In the 1903 text Madar al-Zar (The Damages of Zar), Egyptian writer Muhammad Hilmi Zayn al-Din decried the growing popularity of zar rituals and the superstitious women who participated in them as an epidemic ravaging his country. This article employs Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb’s method of “epidemiological reading” to reveal and analyze the racial and imperial anxieties that underlie this understudied text. The article begins with a summary of Madar al-Zar and an account of the sociopolitical context in which it was published. It then pulls back the surface layers of the text to reveal that the “disease” running rampant in early twentieth-century Egypt was not zar, but the scourge of African enslavement and the ever-looming specter of Egypt’s imperial desires in Sudan. The article concludes with a meditation on zar as an archive of African dispossession, displacement, and resilience.
At the turn of the twentieth century, a vile plague struck a wealthy Alexandrian household. This menace could be neither seen nor heard, but its invisible fires raged through the well-respected family. The malady burned through their money, their honor, their respectability, and their well-being. This disease, according to writer Muhammad Hilmi Zayn al-Din, was the spirit-possession cult of zar. His 1903 work, Madar al-Zar (The Damages of Zar), is a story—supposedly based on true events—of an unnamed family that falls prey to the deceptions of a zar priestess (kodiya). The author presented the tale as a cautionary one that illustrated the harm the pernicious disease of zar inflicted upon elite Egyptian families. “Zar is a disease [da’],” he explains in his introduction, “an epidemic [waba’]. . . . It is a rot [sus] that eats away at honor and reputation. It is the lowest of epidemics, and from it comes all plagues” (Zayn al-Din).
The family depicted in Madar al-Zar is fictional but the existence of zar was real. According to Zayn al-Din, uneducated and gullible Egyptian women were its most susceptible victims. Zar is a ritual healing complex composed of primarily women devotees and ritual leaders that has been practiced in Egypt since the nineteenth century. The term zar refers to both the pantheon of jinn (also known as “masters” or asyad) affiliated with the affliction and the reconciliation rituals necessary to pacify zar spirits. Zar spirits cannot be exorcised or expelled. Rather, the one “worn by” the spirit (malbus), the possessed, must commit their life to pacifying and learning to live with their unearthly rider. If pleased, the jinn permits its human companion to live a normal life. It might even grant them divinatory powers (Battain). But they must always return to the beating of the drums and the intoxicating hymns of the zar ceremony. Those afflicted with zar generally join a community of zar participants who serve as devotees to a kodiya, or priestess, who acts as ritual leader.1 Zar devotees attend public zar ceremonies (sing. hadra), which are usually large, weekly gatherings that take place at public shrines for a small fee. These are most beneficial for those whose spirit companions have not yet been identified and for appeasing spirits in individuals who are not ready for the commitment of a private zar (El Hadidi 52; El-Shamy 92). Private zar ceremonies, or haflat, were usually quite expensive and took place in private homes.
Zayn al-Din’s use of the metaphors of “disease,” “epidemic,” and “plague” to describe zar and zar practitioners is striking.2 It signaled a growing fear among wealthy Egyptian elites—but a fear of what exactly? Explicating “the epidemic of terrorism” prominent in Western political discourse following September 11 as linked to histories of European colonial violence and orientalism from India to Algeria, literary theorist Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb brings a “disease poetics of empire” into view. Disease poetics of empire create an epidemiological imaginary of a society in which groups and individuals, like zar priestesses, are dehumanized as “microbial, cancerous, [and] viral” (Kolb 18). The metaphor of the epidemic in public, literary, and political writings is an archive, shaped by European and US colonial expansion and the responses to it, from the nineteenth century until today. But what can the use of epidemic as metaphor in Madar al-Zar tell us about Egypt’s own colonial expansion and imperial anxieties?
In this essay, I read with and against epidemic metaphors in Madar al-Zar to understand the colonial anxieties at the heart of the text. Kolb’s “epidemiological reading” provides a method of analysis that serves as a “portal to a variety of histories on a range of different scales” (21). Such a method oscillates between close reading and thick description, and larger systems-level analytical frames mimicking the function of the epidemiological in the medical, ecological, and metaphorical senses. To begin, I provide the sociopolitical context of Madar al-Zar and a summary of its plot. I then show how the text can be read in two ways. The first is through elite Egyptian anxieties about superstition and those believed most susceptible to it. On closer inspection, Madar al-Zar is more than a cautionary tale warning Egyptian elites against the dangers of superstition and uneducated women. Peeling back the surface layers of Madar al-Zar exposes a range of analytical scales otherwise hidden. We witness new complexities of and anxieties about the making of the modern Egyptian state, the failure of Egypt’s imperial pursuits in Nilotic East Africa, and the abolition of the trade in enslaved Africans. Picking at the scab of the pustule reveals the uncomfortable demographic realities of migration into the budding urban center of Alexandria for Black Africans, Upper Egyptians, Bedouins, and Northern Egyptian peasants. Egyptian colonialism and enslavement were the true disease.
The “Damages” of Zar
Madar al-Zar is one of the first published references to zar in Egypt (Natvig, “Arabic Writings”). There is scant available information on its author, Muhammad Hilmi Zayn al-Din. The Diwan Umum al-Awqaf, the central bureau for the distribution of charitable endowments, published the text in 1903. Its low price of twenty milliemes ensured distribution to Egyptians of all classes (Macmillan). In addition to the primary story, the text features a fascinating three-part appendix, including songs commonly performed at zar ceremonies (anashid al-zar), a poem titled “The Sins of Zar” (“Awzar al-Zar”), and a hadith called “Advice from a Mother to Her Daughter on Her Wedding Night.” Madar al-Zar was published at a moment when the popularity of zar was growing throughout Egypt. American missionary Anna Thompson wrote that little girls emulated zar ceremonies in the streets of cities like Cairo and Alexandria (Zwemer 275).
The text gained much attention during the first half of the twentieth century. This was primarily due to elite Egyptians’ fears of the growing popularity of zar and foreign researchers’ interests in the “magical” practices of the East. For Egyptian readers, the story was a part of a growing corpus of nonfiction literature that criticized local curative practices in the promotion of colonial and nationalist discourses of health and physical hygiene (Mitchell 100). Madar al-Zar afforded unfamiliar readers—and particularly male readers—a detailed examination of the quickly spreading diseases of zar and superstition in the country. Its cure, Zayn al-Din stressed throughout the text and in his selections for the appendix, was the education of Egyptian women in proper virtues and morals, and ultimately their obedience to their husbands. For European and American ethnographers, Christian missionaries, and orientalist scholars interested in Islam, the text provided ethnographic insights into zar rituals that have continued to be cited and reprinted from the twentieth century until today. However, few scholars have closely analyzed Madar al-Zar.
Zayn al-Din begins the story with the death of the unnamed narrator’s maternal grandfather in the port city of Alexandria. The grandfather was one of the wealthiest merchants in the city and well respected in his community. Upon his death, his wealth was distributed among his heirs, including the narrator’s mother, and the poor. Yet only misfortune could come from such a sizeable inheritance. During the mourning period for the grandfather, a zar priestess visited their home among the well-wishers and learned of the narrator’s mother’s newly bequeathed inheritance. The priestess and the narrator’s mother swiftly became friends, as the priestess visited frequently, bringing gifts and a comforting presence to family. The narrator himself even came to trust her. Eventually, the family confided their intimate problems to the zar priestess (Zayn al-Din 1–2).
The first showing of the kodiya’s supernatural healing powers (or powers of deception) occurs when the narrator falls ill with an intermittent fever. The priestess performs an incensing ritual, causing the narrator to inhale a dizzying and foul-smelling black smoke that renders him senseless. The father of the family, presented as a voice of reason, suggests that they call a doctor for their son, but the mother refuses. She responds that the kodiya advised her against “cheating” doctors who prolonged the treatment of their patients solely to make a profit. This argument reveals a larger tension within the family over healing practitioners—the narrator reveals that his eldest brother had long suffered from an uncurable neurological disease (marad asabiyya). The family consulted numerous healing practitioners—biomedical doctors, religious healers, “old wives” (‘agayiz)—to no avail. They had long lost all hope for a cure. The mother sees in the zar priestess a last resort and begs the woman to cure her son (3–5).
After a ritualistic investigation to understand the source of the boy’s illness, the kodiya provides a dark diagnosis: The son was adored by a jinn princess who sought her father’s approval to make him her human companion.3 Her father consulted a council of jinn elders, who ultimately permitted the princess to “betroth” him. Yet, unbeknownst to the council, one of the jinn minister’s daughters was also in love with the son. She overheard their decision and vowed to kill the son instead of letting her beloved fall into another’s arms (6–8). It was her malice that caused this affliction in him, and she would not leave him until appeased. The family permits the zar priestess to perform multiple costly ritual gatherings in hopes of mollifying the vengeful jinn. These efforts fail. The son dies (10).
The death of the family’s eldest son creates a moment of crisis causing the mother to fall deeper into the clutches of the zar priestess. The kodiya reveals that the mother is also afflicted by a powerful jinn (17). The mother gives the priestess more money to acquire the provisions for a large zar ceremony—pure white chickens for ritual sacrifice, jewelry, dresses, and various sweets and fruits (23–32). During these preparations, the kodiya becomes close with the family’s servants, providing them with tips (bakhshish) and advice. Despite the large gathering, the mother falls ill, and the priestess reports that the jinn refused to leave her. The mother continues to fund efforts to pacify the spirit. Now impatient and disturbed by these superstitious healing methods, the father calls on a group of doctors to assess the “real” cause of his wife’s illness (37–38). They diagnose her with the recurrent disease of dropsy and suggest surgery to relieve her pain. This only worsens the mother’s affliction and further angers the spirit inside her. The mother’s refusal to undergo surgery and her continued affiliation with the zar priestess drives a wedge between her and her husband and son. Ultimately, the mother meets a fated death—an end that, according to the narrator and his father, is due to her misplaced trust in the zar priestess (55).
A Plague of Ignorance?
The women in this unnamed family all succumb to the wiles of the kodiya. The mother spends exorbitant amounts of her inheritance on supplies for rituals, zar ceremonies, and gifts to appease the zar masters (asyad) attached to herself and her son. One of the narrator’s sisters is initiated into the zar cult. Female mediators brought in by the father to convince his wife to have surgery instead of resorting to the prescriptions of the zar priestess ultimately side with the mother. The women blame the father for intervening and further angering her zar spirit. The men in the story are presented as sympathetic characters of reason and restraint. They all suffer from the poor decisions and feeble minds of their female kin. The narrator was initially beguiled by the zar priestess, believing her to be a sincere friend of the family. He later comes to despise her and her otherworldly grip on his mother. The father opposed the priestess from the beginning but endures her presence (and the expenses she incurred) out of love for his wife. The eldest son pays the ultimate price. His mother’s belief that the priestess would cure him cost him his life.
Zayn al-Din’s presentation of the male characters as trustworthy protagonists and the women as alternately gullible and weak or plotting and deceptive reflects growing public discourses of health and hygiene, Islamic modernist reform, women’s education, and a growing “marriage crisis” in Egypt (Kholoussy). Elite men, including doctors, members of the ulema, and nationalist reformers, produced many writings on these topics and often placed the plague of zar at the center of their knowledge production. Zayn al-Din intertextually situated himself within this literature, referencing other contemporaneous texts that engaged zar, like Dr. Abdel Rahman Ismail’s Tibb al-Rukka (1892).4
Zar provided women with an uncomfortable amount of power over their husbands and other male kin. Many men saw zar as an excuse for their wives and daughters to demand expensive clothing and jewelry for spirits that could never be exorcised or pacified. The exorbitant costs of zar added to the already heavy financial burdens on married Egyptian men, who could be taken to court and divorced if they did not provide their wives with a suitable financial allowance (Kholoussy 24–26). This was particularly true in the first half of the twentieth century, when Egypt suffered numerous financial crises. Young bachelors looking to marry wondered about the veracity of the new disease of zar. In 1895, Abdel Fatah Rafaat Efendi, a police inspector from the Delta city of Al Santa, sought advice from the editors of al-Hilal (Crescent) newspaper (“Al-Zar” [no. 13]). He asked whether zar and its accompanying spirits (afrit) were a real disease or merely a pretense (iddʿa’) put on by young women. The editors published a three-page response warning Rafaat that zar was a superstitious myth that could only be extinguished by the spread of modern science. Moreover, any woman who claimed to fall under the influence of zar spirits was either a liar or suffered from a neurological disease that made her hallucinate (506). Zayn al-Din highlighted this theme of frivolous spending in Madar al-Zar. Although the mother spent her own inheritance on zar rituals, not the money of her husband, the author conveys to the reader that the money the mother spent was not only her own but also the potential inheritance of her rightful male heirs.
Men feared zar ceremonies because they had no idea what actually happened in them. Generally, men were not allowed to take part in the rituals—but there were exceptions. Readers of al-Hilal reminded editors that zar afflicted men too, and men often became devotees to appease their spirits (“Al-Zar” [no. 14]).5 Men sometimes worked as musicians at the ceremonies and even served as cult leaders (El Hadidi 43–45). To make up for his lack of experience at a zar ceremony (and his narrator character’s lack of ability to attend because he was forbidden), Zayn al-Din completely reproduced the article of Egyptian writer Zeinab Efendi Fawwaz, who published her experience at a zar ritual in Jaridat al-Nil. Fawwaz’s account is reprinted in other male-authored texts as an example of the “true” experience of zar. Writers like Zayn al-Din were sympathetic to Fawwaz’s narrative, as she revealed the secrets of the ceremony, while remaining highly critical of the “ignorant,” brainwashed women she met there. Kodiyas, Fawwaz noted in disgust, were “the most undesirable and most wicked of charlatans” who held an unseemly amount of power over their devotees (Ismail 73).
The tragedy embedded in Madar al-Zar, from Zayn al-Din’s point of view, is that such a respectable family—and its honorable women—fell prey to the tricks of a zar priestess. Indeed, Egyptian elite women, like Fawwaz, waged war against the “plague” of zar. The cure to this disease was education. They mobilized this specter haunting the working and peasant classes to promote women’s education and reforms around child-rearing (tarbiya) through national and international platforms throughout the first half of the nineteenth century (see Badran; Baron). When Egypt sent a delegation to the 1923 Alliance for Women’s Suffrage in Rome, representatives Huda Sharawi and Nabawiyya Musa presented “the fight against superstition and certain customs which do not accord with reason . . . (e.g., the zar, charms, etc.)” (Smith 194). Islamic nationalist and writer Labiba Ahmad argued that not only lack of education but ignorance of religion allowed this “sickness” (marad) to continue in Egyptian society. Its only cure (‘alaj) was for the government and religious authorities to remain vigilant (yaqaza) to its spreading (Ahmad 23).
As depicted in Madar al-Zar, the home was the main site of infection (fig. 1). Anti-colonial feminist writer Malak Hifni Nasif argued that improperly reared girls who did not attend school were vulnerable to the wiles of the “charlatans, hairdressers, and zar kodiyas” that her uneducated mother might bring into the home (20).6 Elite women in the urban cities of Cairo and Alexandria were also susceptible to these breaches of the home. They regularly summoned clothing merchants, hairdressers, women healers, and other service-based suppliers into the safety of their haremlik, or private women’s quarters. But, unlike the homes of their middle- and working-class counterparts, elite women’s homes were already infected, in a sense, because of the domestic workers who served in their homes. These workers were usually enslaved Sudanese and Abyssinians, and recent working-class and peasant émigrés from the Delta and Upper Egypt. Zar, too, was a new arrival to Egypt, having emerged at the height of the trans-Saharan slave trade in the nineteenth century. In fact, zar went hand in hand with the enslavement of Black Africans from Sudan and Abyssinia. Enslaved populations brought the healing cult with them from their homelands. Elite Egyptians’ fears of zar were not solely due to its superstitious nature. It represented an infection that they brought into their own country. They feared the power, strength, and economic support it gave to populations they never intended to be freed. The issue of women’s ignorance in Madar al-Zar, then, was only the most visible surface of the problem. Colonialism and enslavement were at its depths.
Colonial Symptoms, Imperial Hauntings
What is the connection between zar, African enslavement, and Egyptian imperialism? During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Egypt was a critical location for the sale and distribution of enslaved peoples from East and Central Africa and Circassians from the Black Sea regions and the imperial center of Istanbul.7 “Modern” Egypt, as demarcated by the reign of Mehmet Ali Pasha, was literally built on the backs of enslaved Africans. More than seven hundred thousand enslaved Africans passed through or settled in Egypt by way of the slave markets in Cairo and Upper Egypt (Walz and Cuno 5). Black Africans played a decisive role in the Ottoman ruler’s military campaigns in the 1820s and 1830s. The drive for African agricultural laborers during the cotton and sugarcane booms in the 1860s and 1870s similarly motivated Khedive Ismail’s desire to colonize Nilotic East Africa. Households of the upper and middle classes depended on enslaved labor, both “Black” and “white,” with the demand for domestic workers and concubines growing steadily by the close of the nineteenth century. Turco-Egyptian and European officials took enslaved women as wives and used them as nannies and servants. These households, much like that of the wealthy Alexandrian family in Madar al-Zar, usually included enslaved Africans and domestic servants hailing from rural parts of Egypt. These practices continued well after the de jure abolition of the trade in African slaves in 1877 and 1895.
Zar rituals preserve an embodied history of dispossession and enslavement. The songs, pantheon of spirits, and oral histories passed down by priestesses and their jinn act as an archive of African enslavement and forced conscription of peasants in the Delta and Upper Egypt, as well as Ottoman, British, and Egyptian imperial violence. The continuance of the rituals as both a healing complex and a social space reflects the enslaved’s persistence in surviving and recording such brutality. Zar provides new ways to think about the “global” and the “transnational” as conserved in the objects, narratives, and practices of magic. Forms of zar practiced in Alexandria and Cairo absorbed elements, such as music and terms, from spirit possession ritual complexes like Gnawa derdeba, Tunisian stambeli, and Hausa bori (El Hadidi 38). For instance, the term kodiya originates from the Hausa word godiya, meaning “horse” or “mount.”8 The songs performed in zar ceremonies similarly contain traces of their African origins and, in some cases, act as auditory archives of social change and strife in Egypt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Natvig, “Umm Al-Ghulam”). Madar al-Zar was one of the earliest publications to include a full appendix of zar hymns but made no mention of their social context.
When the presence of zar was first recorded in Egypt, its kodiyat, devotees, and musicians were almost exclusively enslaved Abyssinians and Sudanese (Klunzinger 396). Anthropologist and zar devotee Hager El Hadidi noted that members of her zar guild (ta’ifa) still remembered the existence of “spirit houses”—the homes of zar priestesses and their devotees—that were run by formerly enslaved African women (66). During slavery, zar became a necessary means of economic and social support for free and enslaved Black women, just as other Egyptian guilds and Sufi organizations did for other economic groups in urban areas (Baer). Black Africans continued to provide occult services, such as zar, fortune telling, and geomancy, after abolition. Migrants from Upper Egypt, the Delta, and parts of North and West Africa joined zar communities in Egypt for the protection and economic security they provided. Eventually, indigenous variants of zar led by Egyptian zar priestesses emerged in the Delta and Upper Egypt.
In this light, the kodiya in Madar al-Zar no longer appears to be the villain of the story. Rather, she is an antihero making her livelihood and maintaining community in the harsh, unwelcoming urban city of Alexandria. While the race of the zar priestess in Madar al-Zar is not clear from the text, the author used her dialogue to depict a classed relationship that positions the healer as inferior. It is also clear that the healer uses the family’s payments to provide for her devotees and other impoverished people, including the family’s servants. The kodiya’s position as a charitable provider is a source of deep anxiety for the narrator. He views this generosity as evidence of the healer’s corruption and deception.
In chapter 4, the narrator reveals that the kodiya has gained the trust of the household servants. He believes she bribed them for information about the house. Over time the servants confide in the priestess that the master of the house treated them poorly. This mistreatment and cruelty only escalate throughout the story. The narrator sees the increasing mistreatment as a result of his father’s frustration with his mother’s belief in zar healing. However, the cruel treatment of the servants is never fully described; it appears in small asides when the narrator breaks the frame to berate the servants for their betrayal. Who knows what interactions they may have had outside of the author’s narrative purview? The family’s servants seem to visit the priestess’s house when they please. Their social position made it easy for them to visit the kodiya unnoticed, especially since their movements were sanctioned by the mother.
The narrator’s worries were not unfounded. Egyptian fears of Black African “superstition” heightened following emancipation as formerly enslaved people turned to occult practices for their livelihoods. Turco-Egyptian and European households’ intimate relationships with enslaved Africans and Black servants put them in direct contact with their domestics’ spiritual beliefs and practices. As zar spread outside of the Black community into Turco-Egyptian homes, employers and government officials feared the influence of Black zar priestesses on their devotees. Officials believed that these women could manipulate domestics into stealing or killing their owners for the material demands of greedy zar spirits. Sometimes they did (see Erdem; Salima; Saz; and Spyropoulos).
Another subversive moment in Madar al-Zar occurs during the kodiya’s preparation for a large zar hadra at the wealthy family’s home. To kick off the ritual, the healer ritually sacrifices white chickens and orders one of her followers to throw them into the sea. Accompanied by the narrator, the woman brings the chicken carcasses to an old sailor living in a small hut near the sea with his family. The initiate pays the man to dispose of the carcasses in a “deep section” of the sea where they would not be found (Zayn al-Din 20). The narrator is horrified to learn that the sailor only hid the carcasses and later returned to the spot, retrieved the bodies, and prepared them to feed his family—or, in the words of the narrator, they were “eating [his family’s] money” (21). Was zar a “sickness” or was it a revolutionary form of mutual aid, care, and community building feared by the elite?
Lessons of/from the Unseen
According to French theorist Michel Serres, “sickness is a noise. . . . It intercepts a function . . . that mixes up messages in the circuits of an organism, parasiting their ordinary circulation” (187). If sickness is a noise, in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Alexandria, that noise was the rhythmic beating of zar drums in public hadras and, late into the night, in private Egyptian homes. It was the haunting lyrics of the songs at zar ceremonies and the cries of pain and ecstasy of women releasing the anguish of their inner demons. But what organisms did this noise, these women, disrupt?
In his 1903 text, Madar al-Zar, Zayn al-Din lamented that uneducated and gullible Egyptian women fell prey to the wiles of zar priestesses, many of whom were recently manumitted Africans, to rid themselves of the entities that they believed possessed them. If we take Zayn al-Din and the Egyptian elites that he considered the audience for his story at their word, the answer to this question was that the “disease” of zar—and the disease of superstition overall—disrupted the social networks of families, destroyed the wealth of the upper classes, and corrupted the minds of the women and girls who were necessary to birth a modern Egyptian society. The zar kodiya, to them, was the source of this pernicious disease. However, zar and its practitioners were not a plague in need of eradication. The sources of the corruption were the enslavement of Africans and Egyptian imperial desires. As the poem goes, the disease had no cure, for its reason was Egypt’s own hand.
The true lessons of Madar al-Zar are only understood when engaged through and with the unseen. We must acknowledge the spirits at the core of zar practice, as well as the specters that haunt this understudied text. Sloughing off the raced and classed anxieties on the story’s surface reveals zar’s presence as a multifaceted archive of displacement and dispossession. Its hymns, objects, and practices conserve the tragedies of African enslavement and imperial violence. They attest to the resilience of the women preserving these traditions. Zar was never a disease. It was a system of belief, a form of worlding, and a mode of community building and mutual aid in the harsh urban centers of Egypt.
For their engaged commentary and careful eyes at various stages in writing this piece, I offer my grateful thanks to the special issue editors, Sherene Seikaly and Anjali Arondekar; Sam Dolbee; and the editors of this journal.
Kodiyas are not always zar ritual leaders. Ritual leaders are sometimes referred to as sheikha. For a nuanced discussion of the distinction between the two, see El Hadidi. In Madar al-Zar, Zayn al-Din uses the terms kodiya and sheikha interchangeably to denote the zar priestess’s ritual authority.
Late nineteenth-century doctor and ethnographer Abdel Rahman Ismail details this diagnostic method, known as kashf al-atr (see Ismail 40).
For more on Ismail and his work, see Moore.
For instance, German anthropologist Hans Alexander Winkler provides an ethnographic account of a male Upper Egyptian “spirit medium” from the 1930s named ‘Abd al-Radi. He also notes men afflicted by zar spirits.
In the Upper Egyptian dialect of Arabic and in Ottoman Turkish the term is godiya, rather than kodiya. For more on the figure of the godiya in the context of the Ottoman-African diaspora, see Spyropoulos.