion apparent in their faces, they chanted and sang words taken from the song of the Prophet Mohammed as he trekked from Mecca to Medina, an apparent effort by the government to appease the growing fundamentalist religious trend among the people. Yet these performers, even with the green flag of Islam adoringly draped upon one of their faces, engaged in the whirling dance of the Dervishes.

Bills of 20 Egyptian Pounds or less were passed to the group, and consequently held up, kissed, and placed in an unemployed tar. A woman emerged from the area where most of the bills originated, eyes closed, slightly rocking. Others at her elbows followed her closely and watched. She danced and stumbled to center mat, and remained there submitting to every beat as it came to her body in waves through the thick air in the room. The Dervishes came to her and sang in her ear. They played, and she writhed and pulsated, her eyes closed throughout. The movements seemed to originate in the thoracic cavity, pulsating as if with spasms in the upper chest. The neck was loose, allowing the head to wave with the pulses, and the arms were generally used for support whether on her friends or on the floor. Eventually the pulses would make their way down to the waist and lower back, and finally to the pelvis, by which time the woman had already fallen on all fours. Her friends ushered her aside, as the rhythm abated and more bills made their way to the front.

A woman in full make-up and bright clothes sat quietly on the bed. The tall Dervish in the yellow sweatsuit sang to her, carefully observing her every action. She seemed to retreat, whereupon he elaborated on the rhythm he played on his tar, counteracting her resistance. Somewhere in her manner he detected a seed and cultivated it with his rhythm. The other Dervishes followed, and like a magnet now amplified, she rose and danced, gradually waxing to full abandonment of inhibitions. They did not remove their focus from her for an instant. They seemed to find rhythms in her body which they in turn played to the brink, searching and searching for more until all of them as a group gave one last swell and mercifully subsided as she dropped to all fours.

I went out for air, where the cool night gave me some familiar comfort. I wondered whether private zars could be commissioned to allow for yet more thorough work.

Either we went to a “no bones” zar where the blood and head covering, as described by Mr. McPherson, was deemed unnecessary, or possibly they quit doing the slaughtering of animals for precaution against being outlawed altogether. In any case, we did not see any blood, or hear of any. I had read accounts of zars by modern Egyptian writers whose words were infused with sexual innuendo. Our zar, though at times undeniably paralleling the sexual experience, seemed naive that way. Perhaps the eroticism came at another time or place which we did not attend.

Nevertheless, the Dervishes did their work. Conflicting emotions resolved in tears, and anxious wide-eyed women later sat down contented and unhaunted. In time, calmness pervaded the participants, reminding me of friends I’ve seen soon after their nervous breakdowns. By night’s end, we felt some kind of calm as well. We had danced, all of us, among others on the dance mat, and though we also passed bills to the front, we wondered why we each did not get our own custom rhythm like so many of the other women did. Did the musicians want to spare us embarrassment if they thought we were too bashful to let down our defenses…or did they think that tourists don’t ever get possessed?!

Eva Cernik has traveled and researched Oriental and folkloric dance in Middle Eastern countries. She has studied and trained with an Iraqi Sufi master for thirteen years. Ms. Cernik is a well-known dancer and teacher, and has lead tours to Egypt and Turkey for the past ten years. www.evadancer.com

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