Zar is a possessing jinn that usually attacks women and refuses to leave until the victim receives lavish gifts of jewelry, perfume, clothes, and dainty foods.
Second-class citizens under male domination, women relayed on the zar to give them some measure of power and privilege.
Husbands must provide expensive gifts and sweetmeats to create peace in the household. Such appeasement raises suspicions of manipulation, but so ingrained in Islamic culture is the belief in spirit interference that husbands dare not tempt fate.
Descriptions of zar possessions were recorded in the early 19th century by travelers to the Egypt and the Middle East. The “cult of the zar” continues in areas in modern times. The usual Possession and Exorcism of the zar proceed as follows: The victim, suffering from some minor complaint, blames possession by the zar, and other female relatives prevent her from seeing a medical doctor, preferring the services of an old woman who is a female shaman, a shechah-ez-zar.
For a fee, the shechah identifies a zar as the source of the woman’s troubles and interrogates the zar, sometimes in a recognizable language and sometimes in zar language, understood only by the shechah. After repeated conversations, the zar offers to leave once the possessed victim receives specific lavish gifts and attention from her husband. On the afternoon of the zar’s scheduled departure, a “beating the zar” ceremony is performed at the victim’s home.
The victim’s female friends and relatives join her for the ceremony, often accompanied by food, coffee, and a flute and drumming performance. The shechah and her assistants chant the final exorcism rites, with music, and then often sacrifice a lamb. The lamb’s blood is rubbed on the victim’s forehead and elsewhere.
She then dances madly, sways, and finally faints. The zar leaves, satisfied that the victim has been rewarded. In some ceremonies, the questioning of the zar is done after the victim and others dance and enter trance. The shechah asks for a remedy to the malady, and the zar specifies gifts.
The ecstatic dancers may be shown silver rings and bracelets and other objects, which pacify the zar. On a day fixed by the zar, another fit can occur, which can be relieved only by the satisfying of a wish. Zar exorcisms have become part of contemporary urban Islamic culture. In many large cities, such as Cairo, regular exorcisms are held in a public building as often as once a week.
The length of the ceremony, from three to seven nights, depends upon the fee that can be paid. Women from all walks of life participate, whirling and dancing until the spirit leaves them and they return home, exhausted but entertained. Relief from the possession may be only temporary, and it may return with another infraction committed by a husband.
Men are expected to believe in the possession, which, in addition to giving women the freedom to ask for gifts, permits them to scold and upbraid their husbands in a manner that would be forbidden under normal circumstances. Nineteenth-century accounts of zar possession in Abyssinia describe a different cult that affected men as well as women, blamed on the zar, or bouddha, evil spirit.
The victim typically was afflicted in the middle of the night. He would run out, roll on the ground, and scream until exhausted and still. The remedy consisted of taking a hen, swinging it around the head, and smashing it to the ground. If the hen died immediately, it meant the zar had passed into the body of the fowl and the victim was cleared. If the hen survived, the remedy had to be repeated until a bird died.