Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion

By Morton Klass; Maxine Weisgrau | Go to book overview

Conclusion

Although there does seem to be evidence to suggest that the incidence of possession increases in times of social stress (for example, Colson 1970; also Sharp 1993), it is over-simplifying to regard possession as merely a reflection of symptoms of tension and distress found in the larger society. Rather possession beliefs such as zar represent a complex and dynamic set of strategies which continue to make sense of the changing circumstances in which various people find themselves.

As we stood in the hospital with Fatima, trying to help resolve her problem, I was aware of the relief with which the arrival of the leader of zar was greeted by patient, family and bystanders. Here was obviously a person who was felt to have great knowledge and powers, certainly capable of dealing with such a situation, even though a hospital room was not part of the routine round of zar. Nobody was surprised by her confirmation that the zar were indeed responsible for Fatima's condition. The response of Bashir was likewise reassuring, representing as he does a more popular guest than the Pashawat spirit Hakinbasha, who also deals with medical matters but remains more aloof and distant and, it has to be admitted, is now somewhat dated in his techniques. Bashir can communicate his demands directly as well as represent the whole assembly of zar. Paradoxically he can be described as the most "worldly" of the zar spirits, who understands and is able to deal with the problems of contemporary Sennar while at the same time he has ready access to the more "prestigious" zar spirits of yesteryear. His is a strong and effective voice, a bridge 25 connecting the two worlds: that of the nodern diverse environment in which so many zar participants find themselves, and that of the larger more conservative world-view to which many people continue to subscribe.

In the last resort it is in this sense that he, and the new spirits like him as well as the rituals associated with them, represent modernization in zar. Through such spirits forms of possession such as this continue to meet new and increasingly diverse heeds in contemporary society and continue to be a relevant interpretation of the daily experience. However, the "era of the Ethiopians" may well already be passing, as the civil war in Ethiopia has ended, and meanwhile religious fundamentalism tightens its hold on the Sudan. Further field research in Sennar may well reveal new configurations of spirits and ritual with possibly the reemergence of the Derewish spirits as active spiritual actors. Equally possible, new spirits altogether may be emerging which will provide us with a vital alternative commentary on contemporary local events.


Notes

Acknowledgments. Grateful thanks are extended to the many people in Sennar who helped with my research, and especially to the late Rabba Muhammad, Hajja Fatna Abdel Aziz, Najat Ahmad, the late Soad al Khoda, Zeinab Bushra, Zachara al Diya, Miriam Idris, Halina Ahmad, and Nuresham Ahmad. I also wish to express my appreciation to Myrdene Anderson, Erika Bourguignon, and Carolyn Beck for their insightful contributions for the symposium at which this paper was originally presented; to Myrdene Anderson, Linda

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