“The Desert Zar”, a short story.

Trance dancer, by velomar


This is a new story, the last in “The Zar Tales” to be published soon. It is an experimental piece and I have some  further work to do on it.

Posting Part 1 because it is long.

Lady Nyo

The 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 had settled 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 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 heartbeat, 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, tuberoses, 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 ritual.  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 nearby could be heard.

Still black figures moved in the settling darkness down the cobbles to the well and placed their few coins in the old woman’s 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 woman 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 above 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 Sheika! 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!

End of Part 1

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2009

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2 Responses to ““The Desert Zar”, a short story.”

  1. Berowne Says:

    Intriguing; I look forward to Part II.

    A couple small points:

    > Jasmine and bougainvillea scented the night

    Jasmine yes, but I don’t believe bougainvillea is scented; the ones around here are not.

    > Men and women, but mostly women, were sitting in the smoky fog. Most were still clad in the black chadors

    Not the men though, right? And I had understood the chador to be Iranian; is that the proper term for North Africa?


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Thanks for reading, Berowne.

    Hell if I know…LOL!…I’ll get back to you on the issue of chador.

    Lady Nyo


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