Les Cahiers Du CRASC

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Les cahiers du Crasc,  N°30,  Turath n° 9, 2014, p. 101-110 | Texte Intégral


 

 

Stephan PROCHÁZKA et Bahram GHAREDAGHI-KLOUCHEH

 

 

 

Introduction

The term zār is widely known in many Arab countries as well as in Somalia and Ethiopia (and among the Ethiopian Jews in Israel). There are similar cults in western and eastern Africa as well as in south Asia. All these cults are certainly related[1]. Usually zār refers both to a species of spirit and to the practices related to the appeasement of these spirits. Although zār cults are probably much older, the first evidence for them goes back only about two centuries, when, in the year 1838, a kind of zār cult was reported by a French traveller for the Ethiopian town of Adowa. However, already by the end of the nineteenth century the zār cult had spread to many parts of the Arab world, including Egypt and even the holy city of Mecca[2].

The word zār is certainly not related to the Arabic verb zār “he visited”. The origin of this term is most likely Ethiopian: Jār was the name of a pagan Cushitic god who had been reduced to the role of an evil spirit after the Ethiopians have become Christians and, later, also Muslims.[3]

There are many studies of the zār cults, in particular for Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa, Sudan and Egypt[4]. As for Iran – the region covered by our research – only a few and mostly outdated studies exist. Nor for the neighbouring Arab Gulf states has zār yet been thoroughly researched. To our knowledge, the only study based on actual fieldwork is the monograph by Gholām Hoseyn Sa‛dī published in Teheran in the 1960s. This Iranian ethnographer conducted his fieldwork on the Iranian side of the southern Persian Gulf around Bandar-e ‛Abbās. Two articles have been published that are based on Sa‛dī’s book, namely D. J. Marsden’s “Spirit possession on the Persian Gulf” and Iraj Bashiri’s “Muslims or Shamans: Blacks of the Persian Gulf.”

The present paper mainly relies on long-term fieldwork conducted by co-author Bahram Gharedaghi-Kloucheh during the past twelve years in Iranian territory along the Shatt al-‛Arab, especially the village of Qosbe near the small town of Arvand situated opposite al-Fāw (along the channel called the Nahr-e ‛Arīd). We also have to thank our colleague, Dr Gebhard Fartacek, who did fieldwork in Arvand in autumn 2008, for many interesting details.

The zār cult in the area under research is dominated by black people called zangī by their Iranian compatriots. The current mother tongue of these people is the south Iraqi gilit-type Bedouin Arabic widely spoken in the Iranian province of Khūzestān/‛Arabistān[5]. Like most people in the region, the zangīs are Shiites. However, their ethnic affiliation, plus the fact that they also use Swahili and Amharic in their cultic songs, suggest that they came to the region comparatively recently, most likely as slaves. They are strictly endogamic and are regarded by outsiders as social inferiors.

The patient and her/his spirit

The zārs are regarded as a special species of spirit. They consist of numerous individual spirits divided into several subgroups. It is not clear whether or not they belong to the jinn but they are definitely not among the so-called bād demons (named after the Persian word for “wind”) reported for zār communities in southern Iran[6]. Symptoms of zār-possession include psychological problems, in particular depressions and/or social conflicts. Hyperactive children are often regarded as possessed by one of these spirits.

The reasons why a zār might enter a person, settling in her or his head, are numerous. Very often the proclivity to zār possession is inherited. But at least some zārs are contagious, entering a person through close physical contact with an already zār-inflicted individual. When not appeased, zārs can become very dangerous for the person possessed, causing severe illness or even death. It should be emphasized that the zār ritual is not an exorcism, because its objective is not to get the spirit out of the body, but to placate the zār and thus establish a kind of peaceful co-existence between the spirit and its host.

Someone who is ill, and for whom the treatments of the normal doctors have proven unsuccessful, is brought to the Māmā- or Bābā-Zār, the leaders of a zār group. The patient (marīd) and his or her companions are welcomed with a cup of water to the building where the sessions are conducted. This is to ensure that the patient will feel comfortable and relaxed like a guest. During the subsequent conversation the Māmā- or Bābā-Zār and others present talk with the patient to learn the nature of their affliction. At the close of the interview, the Māmā- or Bābā-Zār takes a piece of the patient’s clothes and for the next few nights will sleep with it under her/his pillow. The dreams s/he has during these nights will enable her or him to make a diagnosis of the disease and decide if the complete ritual is necessary or a simple present to the spirit would suffice.

Location

Up to the 1980s in the village of Qosbe there was a separate building (of Indian wood) for the zār ceremonies ; but this was destroyed during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) in which an estimated 2-3 million palm trees were also destroyed. Presently the bayt zār is in a large private house situated on the canal outside the village.

The big room for the rituals is L-shaped. Sessions begin with the participants sitting on the ground along the walls. The Māmā and/or Bābā-Zār sit in the centre, the woman on the left, the man on the right. If the patient is a woman, she sits next to the Māmā-Zār; if a man, next to the Bābā-Zār. Other women and men take their places on the appropriate sides of the room. All participants at the ceremony except the patient (or sometimes the patients) are called “Daughters and Sons of the Zār” – that is people who are possessed, but by a spirit which has already been appeased. Children below the age of twelve or thirteen are usually not permitted to participate in the sessions because people think that the spirits can easily harm them. But there are exceptions.

In the middle of the room is a kind of altar called a kursī. On this low table will have been placed candles, water, rose-water, and incense (traditional frankincense, but also East Asian incense sticks). Although there are sessions exclusively for women or men, usually both sexes participate in them; but in many locations a curtain can be hung down in the middle of the room in case a woman patient begins to disrobe during a trance.

The zār ritual itself is called a dagg and is usually held in the evening. No zār sessions are held during the months of Muharram, Ramadān, and the first half of Safar. The Islamic month of Sha‛bān is regarded as the best time for a dagg. Normally a session will last three times for about one and a half hours (in between there are breaks of circa thirty minutes).

At the beginning, coffee with saffron and nutmeg is drunk. If the financial situation of the patient permits, an animal is sacrificed, usually a cock or a goat. The meat is distributed to the poor and eaten after the session. Sometimes the blood of the sacrificed animal is drunk by the patient[7] ; but this is often refused as it contradicts Muslim dietary rules.

Besides incense and other aromatics, music plays an important role in the ritual with singing and clapping in accompaniment to a tambourine, daff, and the big drum called a dammām in this region, but modendo in Southern Iran[8]. String instruments are never used.

Because the zār spirits are believed to come from different countries and regions, different musical rhythms such as Orar, Alwāye, Lankat, and Shangar are employed. The Shangar rhythm is regarded as the most important. Because ritual participants believe that the spirits like the music from their native country best, one duty of the Māmā- or Bābā-Zār is to determine the region of origin of the spirit and employ the right rhythms during the ceremony.

In contrast to other regions (e.g. Bandar-e ‛Abbās), the order of rhythms employed during the zār ritual in the Arvand area follows a strict sequence: A typical session begins with the Arabic Lankat (subgroups dhikr and sayyid), after which follows habaši, shangar (subgroup e.g. bah), and zufāf. The last is a mixture of all the rhythms. Very often the participants of the ritual dress differently for the differing rhythms.

In contrast to southern Iran, where nearly all zārs are thought to be unbelievers[9] – in other words, non-Muslims – in the Shatt al-‛Arab region only those zārs are regarded as kāfirūn whose language is incomprehensible. This especially applies to the zārs from the Ethiopian (habašī) group. The “Red Demon”, Rīh al-ahmar, who is believed to come from Nubia, and who has a prominent role in Kuwaiti zār, is rarely found. It is worth mentioning that many of the non-Arabic songs are actually Swahili; some seem to be Amharic. But even the leaders of the ceremony do not understand these languages: only the sounds of the words of the songs have been transmitted from one generation to the next.

All the songs in the Lankat group are Arabic (e.g. a group of songs called shāmī) and often evoke such well-known Muslim saints as Ahmad ar-Rifā‛ī, ‛Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī, and ar-Rābi‛a al-‛Adawiyya. Songs dedicated to these persons are called dhikr mashāyikh. An example for such an Arabic song is given in the appendix to this paper.

When one or more of the patients falls into a trance, they usually begin uttering strange things, often in what is believed to be a “foreign” language. Sometimes, however, the patient will merely use gestures. The utterances are believed to come directly from the spirit and are interpreted by the Māmā- or the Bābā-Zār. Sometimes the Māmā- or the Bābā-Zār presses the patient’s head or fingers, or binds the patient’s head or some other part of their body with cloth. The wishes of the zār, as interpreted by the Māmā- or Bābā-Zār are usually for such things as nice clothes, gold, or money. Usually the patient will have to promise to pay such expensive offerings in instalments. By tradition, the objects demanded by the zār are buried in a secret place.

To end the trance, or when the patient appears to be getting out of control, the Māmā- or Bābā-Zār will beat him or her with a bamboo stick (‛asā). These sticks are passed down from one generation to the next.

At the close of the session, the participants gather around a table (sufra) laden with fruits, rose-water and frankincense sticks. Frequently the spirit will not reveal its wish at the first session; two or three more sessions are often needed.

There is usually only one Māmā- or Bābā-Zār in each village or neighbourhood. The position of a Māmā- or Bābā-Zār normally remains in the same family. A woman can pass on her “post” to a man and vice versa. Commonly one of the children of the family will be obviously interested in the ritual and therefore in the eyes of the Māmā- or Bābā-Zār especially gifted for this “job”. That youth then will be taught the songs, the music, and the secret arts required for effecting cures. It is believed that the spirit of the predecessor enters her or his successor. The current Māmā-Zār of Qosbe is very old which means that de facto her 45-years-old daughter can be regarded as the actual Māmā-Zār of the village. She was initiated by her grandmother who was called Ghāliye and lived from 1909 to 1983. As a young woman Ghāliye had been a slave-servant in a sheikh’s home. When she was accused of theft by the sheikh’s family she left them in anger and first went with her baby son into the desert. Later she returned, built one of the largest zār-houses of the region, and became very famous, not only as a Māmā-Zār but also as a sheikha who had a great knowledge of popular medicine.

By participating in her grandmother’s sessions from the age of ten, the current Māmā-Zār learnt unconsciously many of the songs. Earlier the girl had very much wanted to attend the rituals but was forbidden because of her age. So one day she stole her grandmother’s veil (niqāb) and dress and came to the ritual in disguise. When her grandmother arrived looking for her dress, the girl was discovered and thrown out. However, the next day the grandmother relented and from that day on began to teach her grand-daughter the skills of a Māmā-Zār. The successor of the current Māmā-Zār, who moved recently to Kuweit, will probably be her younger brother.

Financial aspects

Although some Māmā- or Bābā-Zārs deny that they take money for their engagement, zār-sessions are a kind of family business. Of course it is not a business from which they become rich, but it certainly provides some income. The number of specialists required for a full session number up to fifteen, including several musicians. In our case the zār-group include the Māmā-zār, her three sisters and mother, four sisters-in-law, and six neighbours, three female and three male. The entire group will require between 100 and 300 Euros for one ritual if at home, but much more if they make a “house call” to another town. However, many Māmā- and Bābā-Zārs provide financial support for poor relatives or neighbours by including them in the group as, for instance, musicians.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the zār cult in the Shatt al-‛Arab region has, without doubt, much in common with the rituals related to the possession of jinn which are found in many Muslim societies. However, there are also striking differences such as the overwhelming role of female specialists and the strong non-Islamic substrate, for instance the drinking of the blood of the sacrificed animals.

The zār cult as briefly described in this paper, belongs to the network of ritual practices widespread along the eastern and southern shores of Arabia, especially in Oman and parts of Yemen, and in east Africa. It is a typical underground culture whose adherents are a despised ethnic minority. Most of its practioners are women, both in the active sense as Māmā-Zārs and in the passive sense as patients. Many studies in different regions of the world have shown that ritual possession is a typical characteristic of oppressed communities. Thus we find zār communities consist chiefly of African ex-slaves and women, the oppressed sex of Islamic societies.

As for the region under research, the surrounding majority society, both the Arabic and the Persian speakers, views this cult with suspicion or fear or both, and regard its practice as contrary to Islam and therefore something that should be persecuted. Educated people, who are not so much inclined to religion, regard the cult as a backward superstition in which only uneducated or feeble-minded people believe. Today the zār ritual, at least when performed by men, is not strictly forbidden but the future of the zār in the Islamic Republic of Iran is uncertain and in constant peril of persecution by the authorities.

References

Ashkanani, Z. (1991), « Zar in a changing world: Kuwait », I. M. Lewis et al.: Women’s medicine : The zar-bori cult in Africa and beyond, Edinburgh, University Press, p. 219-229.

Bashiri, I. (1983), « Muslims or Shamans: Blacks of the Persian Gulf ». online-article <www.bashiri.info/gulf%20folder/gulf.html> visited Oct 2008.

Ingham, B. (1973), « Urban and Rural Arabic in Khūzistān ». Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, n°. 36, p. 533-553.

Kenyon, S. M., « Zar ». S. Glazier (ed.) (2001) : Encyclopedia of African and African-American Religions. New York, Routledge, p. 392-396.

Marsden, D. J. (1972), « Spirit possession in the Persian Gulf ». Journal of the Durham Anthropological Society, n° 2,  p. 23-42.

Rouaud, A. & Battain, T. (2008), « Zār », Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 11, p. 455-457.

Sa‛dī, Gh. H. (1967), Ahl-e Havā. Tahrān, Appendix - A song of the lankat-type (edited in collaboration with Dr Amira Jaafar).

يا الله

O God!

يا سيدي ومولانا               ويلة يا الله                        

O my Lord, o our Patron       wayla o God!

شعاع النور ضيانا            هيلة يا الله

The rays of light enlighten us            hayla o God!

سيد احمد لتعرفونه                        هيلة يا الله

Master Ahmad whom you know    hayla o God!

نازل شعره عل متونه        هيلة يا الله

His hair falling down to his shoulders           hayla o God!

وخاف الناس يحقدونه        ويلة يا الله

I am afraid that the people will hate him      wayla o God!

والمدد  يا رسول  الله         ويلة يا الله

The supporter, o messenger of God   wayla o God!

يا سيدي ومولانا               هيلة يا الله                        

O my Lord, o our Patron       hayla o God!

شعاع النور ضيانا            ويلة يا الله

The rays of light enlighten us            hayla o God!

* * *

قوموا وشجروه للتنور        هيلة يا الله          

Stand up and light the tannūr                       hayla o God!

سيد محمد واقف سور        هيلة يا الله

(Our) Master Muhammad is standing here like a wall       hayla o God!

ويطلب من شيخ الدستور     هيلة يا الله

And he demands of the “Shaykh of Dastūr”                       hayla o God!

والمدد يا رسول الله           هيلة يا الله

The supporter, o messenger of God              wayla o God!

يا سيدي ومولانا               هيلة يا الله

O my Lord, o our Patron                   hayla o God!

شعاع النور ضيانا             ويله يا الله

The rays of light enlighten us            wayla o God!

يا سيدي ومولانا               هيلة يا الله                        

O my Lord, o our Patron                   hayla o God!

شعاع النور ضيانا             ويله يا الله

The rays of light enlighten us            wayla o God!

* * *

سيد محمد بالحضرة           هيلة يا الله

(Our) Master Muhammad at the hadra            hayla o God!

لابس له .......خضرة         هيلة يا الله

He wears green ……  hayla o God!

مرحوم يا جد الفقرة           هيلة يا الله                      

May (God) forgive the ancestor of the poor hayla o God!

والمدة يا رسول  الله

The supporter, o messenger of God!

* * *

يا سيدي ومولانا               هيلة يا الله                        

O my Lord, o our Patron       hayla o God!

شعاع النور ضيانا                        ويله يا الله

The rays of light enlighten us            wayla o God!

* * *

سيد احمد لتعرفونه             هيلة يا الله

Master Ahmad whom you know    hayla o God!

نازل شعره على متونه        هيلة يا الله

His hair falling down to his shoulders             hayla o God!

وخاف الناس يحقدونه         هيلة يا الله

I am afraid that the people will hate him      wayla o God!

والمدد يا رسول  الله

The supporter, o messenger of God!

* * *

يا سيدي ومولانا               هيلة يا الله                        

O my Lord, o our Patron       hayla o God!

شعاع النور ضيانا             هيلة يا الله

The rays of light enlighten us            hayla o God!

* * *

يا سيدي ومولانا               هيلة يا الله                        

O my Lord, o our Patron       hayla o God!

شعاع النور ضيانا             هيلة يا الله

The rays of light enlighten us            hayla o God!

* * *

شعاع النور ضيانا                       

The rays of light enlighten us. 5 x

طور مكة محمد قاصدينا     

Tūr Makka, Muhammad is our goal. 2 x

هلهلت كل السياد  وازهرت مكة ومدينة           اهلا، اهلا، بالعافية، بالعافية

All the masters rejoiced and Mecca and Medina shined.

Welcome, welcome! With strength, with strength!

 طور مكة محمد قاصدينا    

Tūr Makka, Muhammad is our goal. 2 x

هلهلت كل السياد  وازهرت مكة ومدينة                      

All the masters rejoiced and Mecca and Medina shined.

طور مكة ابونا قاصدينا      

Tūr Makka, our Father is our goal. 2 x

هلهلت كل السياد  وازهرت مكة ومدينة

All the masters rejoiced and Mecca and Medina shined.

طور مكة بو جاسم  قاصدينا           

Tūr Makka, Bū Jāsim (i.e. Abū Qāsim) is our goal. 2 x

هلهلت كل السياد  وازهرت مكة ومدينة

All the masters rejoiced and Mecca and Medina shined.

طور مكة محمد قاصدينا     

Tūr Makka, Bū Jāsim (i.e. Abū Qāsim) is our goal. 2x

هلهلت كل السياد وازهرت مكة ومدينة

All the masters rejoiced and Mecca and Medina shined.

طور مكة بو جاسم قاصدينا            

Tūr Makka, Bū Jāsim (i.e. Abū Qāsim) is our goal. 2 x

هلهلت كل السياد وازهرت مكة ومدينة

All the masters rejoiced and Mecca and Medina shined.

هلهلت كل السياد

All the masters rejoiced. 2 x

هلهلت مكة ويّا مدينة          جيت ازور النبي يا لزائرين

Mecca and Medina were rejoicing together and I came to visit the Prophet, o pilgrims. 14 x

جيت ازور النبي   يا لزائرين

I came to visit the Prophet, o pilgrims. 4 x

دستور    دستور

Permission ! Permission!

* * *

سيد احمد يا الرفاعي          شي لله

Sayyid Ahmad, o Rifā‛ī      something for God. 2 x

سيد احمد بو لطيفة حفظ الله

Sayyid Ahmad, father of Latīfa  May God protect!

سيد احمد بو شريفة            ما شاء الله

Sayyid Ahmad, father of Sharīfa   What God wills!

سيد احمد بو شذرية           حكم الله

Sayyid Ahmad, father of Shadhrīya                      God decides.

سيد احمد بو هاشمية          ما شاء الله

Sayyid Ahmad, father of Hāshimīya         What God wills!

سيد احمد بو هاشمية          قطب الله

Sayyid Ahmad, father of Hāshimīya         God’s pole

سيد احمد بو جلثومة           ما شاء الله

Sayyid Ahmad, father of Kalthūma,          What God wills!

سيد احمد يا الرفاعي          شي لله                دستور   دستور   دستور

Sayyid Ahmad, o Rifā‛ī      something for God – Permission! Permission! Permission!

سيد احمد يا الرفاعي          شي لله

Sayyid Ahmad, o Rifā‛ī      something for God. 2 x

ويلة رفاعي         يا الله رفاعي

Wayla Rifā‛ī!              O God! O Rifā‛ī!

هيلة  رفاعي        يا الله رفاعي

Hayla Rifā‛ī!              O God! O Rifā‛ī! 4 x

يابو شذرية          يا الله رفاعي

O Father of Shadhrīya!          O God! O Rifā‛ī!

هيلة رفاعية         يا الله رفاعي

Hayla Rifā‛īya!          O God! O Rifā῾ī!

يابو شذرية          يا الله رفاعي

O Father of Shadhrīya!          O God! O Rifā‛ī!

يابو بدرية

O Father of Badrīya

هيلة رفاعية         يا الله رفاعي

Hayla Rifā‛īya!          O God! O Rifā‛ī!

يابو شذرية          يا الله رفاعي

O Father of Shadhīya!           O God! O Rifā‛ī!

يابو بدرية

O Father of Badrīya! 2 x

* * *

وبالعباد صورته

His image is with God’s servants.

يا سادة واحنا سرينا

O Masters, we wandered in the night.

سيد احمد سرا بينا

Sayyid Ahmad guided us through the night.

يا بويا وين بلادي

O Father, where is my country?

وبالعباد صورته

His image is with God’s servants. 2 x

يا سادة  واحنا سرينا

O Masters, we wandered in the night. 2 x

سيد احمد سرا بينا

Sayyid Ahmad guided us through the night. 2 x

يا بويا وين بلادي

O Father, where is my country? 2 x

وبالعباد صورته

His image is with God’s servants. 4 x

ساروا وما سيروني 

They went away and did not take me with them.

بلادي بلادي         بلادي هيا وما ودعوني

O my country! O my country! It is my country and they did not say goodbye to me.

ساروا امي وابي

My mother and my father went away.

بلادي بلادي        بلادي هيا وما ودعوني

O my country! O my country! It is my country and they did not say goodbye to me.

ساروا امي وابي

My mother and my father went away.

 بلادي بلادي هيا وما ودعوني

O my country! It is my country and they did not say goodbye to me. 2 x

ساروا ما سيروني 

They went away and did not take me with them.

بلادي بلادي هيا وما ودعوني

O my country! It is my country and they did not say goodbye to me.

الله

God!

ساروا امي وأبي؟

My mother and my father went away.

بلادي بلادي هيا وما ودعوني

O my country! It is my country and they did not say goodbye to me.

بلادي هيا وما ودعوني

It is my country and they did not say goodbye to me. 4 x


NOTES

(1) Institute of Oriental Studies, Vienna, Austria.

(2) Institute of Oriental Studies, Vienna, Austria.

[1] Kenyon (2001), 392.

[2] Kenyon (2001), 392.

[3] Rouaud & Battain (2008), 455.

[4] Rouaud & Battain (2008), 456ff.

[5] Ingham (1973).

[6] Marsden (1972), p.25.

[7] Cf. also Marsden (1972), p.28.

[8] Bashiri (1983), p.4.

[9] Marsden (1972), p.26.