I need a break. It’s summer and my garden looks horrid, the grass uncut, the brown spots courtesy of the three dogs need tending, the chicken coop cleaned out and the chicken manure used to best advantage. I’m posting this short story here, in part because I am trying to get back into the mindset of finishing “Tin Hinan” and I did lose (or forgot to save) the last long chapter. So….I am looking forward to going back into that ‘space’ of Hyperarousal Trance where all things slightly spooky gives some inspiration.
I’ve written before about the Zar ritual, still an important ritual in many North African and Middle East countries and what the demon Zar represents.
I just got in the mail (bless you, Amazon.com) a new Berber group, Tianiwen, and their music I already know will throw me into that place where things connect and efforts are effortless.
See you on the other side.
A DESERT ZAR
The dust settled from the desert. All day it howled and swirled around the souk, a locust plague of stinging matter, a towering and maddened djinn. Now the sky over the sands was fading pink, as daylight filtered through the violent storm resolved into a dark blue night.
The roiling sea of sand, shifting like high waves of water, was now placid. Off to the east, bells of a caravan mixed with the groans and protestations of camels, floated over heavy air. Jasmine and bougainvillea scented the night along with dung fires from Bedouin camps.
Dusk was settling in, this narrow ribbon between light and dark, bridged by a few soft breezes. The djinn of night inhaled deeply, holding the memories of the day close, then blew to the desert, to repeat at each dusk into eternity.
This was Tunis, a hundred years ago, before the awnings of the souk now woven reed mats, were replaced with sheet tin, and the trampled dirt paved beyond cobble.
Somewhere a drum begin a steady beat, sounding like a heart beat, drawn from the village core. Then the soft piping of the ney flute floated out over the souk, it’s sweetness rising like a descant over the measured beat of more drums.
Black clad shadows moved down the length of adobe walls to the center well. Bundles of jasmine, tuberose, bougainvillea, red poppies and lavender were placed on the steps of the well, seeming to scent the still water.
An old Negress, her back twisted by life, took a few coins from women as they passed. Her hair twinkled like dull stars from the pierced coins strung from her dull dreadlocks.
This was the price of the Zar. Each woman would exorcise her demon, her hysteria or her bad luck. And with hope, perhaps a mean husband.
As more and more women came around the well, it seemed the drums became louder and the ney flute shriller. The bleating of a goat near by could be heard.
Still, black figures moved in the settling darkness down the cobbles to the well and placed their few coins in the Negress’ hand.
Around the corner and halfway down the street was a doorway. A curtain was drawn over the opening but the incense within puffed out with each opening. It scented the nighttime air, dueling with jasmine growing up walls. The shrillness of the ney increased and the drums picked up rhythm.
Go through the curtain and you enter a room heavy with smells. The incense–powerful, but there were undercurrents of tobacco from a hookah being smoked in the darkened room. There was something acrid, like the smell of fear or sweat. The raw smells of a crowded humanity perfumed the room.
Wooden benches placed far back upon the walls were already filled. Men and women, but mostly women, were sitting in the smoky fog. Most were still clad in the black chadors, but here and there were sparkles of an elaborately beaded head scarf. One women sat like a princess with a camel’s saddle beneath her feet. She was dressed in embroidered robes with silver jewelry over her forehead. She was the youngest wife of the local warlord and woe be to anyone who accosted her. Black eyes, two ebony moons dulled by the poppy, looked out from a face veil. The heavy sandalwood perfume coming from her robes scented the air, mingling with other scents.
In the middle of the floor a high wooden stool was placed where a large tray of sweets and fruits were offered to the spirits of the night. No mortal hand or mouth would partake of such offerings.
The drums beat varying rhythms, and all combined into a gigantic heartbeat, or perhaps many heartbeats reflecting those within the room.
Suddenly a woman appeared and walked around the altar, muttering something in a sing-song voice. Her hair unbound and tossed with the rotations of her head, she nodded back and forth in time with her pacing. As she walked and muttered, her eyes rolled back in her head. She was deep in trance.
The Sheikha! The power of a demon catcher, the handler of the Zar demons! The Wise Woman, for who but such could demand anything of the invisible and dangerous Zar?
She paced the room, muttering to herself, her body now expressing violent movements. Off to the side was a younger woman sitting on her haunches, covered with a white cloth. With the shrill call of the wooden ney, the woman was helped to her feet, uncovered, where she stood with bowed head.
She was the possessed. Perhaps her husband had brought her to the ritual. Perhaps she could be healed.
But perhaps the Zar that possessed her could overcome all the magic of the Sheikha and possess her!
Each woman had a story behind her. This one was a very young woman, now married to a much older man. He lurked in the background, anger hard in his eyes, his mouth set in a grimace. He had paid a good marriage price for his wife and she had not given him what he expected. A son was what he demanded and she had only produced one stillborn in the two years they had been married. Something was wrong with her. Perhaps the ritual he paid for with heavy coin would answer to his concerns. If not, perhaps he could ship her back to her parents and demand the bride price back.
The Sheikha’s voice called out, her arms raised towards the woman, and this woman began to pace around the altar. At first her head just nodded back and forth as she slowly moved around the room. Then her body began to twitch, her arms rose upwards, jerking with her movements. Her hair was unbound, and with each violent movement of her head, it swung around in great, undulating waves.
Still the drums increased their tempo. The drummers were off in their own trances, their faces blank, their eyes unfocused. The ney player, his wooden flute dark with age and the stains of fingers, was answered with finger cymbals and an undercurrent of chants. The room seemed to pulsate within another dimension as the incense and drums took over the senses. The chants increased in strength and sweat poured down the face and breasts of the Sheika and the possessed young woman, making transparent their white cotton dresses. Dark tipped nipples and golden breasts, the sheen of skin heated to match the frenzy of all around them, they danced on, now uttering incoherent growls and high pitched exclamations. Other women sat in place and tossed their bodies back and forth and a few stood up and joined the young woman, their own bodies beginning to mimic hers. Shrieks and groans were heard from different corners of the room and still the drums increased in rhythm, exciting the senses to a fever pitch.
Suddenly the Sheikha stiffened, her eyes rolled back as the young woman passing before her collapsed at her feet.
She had caught the Zar! He had released hold of the ends of the hair of the young woman and flown into the arms of the Sheikha! He had hit her with enough force that she staggered backwards and only the support of the women behind her kept her on her two feet.
Now the Wise Woman talked in a low, unknown language. She berated, cajoled, implored and threatened the Zar. She grasped at the air and shook it violently. She brought the Zar to her breast, seemed to stroke it, this unseen matter, and then push it from her, chiding and scolding.
For those in the room who knew about Zars, knew one never could get rid them. No, he could be appealed to, reasoned with, but who but one equal to a Zar can reason with a Demon?
A man brought forth a white cock and with a quick flash of his knife, cut its throat. With a bow he presented the dying cock to the Sheikha who began to sprinkle the warm blood about the now still woman. Again low guttural chants rose all around but the drums remained silent.
The Sheikha would threaten this Zar with her own spirits. She would threaten with her own history of wrestling with past Zars, and call upon their power for her to subdue this one.
Silently she prayed the demon before her would attend. It would be a fierce battle to the end, and onlookers watched for signs of who was winning; who was more powerful.
Ah! There always was signs of the battle within. Exhaustion threatened to overtake the Sheikha. She would have to bargain hard with this Zar. He was a powerful one; not about to give up his berth without a fight.
But, slowly, slowly….there were signs she was winning, and those who knew of these things would see renewed energy on the part of the Sheikha, a renewed passion for what she was facing. If she was coming to victory, her voice would soften, her appeals would be as to a child and perhaps this Zar would listen.
But success was never assured. These Zars were thousands of years old and wily creatures. They may be made of air and malevolence, but they were a force outside Nature.
No victory over a supernatural force could be guaranteed. It always was a battle to the end. For you never get ride of a Zar, the possessor. You only give him a good shakeup, new marching orders, and you send him back into the possessed.
No one wants a Zar running around scaring the children and chickens. And a goat for possession will not do.
The Sheikha looked down at the woman at her feet. Ah! There was a change in her face, a smoothing of her brow, a peaceful countenance. She could be restored to her husband and the Sheikha prayed that he would see his wife in a new light.
The Sheikha knew what was wrong here. It was the same old story over and over. A man, too old to give his wife the pleasure she was made for, would demand from her what he could not give. So the senses were imbalanced, the forces of love were destroyed, the woman would suffer unless….
The Sheikha’s eyes snapped to the husband and with a gesture she had him approach. She stared deep into his eyes and held them. She muttered in her strange and frightening language and still she did not drop her eyes. Then she sprinkled his white robes liberally with the cock’s blood.
She had the satisfaction of seeing the fear in his eyes.
Perhaps this time the Zar will behave. And better, perhaps so the husband, too.
Outside the walls of the souk, outside where the night wind rested, camels complained and the dung fires scented the air, where the moon looked down on the sea of sand, other Zars were gathering to float over the walls.
The food on the altar would not last long. Again Spirit would invade Flesh and the drums would call out demons into the arms of some Sheikha.
In this part of the world, the Zars were part of human destiny.
They were a part of life as much as the desert sands, the groans of camels and the dark eyes of beautiful women.