Equal Partners
by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners

By Roland Ezri

"Women are the backbone of all societies. They do a substantial part of the work, and play a major role in raising the future generation yet they are largely powerless. The decisions that count are made by men and foisted upon women."

Writings by Roland Ezri

The Second Exodus – Egypt – CXL. The Zar

During the hot summer nights, on occasions, the sounds of the zar drifted into the house through the open windows.

The purpose of the zar is to cure mental illness caused by a possessing spirit. It is essentially a trance religious ceremony that uses drumming, talking, and dancing to cure an illness thought to be caused by a jinn (demon).

It is technically prohibited by Islam since it is a pagan ritual; nevertheless, it remains an essential part of the North African and Middle Eastern cultures.

The zar is not the first course of treatment, it is used as a last resort when all else has failed.

It should not be confused with an exorcism, as the objective is to enter in a dialogue with the spirit rather than removing it from the body. Ultimately, it’s more a matter of securing his (most of the possessing spirits are males and the possessed are almost always females) favor.

I never attended a zar; obviously a little boy, and a khawaga (foreigner) at that, could not be part of such a ceremony. Nevertheless, the zar ritual has always fascinated me. There is drumming provided by a tar (a kind of tambourine) and a tabla or taraboka (freshwater fishskin from the Nile is stretched on a specially made hollow clay vessel opened at one end, it acts as a drum, and the two hands are used to produce the prescribed notes; note that the sound produced is rather different than the sound of a drum). There is singing which follows a specific rhythm (more like rhythmic talking, or the recitative in an opera). The language is often shocking. Finally, inappropriate behavior (examples: wanton dancing, flailing about, hiccuping, etc.) is displayed.

Though I was never a “guest” at a zar, with the help of some research, I can provide you with a comprehensive description.

A large room is usually used for the ceremony. The leader and her musicians occupy one side of the room, the relatives the rest of the room. It’s important that it be separated from the normal living quarters of the family. If possible, a house or a hall may be rented specifically for the occasion.

An essential element is the altar. This is a round tray placed in the center of the room on a tall stool; it is filled with nuts and dried fruits and covered with a white cloth.

At the center of the zar ceremony is a leader called a “kodia.” The leader is herself possessed, but she has come to terms with her jinn and can therefore help others. Heredity is an important qualification, leadership is often passed from mother to daughter or through female relatives. While it’s largely a female role, a man can make a claim that he has been “called to it.” The kodia keeps the zar on track and ensure that traditions are followed. The zar paraphenelia of any given leader is kept in a large metal box. No two boxes are alike, as every leader inherit her “box” from the person with whom she trained. Finally, the kodia is expected to be a trained singer who knows the songs and rhythms of each spirit. As she sings each spirit’s song and watches for a reaction, she eventually identify the offending spirit and can figure out how to deal with it.

The kodia is not renumerated for her services; instead, the relatives are expected to contribute in accordance with their means. Thus, the zar leader wind up being well compensated. Keep in mind that the patient can go to her for help at a later date; therefore, she is getting paid for – if needed – follow-up care.

An animal sacrifice is carried out as an offering to placate the offending spirit. The patient’s recovery is not considered complete until the sacrificial meal is consumed on the final evening. Such a meal may include meat, bread, rice, and broth. Needless to say, this ritual include sharing food with the other participants.

Scents are used liberally. Incense is burned. The patient is heavily perfumed, as are the relatives. At the beginning of the ceremony, an aromatic censor is passed among the participants, so that they might purify their bodies by inhaling the fragrances.

Scents, music, colorful costumes, placing flowers in the room, and lighting candles are some of the techniques used by the kodia to create and maintain an appropriate mood. A zar provides the participants with a multisensory experience with sights, sounds, and smells. Finally, no two zars are exactly alike.

Men’s roles are as follows: helping with drumming (as much as six helpers may be needed to provide rhythmic support to the leader), the slaughter of ritual animals, or they may themselves be a husband or relative required to make offering to the possessing spirit.

The sick person wears a white jalabiya (an ample robe-like garment). As well, she covers her body and hands with henna. Finally, kohl is used for the eyes. The patient detaches herself completely from her surrounding. She moves in circles around the altar, while her movements increase in intensity as the tempo of the drumming goes up. To avoid a relapse, the patient is instructed to pay attention to her spirits, perform such daily work as they require, and avoid negative emotions. Put in contemporary terms, the patient should heed the dictates of her mind and body and shun negative emotions. The fact that this advice is as valid for modern Western women as it is for zar patients testifies to the practical nature of the zar ritual.

The zar today is practiced more as a relaxation and as spiritual healing for stressed or troubled individuals.

Many years ago, rap music came into being. When I first heard it, I was totally shocked; “this is like the zar rhythm,” I exclaimed to nobody in particular. There is the rhythmic talking and the outrageous language used in the zar. On the other hand, rap music includes, well, music, which is absent in the zar and replaced by drumming. Comparing the two is not one of my future projects; but feel free to do so. Albums including samples of zar rhythms are available. Look for it on the internet; my 2nd source include the titles of some albums.

Any takers?


1) The Zar Ceremony

2) The Zar Revisited Me’ira – The joyful Dancer 1/6/96 Originally featured in Crescent Moon magazine (July-August 1996, PP 9-10) Karol Harding

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