Egyptian Zar: Supernatural Tunes

Farah El Akkad, Monday 6 Feb 2012

Many shy away from the frenzied movements and hypnotic music of zars – Egypt's exorcism ritual – but a bit of understanding may help revive the fascinating ancient cleansing experience

Zar (Photo: Yehia Tarek)

There are many accounts of the traditional Egyptian Zar, or exorcism ritual, with its frenzied movements and captivating music. Yet, it still remains an intriguing subject for foreigners and Egyptians alike.

The zar has been part of Egyptian culture since ancient times, dancing to drive away evil spirits and negative energy.

Most zar performances, which are held in secret, have virtually disappeared from the local cultural scene, with the exception of the Mazaher band.

Mazaher have to constantly set the record straight, asserting that they perform the zar for cultural purposes and not ritualistic purposes.

The band consists of three lead women: Om Sameh, Om Hassan and Nour Al-Sabah. In fact, a distinctive feature of the zar is the major role women play, with men delegated secondary roles.

The performance starts with a song by the lead singer, who stands centre stage with the rest of the band seated behind her at their drums. Imbued with a charismatic look on her face and a glitter in her eyes, she holds her audience in a trance; the singing intermingles with the drumming to produce a magical effect.

Om Hassan starts dancing barefoot, moving her shoulders sideways and swinging in circles.

The men, on the other hand, are wearing the mangour (a leather belt made of goat hooves) and they shake their waists and clap their sagat (finger cymbals) to match with the drumming and chant along with Om Sameh.

One of the most captivating songs is The Deer Hunter for its distinctive Arab flute as the main instrument that accompanies Om Sameh’s voice.

The incessant beating of the music and the women's mesmerising movements, shaking their heads backwards and forwards, combine to hold the audience in a stupor.

The ceremony ends with a song called Schoolgirls, which is a message from a mother to her daughter: "Oh my moon, oh my moon, a tanned princess, beautiful and pretty going to school."

The effect of the whole ritual is captivating, both physically and mentally.

Asked how he felt after watching that peculiar dance, Nader Sherif, a 24-year-old medical school student replied: "Physically, I felt like suddenly getting up and doing the same thing [as the artists]. Mentally, I felt a mixture of amusement and bewilderment.”

Many in the audience were overwhelmed, because as Om Sameh, the lead singer, puts it, it is "very rich music."

In her book, The Egyptian Zar Ceremony (2001), Lynneeta Darmody explains that the "Zar is all about its melody, even in the old days when it was used to drive away bad spirits; it was all about the instruments used in the ceremony.”

Various musical instruments are used in the performance such as drums and the phalanx, which have a potent effect on the ear. Darmody adds that “Even though zar is characterised by its loud music and energetic spirit, it still carries a faint tinge of sadness and whining.”

The media and entertainment have dubbed the zar as a sort of exorcism ritual associated with evil spirits. The typical vision of the zar is exemplified in old movies, especially, where childless women hold a zar to induce fertility and shake off bad energy.

Others link the zar to religion because of the songs' lyrics.

Adel El-Elemi the author of Zar and Ritual Theatre (1993), says that the zar is principally linked to a specific category of Egyptian society: those who strongly believe in the influence of spirits and the presence of a connection between them and humans.

The practices of the zar have always been linked to stories about bad spirits and healing rituals, which is all the more a "cultural phenomena," as El-Elemi writes in his book.

He also finds unusual that no study has actually delved into the literary aspects of zar as part of Egyptian cultural heritage.

The book breaks down the zar into three categories: Saidi (Upper Egyptian), Sudanese and Abul Gheit.

According to El-Elemi, the zar's various facets serves various purposes for women, not simply driving away evil. The lower-middle class women, who are usually under social pressure and stressful obligations, often gain the most from the zars.

The benefits range from psychological/social (group therapy, venting, gathering event), physical (movement) to economic (a source of income for the practitioners).

For instance, the dancing in the zar ceremony has a deep significance. The movements reveal a certain psychological state, which reflects the feelings of the performer: a form of self-expression.

Colours also play a significant role in the zar ceremony: red is always present in the performance, either in trimmings that decorate musical instruments or in the clothes worn by performers.

El-Elemi adds, “Each colour embodies a social language and a specific meaning.” He also believes that the zar echoes an impressive non-verbal art which deliberately stands for concepts in the form of movement. “It is a meaningful expression and a communication tool that symbolises human feelings,” the author sums up.

Another side of the zar ceremony is that of "rhythms, words and sounds."

The words of the songs match the rhythms in tone, each rhythm carries a certain gesture, evident in the way the performers’ excitement escalates on hearing a specific rhythm.

The words carry a symbolic meaning linked to the performers’ movements and their psychological response.
Sameh Ali, one of those that attended the zar performance, says that when his friend first told him about the show he instantly recalled the image of hundreds of Egyptians performing zar in Tahrir Square during the 25 January revolution to drive away Mubarak.

"Of course Mazaher’s performance was totally different," he says, laughing. 

The zar is more of a live drama that has not yet been given the place it deserves in Egyptian folklore.

Although it has nearly vanished, it deserves resurrection on the Egyptian cultural scene for its reviving rhythms and spirit, and its echoes of days long gone. 

Every Wednesday, 9pm
Makan (Egyptian Centre For Culture and Art)
1 Saad Zaghloul Street, Downtown Cairo
the street behind the gas station off of Qasr-El-Aini Street

Tel: 202 2792 0878

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