No one knows
exactly where the Zar comes from. Some believe it originated either
in Ethiopia, Sudan, Iran or Pharaonic Egypt. Edward Lane did not
mention the cult in his definitive work about the Egyptians in
1835, The Customs and Manners of the Modern Egyptians.
But then again, as a man he would have been forbidden to attend
a female ceremony. At any rate, the earliest written record of
the Zar in Egypt is from the 1870s.
do know that today thousands of women in Africa and the Middle
East use this music to cure all kinds of illnesses.
dance until they drop. In some African countries the ceremonies
can go on for a week. That would be seven days of intense drumming
and dancing throughout the nights, until the light of dawn and
exhaustion overcome them.
is that if modern medicine cannot find a reason for an illness,
pain or state of mind then supernatural forces must be at work.
The patient, who is normally a woman, will consult a spiritual
healer (also a woman) to find out if she is indeed possessed -
“clothed” or “covered” in Egyptian vernacular. If she is diagnosed
as being with spirit, or as is often the case with several spirits,
then she is expected to try to communicate with her possessors
to find out what they want. Only when the Zar spirits are placated
and their demands met will the woman’s illness or pain dissipate.
the patient holds a private Zar ceremony and her demons have
been identified, she becomes a member of the cult and is expected
to remain in contact with her “masters (asyad)” on a regular
the major Zar musical groups hold weekly meetings called “hadra”
where initiates come to commune with their possessors or just
to dance away stress and problems.
fact what these women are doing under the label of “traditional
healing” is self medicating themselves for low serotonin levels.
The difficult lives of women from the lower classes are full of
stress. Money is tight or non-existent and usually only comes
to them from men. They are under enormous social pressure to conform
- to their family’s expectations, their neighbors’ ever watchful
eyes and their religion’s narrow role for women. Usually it is
a definitive jolt, such as a death, divorce or new wife that weakens
a woman and opens her up to spirit invasion. Such a shock can
thrust an already fragile woman into depression or another stress
everything becomes bearable when the downtrodden are offered
an escape valve to blow off steam. Possession implies that a
third party is responsible for the havoc, not the woman herself.
she can no longer be blamed for odd, unacceptable behavior. Once
she is diagnosed, she is allowed to have forbidden desires (like
drinking or smoking cigarettes or partying). She can dress up
in her best cloths, put on all her jewelry, wear perfume and make
herself beautiful - all in the name of pleasing her spirits.
is why one of the Arabic words used to describe someone possessed
is ‘ma’zura’ or excused.
The above piece
is an excerpt from the 32 page booklet I wrote for the music CD
Zar – Trance Music for Woman, released September 2005 by
Sands of Time Music. As I was doing
research for it, I discovered that there are not many books on
the subject. I was only able to find three modern anthropological
works, a series of overview articles on the web, paragraphs here
and there in books about Middle Eastern music or dance and several
works that date back to the beginning of the 1900s. Yet I found
one remarkable source from the Arabic dance community, a series
of four short articles written for Arabesque magazine by Ibrahim
Farrah in 1978. Also referenced in Arabesque
was an article about the cult in the New York Times*.
were published at a time when very few people in the United States
were familiar with the cult or the dances associated with it.
by the dates of the articles, it appears that Ibrahim Farrah
introduced the Zar to the Middle Eastern dance community in
He was inspired
by Nadia Gamal, whom he had seen perform for
the first time in Lebanon in 1968. Included in her show was a
Zar based dance number that left him speechless. He later wrote
that she was the first Middle Eastern dancer to use the Zar in
a cabaret style performance. It was certainly clear from these
articles that he was fascinated by the cult, the dance and all
Yet my research
uncovered little information about the Zar from the people who
perform it professionally in Egypt. Gerda Sengers in her wonderful
book, Women and Demons: Cultic Healing in Islamic Egypt,
had several interviews with a zar sheikha (leader), but
I wanted to know what the musicians thought, what their perspective
was on the spirit manifestations they witnessed.
I badgered the album’s co-producer, Sayed Henkesh, with so many
questions for the Zar group that he went to the leader’s house
and interviewed him on video for me.
The tape was
such a valuable insight into their world that I wanted to share
it verbatim with the Middle Eastern dance community. What follows
is a translation of the video transcript.
introduce yourself Nasser.
Nasser Mohammed Abdallah
Mohammed Abdallah: In
the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. My name is
Nasser Abdallah, head of the Awlad Abou al-Gheit band. First
of all, the ZAR is real. It’s not a myth. I’ve been working
in this profession for 40 years. Basically, there are 4
or 5 beats. Each beat is different and each beat has a different
rhythm, even though the song is the same. For example, there’s
the song “Arabi al-Arban”. Like this.
a beat]. SOUND
And this is
also Arabi al-Arban.
a 3rd beat]
So there are
several beats for each song. There’s Hakeem Basha,
Abou Ghandara (Zar 1 – track 1), al-Habash
(Zar 2), Safinat al-Bahr ya A3wama, Banat
al-Handasa (Zar 1 – track 7),
Sheikh al-A3rab ya Sayed (Zar 2), Faris Baghdad
(Zar 3), Fatma al-Nabaweya and Rab3a al-A3daweya.
All these songs are in the Zar. Habaybek Ya Khal and
Betlomne Leh (Zar 3). All these are Zar songs. There
are also songs from the Sudan, like Mazageh. [He
sings Hakeem Basha and Ya Banat al-Handasa].
I adjusted this
song for Yasmin and sang it with the same tune. “The Nile,
daughters of the Nile. I want to see Yasmin. Take the flowers
and give me Yasmin. How pretty is the moon, Yasmin is pretty in
the picture”. But this song originally is “Daughters
of the School”. We sang it to the tune of “Nile oh Nile, Yasmin
is on the Nile Palace”. [Note: He is referring here to the
version they recorded on CD #3. A version closer to the original
is on CD #1. I have video footage of Shoo Shoo Amin performing
a modified version of this song, complete with incense burning
and zar musicians, as a part of a cabaret show.]
sent this information to Yasmin before, for the first CD.
Abdallah: Yes, I’m just clarifying it now,
because of all the new stuff we just recorded, such as “Sultan
of the Red Jinn”. All the new songs have different rhythms and
different styles. Every seed (spirit) has 4 or 5
different beats and different rhythms.
like you to talk about the different situations you’ve come across
that you haven’t forgotten even to this day. How long have you
been doing this?
Abdallah: Over 40 years now…
I’m sure you’ve had some strange experiences.
Abdallah: Lots of them. One woman had a priest.
priest? You mean Christian people?
A monk. He was living with this woman.
mean he was married to her?
No. He was her “clone”.
man and every woman has a “clone”. Every person in the world
has a clone. Sometimes, the clone is upset by the person and turns
on him/her and makes his/her life difficult. They go to doctors
sometimes and the doctor advises them to go to a Zar group. God
creates a reason for everything, and of course God is the only
healer, but He creates reasons. For example, a man could be walking
and just fall down for no reason. His legs are weak and his tongue
is tied. So he goes to many doctors but he is not cured. Finally,
a doctor might advise him to go to a Zar.
you tell me more about the qattar that we hear about? How
do you do this? What is the qattar?
When someone has a spirit or clone hurting him, he would go to
a Zar leader and she would ask him to bring her the qattar**,
which could be a red rooster, a chicken or even a goat, a camel
or a cow - it depends on which spirit is hurting him. He
brings her these things and it always helps, with God’s help.
In the end, it is a person’s acts that help him and each person
gets what he deserves.
back to your experiences, could you share an interesting example?
This girl I was telling you about. She was a young woman, a virgin.
And she was bleeding very heavily. She brought her qattar
to the Zar leader, who told her that she has a priest. They tried
to exorcise him with the Quran and they tried different
methods until they held a Zar. And God healed her and her bleeding
stopped. Now every year she has a Zar.
this man who fell for no reason. The doctors sent him to the Zar.
He came with his family and they said that he just fell suddenly
and his legs became weak. We have a beat called Molook al-Ardeya
(Kings of the Ground).
recorded this song didn’t we?
Yes, we recorded this song for the third CD. Molook al-Ardeya
is a song we play when someone falls to the ground. The person
might have fallen onto the head of a jinn king and gotten hurt.
We work on healing that hurt and they get better for it. We play
this song and they are healed.
Once a girl
fell in the bathroom and she got scared. We have a song called
gateau. [He demonstrates the song]. This song was
also on the third CD. It happens sometimes to girls who go into
the bathroom and spend a long time getting dressed and brushing
their hair. Suddenly they get nervous and have something of a
nervous breakdown. For that, we also have a song called ward
al-hamam (bath flowers). [He demonstrates the song, with
lyrics referring to the length of her stay in the bathroom]. This
is a beat for the bathroom. This person was a grown woman, by
I should tell
you that in some ways a Zar leader is like a doctor. You listen
to the events and you diagnose. A doctor heals the brain, nerves,
blood system…etc while the Zar leader is a psychological healer.
The Zar brings out the ills inside us. It brings out the depression
and anxiety. Every culture has a Zar. In France, in America, in
all Arab countries, in Morocco, they all have Zars. But the EgyptianZar
is different. The Zar comes in many styles, but the Egyptian Zar
is unique. All these beats, such as the samba and the rhumba,
come from the Zar beats. When they play this music and dance swaying
and bopping their heads, this is a healing process that brings
out their ills. But the real Zar is right here.
like to hear more from you about the Zar’s movements. The head
swaying, how is it done?
In different ways. A woman could do it in a simple way without
pattern. Another could go with the rhythm. It doesn’t matter
as long as it works.
the Zar only a healing act or could it be done for entertainment
Yes, it is held sometimes for entertainment. Others hold a Zar
as a yearly experience. It’s a habit for them since they were
once healed by the Zar or it could be purely for entertainment.
a “galabeya” (traditional
Arabic gown) party?
Yes, something like that or even a birthday party. Some people
chose to hold a Zar and invite their friends and family to sway
and dance together.
it would be for fun.
Yes, for fun or, like I said, as an annual event. Or some people
who have a spirit problem and have to hold a Zar. They come to
us, the Abou al-Gheit band. Like I said, I’ve been working in
this profession for 40 years.
how many CDs have you put out so far?
I have made three CDs, all with Sands of Time Music.
they all have the same rhythms?
No. Each spirit has its own rhythms.
spirit has 3 or 4 beats. What are they?
For example, there is this one [He demonstrates a beat]. And there’s
this one. [He demonstrates two more].
you inherit this profession from someone?
My paternal aunt was a Zar leader.
about your children? Your oldest daughter is in law school.
and Ashraf my son worked with famous artists like Samir Sabry
and Fifi Abdou and he’s a very good tabla drummer. You know my
your son took a different direction in music didn’t he? Your children
didn’t follow your footsteps in Zar music?
No. This is a hobby.
Yes, you have to like this particular profession as a hobby. Yes,
my son followed the direction of his uncle and grandfather, who
was the leader of the Abou al-Gheit band a long time
ago. He was the one who made the tanoura***
famous in Egypt and the Arab world. God rest his soul,
his name was Shehata al-Aseel. He toured the world and went to
America and other Western countries. He now left this profession.
this profession becoming extinct?
No, no. This profession is not becoming extinct. But there are
fewer musicians than there used to be. Some move on to other styles
of music as they become famous. And the Zar today isn’t what it
used to be. Years ago, the Zar attendant used to be possessed
by spirits and would dance to placate them. He or she would know
more about the Zar and would ask specifically for the beat and
tools they needed. Now the attendants are more aloof about it.
you tell me about something comical that could have happened in
a Zar once?
One day a man came in. He seemed a little slow and foolish. He
walked in as we were playing. He asked us to give him “Salma
Henkesh on accordian with
his band backing up Lucy
the sister of El Araby (The Arab: Zar 1 – track
6 Salma is mentioned at the end of the song). So I started singing
it. He started to gesture with his hands. Like this.
this. Backwards. Then he started to get tense and didn’t make
sense anymore. So my band and I started laughing. I asked him
again “What is it that you want?” And he said “Like this” and
motioned with his hands again. Then he said “leader of the two
camels”. This is another song about an Arab girl who pulls two
camels behind her.
you demonstrate it with the beat?
Yes. [He sings and demonstrates the beat]. “Pulling two camels
behind you, where are you going? You pretty Arab girl. Sit down
here, close to me, for a little while.” This is the beat for
this work for the man?
No. I was laughing because he just interrupted us and wasn’t happy.
He kept gesturing with his hands and I asked him what he wanted.
I knew the song he referred to but I couldn’t understand the body
movements he was showing me.
these situations, the Zar is a very real thing. Like I said, there
are doctors for bones, for hearts and for nerves. And the Zar
leader is a psychological doctor, a spiritual healer. It
doesn’t matter how many doctors you go to. If you need a Zar,
you won’t heal until you’ve been to a Zar.
was conducted in Cairo during the month of October 2005.
issues: Volume III: #5, #6, Volume IV: #1, #2
- New York Times article: In Cairo, Dance of a Cult Pacifies
Demons; To Placate the Genie
By Christopher S. Wren Special to The New York Times. New York,
N.Y.: Jul 9, 1979. pg. A4, 1 pg. Text Word Count
- If you are
interested in reading further about the Zar please visit - www.serpentine.org/yasmin/zar.htm
. There are articles, a bibliography and a short biography of
the group Awlad Abou al-Gheit.
music! per author- "Oh, if you mention where
the album can be found, Rashid.com has it but
it's hard to find if you don't know where to look. It's listed
under Religious Music. Otherwise it's on Amazon.com
or Francevision.com." The music clips
again with author's notes-
is referred to several places in the text - in the beginning
when he demonstrates three different rhythms for it (it's spelled
wrong - Orban and should be changed to say Arban) and at the
end where he talks about leading the camels.
is mentioned several times as well. This is the song Shoo Shoo
Amin dances to on the video.
is the bathroom song. It is not on the first album (it's on
the third) but he talks about it for a whole paragraph so I
thought you might want to illustrate it.
is the group's "theme song". They are named after
a Sufi spirit who is considered their 'patron saint'. This is
the slowest, most melodic clip of the bunch.
** an animal sacrifice – the ceremony is described fully
in the booklet.
***Tanoura is a reference to the wide skirt that
Sufi performers wear when they sing praises to God and turn around
so that the skirt fills out and whirls around. These performers
are called the Whirling Dervishes.
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