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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

The Mysterious Zar:
What Is It? What Can It Do For You?

By Arabella

 

Is something bothering you? Has someone upset you? Do you feel like you're catching a virus? Then the Egyptian zar may be for you!

"The Egyptian zar is a dance performed to drive away evil spirits."

-- Hossam Ramzy

Those evil spirits, or "jinn", are mentioned in the Quran, although the zar ritual is not sanctioned by Islam, and is forbidden by law in Egypt. Also performed in other Middle Eastern countries, the zar is thought to have originated in Ethiopia, and to have been brought to Egypt by Ethiopian slaves. Some believe that the word "zar" is derived from the Arabic term for visitation, "ziara".

No one is exempt from possession of the jinn; however, it is usually females who are affected. Most males are cynical about the zar, so it is usually performed at noon on Friday, when the men are at the mosque. Some believe that the zar ritual gives women a chance to vent suppressed emotions. Anyone who has seen a zar performance will not soon forget the rolling of the head by the "possessed" dancer, either from side to side or around in circles.

Traditionally, the zar is performed with seven women in attendance, as well as several musicians; however, only a male is permitted to play the ney (the transverse flute) due to its "phallic" form. (Interestingly, Krishna, a Hindu god who is the "great cosmic lover" with over 16,000 girlfriends, also plays the flute!)

I personally cannot imagine doing any kind of detoxification or purification rite in front of an audience, so if I feel the need to perform a zar, I do it alone. This also means I can do it whenever I want to - in these hectic times, it can be difficult to get a group of people all together in one place at the same time!

"The zar rhythm has two beats to the bar and is very spooky."

-- Hossam Ramzy

The zar has its own music and rhythm, which can differ from village to village. The rhythm sounds something like this:

DUM (space) teka-tek, or
tek DUM teka-tek

I like to use music which is special to me; in performing any ritual, it's always better to use elements which are meaningful to the performer. It's helpful to use music that starts off slowly or softly, then gradually builds up momentum.

It's really just a matter of putting on some appropriate music, then losing yourself in it. What about the head rolling? I find that it helps to detach me somehow from the physical world. That might be because my sense of balance is affected; however, this is not a time to worry about scientific reasons! I also find it helpful to repeat the phrase, "I release you," when I begin. After a while, words aren't necessary and I just make whatever sounds need to come out. It can get quite intense, and you can feel as if you're losing control - but I think the consideration here should be whether or not you are enjoying what is happening. If yes, carry on! If not, just slow down a bit until you feel better.

At some point (for me, anyway) something happens and I know that I need not continue. Sometimes I notice something different about the music that I have not noticed before, even though I've heard the piece hundreds of times. On one memorable occasion, it felt like the room had turned upside-down and I was crouching on the ceiling. Fortunately, this sensation lasted only a moment! And after this "something" happens, I always feel refreshed and renewed. Perhaps a bit spent - but ready to move on. Sometimes it feels like I've been relieved of a burden or impediment. And what about that virus? Well, I once had a slight fever, and after a zar, my temperature dropped to normal!

Ready to try a zar? Find out what it can do for you!

 

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About the Author

Arabella, the author of this article, has contributed many informative pieces to this web site on a variety of topics, including:

  • Analysis of technique for doing certain dance moves
  • Costume ideas
  • Essays and opinion pieces
  • Understanding Middle Eastern music
  • Helpful how-to's, such as remembering choreography

Please visit Arabella's home page on this web site for a full list of articles she has contributed.

Arabella began her dance studies with Russian Ballet classes. Frustrated by ballet's impossible ideals, and curious about more ethnic dance disciplines, she moved on to study various other dance forms. Moving further east each time, these included Spanish flamenco, Escuela Bolera, Middle Eastern, and East Indian Odissi.

Arabella, based in Toronto, Canada, is also a certified Mastercraftsman in crewel embroidery, with a special passion for metal thread and ethnic embroidery. Currently she particularly focuses on Palestinian and East Indian embroidery.

Photo of Arabella

 

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