Babylon & Beyond

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EGYPT: An ancient art for modern times

April 18, 2008 |  8:00 am

The two women struck their drums to a crescendo, swirling their heads, adorned with embroidered veils and bright jewelry. The men in the background followed the rhythm with their flute and oriental percussion instruments, as they all seemed to slip into a trance.   

This performance at a small makeshift theater in downtown Cairo was part of a representation of a traditional dwindling Egyptian act of drumming, singing and dancing, called the "Zar." Originally, the Zar is a ritual practiced mainly by women in some African countries to heal the bodies and souls of their community from illness and evil spirits.

But because it weaves in magic and mysticism, this practice has been rejected by mainstream Islamic currents. It is only practiced today illicitly in underground places such as cemeteries.

According to the Egyptian Center of Culture and Art, which is trying to preserve this "endangered" form of folkloric performing arts, "the Zar" traditionally played a pivotal role in social interactions within old-time Egyptian communities:

The ritual has been misperceived as a form of exorcism. However, the aim of Zar is to harmonize the inner lives of the participants. As well as drawing women who are seriously ill, the Zar is a space in which women can work out the tensions and frustrations of social constraints which limit their movements, their dress, their voices and even their dreams.

Raed Rafei in Cairo

Video: A Zar performance at a makeshift theater in downtown Cairo. Credit: Raed Rafei