Songs and Spirits
The “Zar” Ritual in Cairo
by Laurie Eisler
The “zar” is a possession-trance dance ritual practiced solely by women throughout the eleven Middle East countries (Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, the Arabian and Persian Gulf states) and thought to have originated in sub-Saharan Africa. The dance is performed for the purpose of getting physical or psychological relief from distress believed to have been caused by spirits, who must be appeased. This paper describes the zar, the spirit pantheon, the musical accompaniment, and the experience of the trance state by the participants.
This article is based on research I did in Cairo in 1982, 1983, and 1987, when I regularly attended weekly public zars. I searched out zars in old parts of Cairo such as al-Darb al-Ahmar, Sayyida ‘Aysha, Mohandasiin, and in the village of Kerdassa outside Cairo, where I attended a Friday zar which was held in a room adjoining the men’s zikr. The area I frequented most often, and from where I learned the most, was on the edge of Cairo, on Sharia Saleh Salim, near the shrine of Abu Sa’oud. It occurred weekly on Tuesday afternoons, and was well known (taxi drivers would nod when I would direct them to Abu Sa’oud, and smile, “Aha — it’s Tuesday… You must be going to the zar!”). As we approached the neighborhood, there would be cart loads of “baladi” women, drawn by horses, coming from the nearby countryside to visit the shrine, pray and make wishes for the health of their children and husbands, picnic, and then spend several hours at one of the several zars down the street. It was a festive atmosphere, and the air was filled with the sound of drums, even the tiny ceramic ones for sale by the shrine for the children to beat on.
The process of researching the zar was almost as fascinating as learning about the zar itself. I felt like a detective, searching for clues to understand the meaning of what I was observing. My year of Egyptian colloquial Arabic helped, but I needed help deciphering the vocabulary specific to the zar (e.g. “Nizilti?” doesn’t mean “Did you fall down?” but instead, “Did the spirit descend?”). The first step in gaining acceptance and establishing rapport began with literally speaking their language.
As long as I explained my presence by saying I was researching the music, my role was clear. I was permitted to photograph, record, even to videotape the musicians, but NOT the dancers. I wasn’t sure what consequences there would be if I joined the dancing myself (which I was longing to do). Was it possible to play both the role of the observer and the participant? When I finally did throw a black scarf over my head and surrender to the dance, I was asked, “Which spirits are possessing you? What are your ailments? Have you been diagnosed yet by the sheikha?” The reason for my presence there had changed, my role was ambiguous, and I was confused.
This was actually a crucial turning point, an invitation into the inner world of the zar, which I must admit I did not accept. Not wanting to be hypocritical, I refused to let myself be diagnosed, since quite frankly I didn’t believe I was possessed. (I also wasn’t too keen about having a chicken slaughtered over my head, part of the ritual process!) Around that same time, my Arabic language tutor, a teacher at the American University of Cairo, informed me that she’d had enough of zar interview translation sessions; she’d started having nightmares! (Since she was of the upper, educated class, she’d never attended a zar herself, though she did interview her servant for me.)
I often wonder what I would have discovered if I’d gone through that gateway. I admire those rare anthropologists who have the courage to do so (such as Karen Brown, who in Mama Lola, describes getting married to the snake spirit Danbala while researching Haitian voudon in Brooklyn). In any case, I am thankful for what was revealed to me even as a “half participant”/observer of the zar.
The zar is thought to have originated in Ethiopia, or sub-Saharan Africa, possibly because of the Ethiopian word “sar”, referring to a group of spirits which possess individuals during certain vulnerable moments (Kennedy, 1967). Yet folk etymology links “zar” with the Arabic meaning, “to visit”, or “visitation.” In fact, public zars, usually located near local saints’ shrines, coincide with the ritual day of visiting a particular tomb called “yawm az-ziyyara.” In Egypt, the zar is often referred to as the “daqq,” meaning the drum beat, indicating the central role of percussion in the event.
The participants are predominantly married women (the only men allowed other than seriously ill relatives are the musicians). They come to seek relief from physical or psychological disorders which have been diagnosed by a sheikh or sheikha (called in Egyptian dialect the “kodiya”) as stemming from spirit possession. It is believed that these spirits reside underground, and can be angered, most commonly by spilling or throwing liquids on the ground. The places where the onset of possession are likely to occur are where there is water (by rivers, wells, springs, canals, or in the bathroom), or at thresholds such as stairwells or doorways (i.e. symbols of liminality), particularly when it is dark. The body is also believed to be particularly vulnerable to possession when one is in extreme emotional states such as sadness, anger, or fear. Women describe typical situations which are morally “incorrect” as leaving the house angry after shouting at the kids or having a marital quarrel. The psychotherapeutic implications of the zar have been explored by numerous authors (Kennedy, EI Guindy & Schmais, Lewis, Morsi, etc.).
To ward against possession (such as when crossing the threshold of a house), people often utter protective formulas such as “dastuur” (begging forgiveness of the spirits), or the first line of the “fatiha” (opening of the Koran), acknowledging the omnipresence of the spirit world in their lives.
The “kodiya” guides the patient through the required course of action. Attending weekly public zars, or commissioning a private zar in the case of a stubborn spirit, brings their symptoms under control by establishing a harmonious relationship based on appeasement and reconciliation (“solha”) of the spirits’ demands. A private zar involves considerable expense, for she (or her husband) must pay for the musicians, as well as for animal sacrifices, large amounts of food, ritual paraphernalia, perfume, gold, and demands from the spirits (amounting to at least $150). This aspect has led some scholars to interpret the zar as women’s reaction to social and marital repression and subordination, whereby the material demands of the “spirits” are actually manipulations for attention and domestic control. The public zars are a less expensive alternative, where the cure may be effected after going to a prescribed number (usually three), and paying about five dollars per session. Far from being an exorcism, the crux of the zar lies in an ongoing rapport with the spirits in question, which may last from several years to a lifetime.
During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, zars are forbidden, since zar activity is considered peripheral to Islam. At the worst, zars are scorned as anti-Islamic, subject to being raided and shut down by the authorities. Yet the zar is resilient and adaptable: one anthropologist noted that in Sudan, during a period when Islamic fundamentalism increased as a reaction to the perceived immorality of foreign influences, the popularity of the zar also increased (albeit secretly), possibly as an expression of women’s resistance to the oppression of seclusion. (Boddy, 1989).
Ironically, most participants are devout Muslims, and praises to the prophet are constantly shouted after each dance. Yet there is an inclusiveness of all religions in the zar, similar to Sufism, which makes it all the more suspect to Islamic fundamentalists. Muslim women may be possessed by Christian spirits (Saint George, called “khawaaga,” or foreigner, is a special favorite), and will visit the Mari Girgis church, while Christian women may “host” Muslim saints, and visit their shrines.
Context of the Public Zars in Cairo
The public zars are open to all women, and are held in the lower-economic, older parts of town, at the home of the kodiya in charge of the ceremony. The women who attend are generally from the low-income class called “baladi” (literally, “of the country”), who are characterized by the black overgarment they wear in public called the “milaya laff” and retain traditional values and beliefs regarding the jinn, or spirits. The association is so strong that one researcher defined a Baladi woman in part as one “who attends zars” (EI-Messiri). Young, more educated women sporting tight skirts and high heels sometimes do come, out of curiosity and to enjoy the music, but most upper-class women are terribly embarrassed by the zar and speak of it with scorn.
The physical symptoms most often attributed to spirit possession include swelling or pain in the limbs or stomach, infertility, miscarriages, epilepsy, loss of appetite, and others. I have seen large women hobble into the zar with a swollen leg, and then get up to dance vigorously, with no noticeable leg pain. The most common psychological symptom described is insomnia, nervousness, or anxiety. The Egyptian term for it is “ta’baan” (tired, or sick), which can be applied to anything from a flat tire to pregnancy! It is a broad concept which includes stresses such as marital discord, alcoholism, unemployment, and deaths in the family. Women I interviewed agreed that the spirits don’t make them sick as much as “uptight;” the purpose of the zar is literally to relax.
The number of women at the gatherings ranged from 15-50. There is a constant turnover, since a zar normally lasts from 4 to 9 hours. There are usually two music ensembles, which alternate sets so they don’t tire. (In the zar I frequented, one band was all-women, the other all men. It is only the male musicians who are allowed into the zar, and to have physical contact with the participants. ) At the doorway, a woman would take off her shoes, enter and pay an average of 50 piasters (cents) to be purified with incense under her dress, armpits, etc. Even the drums are incensed. As dance therapist Schmais (1994) pointed out, the practice of using incense as a beginning/closing ritual is highly therapeutic, establishing a routine for honoring the spiritual domain.
After she has been incensed, a newcomer is instructed to sit with the others on the floor against the wall, and wait until she finds herself responding physically to the music by trembling, swaying, weeping, falling into trance, etc. When she does so, she is responding to the beat of a specific spirit whose song is being played, and which most likely is the cause of her discomfort. Any person may be possessed by a number of different spirits at the same time, and would thus dance to several songs, each lasting from five to twenty minutes (In a private zar, the dancing is more extended.) Normally there would be at least three dancers in the middle of the circle at a time, and as the song would proceed, more would rise to join them. Each spirit’s song is a self-contained unit, which is completed before going on to the next. The music starts slowly, and then accelerates until the dancers reach a type of cathartic release and collapse on the floor.
A newcomer may have to ask the women around her to help identify the rhythms, to make sure she doesn’t miss her spirit’s dance. She may also need to consult with the kodiya to get a diagnosis on her possessing spirit(s). An old-timer will actually request specific songs from the musicians when she enters, and pay for them in advance, with several dollars per spirit. An example: “Give me the red jinn, the mermaid, the doctor… and make it quick, because I have to get home!” I have witnessed this type of request, especially on religious holidays when there is baking and preparations to do at home.
The Spirit World and Historical Influences
The spirit world is a complex pantheon which acts as a dynamic reality in the lives of zar participants. This parallel world is populated by a dizzying variety of characters, who not only represent the multitude of foreign colonialist powers who have influenced Egypt over time, but also reflect ancient, more universal elements such as worship of water and the moon. As such, their existence offers a remarkable example of syncretism which has occurred on an unconscious level. Most of the literature on the zar has been limited to internal social and psychological dynamics, without taking into consideration its relationship to the world at large. Only Boddy, in her work on the Sudanese zar, broadens our vision by suggesting that in the zar, women and their possessing spirits embody a community’s consciousness of its history of domination and colonialist encroachment (1989).
Awareness of foreign imperial powers is an integral part of the Egyptian ethos, considering that until recently, the ruling class in Egypt was for over two thousand years non-Egyptian! In the introduction to Edward Lane’s famous monograph on nineteenth-century Egypt, it is pointed out that “…in 526 B.C. the Persians invaded Egypt and became its rulers, to be followed in 332 B.C. by the Greeks, in 30 B.C. by the Romans, and in 323 A.D. the Byzantines… from 640 until 1952… they poured into Egypt in flamboyant succession: the Ommeyads, Abbasids, Tulunids, Fatimids, Ayubites, Mamelukes, Turks, French, British…”. Yet the Egyptians have found creative responses to colonization, and the zar may represent one such response. According to Constantinides, it was during the Turko-Egyptian occupation that the zar first appeared in Sudan, with Ottoman spirits figuring prominently in its pantheon. The spirit world of the zar looks to the outsider like a chaotic melting pot of crazy, unrelated characters. Viewing the spirits as reflections of historical influences helps us order the chaos, but we must remember there is much more complexity to the picture. Also thrown into the melting pot are more ancient, universal expressions of the group unconscious which transcend cultural history (such as the numerous water spirits). The following attempt at classification just begins to scratch the surface.
Classification of Spirits
The spirits are known by name, and can be loosely grouped into two categories: “jinn” (as mentioned in the Koran), known as “ginn” or “afarit” in the Egyptian dialect; and “asyad.” Afarit are considered malevolent, the worst being the blue and the red ginns. The term afarit is sometimes applied in an affectionate way to children with mischievous personalities. Asyad, literally the “masters,” are the more common category of spirits. They are considered essentially benevolent, but can cause trouble if their demands are not met.
The following list includes Constantinides’ findings for the Sudanese zar (1977), as well as my observations in Cairo, and by no means can be considered complete, since there are countless spirits, and new ones entering the pantheon all the time.
— Muslim saints (male & female): The prophet Mohammad; Mustafa, Husayn, Sayyid al-Bedawi, Abu Sa’oud, Abu Ro’ash, Abu Asim, Sayyida Zeinab, Sayyida Aysha, Fatima al-Nabawiyya, etc.
— “Foreigners” (the khawagaat), meaning non-Muslim religious figures: Jesus, priests and nuns in general, Christian saints (St. George, Samir al Mesihi), and a Jewish “Yehudi.”
— “Bashas” (Pashas): Turkish government administrators, military officials, and doctors. Yawra Bey, Hakim Basha, Dona Bey (an American doctor with an Ottoman title who wears a khaki suit, carries an elephant gun, drinks prodigious amounts of whiskey, and hunts “dik-dik”, dainty antelope!)
— Other Arab ethnicities, often in male/female pairs: the Arab, the Sudanese, the Saudi Arabian, the Nubian, the Barbari, the Moroccan.
— Ladies/Old women: Agouza, Ya Mama, Rena, etc.
— Anthropomorphic spirits: spirits of wells, springs, rivers, the latrine (Salila), sitt safina (mermaid), ‘awwama (swimmer), sultan al-bahr (ruler of the sea), Ya Amar (the moon).
To my knowledge, there has been little or no documentation done on the musical accompaniment to the zar ritual, which is surprising, since the music is perhaps the most crucial element to the dancers themselves. The musicians play a unique role in both the encouragement and the control of their trance/movement experience. I often heard criticism of a particular zar based solely on the quality of the music : “… this band’s lazy, how can we go into trance to this?” ; “.. I like this zar because the singer’s good,” etc.
There are three main types of musical ensembles in Cairo (called “turuq”, or “ways”). The ensemble will be either all-female, or all-male, performers. One group, called “Abu-ghayt” (father of the fields) plays only the songs and rhythms associated with the first class of spirits — the Muslim saints. They call their repertoire “Medih in-nebi,” or “praises of the prophet.” The songs have a call and response structure, with the lead singer’s chorus made up of the percussionists. This group is distinguished by the suffara, or end-blown flute; frame drums such as the muzhar, duff, tar, tambourine (riqq); a large tablah drum or duhula; and a cymbal player (zagat). The rhythms are purely Egyptian, featuring the common beats of ayyub, malfuf, and maqsum.
The second type of ensemble, “Masri,” has a distinctly African flavor and the members are mostly Sudanese women. There is a lead singer and at least three percussionists, who play non-Egyptian rhythms. This ensemble’s spirit repertoire doesn’t include the Muslim saints. In the zar I frequented most, this band had a wonderful lead Sudanese singer who was black as night, wore brilliant gold jewelry, and had a deep resonant voice.
The third group, called “Sudani,” uses Sudanese instruments (the tambura-harp, and two drums hit with sticks, the tablah it-tambur.) The lyrics are in Sudanese, and are often associated with the water spirits. A member of the ensemble dances holding a rattle, the shukh-shaykha (usually an old insecticide can!), and wears a large hip belt (mangur) made of goats’ hooves that creates a “shhk-shhk” sound when shaken.
According to the women I interviewed, the purpose of going to the zar was “to relax,” a concept which I grew to understand as a deep sense of calmness associated with the state of trance, experienced while moving to music, with the resulting peace of mind lasting even after the event was over. If that transcendent state wasn’t reached, the zar wasn’t “successful,” and usually the musicians were blamed. There is powerful support for the trance experience, as if the intention of the group is unified. The most common question asked of me, after the novelty of my presence wore off, was “Bitfa’ari?” (Do you go into trance?)
One woman described this experience as happening when she listened to the words of a spirit’s song: “While they sing, the body becomes calm and still. It relaxes completely…out-of-control, free, floating.” The frame drum (tar) player’s job is to consciously encourage this blissful state by standing over a participant and drumming loudly, dramatically twirling the tar, increasing the tempo until the woman eventually falls into trance. In the Abu ghayt ensemble, the cymbal player has the most physical contact with the dancers, dancing with them, spinning them to deepen their trance, urging them on. In fact, several women shared that if they know in advance that they want to really abandon themselves to a certain beat, they will tip one of the drummers so that they will be especially tended to.
The process is a learned one, starting with identification of one’s various “beats.” One woman said, “Some spirits are sneaky. They make you get up and dance to every song, but won’t come down, so you don’t go into trance. .. Others are nice; they come immediately, they’re ‘clear.’ This is refreshing to the body.” Another described the experience poetically:
When they (the musicians) sing, for example,“Ya safinit il bahr, ya ‘awwama, ya dayy il ‘ayn, inti gamalik.” (“Oh mermaid, oh swimmer, light of my eyes, your beauty…”), if our hearts surrender, then we fall into trance. When the body wants to go into trance, don’t hold it back, let it go. If your body gives in to a beat, then that beat is yours from then on.
The character of the movement varies according to the spirit in question. There are two main distinctions — those that are cool and peaceful, and those that are hot and violent. The violent ones (the red ginn, the Sudanese) are distinguished by a faster, more driving tempo and by forceful movements, jumping, punching, etc. This may look like riding a horse, actually embodying the spirit’s “riding” (a term they do use) the body. Another typical posture for the violent hami spirits is kneeling, pounding the floor, and shaking the head.
Some of the asyad, especially the anthropomorphic female spirits, have a more controlled, softer quality to them. These are cooler (hadi) in character, and the dancers may be conscious of dancing gracefully and being watched by the others. They will even bring scarves of different colors, which they will adjust and rearrange while dancing. There is an element of performance, taken very seriously. I’ve heard impatient comments from those seated, “Hey, down in front! Get out of the way, I can’t see.” Part of the satisfaction derived from the zar is not only receiving social support and approval for dancing, but also the vicarious experience of watching other women in trance.
This type of self-awareness, however, is not the rule. As each song progresses, the rhythm of the movement speeds up, the trance state deepens, and women tend to lose their sense of self. Those at the periphery will come to physically support those who may bump into each other or fall, so there is the important feeling of safety. At the climax of the song, the movement can get frenzied, and women may cry out, weep, thrash, tear their clothes (one reason why men aren’t allowed in), roll on the floor. Their behavior is carefully watched and controlled, since it is “inappropriate” to get too “messy.” Also, the spirits don’t like being observed; there are phrases and songs about them feeling blamed for being “imperfect.” This behavior indicates that (as one informant put it) “the asyad are giving a woman trouble. It has nothing to do with being bad or good, it’s that they desire gifts from her (gold amulets, a scarf, a new dress)…, and want solha (reconciliation).”
By reconciliation, she means the agreement to pay up, to appease the spirit. “She mustn’t be allowed to continue on to the next song. There should be someone there who knows how to find out the spirit’s demands first. The asyad mustn’t be allowed to escape from the body, so someone should grab the big toe (!) and hold it until the spirit talks.” In one case, a spirit was disturbed with the woman because she’d had a fight with her husband and left the house angry. The possession forced her to confront what was left unresolved and come to some sort of negotiated peace.
Sometimes a woman requires external stimulation to come out of trance; the kodiya may press her head (“to make the spirit leave”), sprinkle water on her, or wave incense. Companions may massage her limbs. As soon as the next beat starts, she will revive.
This has been only a descriptive summary of the zar, with special focus on the women’s own experience. Clearly, outsiders have barely skimmed the surface in their understanding. The keys lie with the participants themselves, in the music, in the spirits. Implications for the therapeutic benefits of the zar are worthy of much more attention. The zar has always been resilient, adapting to new influences, providing a safe and sacred space in which to process on a bodily level the stresses and conflicts of a changing world.
Boddy, Janice. Wombs and Alien Spirits; Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan. U. Of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
Constantinides, Pamela. “Ill at Ease and Sick at Heart: Symbolic Behavior in a Sudanese Healing Cult,” in I. Lewis (editor), Symbols and Sentiments (London: Academic Press), 1977.
Eisler, Laurie. “Hurry Up and Play My ‘Beat:’ the Zar Ritual in Cairo.” UCLA Journal of Dance Ethnology. Vol. 9, 1985.
Eisler, Laurie. “Colonialism Embodied: The Spirit Pantheon of the Zar in Cairo.” Unpublished paper for M. Gilsenan’s Anthropology of the Middle East graduate class. U.C. Berkeley, 1992.
EI-Guindy, Howaida, and Claire Schmais. “The Zar: An Ancient Dance of Healing,” in American Journal of Dance Therapy. Vol. 16, No. 2,1994.
EI-Messiri, Sawsan. “Self-images of Traditional Urban Women in Cairo” in L. Beck and N. Keddie (editors) Women in the Muslim World. (Cambridge, England: Harvard University Press), 1978.
Kennedy, J.G. “Nubian Zar Ceremonies as Psychotherapy,” Human Organization, 26, 1967.
Note: I welcome communication from anyone who has been to the zar in Cairo, has questions, has updated, conflicting, or different observations from mine, or photos, recordings (video/audio), interviews, etc. which they would be willing to share. I wish to continue research, focusing on song-translations, interviews with participants, and quality recording. Collaborators are welcome! Contact Laurie at (510) 845-4118.
Laurie Eisler received a B.A. in World Arts & Cultures, and an M.A. in dance therapy from UCLA, where she started playing Arabic music in Dr. Jihad Racy’s ensemble. From 1982-83, and again in 1987, she lived in Cairo, taking intensive lessons on the riqq (tambourine) and the qanun (zither). Laurie teaches a Middle Eastern music ensemble part-time at U.C. Berkeley’s Ethnomusicology department. She has taught tambourine at the Mendocino Middle-East Music & Dance Camp, and is a guest artist on a recently released CD, “Zakharafa.”