Egyptian Zar: Exorcism Ritual to Cultural Phenomenon
By: Dani Meyer/Arab America Contributing Writer
Zar, a dance ritual popular in Egypt, is attributed to have its origins in Ethiopia. The ritual most likely spread beyond the Horn of Africa in the 18th or 19th centuries due to the slave trade and became popular in Egypt as a form of exorcism. Today, zar is most popular in southern Egypt. The word zār possibly has its roots in the Ethiopian word “sar”, referring to a group of spirits which possess individuals during certain vulnerable moments.
However, folk etymology links the word zār with an Arabic meaning: “to visit” or “visitation”. With jinn mentioned many times in the Qu’ran, it is no surprise that zar rituals became popular throughout the Middle East, but particularly in Egypt. When jinn inhabits people, they are believed to remain with the hosts forever, unless an exorcism is performed. The specific music played at the zar ritual is believed to appease and call forth the jinn.
Spread to Eygpt
When it first spread to Egypt, the zar ritual involved moving the spirit of the jinn or demon into the body of an animal. Which would then be slaughtered. However, the practice has evolved, and now most zar practitioners in Egypt do not use animal sacrifice. When the zar ritual first made its way from Ethiopia to Egypt, the Egyptian government condemned it to be illegal. Many people believed it to be a cult practice.
However, today, it is regarded as an important piece of cultural heritage, though not all people believe in the practice of exorcism. Traditionally, the ritual would begin with a person seeking relief for a physical or psychological disorder that had been diagnosed by a sheikh. Public zars were open to all women and were traditionally attended by only the lower-income classes. In fact, the association between the lower classes and the zar was once so strong that women of the lower economic classes were referred to as “the zar women”.
There have been a number of clashes between zar and Islamic leaders, as traditional Islam forbids people from making contact with the jinn, or spirits. However, the zar ritual remains an important piece of Egyptian cultural heritage
What does a zar performance entail?
Zar gatherings include food and musical performances and often last between three and seven hours. The Egyptian Center for Culture and Arts helps to keep this cultural practice alive by hosting zar performances every Wednesday. These performances also make zar more accessible to those who do not believe in folk practice, as well as for tourists. At the ECCA, the zar ritual is performed by the Mazaher ensemble, who think of themselves as keeping an important tradition alive. “My mother taught me everything I know about Zar, and she learned it from her mother,” explains Madeeha, lead singer of Mazaher.
“But this was in another world; now my own kids won’t even ever consider learning how to perform. It’s almost as though they’re ashamed of it. One time, my youngest was walking home from school singing one of the Zar songs he often overhears, and this drove his older brother insane and he made me promise not to let him get into Zar.”
The zar performers are predominantly married women, with only a few of the musicians being men. In Egyptian history, zar music has historically been the only musical tradition in which women hold the most important roles in the performance. Indeed, in contemporary Cairo society, zar is predominantly a female-only form of entertainment.
The music plays perhaps the most important role in the zar ritual. As the spirits are believed to come out when their song or rhythm is played. In Egypt, the zar is often referred to as the “daqq,” meaning the drumbeat, indicating the central role of percussion in the event. There were historically three main types of musical groups in Cairo that would play at a zar. The first, called Abu Ghayt, would play only music associated with the Muslim saints. The second type of group, called Masri, typically was made up of Sudanese women and sung about all spirits except the Muslim saints. Finally, the third group, called Sudani, used Sudanese instruments and were often associated with water spirits.
Performers typically use three particular instruments during the zar: the tar, the tambourine, and the tabla. The tar is a stringed instrument from Iran that is used all over the Middle East. The tambourine is a percussion instrument that has its roots in the Middle East and India. And the tabla is another percussion instrument consisting of two drums that comes from the Indian subcontinent. Percussion is one of the most important elements of the zar. As it is the various rhythms and beats that are said to draw the spirits out of the body.
Zar is an important part of Egyptian culture and heritage that should be preserved. Mazaher band member Ahmed Shankahlawy explains the importance of zar. “That’s the beauty of our work, people feel better after they come and they always want to come back. They feel our sincerity and they like the experience. It’s not like going to dance at the club; here they sit and listen.”
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