Cairo. One of the most important cities of the Middle East can easily inspire your imagination. A cosmopolitan metropolis where, on 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 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 the 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. The stereotypes are challenged anywhere and honesty is the norm on Egyptian streets. It may happen that under the overpass to Al-Azhar, you will hand over 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 the fur of cats and dogs sleeping on car hoods in the evening. There are several metro lines in the city, yet most of the 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.

Al Azhar, cairo, 2013

Since April 2013, I have visited Cairo many times, mainly seeking music. During one of the visits, I realized that zar culture is not an old disappearing tradition but 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 an icon of the nineteenth century Egyptian modernists and nationalist aspirations to shift the streets and the entire society towards rationality, order and the idea of progress. The best of 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 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. Modernist elites and newly emerged nationalist political circles also became interested in the perspective of total socio-political reform. This is the story told by the 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 a huge impact on Egyptian culture and religion and the fact that ecstatic zar and subversive sufi saints festivals remain vibrant traditions right in the heart of the capital city, did surprise me a lot.


kair, 2013

There is no place for religious demagogy here. What counts in zar micro-communities is experience, commitment and support

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 reach the place faster. Three taxi drives in a row gently bid me adieu and drove off as soon as I uttered “Abul 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 community of zar 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 the 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 tightly packed 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 doff drums and brass finger sagat cymbals, as well as flutes named kawala. Their voices were strong and their faces and eyes looked gentle but focused. The spiritual phenomenon of zar rises from the foundations of the community and originates from very ancient beliefs. There is no place for religious demagogy here. What counts in zar 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 a 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 behaviours 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 zar spirits are irrational ways of perceiving reality and oneself. A zar spirit is at the same time a stranger and our inner self.


But let us put the poetry and prose aside and jump for a while into the land of a greater concentration of thoughts. I would like to explain the phenomenon of zar a bit more, perhaps even to correct some misunderstandings. First of all, the word zar is used in two meaning. Depending on the context, it means a cultural phenomenon or a certain type of spiritual being in Middle Eastern folklore. Zar culture has been fascinating and disturbing the Western world for over a hundred years, yet it usually has been 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 control apparatus 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 zar as an exorcism. Early reports by Christian monks were totally inadequate. The zar 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 dropped her academic approach focus during her own initiation and bound herself to a zar community for the rest of her life. El Hadidi describes her experiences in 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 cult member provides a unique insight and guarantees the reliability of the report. El Hadidi involuntarily became the spokesman of the community, telling a slightly more subtle story. Zar described by El Hadidi is, in the first place, a path of development of a profound intuition and of using it in everyday experiences; 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 the interpretation of dreams and signs that appear. 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 zar are honesty and purity of intentions. The inner integration, growing on this foundation, along with the entire zar 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 mind. Symbols and signs are selected and rearranged in response to the needs of a particular person, often creating completely new meanings.


Early reports by Christian monks were totally inadequate. The zar spirits – just like the Guardian Angel – cannot be expelled
Zar is a compass helping to navigate through the key stages of life. Women especially find orientation in zar, particularly during special rituals associated with the cycles of life – such as reaching maturity, pregnancy and menopause. Intuitions, dreams, visions, symbols, sacrifices, music, trance… – thanks to zar, a ritual imagination becomes tangible and can be a reference point. It is still basically a domain of women. Male participants are usually initiated by women. During ceremonies, most men are accompanied by their wives, sisters, female cousin or neighbours . Men in the zar community are usually musicians, yet they can also be ordinary members 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 feelings experienced in a group allow creating real bonds and that is how a community in which members care for each other is established. Zar 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.



 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 Ethiopian roots. The first ink-inscribed record on zār comes from 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 jewelery throughout the region.


Migrations of people from one shore of the Red Sea to the other, from Arabia to Yemen and Abyssinia, the 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 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 the 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).


It is a living structure that comes from everywhere and from nowhere, a patchwork in which the history of many communities has been recorded

According to el Hadidi in the hard-to-decipher dialect of zar, 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 zar) 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 a song of the Moroccan Gnawa, while some North African spirits have also found their place in the Cairo pantheon. Moreover, the practices of Zar Tambura (the so-called African Zar) undoubtedly arrived with Sudanese immigrants, and certain names of Egyptian spirits were recorded in Ethiopia about one hundred years ago.

Zar has always wandered with its practitioners and evolved, responding to socio-political transformations. It 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. Zar 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 zar refers not only to the cultural phenomenon itself but also a peculiar kind of jinn placed somewhere below saints and prophets in the hierarchy of the local pantheon. Zar 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 zar spirits altogether but not a single zar sheikh or sheikha (male/female group leaders) is able to name them all. The overwhelming majority of this 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. Possession may result from many everyday human behaviours: 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 zar spirit of the pantheon of all Cairo and Delta-based groups and the chants devoted to him are heard most often. He usually appears in the company of his daughter Rakusha, because zar spirits always appears as female-male couples. He takes the 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 rococo style – a symbol of state, power, elite status and Western standards that inspired socio-political reforms at the turn of the nineteenth century. Yawra Bey appeared in the Cairo pantheon around that time. A dandy and a gentleman in one, he seduces the most beautiful young girls and he is very jealous of them. This 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 domain. In his case, instead of “possession”, terms like “infatuation” or “love” are used.


most commonly encountered ZAR SPIRITS are not particularly evil or harmful, though they happen to be very whimsical, revengeful and jealous

On the other hand, Gado is a slave from Nigeria and a messenger for other zar 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 the 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. The 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.

The Sudanese female zar 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 scene, 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 Abul 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 at the end the recording available below.



More about the music, trance and experience of zār in the next post. An 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 being prepared.



Luka Kumor, February 2019.

Translated from Polish by Andrzej Wojtasik. 



Gerda Sergers, Woman and demons: Cultic healing in islamic Egypt, International Studies in Sociology and Social Anthropology, Leiden – Boston: Brill, , 2003.

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.

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