Egyptian music: 'Zar' tradition gives women a rare moment at center stage

At a small arts studio in downtown Cairo, women carry on tradition of centuries-old Egyptian music. Egypt has only about 25 remaining performers of zar, which became threatened after religious hard-liners deemed it un-Islamic.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom/File
Performers of zar, a centuries-old tradition of Egyptian music put on a show in Cairo.

Madiha bobs her veiled head and sways her body to the drumbeats played by the barefoot Sabah behind her, whose big, dangly, gold-colored earrings and nose ring glimmer in the pale light. The music rises to a crescendo and the spectators crowded into this small arts studio in downtown Cairo become entranced by the energy and rhythms of a centuries-old musical tradition from the borderland between southern Egypt and Sudan that is on the cusp of fading into the annals of history.

Zar, a song and dance ritual that historically has been used as a healing rite, is the only musical tradition from Egypt in which women hold the most important roles. In fact, the act itself is intended to be a mode through which women can experience freedom and release anxieties and tensions without being restricted by the social norms of their conservative Upper Egyptian culture.

The music, with its distinctly African sound, became threatened after religious hard-liners deemed the practice un-Islamic, and today there are only about 25 zar performers left in the country.

Ahmed al-Maghraby, the owner of the arts studio Makan, the only public stage in Egypt for zar, says that the performances initially face resistance from members of the Egyptian community who have a bad view of zar because of media portrayals that describe it as an exorcism ritual that communes with evil spirits. But these preconceived notions quickly disappear.

“As soon as Egyptians come to see zar, they are like, ‘Oh my God, it’s beautiful,’ ” says Mr. Maghraby, who became involved with the remaining zar community 12 years ago through his endeavor to preserve what he sees as a vital piece of Egypt’s musical heritage.

Madiha, the star of the show, says that she learned zar from her mother and comes from a long line of women who practiced this “very rich music.”
“It has a very ancient history, but now no new people are learning it,” she says.

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