The weekly ḥaḍra of the zār Abū al-Ġaiṭ
Author: Kawkab Tawfik
A woman in a zār session (ḥaḍrat al- zār) is surrounded by musicians and is dancing the song dedicated to the Prophet of Islam, as she is wearing a white veil. Qaliubiya Governatorate – Egypt May 2021 © KT
Zār is a cult and a ritual that involves music and dance and which aims at creating a state of reconciliation between the person and the spirits (asyād) that are possessing his/her body. In the zār ceremony, an ensemble is leading the zār practitioners by engaging them through physical motions, which can guide the person eventually to a state of semi-conscience or trance. The zār ensemble is set semi circularly around the “patient” and it is leaded by a master, called rayyis for men and kūdya for women. Through the repetition of particular rhythmic and melodic structures, the musicians conduct the person (mostly women) to reach a state of trance. According to the zār believes, the “patient” that is “dressed” (malbūs) by a spirit is able to enter in contact with it when he synchronizes the body movement with the rhythm, considered the breath of the spirit self.
It is commonly believed that the cult of zār arrived in Upper Egypt from the Abyssinia and Sudan through the commercial routes and slavery trade along the Nile under the Ottoman Empire. In the Delta, the zār met a society where the popular expression of Islam was mainly routed in Sufism, festivities for saints’ birth (mūlid) and dervichism practice. The zār of the Delta is in fact named after the dervish Ḥassan Abū al-Ġaiṭ, who founded in the XIX C. the sufi brotherhood (ṭarīqa) Aḥmadiya Ġiṭāniya, and it is the expression of religious and music syncretism between the sufism, and the Sudanese and Upper Egyptian zār, integrating thus the healing ritual into sufi reunion, called ḥaḍra.
The musical forms reflect many elements belonging to the Egyptian sha‘bī (popular) song, both religious and secular, and the polyrhythmic forms of the Egyptian and Sudanese zār. The instruments used are the percussion tabla, and mazhar, ḥāna (frame drums), with a strong role of the ṭūra (cymbals with 12 cm diameter) and the kāwālā (Egyptian single reed flute).
A woman is dancing while a ṭūra (cymbals) player is singing during a zār session. In close-up level, a ḥāna, Egyptian frame drum with cymbals typical of the Egyptian popular music. Qaliubiya Governatorate – Egypt May 2021 © KT
A kāwālā player is leading the zār session. Qaliubiya Governatorate – Egypt. May 2021 © KT
A close-up of ṭūra, cymbals with 12 cm diameter. Qaliubiya Governatorate – Egypt. May 2021 © KT