ZĀR, harmful wind (bād) associated with spirit possession beliefs in southern coastal regions of Iran.
In southern coastal regions of Iran such as Qeshm Island, people believe in the existence of winds that can be either vicious or peaceful, believer (Muslim) or non-believer (infidel). The latter are considered more dangerous than the former and zār belongs to this group of winds. Many varieties of zār are known, including Maturi, Šayḵ Šangar, Dingemāru, Omagāre, Bumaryom, Pepe, Bābur, Bibi, and Namrud (Sāʿedi, pp. 57; Interviews, 2007, 2009). Most types of zār are very dangerous and cause disease, discomfort, and at times serious illnesses for the victim. Everyone is subject to the action of the zār, but the poor and the deprived seem to be the most common victims. Zārs are also considered contagious; for example, when people love or hate one another, they can give their zār to those whom they love or hate. The belief is that one can never get rid of zārs, but can only come to terms with them to leave the victim alone. These beliefs are common to many areas in south and southwest Iran, including Baluchistan where harmful winds are usually called Gowat (‘wind’ or ‘air’; Riāḥi; Darviši).
Special ceremonies are held to pacify the zār and alleviate the patient's symptoms. These ceremonies, called by a leader, bring together the patient and those previously afflicted by the zār and involve incense, music, and movement. The details of the ceremony differ according to location and have undergone changes with the passage of time (Sāʿedi, pp. 42-52; Taqvāʾi, 1999; Bāzmāndegān Qešmi). While Ḡolām-Ḥosayn Sāʿedi (q.v) reported the practice of this ceremony along the coast of the Persian Gulf, from Bušehr to Bandar-e Lenga in 1961, at the time of this research, zār was no longer practiced in certain locations such as Bušehr and observed far more actively in Qeshm Island than in Bandar ʿAbbās. Furthermore, certain details, such as riding the sacrifice before slaughtering it or drinking the blood of the sacrifice by participants in the zār ceremony, have not been mentioned in older sources such as Taqvāʾi or Modarresi, but they have come up in interviews with locals and local researchers (Interviews, 2007, 2009). Sāʿedi also emphasizes the presence of young females with good voices and dancing abilities in the ceremonies, but their presence was neither mentioned in interviews nor shown in films that were produced more recently (Bāzmāndegān Qešmi).
Based on records and interviews regarding the zār ceremony in Qeshm Island, roughly two phases in the ritual can be recognized: separation and incorporation. Preparations for the zār constitute the separation phase. This phase begins with a person complaining from feelings of disease and discomfort to cult leaders (the male Bābā zār or the female Māmā zār). As some cult leaders have already been possessed by zārs and have managed to control them, they can help others in controlling their zārs. Some leaders may recommend that the patient first seek the help of a doctor while others may oppose seeking this type of help if they believe that the needles from injections prescribed by the doctor will further agitate the zār and create more problems for the patient. Having opted for a remedy from Bābā or Māmā zār, the patient will prepare to stay in isolation for up to seven days. During this period, only Bābā zār or Māmā zār can visit the patient and use specific treatments such as rubbing a combination of aromatic herbs, such as Guraku and Gešt, and spices on the patient’s body. After the separation phase ends, the patient’s body is cleaned and washed, and preparations are made for the incorporation phase. Members of the cult inform everyone about the upcoming ceremony and, as it is considered a sin not to attend a ceremony, every member of the cult attends. There can also be a group of spectators, who may or may not be possessed, who participate in the ceremony. Everyone gathers in a circle with the patient in the center while a piece of cloth, with eggs, dates, confetti, and aromatic herbs, is spread on the floor. After the patient’s head is covered with a piece of white cloth to keep him/her from the glances of strangers, a tray holding aromatic herbs on charcoal is passed around and the patient and the participants are frequently incensed with the smoke from the mixture. The zār leader takes the lead on music (drums) and is followed by musicians and others present. The leader usually knows the name of the zārs and the music (specific beat of drums) that goes with them. Bābā or Māmā zārs also sing and the participants respond in turn. During the singing of the incantations, which can be in different languages or dialects (Sabaye Moghaddam, p. 26) or pure melodic sounds containing no discernible words, a zār makes itself known by means of a sign that is recognized by the possessed person, who then feels a strong inner urge to move. Every piece of music goes with a specific spirit; with each type of music, some members of the cult may start moving and shaking. If there is no reaction from the patient, musicians change the tune until they see a reaction that helps the healer identify the spirit who has taken over the afflicted. The reaction is usually expressed as a swinging of the upper body, vertical movements of the head, and the shaking of the shoulders. When the zār is identified, the healer starts a conversation where she/he tries to find out what the spirit wants in exchange for leaving the patient alone. Māmā zār or Bābā zār speak with the spirit through the patient and ask the zār about the reasons behind the affliction as well as its demands for leaving the patient alone.
The language through which Bābā/Māmā zār communicate with the zār may be a language that is ordinarily unfamiliar to both Bābā/Māmā zār and the patient. It is sometimes a combination of Persian, Arabic, Sawhili, and Indian. The zār names its demands, which may be as simple as a few prayers or a piece of bamboo (ḵeyzarān) or something more substantial such as a sacrifice. Bābā/Māmā zār then makes a “binding” by tying a piece of cloth around the patient’s arm. This is an assurance that the demands of the zār will be met. The belief among the cult is that if the zār’s wishes are not granted, the zār will return and create more problems for the patient. If the demands of the zār can be easily obtained, they are quickly attended to through the initiation of a ceremony with music, food, and the offering that the zār has demanded. Otherwise, the demands will be met at a later time in a similar ceremony. For example, if the zār asks for a sacrifice or blood, there will be a ceremony where the sacrificial animal is brought in (with the patient riding it) and slaughtered, after which the blood is drunk by the leader and the patient. At this point, the incorporation phase is completed, the patient becomes a member of the cult and is expected to participate in all future ceremonies. These ceremonies may take up to seven days beyond the separation phase. Members of the cult must follow certain rules regarding their outfits (which should always be clean and white) and must adhere to prohibitions on the touching of corpses (animal or human), the drinking of alcohol, sex with unlawful partners (Sāʿedi, pp. 36-37). Selling or letting go of the object the zār has asked for is prohibited as well; if the zār has asked for an outfit or an accessory, the patient must have that particular outfit/accessory on in all future ceremonies (Sabaye Moghaddam, p. 28). It is believed that if these rules are broken, the zārs will rise again, thus necessitating another ceremony to appease them (Interviews 2007, 2009).
Many similarities amongst the beliefs and the rituals associated with zār in Iran and many African countries suggest a common origin for this belief and practice. The dominant presence of Africans amongst both the afflicted and the healers also point to the possibility that the belief and practice might have originated in Africa (Modarressi; Natvig, pp. 675-89) and gained popularity in ports in south west of Iran. At the turn of the 20th century, scholars generally favored an Abyssinian or Ethiopian origin for zār though there were also theories that proposed Persian or other origins (Natvig, pp. 671-85). Frobenius, speculating upon the cultural traits common between Persia, northeast Africa and the Sudan region, developed the hypothesis that zār and bori (an old West African religion of the Hausa clan structure; Lewis, 1971, p. 96) were manifestations of an early system of beliefs derived from Persia and spread throughout the grassland belt from the Abyssinian highlands through Kordofan to Hausaland (Frobenius, pp. 569-72). Meanwhile Modarressi (p. 150) states that the name zār is Persian and was applied to the cult when it was introduced in southern Iran by African sailors from the southeast coast of Africa in the 16th century. According to Mirzai Asl, Africans brought to Iran as a result of slave trade activities in the 19th century have held on to their African heritage by reconstructing their identity (Mirzai Asl, pp. 240-42). It is difficult to trace the origin of these beliefs and rituals in Iran as Ethiopians have been mentioned to be living in southeast Iran at the time of Herodotus (Field, p. 155); however, there are no written records of practices associated with them before the 20th century.
Close to half a century of government opposition to these practices (Sāʿedi, p. 25; Interviews, 2007) has forced the believers to scale back the extent of the ceremonies, which may have in turn resulted in their disappearance from many regions including Bušehr. The advent of modern medicine and hospitals could also have influenced the way people of the region viewed and dealt with illness. Despite these factors, zār beliefs and practices have not ceased to exist in Iran and many other countries in the Middle East and Africa.
For a music sample, see Zār Songs: Vorāra, Yo mama.
Moḥammad-Reżā Darviši, Music and Trance, the Dhikrs of Gwātī Ceremonies Balūchīstān, Tehran, 2008.
Henry Field, Contributions to the Anthropology of Iran, Chicago, 1968, p. 155.
Leo Frobenius, The Voice of Africa 2, London, 1913, pp. 569-72.
I. M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion, An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism, London, 1971, p. 96.
Idem, Ahmed Al-Safi and Sayyid Hurreiz, Women’s Medicine, The Zar-Bori Cult in Africa and Beyond, Edinburgh, 1991, p. 10.
Behnaz A. Mirzai Asl, “African Presence in Iran: Identity and its Reconstruction in the 19th and 20th Centuries,” Revue française d’histoire d’Outre Mer 89, 2002, pp. 229-46.
Taghi Modarressi, “The Zar Cult in South Iran,” in R. Prince, ed., Trance and Possession States, Montreal, 1986, pp. 149-55.
Richard Natvig, “Oromos, Slaves, and the Zar Spirits: A Contribution to the History of the Zar Cult,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 20/4, 1987, pp. 669-89.
ʿAli Riāḥi, Zār va bād va Baluč, Tehran, 1977.
Maria Sabaye Moghaddam, “Negāhi be eʿteqādāt va marāsem-e zār dar miān-e sākenān-e savāhi-e jonub-e ḡarbi-e Irān,” Najvā-ye Farhang 4/11, 2009, pp. 23-30.
Ḡolam-Ḥosayn Sāʿedi, Ahl-e havā, Tehran, 1961.
Interviews held by the author with Mr. Moḥammad Ḵaṭibizāda, Mr. Reżāʾiān, Māmā Ṣafiya, Bābā Ḡolām, Bābā Qanbar, and Mr. Mowlāʾiān and locals in Qeshm, Bandar ʿAbbās and Tehran, 2007 and 2009.
Aḥmad Bāzmāndegān Qešmi, Zār, Ḥawza-ye Honari-e Ostān-e Hormozgān, 2007.
Nāṣer Taqvāʾi, Bād-e jen, Bandar Lenga, 1969.
Idem, Kešti-e Yunāni, Kish Island, 1999.
Aḥmad Bāzmāndegān Qešmi, Ḥawza-ye Honari-e Ostān-e Hormozgān, 2007.
July 20, 2009
(Maria Sabaye Moghaddam)
Originally Published: July 20, 2009
Last Updated: July 20, 2009