Zar Spirits and the Mazaher Ensemble by Nicholas Mangialardi
On Wednesday evenings, walking past Saad Zaghlul street in downtown Cairo, you can hear the rhythmic thuds of hand drums echoing from an open doorway at the end of the block. In the Egyptian Center for Culture and Arts, the Mazaher ensemble is performing an exorcism ritual known as zar.
In Egypt, zar ceremonies are used to treat individuals possessed by spirits, or jinn. When jinn inhabit people, they’re believed to remain with the hosts forever, inducing erratic behavior every few months or years. A zar exorcism is then held to treat the individual, and only by playing specific drum patterns or khuyut (literally “threads”) can the jinn be called forth and appeased. Every Wednesday, the Egyptian Center for Culture and Arts (ECCA) hosts the Mazaher ensemble, one of the few remaining groups in Egypt who preserve and perform zar music.
Cultures across the Arab and Islamic world use similar rituals to treat possession. And like other societies, Egyptians regard the zar ritual with some unease. Jinn are mentioned numerous times in the Qur’an, so the notion that spirits occupy and, sometimes, meddle in the human realm is acknowledged by many in Egyptian society. Exorcising troublesome spirits, however, is generally associated with folk culture, what many see as backwards, low class, and unorthodox. When I mentioned to Egyptian friends that I attended some zar performances at the ECCA, many were surprised, or pretended to be, suggesting that zar was silly voodoo, not the kind of culture foreigners take interest in. This scoffing aside, most Egyptians know the zar. And many know someone who’s been to one, or have been to one themselves.
At the ECCA, no one gets exorcized. On Wednesday nights, the small venue is always packed with mostly upper-middle class Egyptians who can afford the cover charge. The Mazaher ensemble performs the songs they learned from their parents, who learned from their parents, and so on. They’re practitioners of a ritual that was meant to do something, the music being a tool to treat illness rather than entertain. Thus, as the ECCA’s director told me, members of the Mazaher ensemble don’t think of themselves as musicians or entertainers. At least they didn’t originally.
The ECCA seeks to keep Egyptian folk traditions alive with weekly performances by several groups. The Mazaher ensemble is undoubtedly the most popular. While zar exorcisms are socially stigmatized, Egyptian audiences at the ECCA have no qualms about enjoying a performance of the zar, a rendition, a reenactment. The ritual, stripped of its original purpose, is now palatable. We know we’re not paying to take part in folk voodoo, only to watch a performance of it. Our curiosity is safe.
The work that cultural institutions do preserving local folk traditions is crucial. But after the Mazaher show, ears still ringing from the drums, one wonders if the ensemble members still don’t think of themselves as entertainers after so many Wednesday nights.
Nicholas Mangialardi is a Ph.D. candidate in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. His research focuses on Egyptian music and literature. He interned previously at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage editing videos for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
This piece was written in collaboration with the Smithsonian Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s exhibition The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, on view through February 20, 2017.
 For more on zar terminology, see Janice Boddy’s 1989 study Wombs and Alien Spirits.
 The Qur’an’s seventy-second chapter is also entitled al-Jinn.