The Zar is a ritual of exorcism. It is also a Demon. In parts of Africa and the Middle East, Zar ritual is an important ‘mental health clinic’. Women hold this ancient ritual when sorely oppressed by life. There are few mental health alternatives in these areas, and the ritual is a way for women to gather and deal with internal problems: men, marriage, family, especially mother-in-laws. Of course, these oppressive governments have come down hard on the Zar rituals and have tried to outlaw them. Women in these areas continue to practice the ritual, even in the cities of Egypt, etc. where upper class women hold them in secret. This short story came from my years as a belly dancer when I met women from these countries and they clued me into this complex and exciting ritual.
“Woman!” yelled Ahmed. “We are married a year. You behave like a child! You don’t speak to my mother. I did not get married for this treatment. You are a terrible wife!”
Ahmed had a reason to be angry with Aya. She did not act the spouse he believed he deserved. He expected a paradise on earth, a wife pliable to his wishes and prepared to serve his wants. But Aya was young, only sixteen years old at the wedding. She came from across the mountain, from a village no different from where she was now. No village in this part of the country was much different, and the mountains bred people repeating the same traditions and habits.
Aya was very young. She was a daughter born in the middle of ten children, not noticed by many. Plus, she was only a shy girl, and not expected to shine. When a matchmaker came from Ahmed’s parents, Aya’s were relieved to marry her off. Both sets of parents, with the matchmaker in the middle, bargained for Aya much as her father bought sheep in the market. Aya was married and packed off to Ahmed’s parents, and that was the last Aya’s family saw of her that year
Aya drooped. Deprived of the only people she knew and thrust into a family of strangers, she became even more timid. The excitement of the honeymoon had passed, and living with Ahmed in only a room apart from the large, noisy family was not much of a change. All brides have hope and expectations, and though she said nothing, Aya still was a bride.
Ahmed’s mother smelled trouble. She could tell by the scowl of her favorite son he was not happy. Peace on earth depended upon the contentment of men, and Ahmed’s mother had tradition to uphold. She knew the trouble gossip could cause, she had been the generator of much of it during her life. Soon Ahmed’s sadness would be common discussion around the well, and the family would lose face. Something had to be done
Ahmed’s mother went and cornered her in the courtyard while she fed chickens.
“Aya, why the long face, my daughter?” Ahmed’s mother showed little attention to her daughter- in- law, for she did not understand her. She was quiet, which was proper for a good Muslim woman, but too quiet. She had grown listless and preoccupied with spending time on the roof looking over the dry and rocky countryside. Many times Ahmed’s mother caught her up there, a strange look in her eye, and seemingly deaf to her calls. At first she had hoped for a grandchild, but Ahmed was spending more time with the men and less with his wife. Surely the girl should be able to charm her new husband. She must not be trying! Ahmed said little but all in the house knew something was wrong
Ahmed’s mother could get nothing from her. The silly bride bowed her head, and cast her eyes downward, looking at her dusty sandals. Well, the peace of her household was at stake, and if Ahmed was unhappy, Ahmed’s mother was prepared to do battle
But not with the girl. That would be beneath Ahmed’s mother.
So in the time honored tradition, Ahmed’s mother made a formal visit to the local Sheikha. She would know what to do. Ahmed’s mother would at least have the satisfaction of doing her duty by her son. If the Sheikha, named Shakira, was successful, Ahmed’s mother and father would be able at least to keep all of the bride price. To return it, or even a part, would be a terrible burden. Anyway, most of the bride price was already spent.
Shakira met with Ahmed’s mother and told her to send the girl. She would find out the trouble between Ahmed and Aya. She would fix what was broken.
At the appointed time, Aya showed up with her mother- in- law and a very quiet Ahmed. Shakira of course knew the young bride on sight, her family name and that she was a new bride, but she had never reason to notice her. She sometimes saw her at the village well, washing clothes, or feeding the chickens outside the door of Ahmed’s house. But she didn’t seem remarkable to Shakira. Just a young bride, nothing special.
Aya was very young, with not much meat on her bones. She would not give much heat next to Ahmed when the winter winds blew down from the mountains and turned the air raw and bitter. Better had Ahmed’s parents find him a bride who would fill his bed and warm his feet with her flesh. One could see there was bigger problems than too- thin Aya. The girl looked haunted to Shakira’s eyes.
Sending Ahmed and his mother home, Shakira prepared to question young Aya. First she had her sit and served her the sweet tea they brewed in the village and drank on all occasions. Aya was quiet, which wasn’t out of line for a young Muslim girl, but she noticed that she kept her eyes cast on the floor. This was more than a normal shyness. The girl appeared deeply disturbed.
“Come, Aya. Do not be shy. You know why you are here. Your husband has made complaints about your behavior in the marriage. Is something wrong, my daughter?”
Aya sipped at her tea and shook her head, but did not raise her eyes to Shakira’s face.
The Sheikha Shakira could tell many things by the shine of the eyes, by the carriage of the head, by the shoulders, by the sheen of the skin. Although thin, Aya did not appear sick, just unhappy.
“Aya”. Shakira thought a direct approach would get some answers. “Does Ahmed do what a husband should? Do you know what a husband does for his wife?
Aya blushed, and her hands shook as she put her small glass down.
“Tell me,” said Shakira with an encouraging smile. “Does Ahmed put off his own pleasure for yours?” The look on Aya’s face told Shakira that Ahmed did not
Aya’s blush increased, giving her dusky skin a bloom of beauty.
“Tell me, Aya.” Shakira’s voice was gentle and low, a conspiracy brewing between two women against all men.
“Does Ahmed touch you in your holy woman’s place? You know after you are married, it is right and good that he should? He should use his male member and his fingers and even his tongue.” Shakira sat back and looked closely at Aya. Her hands shook and she didn’t pick up her glass
Ah, thought Shakira. Another stupid man that doesn’t know how to stroke his wife into bliss! Allah punish these men who are so selfish!
Shakira thought a different approach would be more fruitful. “Aya, do you touch yourself down there in your holy place? Did you know God has given you a body with all the pleasures of paradise on earth? You can touch and stroke and push your fingers in there and have lovely feelings. Perhaps you need to show Ahmed how to arouse you? You are married a year, and if your husband doesn’t understand, perhaps you need to give him a push. Do you understand, daughter?
Suddenly Aya started shaking violently and a great sob escaped from her throat.
“Aaaiiiyee! It is like a man is already in there…in my holy place, and he strokes where Ahmed puts his flute. I try to resist him, it is a demon inside of me! but I am not strong enough. Ah, Mother Shakira, help me! I have thought many times as I go to the roof of the house I would throw myself over the edge!”
This burst of words shocked Shakira. She sat there blinking, watching the young girl sob out her shame and fear. Ah! Now she had something to work with!
A demon. In bed between an ignorant girl and an even more ignorant husband!
But! This was something most interesting, something Shakira encountered at times among women. From the narrowness of their lives, in their isolation from the cities and from the stupidity of the men, a demon popped up frequently in the lives of married women. And thank God only married women. They seemed to scorn the virgins, which was good, for if they didn’t, it would mean the murder of many young women by their fathers and brothers, thought Shakira.
These spirits were helpful to women as Shakira knew well. They could give a woman a certain liberty to sass their husbands. If a word popped out, she could blame it on the Zar, the demon. It was not her fault, and punishing her would do no good. Something just came over her and she didn’t know where it came from. It was the Zar’s fault. He needed to have his power ‘reduced’. He needed a good talking to, to be placated, given new marching orders.
Shakira thought about the demon. She knew she could never can purge a Zar, these troubling spirits, she would have to cajole, puzzle, confuse and ultimately, placate them. But! She would have to restore them with their powers reduced. No one wants a Zar wandering around scaring the children and chickens. It was bad enough they sat under the trees in the woods on the mountains and woe to anyone who cast their eyes on a bodiless Zar! Shakira knew that to be immediate possession. The Zar needed a human body. That was where Zars lived comfortably.
Ah! An excuse for a Zar ritual! Shakira rubbed her hands in glee. The price of the feast and the sacrifice was less important than the chance to get the women together for some fun. And Zars were fun in a life that was black- clad, dusty and under the thumb of Allah and the men.
On the day of the Zar ritual, Shakira placed a tray of nuts and fruit on an altar in the middle of the room. The drummers came in earlier and were sitting together talking, laughing and drinking tea. The ney player, a young man, was sitting apart from the drummers, all women now. Incense was heavy, and the smell of it was hypnotic even before the drummers started beating their rhythm.
Shakira spent some time with Aya, talking to her, helping her ease herself into the ritual soon to take place. Aya had suffered some nerves, thrown up, and then seemed resigned to her fate, though she remained pale.
More women straggled into the room, waddling like black crows in a field. They sat in a rough circle, breathing in the heady perfume wafting from the burning incense. Some were praying to themselves, others beginning chants, and the combined sounds were like a hive of bees in the sunshine, dipping into the honey. Shakira was trying not to slip into her own trance, but the warm weather and the sunshine conspired to lull her senses. She looked over at Aya sitting with her mother and mother-in-law. She was dressed in a white cotton gown, her hair loose down her back. The hair was the last place that Aya’s demon would hold on to as she tossed her head around and around, throwing him into the arms of Shakira. She wondered what this demon would be like. Would he be a hard one to cajole? Would he demand a price for his obedience? Would she be strong enough, without rallying her own demons, to take him on?
None of this could she know in advance. Allah Provide, she prayed to herself.
Then the drummers started their different rhythms. Each part of the body was capable of possession and a different rhythm beat out on the stretched goat skin drums would find them out. The rhythm would call out to the soul of the demon, and he would have to answer. It was heartbeat to heartbeat.
The first rhythm was the ayoub, ‘dum-tec-a dum-tec-a’ becoming more and more intense. Shakira could not help begin her own trance. It was a necessary part of the Zar ritual. She would catch the demon when he was tossed from Aya’s hair, wrestle him in her own arms and give him a good talking to.
Aya had risen, fear distorting her pale face as she walked around the room, her eyes like big dark moons. A blind man could see how frightened she was! Then, allowing herself to feel the rhythm that seeped into the blood of all there, she started to nod her head, back and forth, little nods at first, as if she were tentatively allowing the heartbeat of the drums to enter her body. Her eyes glazed and she started to change the gait of her walking, as if she was swaying to some internal rhythm set up as a counterpoint to what was heard by all others. Her hips started to jerk and her head rolled on her neck in little circles, hair flying in gentle waves around her. The ney player picked up the tempo a bit, the drums followed. Aya’s movements around the circle increased in speed. She started to whirl around as she walked, her face upwards to the ceiling, now her hair flying out like a whirling Dervish’s skirts. Faster and faster Aya twirled and jerked around the room, throwing her arms outward and upward. She uttered little shrieks, unheard with the general chanting and drumming and the shrill music of the ney.
Shakira knew that if there was a demon inside of Aya, he would soon appear. She swayed back and forth in her own trance, standing with her arms outward towards the spinning girl.
There! Something hit Shakira in her chest! Something solid and hard enough to almost knock the wind from her. Aya sank down in a heap, shuddering with spasms. Women moved to chant over her, and ever the drums and ney player increased their frenzied rhythms.
Shakira slipped into full trance and talked to the Demon standing there, hovering with a scowl, a male Demon of course! His aura was powerful, and he shimmered before her with a golden glimmer. Shakira saw him clearly in her mind’s eye, and saw how beautiful and arrogant this demon was.
“In the name of Allah, the One God! Demon. Tell me your name!”
Shakira spoke in the tongue of the tranced, unintelligible to the women around the room.
He scowled at her, but bidden he was commanded to answer.
“My name is Ali”, and his voice was sweet and seductive, in spite of the grimace.
Ah! Thought Shakira. What a lovely demon to possess a woman. His hair was black and lay in curls over his brow. His lips were full, the color of pomegranate seeds. His nose was like an arrow, straight and elegant. His eyes were two black and shimmering pools, his cheeks like halves of apples. Ah! Shakira was shaken by his beauty. She cleared her throat and her thoughts before speaking again to him.
“Demon. Listen to me. You disrupt the marriage of Ahmed and Aya. You must stop your demonic ways and let Ahmed have back his wife.
“Ahmed is a fool and doesn’t know what to do with Aya. She is afraid of him, he plays his flute for himself, and ignores his wife.” Demon Ali’s voice was a low, honeyed growl, seeded with contempt.
“True, true enough, Demon. But you could help here. You could teach Aya things to please Ahmed and perhaps dense Ahmed will become a proper husband.”
“Why should I help Ahmed? What is Ahmed to me?” Demon Ali spat on the ground, a golden stream of honey.
“Ah Demon! You are too young or stupid yourself if you don’t think here. You could teach Aya where to place her hands on herself and Ahmed. You could take your own pleasure between them. How much more it would be if you brought them together as man and wife! You could tickle Aya’s womb and love chamber and she would toss her hips like a proper wife at Ahmed. You could stick your tongue on Aya’s button and make her think of love. You could torment both and what Demon isn’t happiest when he is tormenting two instead of one?”
The Demon Ali pulsated and quivered with her suggestions. Shakira could see he was considering her words.
(Demon Ali thought it over and could see her point of argument. If nothing else, he could torment Ahmed in some particularly pleasing way to demons. Perhaps he could be an irritant in more ways than one. Perhaps he could make Ahmed’s cock fall off–
“I hear your thoughts, Demon. Consider the case. Either Aya acts the proper wife to Ahmed, or Ahmed sends her back to her parents. She will disgrace her family, they will suffer needlessly because of a silly and selfish devil.”
Shakira could tell that Ali the Demon was considering his choices. He glimmered and glowed and vibrated and fairly danced in the air. Shakira noticed too that his male member was vibrating along with the rest of him. An impressive piece of anatomy for any man or demon. Ah! Ali the Demon was wasted on that little fool Aya!
Shakira, a wise woman with quite a number of years of experience with Djinns, decided she would have compassion for this pretty demon standing before her in all his glory. Perhaps this alluring devil could entertain her, Shakira, and leave Aya alone. She had an eye for a good looking male, and knowing the nature of demons, she could take some pleasure for herself under her chador at times. Perhaps something mutually pleasing to both could be arranged. It was worth a thought.
“So, Demon…what will it be? Will you help Aya become a wife and be a good demon, or do I have to call forth stronger Spirits to make you think about your behavior? It is your choice.
Ali the Demon sighed, and it was like a sweet wind blowing from the east up Shakira’s skirts. Her eyes widened, in spite of her trance, and a smile came over her face. The Demon slyly looked at Shakira from under the fringe of his black lashes. A smile exchanged between them.
A bargain was struck!
Ahmed and Aya became a happy couple. Yes, Ali the Demon still tickled Aya in her love passage, and sat smoking his hooka crosslegged up by her womb. Ahmed was pleased with Aya now as his wife, and eternally grateful to the Sheikha.
And as for Shakira, she and Ali the Demon enjoyed many hours under Shakira’s chador. He tickled Sharika around the ears, and she spread her legs when she was busy at her kitchen fire, preparing food or just standing at the window, watching her neighbors outside. Peace reigned in both households.
Blessings on the head of Sheikha Shakira!