Cairo (AFP) – Auditorium, musicians, audience… a regular concert? No, because at this point in Cairo, souls rub against the audience’s shoulders and under dim lights, Umm Sameh sings to heal the sick of their demons.
The zar, which arrived centuries ago from Ethiopia and Sudan, has spread throughout North Africa.
The names and tools vary, but the goal is the same: to exorcise evil spirits from the victims of the jinn.
Traditionally, the ritual lasts several days and requires animal sacrifices.
The audience was affected by the voice of Umm Sameh and his family by the looks of kohl.
“Zar is a very ancient ritual, associated with healing, it is a kind of medical treatment,” said Ahmed Al Maghribi, founder of Mazhar, the last group he said to practice zar in public.
In 2000, a place opened to “preserve this heritage and archive popular Egyptian music,” the gray-haired man explains.
And to return her lofty discourses to the zar, which are denounced by the Muslim and Christian clergy of this conservative country, and the authorities who want to get rid of rural traditions to embrace modernity and industrial development.
“In Egypt, there is sometimes a tendency to disdain the local culture or traditions,” says Mr. Al-Maghribi lamentably. Moreover, when he started 22 years ago, he attracted almost only foreign appearances.
“Foreigners came to the parade with the Egyptians. The latter came reluctantly, for zar to them was +jinn and blood +, but when they saw the set of appearances and their lighter version of zar, they were pleasantly surprised.”
– This isn’t rocket science.
“We are neither charlatans nor witches,” irks Umm Sameh, 72, the lead singer of Mazhar, who still wears her luminous dress after the performance.
In a patriarchal society where women claim that the law is discriminated against, zar ceremonies are held by the women, beginning among themselves.
Umm Sameh learned the ritual since the age of 11 with her mother and grandmother.
Sixty years later, she sang the same lyrics, the same melodies, and says proudly, “Without notes or written words, we inherited it like this and grew up with it.”
“It’s a spiritual song that empties negative energies. There are also some mystical prayers,” she continues, as she wears hoop earrings in her ears and her arms are covered with dangling gold bracelets.
Abu Samra, however, laments the tanbura, a kind of ancient harp, “Some have a very negative idea of the zar because of the ‘Egypt’ Hollywood Arab films.”
In the 1980s, the beats of zar, the inversion of zar in Arabic, provoked musicians to manipulate a woman by brandishing the ghost of a jinn, while in “Al-Ta’awizah”, the curse, Arab singers Yousra and Tahia Karioka led to her disappointment. Fake blood and loud cries.
“But it is an art like all the other arts, you have to forget these ideas received,” urges Abu Samra, bald and tall.
In a sign that times are changing, Mazahir, whose members are all over 60, has found a new recruit: Azza Mazahir, Umm Hassan’s forty-year-old daughter, one of the band’s percussionists.
The contrast between mother and daughter is astounding: As Hassan’s mother drums into a chair in the background, Azza, vigorously follows the dance steps.
“If someone feels bad and the doctors can’t find a cure, we can organize a party (…) but, here, we offer something light, folklore, for people to discover, understand and appreciate,” he told AFP.
The formula appears to be working.
Mazhar has already participated in several European festivals. And in Cairo, he convinces more and more Egyptians.
Maryam Al-Issawi, in her twenties, exclaimed after the ceremony: “They look like us and represent us.”
For this modern Egyptian look and pierced nose, “The Zar is part of our history and heritage.”
© 2022 AFP