“The Desert Zar:” a short story of mystery and magic

Desert Zar

The dust  settled from the desert.  All day it howled and swirled around the souk, a  locust plague of stinging matter.  Now the sky over the sands was  fading pink, as daylight, filtered through the violent storm of silica, closed 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 a heavy air. Jasmine and bougainvillea  scented the night and dung fires sent up their acrid smoke.

Dusk  was settling in, this  narrow time between day and night, bridged  by a few soft, sensual  breezes. The night inhaled deeply, holding the memories of the day close, then let them fly into the desert, to be repeated each dusk into eternity.

This was Tunis of a hundred years ago, before the awnings of  the souk, now woven reed mats, were replaced with sheet tin, and the trampled dirt paved. 

Somewhere a drum begin a steady beat.  It sounded 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 decant over the measured beat of more drums.

Black clad shadows moved  down the length of  clay walls, moving to the center well.  Bundles of jasmine, tuberoses, bougainvillea, red poppies, lavender and tea roses  had been placed on the steps of the well, seemingly to scent the still water.

An old Negress, her back twisted and with a prominent hump, took a few coins from each woman who passed her by.  Her hair twinkled like dull stars from the pierced coins strung from her dreadlocks.

This was the price of the Zar dance.  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 that the drums became louder and the ney flute shriller.  A bleating of a goat was somewhere not too far off.

Still black clad 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 down the street still was a doorway with a curtain drawn over the opening. The  incense could be smelled through the curtain as it scented the nighttime air, dueling with the tuberoses and jasmine growing up walls. The shrillness of the ney increased and the drums picked up a rhythm.

If one would go through the curtain they would enter a room that was heavy with smells.  Incense overall, but there were undercurrents of the tobacco and hookah being smoked deep in the darkened room. There was something acrid, like the smell of fear or sweat.

There were wooden benches placed far back upon the walls and already there were men and women, mostly women, sitting in the smokey fog. Most were still clad in the black chadors, but here and there were sparkles of elaborately beaded and adorned head scarfs.  One women sat like a princess with a stool for her feet.  She was dressed in embroidered and elaborate robes with silver jewelry over her forehead.  She was the youngest wife of the local chieftain and woe be anyone who accosted her. Black eyes, pupils expanded because of some drug were like ebony moons in her face.  The heavy sandalwood perfume that came from her robes scented the air about her. 

In the middle of the floor was a high wooden stool 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.

Part O ne of The Desart Zsr…

jane kohut-bartels


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