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Zar Ritual

The Zar is a possession-trance dance ritual in which music and drumming facilitate a relationship with the possessing spirit in order to prevent future occurrences of illness. Keep up with a FREE subscription to the BABA YAGA newsletter.

The ZAR is not an exorcism. The ZAR is a possession-trance dance ritual practiced by women in North Africa and the Middle East.

"The term zar refers to a type of spirit, to the complex beliefs concerning those spirits, and to various ritual practices associated with them. Zar is also a form of illness and affliction, caused through possession by zar spirits, as well as the ritual processes for curing that disorder."— Susan Kenyon, writing in 2012.

Laurie Eisler, writing in 1995, described the public Zars that were held in Cairo, Egypt when she was studying at the American University in Cairo. She was admitted to the Zars as a music researcher; she was permitted to photograph, record and videotape the musicians, but not the dancers.

"Public Zars, usually located near local saints' shrines, were held weekly in various parts of Cairo, usually coinciding with the ritual day for visiting a particular tomb. The participants were in large part married country (baladi) women who came to town to visit shrines, pray, picnic, and attend a Zar, lending a festive air to the entire trip. These Zars are open to all women, but are patronized chiefly by the lower-income class, who retain traditional beliefs regarding the jinn, or spirits. Most upper-income women are embarrassed by the existence of the Zars.

"Zars are forbidden during Ramadan, since Zar activity is considered to be, at best, peripheral to proper Islamic practice or, at worst, anti-Islamic.

"The only men allowed in the Zar were male musicians or seriously ill relatives of the female participants.

"Most participants are devout Muslims and praises to the prophets are shouted after each dance. However, the acceptance of women of all denominations and the possession of Muslim women by Christian spirits and Christian women by Muslim spirits makes the Zar suspect to Islamic fundamentalists. A rise in Islamic fundamentalism has been loosely correlated with increased popularity of the Zar, possibly as an expression of resistance to the oppression of seclusion."

Baqie Badawi Muhammad, writing in 1993 about the Zars in Sudan:

"There are crucial differences between the popular or folk practice of Islam and Orthodox Islam. Unlike Orthodox Islam— which recognizes Allah and Prophet Muhammad, his servant and messenger— the Sudanese religious order operates under a larger hierarchy. At the top is Allah, next in importance is the prophet Muhammad, and third-ranked are Awliya (saints). Sudanese Muslim cosmology also includes aerial spirits, nature (plants, animals, mountains, etc.), the human world, and the underworld... Allah dominates and controls all these categories... People believe that the Awliya, the aerial spirits, and all the other categories mentioned above have the power to help and protect them from other forces in the universe which represent evil. Spirit possession— or Zar— is one of those forces that protects and helps them.

"On the other hand, the most influential force that negatively affects people's lives is the evil eye. Alan Dundes states that the evil eye is a fairly consistent and uniform folk belief complex based on the idea that an individual male or female has the power voluntarily or involuntarily to cause harm to another individual or his property, merely by looking at or praising that person or property."

The Characteristics of a Possession

"The prototypical signal of a zar attack is the appearance of symptoms, most commonly headaches, lethargy, or infertility, which are not cured after several visits to other types of healers including biomedical doctors. Eventually, the sufferer is diagnosed as being afflicted by a zar spirit."— Monika Edelstein, writing in 2002.

Laurie Eisler, writing in 1995:

  • Possession is most likely to occur where there is water (rivers, wells, canals, bathroom) or at thresholds (stairwells, doorways).
  • People are most vulnerable to possession when it is dark or when the person is experiencing extreme emotion such as sadness, anger or fear. Women typically described the onset of possession as occurring when leaving the house angry after shouting at children or having a marital quarrel.
  • Women attempt to avert possession at vulnerable moments by reciting protective formulas or the opening line of the Koran, with the intent of acknowledging the omnipresence of the spirit world in their lives and asking forgiveness.
  • Physical symptoms of possession include swelling or pain in arms, legs, or stomach; infertility and miscarriages; epilepsy; and loss of appetite. Psychological symptoms of possession include insomnia, nervousness, or anxiety.
  • A sheik or sheikha (wife of a sheik, wise matron) is often consulted for a diagnosis before the woman participates in a Zar. The Kodiya formulates the required course of action. Attending weekly Zars or commissioning a private Zar (expensive, but necessary when the possessing spirit is particularly stubborn or annoyed) will bring symptoms under control by establishing harmonious relations with the possessing spirit(s).


"The leader may be called Kodia (Egypt), Shaykha or Umiya (North Sudan). The leader is herself possessed. She has come to terms with her spirit and is therefore able to help others. Heredity is considered an important qualification; leadership is often passed from mother to daughter or through female members of the family. Men cannot inherit possession but may claim to have been called to it."— Meira, writing in 1996.

Laurie Eisler, writing in 1995:

  • The public Zars are held at the home of the Kodiya.
  • Zars last from 4 to 9 hours. Individual songs run 5 to twenty minutes. There is a constant turnover of attendees.
  • Two music ensembles are usually engaged, who alternate sets so they do not tire..
  • All-female bands, as well as all-male bands, are employed at the Zars, sometimes in the same Zar.
  • An attendee is purified with incense at the door to establish the beginning of the therapeutic process and to honor the spiritual domain.

"Once the illness is diagnosed as zar, therapy begins with the initiation ceremony of the afflicted individual into a cult group of others who have suffered similar ailments. The initiate attends a zar ceremony where she will hopefully fall into a trance, allowing the zar to enter her body and reveal its identity and wishes to the other participants through movement and speech. After a few minutes in the trance, the new medium returns to normal consciousness. The spirit is not exorcised, but rather a relationship is developed with the spirit in order to prevent future occurrences of illness. This relationship is based on an agreement or series of agreements whereby the individual accepts to undertake certain activities, which may include performing certain rituals, attending regular zar ceremonies, wearing special clothing or jewelry, ingesting specific foods or other substances such as tobacco, or altering his or her marital status to appease the spirit. Through this initiation, the sufferer is transformed into a recognized spirit medium. Over the course of a lifetime, a person may acquire several zar spirits, each with its particular demands."— Monika Edelstein, writing in 2002 about Ethiopian Zars.

"Zar was so popular among poorer women in Egypt that every so often Imams burned Zar tapes and CDs publicly in the squares outside big mosques, saying that it invoked 'unislamic' spirits and practices. This drove it underground, where it barely survives, having lost many of its poly-rhythmic songs and chants, distintively different from other Egyptian musical traditions. In Egypt only aruond 25 people continue the tradition."— Morocco, writing in 2011 about Egyptian Zars.

The Role of Music and Rhythm

Laurie Eisler, writing in 1995:
  • In Egypt, the Zar is often referred to as a Daqq (drum beat) because of the central role that percussion plays in the event.
  • Music is the most crucial element to the dancers, and they will criticize bands that do not meet their standards for energy and quality
  • There is an element of performance in the Zar which is taken very seriously; an attendee who blocks the line of vision of other attendees will be admonished to get out of the way.
  • Attendees sit and wait until they find themselves responding physically to the music. When a woman does so, she is responding to the beat of a specific spirit associated with that song— the spirit most likely to be the cause of her discomfort.
  • Any person may be possessed by more than one spirit and therefore may be inspired to dance to several songs.
  • The Zar is not successful unless an attendee achieves a trance experience during dancing, incorporating a sense of calmness and peace of mind lasting after the event is over. If this state is not reached, the attendee will often blame the band.
  • The malevolent Jinn respond to faster, driving tempos and inspire forceful dance movements.
  • The benevolent Asyad inspire a more controlled and softer dance, sometimes accompanied with scarves of different colors which are adjusted and rearranged while dancing.
  • As each song progresses, the rhythm speeds up, the trance deepens, and women lose sense of self. Their behavior is carefully watched and controlled to prevent it from getting too extreme.

Performing the Zar

Morocco, writing in 2011:

"Real Zar is an auto-hypnotic possession manifestation, to which each individual responds in her own way... The real ritual does not have a specific movement sequence. Egyptians or Sudanese (except for fundamentalists) do not have a problem with Zar being used in performance — the key is staging and doing things like this respect, never depicting it in a comic or satirical way — which does not mean it has to be boring.

"Circling the hair and head frantically is not Zar— the head is not tossed around: it is from the chest/upper ribcage— the head is loose. I worry when most do it wrong and overdo it: it can put their necks out of joint or cause a stroke."


Shoo Shoo Amin, Shoo Shoo Amin may have been one of the first dancers to bring a Zar ritual to the stage. Video clip, Web.

Monika Edelstein, Lost Tribes and Coffee Ceremonies, Journal of Refugee Studies (2002), Web.

Laurie Eisler, Songs and Spirits, Habibi Magazine (1995), print and Web.

Susan Kenyon, Spirits and Slaves in Central Sudan, Palgrave MacMillan (2012), New York, Print.

Latifa: A Mirror of Ourselves: A Personal Encounter with the Zar, Habibi Magazine (1995); print and Web.

Meira, The Zar Revisited, Crescent Moon Magazine (1996), Web.

Morocco, You Asked Aunt Rocky: Answers & Advice About Raqs Sharqi & Raqs Shaabi, RDI Publication, Virginia (2011), Print.

Baqie Badawi Muhammad, The Sudanese Concept of Beauty, Spirit Possession, and Power, Indiana University (1993), Web.

Serpentine Communication You tube clip about the Zar; excellent and detailed, as usual from Serpentine. Includes a clip of a stage performance by a solo dancer to recorded music.

Zar ceremony which includes a woman dancing in trance. The quality is poor; the camera may have been hidden. One woman stands by the dancing person monitoring her at all times.

A more recent clip of a zar. The musicians cluster around the woman who is going into a dance trance.

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