The Dying Art of Egypt’s Zars

 

by Mahmoud Khattab

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Madiha, or El Rayyesa (the Chief or Leader), as everyone calls her, waits patiently, flanked by the members of her troupe, Mazaher, as they warm their leather drums that have not been used for a week. They have been performing in Cairo for years.

They are about to go into the cultural center Makan, which literally means ‘place,’ where they will perform for a group of tourists. The center is in a small, rundown building in downtown Cairo. Their performance will take place in a small room, with no stage. The cement of the walls is bare, like the colorful lightbulbs that cast a warm glow in the room.

 

As they step into the room, the band begins by praising Awliya—the saints of the Muslim world—and calling on God to protect those watching them from evil. They spend an hour on stage performing.

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Zars are not unique to Egypt. Believed to have originated in East Africa, the tradition is said to have traveled up the Nile into Sudan and Egypt with Ethiopian slaves. In Egypt’s patriarchal society where men lead all religious ceremonies, this tradition is almost always led by a woman, a role often passed down from mother to daughter. Men are among those who provide the rhythm, beating it out on their drums.

Historically, Zars were seen as a form of exorcism—performed to treat illnesses, or used as a ritual for women who had not married or were unable to bear children. Through the tradition of dance and drumming, participants entered a trance-like state. There was an altar of offerings, a slaughtered animal, incense, kohl, and henna. This heady, intense ceremony is not technically outlawed in Egypt, but is heavily stigmatized. Because of this, historically traditional rituals are not well documented. It is hard to know how often they continue to occur in Egypt, if at all.

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As the practice evolved, Zars have become part of Egypt’s folkloric tradition, and today are performed in the city’s cultural centers. This tradition itself—still a spiritual experience for its performers—is also dying. Madiha, 62, attributes it to the fact that many Egyptians view the Zar as a superstition or sorcery. “There are no more Zar performers left. Only myself and handful of others still do it,” she says. “For me, it is a melody that welcomes others.” She explains that the word Zar comes from the Arabic word Zayir, which means visitors. “We are just welcoming visitors with our music.”

Today, only two groups perform Zars in Cairo for an audience; Asyad al-Zar and Mazaher—both working to remove the stigma associated with the Zar. And only private spaces offer them a chance to perform. Madiha says their performance is a way to preserve the ancient melody, but that her children, like most Egyptians of their generation, have no interest in this tradition, and she has no one to pass the music down to. “We’re not doing it for ritualistic purposes. It’s just to preserve its music.”