The Zar Ceremony In The Middle East And Africa

In certain countries in the Middle East and Africa, there is a religious practice called Zar. In this practice it is believed that spirits or jinn possess human hosts. This human host is usually a woman. During this possession the individual may experience dissociative episodes and sudden changes in consciousness. During these episodes the person can display many out of character actions such as banging their head against the wall, raucous laughing, singing and crying. A zar exorcism is then performed to treat the individual. In this ritual a specific pattern of drums allow the spirit to be appeased. The sole purpose of zar is to heal. It has roots tracing back to Ethiopia and influenced areas around southern Egypt and Sudan. When Ethiopian slaves were brought to Egypt, many of the women were doing these rituals to calm their agonized spirit. The practice was then spread throughout Egypt.

However, many people believed it was a cult practice. As a result, in the early 20th century it was outlawed. It is still practiced. In this practice there is a sheikha, who typically oversees the performance and the audience’s response. The ritual is comprised of three parts which are the beginning, middle, and the end. In the beginning this is the stage where the ceremony is planned and scheduled. There are many fixed dates for performing zar. One of these dates is the month of Rajab. This is because Rajab includes the Muslim festival of the Night Decree. Additionally, more large scale zar ceremonies are performed before Ramadan. This is because during ramandan there are no meetings since it is believed that spirits are inactive by the will of God during this time. In addition to the zar ceremony there are other less formal ceremonies that typically take place on Wednesdays on Saturdays. These ceremonies are considered “blessings” amd are used to discuss the problems with the sheikha. There is also no specific time for the start of the ceremony. It usually begins after a sufficient number of people have arrived.

The sheikha begins the ceremony by preaching versus from the Quran and prayers and lighting incense. Everyone gathers in a circle and the person that is going to be healed is kept in the middle. Eggs, dates, confetti, and other herbs are placed on the floor and a white cloth is put over the patient’s head. Then, a tray with herbs on charcoal is passed around frequently incensing the patient and the ritual’s participants. Then the music starts to play along with singing. The spirit will make itself known by making a sign that is recognized by the patient who then feels an irresistible urge to move.

Every piece of music or drumming goes with a specific spirit. Therefore, if a song is played and there is no reaction from the patient the musicians will change the tune until they see a reaction. The reaction is typically movements of the head or upper body such as the shaking of the shoulders. After the spirit is identified the healer will ask what the spirit wants in order to leave the patient alone. The belief is that if the spirits wishes are not granted the spirit will return and cause more problems. That’s why if the wishes of the spirit can be easily be done it is quickly done. If it is not easy it will be done at a later time. An example is if the spirit asks for a blood sacrifice then there will be a ceremony where the animal is slaughtered. After the killing the animal’s blood will then be drunk by the patient and the leader. After the patient is freed from the spirits possession, they then become a member of group and must participate in future ceremonies.

These ceremonies sometimes last up to several days. There are also certain rules that be followed when performing these ceremonies. These include wearing white clothing, the abstinence from alcohol, and the selling of the object the spirit had asked for. Additionally, if the spirit had asked for a certain outfit or piece of jewelry then it must be worn at all other ceremonies. It is believed that if the person doesn’t then the spirit will return. In some countries women are preferred to perform the lead because in the eyes of Zar practioners women are naturally vulnerable. Making the performance a place for them to express their emotions. In this treatment ritual. The women dress up

The ceremonies are described as huge and take weeks of preparation. It is usually held near ancient temples. Additionally, the ceremony varies from different places around the world. In Sudan the possession is associated with illness. However, only symptoms such as neaseau, headaches, depression, sleepiness, anxiety, unspecified pains, and fertility issues are treated by zar. Other illnesses are attributed to natural causes. If person is possessed, it is believed the spirit never leaves. In Sudan this ritual is not exclusive to women. However, the spirits are believed to be attracted to married women between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five. It also rarely affects unmarried women. It has been theorized that some of these women use this ritual as a way of coping with social positions. Additionally, in the Sudan a woman is initiated into a group under a female leader, and establishes a permanent relationship with the zar, and with the group. Rather than exorcism, there is accommodation, alliance and, on specific occasions, embodiment of the spirit and identification with it. During the rituals, the women represent the spirits, acting out their presence in possession trance.

In Egypt the zar practice is considered one of the most powerful. It is used to treat many different types of illnesses such as hysteria and anxiety. However, Egyptians mainly use this method when other methods do not succeed. This is because in their culture it means that the demons have succeeded. The ceremony aims to persuade the spirit. The patient is also usually associated with this spirit for the rest of their life and is expected to satisfy the spirit with this ceremony once a year. In Nubia this ritual is mainly female. It is believed this practice is a reflection of the social conditions that exist in Nubia.

In Ethiopia it is believed that the zar spirits trace back to Adam and eve. It is believed that Adam and eve had 30 children. Worried that the children would attract the envy of God, Eve hid 15 of them in the Garden of Eden. God of course saw this and as punishment he made all the 15 children invisible. The other 15 became the ancestors of the human race while the 15 invisible children became the Zar spirits that haunt their worldly siblings. The spirit possession is typically identified as psychological disorders that have not been treated with existing medical options (Mianji and Semnani). The common symptoms include infertility, and headaches.

Preparations for Zar include cleaning the area and providing carpets for dancing, a canopy to protect the dancers from the sun. There is also a placement of four flags that have incense put in front of them. Representing human spirits that possess that sheikha during the ceremony. Moreover, providing accessories that the sheikha demands is also part of the process. These accessories include purses made from leather, amulets with phrases from the Koran, prayer beads, candles, and rings. If the spirit does not reveal its intentions, there is another ceremony called faith el elbe, which translates to opening of the box. In this ceremony the patient inhales incense while the priest or sheikha demands then spirit to reveal themselves and its demands. After, the client will drink the blood of two doves or a lamb that has been killed for the ceremony.

In the DSMIV Zar is classified as a cultural bound syndrome. The DSMIV contains 25 culture bound syndromes. Culture bound syndromes are illnesses that are only prevalent in certain societies or cultures. However, It is not listed in the DSMV. In many countries the ceremony is comprised if only or mostly women. Most women who participated were most likely to have reproductive or marital problems. Some people say that spirits have a preference for women Zar to many people outside the culture displays itself as a cult like is a condition that still affects many individuals.

Works Cited

  1. Baluchestan, Sistan E. Zar: Mysterious Ceremony of the wind. 18 December 2017. 10 June 2019.
  2. Deyaa, Nada. Study reveals Zar still heavily performed in Upper Egypt. 12 June 2018. 11 June 2019.
  3. Grotberg, Edith H. 'Mental Health Aspects of Zar for Women in Sudan.' Women & Therapy; London (1990): 15.
  4. Mianji, Fahimeh, PhD and Yousef, MD Semnani. Zar Spirit Posession in Iran and African Countries: Group Distress Culture bound sydome or cultural concept of distress. Iran, Tehran: Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Psychiatry and Psychology Research Center, 8 January 2016. Document.
14 May 2021
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