Not Your Grandmamma's Zar
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)
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.
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.
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!
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.
at some point we hear the distinct rhythm for a Zar and follow
the drumming right to the front door of an apartment house.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
in the front of the room several drummers, a Mismar and a Nay
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
it was in this state of wavering consciousness that the purpose
of the Zar became clear to me.
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.
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
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…
next Tuesday anyway!
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12-13-05 The Zar
do know that today thousands of women in Africa and the Middle
East use this music to cure all kinds of illnesses. They literally
dance until they drop.
Photos of Friday Evening
show from Aida Nour & Magdy El-Leisy Workshop 2006 Photos
by Lynette Harris & staff sponsored
by Little Egypt held on Feb 24, 2006 in Los Angeles, California,
includes photos of Roxxanne
Inconvenient Body Truth by
here I am now, having worked very hard to learn as much as possible
to master my body, invest in the costumes, and—Bam!—suddenly,
menopause has hit me!
DVDs can be a Lifesaver to the Disabled! by Lia Medina
Nonetheless, I continue to Belly dance. I will not give up dance
until I can no longer succeed in dancing at least four of its
Sunday Morning Panel Discussion
at Carnival of Stars, November 11, 2007 Transcribed from video
Panel members discussed Fusion in Belly Dance. Members included:
Jihan Jamal, Shareen El Safy, Dahlena, Debbie Lammam, Amina Goodyear,
and Edwina Nearing