zĀr Trance, intuition and community in egyptian spirit possession cult
FOR OVER ONE HUNDRED YEARS ZĀR has been DISTURBING AND FASCINATING THE WESTERN WORLD. JUST LIKE THE DARKNESS OF THE ABYSS that separates understanding FROM EXPERIENCE
Cairo. One of the most important cities of the Middle East can inspire your imagination a lot. A cosmopolitan metropolis where at the very same day you can sit on the corner of a street sipping coffee with a Sudanese, talk about nightlife in the Gaza Strip with a Palestinian, or drink a local Stella beer in the noisy El Horreya bar, filled with male and female representatives of the quite liberal part of the Egyptian society. In this city inhabited by twenty-million people and constantly paralyzed by heavy traffic, at every turn you encounter human kindness. If a driver of a Suzuki minivan – dressed in an elegant jellabiya and bravely ploughing through nervous arteries of urban tissue – is not able to change a high-denomination banknote you gave him, he will hand you back the entire sum and send a disarming farewell kiss. After the revolution, the city is not safe, yet stereotypes are challenged anywhere and honesty is the norm on Egyptian streets. It may happen that under the overpass to Al-Azhar, you will give the same banknote to a poor man who did not wait for it. Baraka!
Cairo is an absorbing place and the only thing that can get you out of it quickly is the need of a gulp of fresh air. The desert’s dust is everywhere: it shades the sun, and its thick layer covers fur of cats and dogs sleeping on car hoods in the evening. There are several metro lines in the city, yet most of four million people commuting from the suburbs to work each day take minivans – a steel river reeking with underburnt diesel fuel – and taxis filled with smoke from ubiquitous cigarettes.
Since April 2013, I visited Cairo many times, mainly seeking music. During one of the visits, I realized that Zār culture is not an old disappearing tradition but it is doing surprisingly well in the dynamically transforming modern Egypt. The only thing I had to do was to wait patiently for the first encounter. It was evening. Salty peanuts sold by weight and local tobacco products on a windowsill covered with pigeons’ shit. Downtown district, bearing a slight resemblance to Paris, located on the eastern bank of the mighty Nile river with its wide linear gridded alleys and high buildings is icon of the nineteenth century Egyptian modernists and nationalists aspirations to shift the streets and the entire society towards rationality, order and the idea of progress. Best French architects were selected to plan the grandiose Downtown project. Ismail Pasha – the grandson of Muhammad Ali Pasha – explained the general idea bluntly in his statement given in the year 1879:
My country is no longer in Africa; we are now part of Europe. It is therefore natural for us to abandon our former ways and to adopt a new system adapted to our social conditions.
In the colonial era the label “savage” always justified ruthless exploitation. Many African countries had to undergo enormous political change and social shift to cope with the Western hegemony. New emerged nationalists political circles became also interested in the perspective of total socio-political reform. This is the story told by currently crumbling buildings of Downtown Cairo sliding into decay as times changed and the rich moved to Zamalek, Heliopolis, Maadi and other districts of the city. The social project that originated in the nineteenth century had huge impact on Egyptian culture and religion and the fact that ecstatic zār and subversive sufi saints festivals remain vibrant traditions right in the heart of the capital city did surprise me a lot.
The poetry of watching traffic from the top floor of a five dollar hotel in Downtown Cairo was suddenly disturbed by a phone call. “It is today, you can come” – said a friendly voice. In fifteen minutes I was standing in the street trying to catch a cab to Cairo to reach the place faster. Three taxi drives in a row of gently bid me adieu and drove off as soon as I uttered “Abu Gheit.” Only later I learned that the area is famous for mysterious cargos, crooked businesses and best quality hashish. Law enforcement officers are not particularly enthusiastic about patrolling the surrounding, which, as a matter of fact, poses no political threat. It turns out that these circumstances provide excellent conditions for the development of communities of zār practitioners, usually operating on the outskirts of Egyptian culture. First I took the subway, then a minivan, nicely overloaded in the evening, then a rickshaw and finally I reached the given address in one of dusty alleyways of a typical town in the Nile delta. From behind the wooden doors I could hear solid drumming and singing, which cannot be mistaken for anything else. The weekly hadra (participation, presence) was underway at its best. The small room was packed tight with people, instruments, incense and cigarettes smoke. Women sat in a circle on the floor smoking shisha and sipping beer, agitated kids fluttered around, and a group of men played music. They used beautifully asymmetrical drums daf and brass finger cymbals sājāt (zill), as well as flutes named kaval. Their voices were strong, and their faces and eyes looked gentle but focused. Zār is a spiritual phenomenon and its source spouts at the very foundations of the community, fed by waters from very old rock formations of the continent. There is no place for religious demagogy here. What counts in zār micro-communities is experience, commitment and support. Their microcosm is the Nile Delta and Cairo. Each group is slightly different, yet all of them function as self-sufficient systems, almost invisible in the mainstream culture.
Sometimes we are touched by the beauty of life. What moves us? Sometimes we lose our temper or are taken over by mad ecstatic joy. What are we carried by? Sometimes we are nothing but an ocean of sadness. At the same time, we are ourselves and we are the ocean. Are these behaviors and states deliberately chosen by us? In Arabic this state is called nadha – a divine touch, a mystical cry. Many religious traditions of Africa and Middle East give answers to this question by attiring them in particular forms. Holy men, jinns, and zār spirits are irrational ways of perceiving reality and oneself. A zār spirit is at the same time a stranger and our inner self.
Zar abu gheit / rec 1
But let us put the poetry and prose aside and jump for a while to the land of greater density of thoughts. I would like to explain the phenomenon of Zār a bit more, perhaps even to correct some misunderstandings. First of all, the word “zār” is used in two meaning. Depending on the context, it means a cultural phenomenon or a certain type of ghosts in Middle Eastern folklore. Zār has been fascinating and disturbing the Western world for over a hundred years, yet it has been usually described in a one-dimensional manner, depending on the implications of a researcher or a traveller. An exotic psychotherapy, a space of women’s emancipation, or a liberal social structure struggling with the apparatus of control of a modern state – all of them are functional models, images of the phenomenon that cannot be limited to a single frame. I deliberately omit the interpretation of zār as an exorcism. Early reports of Christian monks were totally inadequate. The zār spirits – just like the Guardian Angel – cannot be expelled.
This complex phenomenon becomes slightly more clarified by the report of Hager el Hadidi, an extraordinary scholar from California State University Bakersfield who abandoned her academic approach during her own initiation and bound herself to a Zār community for the rest of her life. El Hadidi describes her experiences in Zār hadras of the Cairo medina:
When I stopped observing and recording zar, I started experiencing zar techniques beyond rationality. While rationally I can not acknowledge the supernatural and its grip on our lives except perhaps in an abstraction, the experience of zar rites and rituals touched me from within.
Her complete report is distinguished from other available studies. The use of analytical tools by a participant of cult provides the unique situation and guarantees reliability of the report. El Hadidi involuntarily became the spokesman of the community telling a bit more subtle story. Zār described by El Hadidi is in the first place the path of developing profound intuition and of using it in everyday experience; of listening to your feelings and of using your imagination boldly to interpret the world. Each new member of the community undergoes a slow alchemical process. Successive stages of initiation, intertwined with rituals, are connected with studies of interpretation of dreams and appearing signs. The group helps the initiated persons to develop trust in their own feelings and supports them in building a deep relationship with themselves. Just like in the Sufi practices, the basic principles of zār are honesty and purity of intentions. The inner integration growing on this foundation, along with entire zār entourage provides matter for a flexible and non-dogmatic spiritual path, designed on an ongoing basis and according to individual needs. Wisdom gained on this path is experienced by a follower’s body rather than thought. Symbols and signs are selected and rearranged in response to the needs of a particular person often creating completely new meanings.
abu gheit, nile delta, 2018
Zār is a compass helping to navigate through the key stages of life. Especially women find orientation in zār, particularly during special rituals associated to cycles of life – such as reaching maturity, pregnancy, and menopause. Intuitions, dreams, visions, symbols, sacrifices, music, trance… – thanks to a ritual imagination becomes tangible and can be a reference point. Zār is still basically a domain of women. Male participants of zār are usually initiated by women. During ceremonies, most of men are accompanied by their wives, sisters, female cousin or neighbours . Men in the zār community are usually musicians yet they can also be ordinary participants or leaders of ceremonies (video below). Music, dance and trance are techniques of externalization of very intimate spaces, of mental healing and connection with the sacred. The deepest personal experiences experienced in a group allow to create real bonds and to establish a community which members care for each other. Zār practice is based on observing everyday sanctity in oneself, in other people and in the world. Graduates of this university are ready to give the world their responsible participation.
Zar abu gheit / rec 2
Like the spiritual path of each participant, the phenomenon as a whole is also flexible. In the West and in Arab countries one can hear that zār has got Ethiopian roots. The first ink-inscribed record on zār comes from the seventeenth century Abyssinia and was written in the local liturgical language, Ge’ez. The first account given by Christian missionaries active in this region comes from 1839. However in Ethiopia it is believed that the origins of this tradition are Arabic. What seems significant, zār is everywhere described as coming from outside and from afar, and in fact the Hebrew word zar means ‘foreign’. Perhaps it is true that the name of the phenomenon was given by Jewish jewelers who usually distributed amulets made of carnelian and ritual jewelry throughout the region.
Migrations of people from one shore of the Red Sea to the other, from Arabia to Yemen and Abyssinia, transfer of slaves from Ethiopia and Sudan to the north under Anglo-Egyptian rule, the Hajj from West and North Africa to Mecca – these are just some of the population movements observed in the region over the last several hundred years. It is certain that the Egyptian zār has originated from the same source as the Bori cults of the Hausa people, inhabiting the border regions between Nigeria and Niger, derdeba ceremonies of the Gnawa ethnic group in Morocco, and Tunisian stambeli. In the same vein, we can assume that zār shares a lot of common elements with spirituality of the ahl-i hava (People of the Air) from Balochistan, the Sidama and Gurage peoples in Ethiopia, the ancient Vodun culture of Yoruba, and even trance rituals on the island Mayotta (which we will discuss soon).
In the hard-to-decipher dialect of zār, called rotana, there are many words from remote regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. The word kodya (a person who leads ceremonies in a certain type of zār) comes from the Hausa language in which godiya means ‘horse’ or ‘riding’. Some may associate these terms with the tradition of Vodun from Benin and Togo. The word mayanga – a place where bones of sacrificed animal are usually buried – means ‘cemetery’ in the Hausa language. A certain song sung in one of the Egyptian cities of the Nile Valley has the same melody and rhythm as one of song of the Moroccan Gnawa, while some North African spirits have also found their place in the Cairo pantheon. Moreover, the practices of Zār Tambura (the so-called African Zār) undoubtedly arrived with Sudanese immigrants, and certain names of Egyptian spirits were recorded in Ethiopia about one hundred years ago.
Zār has always wandered with its practitioners and evolved responding to socio-political transformations. Zār is a living structure that comes from everywhere and from nowhere, a patchwork in which the history of many communities has been recorded. The pantheon of spirits, songs, symbols and language make up an ever-re-emerging conglomerate with great potential for adaptation. Zār songs have always contained borrowings from popular culture, melodies from Nubian weddings, religious chants or even from still appreciated recordings of Umm Kulthum, a prominent Egyptian singer. When no one sings an ancient song, the spirit to which it was dedicated has to die. However, this place does not remain empty for a long time, so the cult stays fresh and meaningful for its practitioners.
According to the popular concept of the world in Islam, humans were created by god from earth and water, while jinns were created from fire and wind (reeh). The word ‘zār’ refers not only to the cultural phenomenon itself but also a peculiar kind of jinns placed somewhere below saints and prophets in the hierarchy of the local pantheon. Zār spirits are like reflections of people in another dimension: they accompany us but their nature is entirely different. They create their own social contexts, hierarchies and even families. Their world permeates with ours in abandoned, dark places, in doorways of houses, in stairwells, near water sources, in cemeteries or in places labelled as impure. In Egypt it is believed that there are sixty-six of zār spirits altogether but not a single zar sheikh or sheikha (male/female group leaders) is able to name them all. The overwhelming majority of zār spirits are guardians and guides of humans. Those most commonly encountered are not particularly evil or harmful, though they happen to be very whimsical, revengeful and jealous. Possessed may result from many everyday human behaviors: in consequence of stepping on an invisible spirit in the doorway, consumption of sacrificial meat by an uninitiated person, exposure to evil eye or any other form of sorcery.
Yawra Bey is the main zār spirit of the pantheon of all Cairo-based groups and the chants devoted to him are heard most often. He usually appears in the company of his daughter Rakusha, because zār spirits always appears as female-male couples. He takes form of a handsome, dark-skinned officer of the nineteenth-century Egyptian army, dressed in a red sash and fez, smoking a cigarette or a water pipe. His attribute is a high, gilded chair in a rococo style – a symbol of state, power, elite status and Western standards that inspired socio-political reforms of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Yawra Bey appeared in the Cairo pantheon around that time. A dandy and a gentleman in one, he seduces young, most beautiful girls and he is very jealous of them. It makes them reject admirers one by one – or causes that their beaus cease to like them. Sexual problems in marriage and homosexuality are also his activities. In his case, instead of “possession” terms like “infatuation”, or “love” are used.
On the other hand, Gado is a slave from Nigeria and a messenger from other zār spirits. He resides in bathrooms, and precisely in outflows of toilets, which are a portal connecting the human world with the world of spirits. Possession by Gado and Mariuma, his companion, may result in infertility or madness; female teenagers are particularly vulnerable to this threat. The spirits become angry when a drop of menstrual blood or a fragment of hymen fall into an outflow. A ceremony to placate Gado and Mariuma takes place in a bathroom that is inaccessible to others at this time. The place is illuminated with a flame of a brown candle, incense burns, the floor is covered with spilled sweets and drops of blood from a sacrificed black rabbit, and the afflicted teenager dances in a trance on all fours. The ritual ends when the initiated one flushes down the toilet after urinating. Then the sheika asks the initiated one to stay in seclusion and observe her dreams. Screams, fainting and hysteria of the teenager are over, and the spiritual process begins; it will deepen with the maturation of the initiated one. A possession by Gado and the related rituals clearly mark the moment of passage, the transformation of a girl into a woman.
Sudanese female zār spirit Salila is also a foreign figure, coming from afar. Chants dedicated to her describe her attributes: grace and beauty. Persons possessed by Salila during a dance usually act out a bathing scenes, play with a mirror, braid and unbraid their hair, and when their process becomes more intense they pour water on themselves and the surrounding people. During the ceremony in Abu Gheit, one of the older women possessed by Salila, while in a trance sprinkled her long loose hair and all other participants with beer from a can in her hand. A moment later she fell on her knees and piercingly screamed in the ecstatic finale by the end the recording available below.
Zar abu gheit / rec 3
More about the music, trance and experience of zār in the next post. The album with songs and recordings of rituals of various variants of the zār cult from Cairo and the Nile Delta is in the process of preparation.
Translated from Polish by Andrzej Wojtasik.
Hager El Hadidi, Zar. Spirit Possession, Music, and Healing Rituals in Egypt, Cairo, New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2016.
Setargew Kenaw, Knowledge Production and Spiritual Entrepreneurship in Zar: A Study of Spirit Mediumship in Northeastern Ethiopia, Saarbrucken: VDM Verlag, Dr. MullerGmbH & Co. KG, 2011.
G.P. Makris, Changing Masters. Spirit Possession and Identity Construction among Slave Descendants and Other Subordinates in the Sudan, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2000.
John G. Kennedy, Nubian Zar Ceremonies as Psychotherapy, „Human Organization” Vol. 26, No. 4 (Winter), pp. 185-194, 1967.
Magda Saleh, Dance in Egypt, The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Vol. 6, New York and London: Routledge, 2002.
Andreas Gossling, Voodoo. Bogowie, Czary, Rytuały, Kraków: Wydawnictwo WAM, 2010.