El Zar: A Tool of Oppression and Liberation

By Nassif, Maggie N. | Studies in the Humanities, June-December 2003 | Go to article overview

El Zar: A Tool of Oppression and Liberation


Nassif, Maggie N., Studies in the Humanities


Out El Kouloub El Demerdashiyya uses the seemingly primitive practice of the zar or exorcism in the tale of Nazira to offer pointed feminist, literary, social and political critiques of the Egyptian society in the first half of the 20th Century. Her tales entitled Trois Contes De L'Amour Et De La Mort first appeared in book form in Paris, in 1940. They were then translated in the year 2000 to English by Nayra Atiya and published in the United States by Syracuse University Press. This paper will adopt a three step analytical process. Through first answering questions about the importance of Out El Kouloub in Arabic feminist writing, second defining the term "the zar," finally I will examine the text in its socio-political context.

Let me start by answering the question, who is Out El Kouloub? And where can we place her in the Arabic literary cannon? After all, this is a writer who published in French, over half a century ago. She is hardly known to the Egyptian/Arab reader and has only been rediscovered in the 1990s by literary scholars in the West through translation into English. Even trying to answer the question "Who is Out El Kouloub?" is no easy task. According to Nayra Atiya, she was born either in 1892 or 1899 in Cairo. Her father was the head of El Tarikah El Demerdashiyya, a Sufi order which was founded by one of her ancestors in the 16th Century. As part of her harem upbringing, she was educated at home. We also have conflicting stories about her divorce or the death of her husband. Whatever happened to her marriage resulted in her raising her five children as a single mother, managing her vast estate, and vigorously pursuing knowledge. In addition to her extensive readings, she held a literary salon that drew famous intellectuals, both Arab and European, who were mostly men. Although a devote Muslim, who never served alcohol at her salon, she adopted progressive ideas, especially when it came to the emancipation of women, hence the story of Nazira. She died in 1968 in Europe after she fled the Nasser regime (Atiya xiv).

Out El Kouloub's significance is obvious in her being an early prototype of the following categories: Twentieth Century Arab feminist activist-writers; Franco-phone Arab writers; literary salon patrons; a population of newly discovered writers who offer a worthwhile opportunity of research. Out El Kouloub's importance is not only historical, but also literary. Her choice of the zar as the central event of the tale Nazira reflects her mastery in mixing progressive ideology with folk practices. In a nutshell, Nazira--a teen age bride--is married to a wealthy older man--Abdel Latif. As a result, she is depressed and seems to be wasting away. So Abdel Latif's friend suggests a zar. But what is a zar?

The zar is an African ritual that originated in Ethiopia and Sudan and traveled north through slave trade and immigration to Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and also to Israel with Ethiopian Jews. As it traveled, this practice picked up attributes from Muslim and local popular cultures. There are several theories about the etymology of the word zar. It may be a derivative of any of the following:

1. The name "Azuzar"--an African male deity--the counter part of Osiris.

2. The Ethiopian word "sar" meaning a group of spirits.

3. The Arabic verb: "zar" to visit. The sick person is visited by spirits.

4. The Persian adjective "zar" means weak/handicapped.

5. In Hebrew "machzor" is the Jewish prayer for rituals and holidays.

Also, hazar means to go around or to return (Kennedy 203, Eisler 24). While the origin of the word is not definitely known, the protocol of the zar is very clear. The Codia (female) or Sheikh (male) master of ceremony and his/her helpers sing and beat an assortment of percussion instruments, while the women sway and gradually end up dancing hysterically until they reach a climax in the form of a trance. This vivid performance, half therapy-half torture has often triggered three distinct attitudes towards the zar. …

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