Gilded Serpent presents...
Its Not Your Grandmamma's Zar
By Roxxanne Shelaby

It’s a typical Tuesday afternoon and the pressures of the day are taking their toll. Normally I’d be hitting my local Starbuck’s by now or maybe a yoga class to unwind.  But on this particular Tuesday afternoon in July, I happen to be in Cairo so I decide to blow off some steam the way many Egyptian women do-I go to a Zar (a ritual to pacify the Zar spirit)

A week before, I had gone to see a show with Rhonda, my traveling partner, who had been in Cairo the year before.  She remembered Karim, one of the drummers who had invited her to a Zar at his home.  We caught up with Karim after the show to see if he could give us some information about where we could see a Zar this year.

It was just our luck that Karim continues to hold a Zar at his home every Tuesday afternoon.  He gave us the directions and our friend, Khaled, who was showing us around town promised to take me the following Tuesday.

In the meantime, all of my female traveling partners, including Rhonda  had left Cairo and I suffered from quite a serious case of “King Tut’s Revenge”.  Although I was not fully recovered and still feeling weak, I knew I had to go.  I couldn’t miss my only chance to see a real live Zar!

So now it's about two in the afternoon on my last Tuesday in Cairo, and Khaled and I are following the directions Karim has given us to a neighborhood down the hill from the Citadel.  Unfortunately the directions are not exactly accurate and we get lost.  We stop and ask several people for directions, all of which send us in different directions, close but not close enough. 

Luckily at some point we hear the distinct rhythm for a Zar and follow the drumming right to the front door of an apartment house.

At the door we are greeted by Karim’s father who prepares us for the Zar by waving incense around our heads and up and down our body.  Normally participants pay to be incensed but since we are their guests they refuse our money and escort us down the hallway.  We are seated on a bench at the doorway to the room where the Zar is being held.

From where I sit I look into the doorway and through the large, low windows cut into the wall encircled with the reddish handprints from another ritual, intended to protect the home from bad spirits.  Next to me sits a robust Egyptian woman in a black galabeya and headscarf fanning her wildly as she talks to herself in Arabic.

Karim was drumming inside the main room where the Zar was being held.  When he saw us, he motioned to me with his head, so he did not have to stop drumming, to come into the room.  I shook my head “no” and patted my stomach to communicate to him why I wanted to watch from the hallway.   I chose to watch from the hallway for two reasons:  first, because I was still recovering from my stomach “situation” and felt weak; and second, because I did not have a female companion to take care of me during the Zar if I were to go into a trance.

I suppose it’s important to mention at this point that men do not participate in the Zar.  Aside from the musicians, all other participants are female.  This why even though Khaled, who is a good friend that I trust completely, could not enter the Zar and take care of me.

As I am sitting on the bench next to the old Egyptian woman, I scan the room.   I see women sitting on the floor, some just watching and others moving in a trancelike state to the music.   Others are standing in the back or along the walls rocking their head and shoulders back and forth.  With their arms crossed on their chests they rocked back and forth riding the waves of rhythm that filled the room –forward and back, forward and back- their eyes closing as they let go of their physical selves and sink deep into the spiritual realm.

Meanwhile in the front of the room several drummers, a Mismar and a Nay play wildly…

One woman in particular catches my eye. First it is her bright orange, henna dyed hair with about two inches of silver roots growing out.  As my eyes scan down her body I am surprised to realize that her bright red Galabeya is made of a Donald and Daisy Duck printed fabric!  Just then she falls into a trance moving forward into the middle of the drummers bouncing up and down and throwing her head around wildly. 

The movements I see are nothing like the hair tossing movements I had learned and seen in a staged Zar.  Each woman moves in her own way as she connects with the music and lets herself slip out of consciousness. The women are also dressed in their everyday attire.  There is no specific type of clothing or colors worn as I had expected, as illustrated by Donald and Daisy.  Looking around the room it seems as though I am looking at a museum collection of Egyptian women’s clothing spanning the last century.

The woman in the Donald Duck Galabeya is moving franticly and stumbling around; her companion moving around her like a basketball player guarding her opponent. She pushes her arms out and guides the entranced woman out of the way of others in the room rushing from one side to the other.  Now at the peak of her trance, the companion takes out a small scarf and covers the entranced woman’s face to protect her from coming out of it before she is ready.  The musicians then encircle her playing faster and faster as if coaxing her deeper into it.  She jumps and sways and throws her head around faster and faster until she reaches such frenzy that she collapses to the floor, her companion rushing to her side to help.

Just then my attention is taken back to the entrance where a young, slender, beautiful woman walks in wearing an exquisite sea-foam green galabeya with a matching headscarf, of course.  Her arms are covered from wrist to elbow in gold bracelets accompanied by big Egyptian style earrings and necklace.

She is obviously an important person because when she is ready to be purified with incense, they bring out a chair and put it next to the bench where I am sitting even though there is plenty of room for her to sit next to me. She sits down in the chair and much to my surprise lifts her galabeya up to her knees as they put the incense burner on the ground between her feet as she drops the galabeya over it.   The fragrant incense wafts slowly up between her legs while others incense the rest of her body and around her head.  As I sit there dumbfounded yet totally intrigued by what I am seeing, I wonder why she would be incensing “down there”, but then figure it’s probably best for me not to know.

Khaled tries not to stare at her, he’s obviously intrigued as well and tells me to let him know what else happens as he quickly leaves the room to go to the back to buy more Pepsi and cigarettes.

As I direct my attention back to the Zar, the woman in the sea-foam green galabeya is whisked into the room where another chair is brought in for her. As she is seated there is a big commotion of people buzzing around to help her get settled.  They seat her in the front of the room against a wall by the musicians.  I find this odd because everyone, even much older women sit on the floor.  I figure she must be the girlfriend of one of the musicians to be receiving such special treatment. It turns out, as Khaled fills me in when he returns, that she was the wife of the big neighborhood drug dealer who happens to be in jail right now. This explains the special treatment.

As Khaled makes his way to the front of the building to smoke, he tells me to make sure to call him if the drug dealer’s girlfriend goes into a trance. It turns out, Khaled’s grandmother used to hold a Zar at his house regularly when he was growing up so he knows very well what takes place.

To him, getting to watch this beautiful woman go into a wild trance is even better than getting to watch her dance.  It hits me at this point that this is probably one of the main reasons that men are not allowed.

The woman in the Donald Duck Galabeya, having fully realized her Zar experience returns, all sweaty and out of breath to a back corner of the room to recover while her friend fans her and wipes her brow.  One woman after the other comes forward among the musicians, enters into a trance and then retreats to a corner to recover.

I was only trying to observe the Zar from the hallway, but the repetitive drumming, the incense and the weight of the exotic atmosphere pulls me out of consciousness as well.  I struggle to remain in the present in order to mentally document what is happening.

 And it was in this state of wavering consciousness that the purpose of the Zar became clear to me.

I’m sure in the past the Zar probably had a much more religious and spiritual significance, full of ritual and tradition.  Today however, it seems to me that the weekly Tuesday afternoon Zar serves the same purpose for the women of Cairo as our Belly Dance Classes, Yoga and Starbucks does for us. 

It appears to serve, for these women, as a refuge from their daily lives; the work, the poverty, the strict rules imposed upon them, the cooking, the cleaning, the children, the other wives and the many other responsibilities.  For many of these women, the weddings and family celebrations in which they are allowed to let loose and have fun are few and far between and nightclubs have become an extravagance that most of them can no longer afford.

Luckily just down the road from the Citadel, every Tuesday afternoon, a Zar is held where they can escape their daily mortal lives to dance themselves into a cathartic frenzy and pacify their Zar spirit all in an effort to endure the routine of their daily lives…

until  next Tuesday anyway!

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