The Zar Ceremony
by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
"The purpose of the Zar ceremony is to cure mental illness through contact with the possessing spirits which cause maladies. Though there are several methods for dealing with psychological disturbance, the Zar is the last resort which is supposed to have powerful therapeutic effect for several kinds of ailments," writes John Kennedy in Nubian Ceremonial Life. It should be noted that this ceremony is not widely practiced in Egypt. The Zar ceremony is most prominent in southern Egypt and is practiced further south into the Sudan, though in fact it may be performed anywhere in Egypt. This is a region that was least exposed to the many invaders from Greece, Rome and the Middle East, and the ceremony can be considered as a holdover from older African religions when older women were frequently priestesses.
Regardless of the fact that Zar is a trance religious ceremony that uses drumming and dancing to cure an illness thought to be caused by a demon, it is technically prohibited by Islam as a pagan practice. However it continues to be an essential part of the Egyptian culture. It provides a unique form of relief to women in strict patriarchal societies.
The phenomenon of Zar can be best described as the "healing cult". It involves hair tossing and swaying and it also acts as a means of sharing information among women of these cultures.
"The Zar usually takes place in a big room which is preferably not one used by family members. Therefore, families often rent a house for the purpose of the ceremony," said Malak Yakan, an anthropologist.
Another very important element that is essential for a Zar ceremony is an altar. This is a round tray placed on a tall bench in the center of the room. It is covered with a white cloth and laden with piles of nuts and dried fruits. The Zar ceremony requires a leader, who plays an important role in the ritual, keeping it on track and in compliance with what are apparently ancient traditions. In Egypt the leader is called "Kodia." The leader in most of the cases is a woman, and heredity plays a great role as mothers pass this role to their daughters. "Most of the possessing spirits are male and the possessed are almost always females," said Yakan.
However, men do not become Zar leader's by heredity and it is rare for them to assist in the Zar ceremony in such a manner. "Men may contribute to Zar ceremonies, by helping with drumming, the slaughter of ritual animals, or they may themselves be a husband or relative required to make offerings to the possessing spirit," added Yakan. Usually the three to
six helpers provide rhythmic backup to the Zar leader.
The Kodia becomes possessed herself. She has come to terms with her Jinn, or spirits, and is therefore able to help the patient. With the altar in the center of the room, the Kodia and her musicians occupy one side of the room, and the rest of the participants occupy the other side. The participants or family are expected to put in an amount of money appropriate for the malady, their wealth, and their relation with the patient. The patient becomes the center of attention, and receives the help and concern of both her friends and relatives. She wears a white jalabiya and covers her hands and her body with henna. Kohl is also used for the eyes. The patient is then heavily perfumed with special Zar scents, as are the other guests.
"The scents used during the Zar are said to purify the souls as they are inhaled," added Yakan. They are also used (especially frankincense) as the most common offerings to the Zar spirits. At the start of the ceremony, an aromatic censor is passed among the guests so that they may all purify their bodies.
The musical instruments used during a Zar are typically the tar, a kind of tambourine, and the tabla. The Kodia, who is expected to be a trained singer, is suppose to know the songs and rhythms of each spirit. "The Kodia keeps watch throughout the whole process in order to spot the reactions of the patient and distinguish the specific possessing spirit," said Yakan. Each Zar spirit has his or her characteristic whirl called Gurri which includes a series of quick circular turns. The patients appear, with eyes half closed, abandoning themselves completely from their surroundings. Their movement should increase its intensity with the drumming. The patient should move in circles around the altar freeing his or her body from the inside out. The drums allow everyone to focus their attention on what is happening. It sets the mood and creates a flow of the event with rhythm.
The spirit is then drawn into dialogue by the Kodia, and an animal sacrifice is used as an offering to the offending spirit. The animal used differs from patient to patient depending on their status. This offering should be consumed in the ceremony, in order to achieve, establish, sustain or celebrate friendly relations with the deity. Note that the Zar is not an "exorcism", as the spirit is not intended to be removed from the body. "The main purpose of the sacrifice is to please the deity and to secure his favor. Sacrifices are performed to mark various significant events such as the birth ritual (Sebou'), marriage and death. Chickens, goats, camels, doves, and pigeons are among the animals sacrificed. This is done by cutting the carotid artery. The patient's recovery is not considered complete until the sacrificed meal is eaten," added Yakan.
In some Zar rituals it is essential that the group who attended the Zar go in procession to the Nile or the nearest local body of water with the remnants of the sacrificial meal and the instruments in order to dump them all in the river. Afterwards the patient is advised to be attentive to her spirits, perform such daily work as they require, avoid dirt and refrain from negative emotions. Failure to carry out these instructions may result in a relapse.