Cultural ‘Ribbons’ between Asia and East Africa The widespread presence of the zar cult in East Africa and its relationships with Islam is a very complex and broad subject. This short note on the zar cult, a very specific and detailed practice, had numerous analogies in the Arabian Peninsula, in Sub-Saharan East Africa, and in some areas of southern Central Asia; within these cultural and geographical regions, apparently so far from each other, the zar cult played a significant role in the history of the Red Sea connections and in the history of slavery. zar spirits are invisible, mysterious creatures not of human origin who possess human characteristics. Some of them are male and some female, and they all have some relatives. zar spirits are wicked, pagan and against human beings. They are the source of diseases. Verses are recited from the Koran by a local faqi to rescue the haunted persons from the spirit of the zar. The healers are often those who have been affected by the zar on many other occasions. In a conflicting relationship between zar and Islam, the behaviour of the people involved, and the different reactions by the numerous actors and protagonists, will be a further object of this short note. We are aware that the subject is absolutely vast and complex in its numerous characteristics; therefore, we’ll try to focusing more on the historical, political and institutional role of the zar cult within East African societies. Throughout all these cultural and geographical places, the zar practice - most of all a cultural phenomenon - played a significant role in the history of the Red Sea interconnections with the Gulf, with the Arabian Peninsula, and with the Indian Ocean. The studies on the zar cult occupy an important place, since for a long time East Africa has been singled out as the proverbial abode of this particular cult. During the colonial period, the zar practice in Sudan featured in racialist and imperialist constructions of alterity and inferiority as projected onto members of African societies. It’s very easy associating the zar cult with lower strata of the local societies, such as women, people of subordinate status, and disenfranchised groups, often explained as compensation for frustration and alternative mean of achieving social status and power. Men have Islam, women and slaves have the zar. But it remains a fact that the zar cult did always crossed ethnic and religious boundaries. Consequently, the use of anthropological, psychological, and ethnographic sources, a richness of numerous outstanding studies, are here ‘functional’ to the understanding of the role of this cult within history and exercise of power. Etymologically, the word zar is considered deriving not from Arabic, but from Persian, or more plausibly, from Amharic; maybe from “the name of the supreme god of the pagan Cushitic group of languages, the Sky-God called in Agaw (Bilen), and in the Sidamo languages (Kaffa) yaro and (Buoro) daro”. Etymologies deriving zar from the Arabic verb zara ‘to visit’ seem fantastic, although current in Arab milieu. According to A. Rouaud, important Cushitic languages groups like the Oromo, who entered Ethiopia from the 16th century onwards, could have played an important role in the formation of the cult and its diffusion throughout the Horn of Africa. Nevertheless, the zar cult did spread throughout North-Eastern Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula, especially during the 19th century; and slaves carried off from the Horn of Africa certainly contributed to this expansion. When the spirit got into one’s body, there was great danger. The zar spirit came from places of suffering to possess a weary body. A feast was held, with music and perfumed smoke, where the sick person was made to dance to some special chants to purge the spirit of the zar from the affected body, after the receipt of gifts and money. Spirits liked clean, mostly white, dresses and perfumes. The zar ceremony could last from one to seven days, and was organised with musical instruments, with drums and dancing. A great variety of perfumes and incense were used: colocynth, benzoin, liquorice root, mastic, sandalwood, and perfumes; the use of these different items represented clear proofs of the multiple connections of the Red Sea and East Africa with short as well as with long-distance trades.

Nicolini, B., "Nastri culturali" tra Africa orientale e Asia, in Nicolini, B. (ed.), IL CORNO D'AFRICA TRA MEDICINA POLITICA E STORIA, Novalogos, Roma 2011: 36- 55 [http://hdl.handle.net/10807/1926]

"Nastri culturali" tra Africa orientale e Asia

Nicolini, Beatrice
2011

Abstract

Cultural ‘Ribbons’ between Asia and East Africa The widespread presence of the zar cult in East Africa and its relationships with Islam is a very complex and broad subject. This short note on the zar cult, a very specific and detailed practice, had numerous analogies in the Arabian Peninsula, in Sub-Saharan East Africa, and in some areas of southern Central Asia; within these cultural and geographical regions, apparently so far from each other, the zar cult played a significant role in the history of the Red Sea connections and in the history of slavery. zar spirits are invisible, mysterious creatures not of human origin who possess human characteristics. Some of them are male and some female, and they all have some relatives. zar spirits are wicked, pagan and against human beings. They are the source of diseases. Verses are recited from the Koran by a local faqi to rescue the haunted persons from the spirit of the zar. The healers are often those who have been affected by the zar on many other occasions. In a conflicting relationship between zar and Islam, the behaviour of the people involved, and the different reactions by the numerous actors and protagonists, will be a further object of this short note. We are aware that the subject is absolutely vast and complex in its numerous characteristics; therefore, we’ll try to focusing more on the historical, political and institutional role of the zar cult within East African societies. Throughout all these cultural and geographical places, the zar practice - most of all a cultural phenomenon - played a significant role in the history of the Red Sea interconnections with the Gulf, with the Arabian Peninsula, and with the Indian Ocean. The studies on the zar cult occupy an important place, since for a long time East Africa has been singled out as the proverbial abode of this particular cult. During the colonial period, the zar practice in Sudan featured in racialist and imperialist constructions of alterity and inferiority as projected onto members of African societies. It’s very easy associating the zar cult with lower strata of the local societies, such as women, people of subordinate status, and disenfranchised groups, often explained as compensation for frustration and alternative mean of achieving social status and power. Men have Islam, women and slaves have the zar. But it remains a fact that the zar cult did always crossed ethnic and religious boundaries. Consequently, the use of anthropological, psychological, and ethnographic sources, a richness of numerous outstanding studies, are here ‘functional’ to the understanding of the role of this cult within history and exercise of power. Etymologically, the word zar is considered deriving not from Arabic, but from Persian, or more plausibly, from Amharic; maybe from “the name of the supreme god of the pagan Cushitic group of languages, the Sky-God called in Agaw (Bilen), and in the Sidamo languages (Kaffa) yaro and (Buoro) daro”. Etymologies deriving zar from the Arabic verb zara ‘to visit’ seem fantastic, although current in Arab milieu. According to A. Rouaud, important Cushitic languages groups like the Oromo, who entered Ethiopia from the 16th century onwards, could have played an important role in the formation of the cult and its diffusion throughout the Horn of Africa. Nevertheless, the zar cult did spread throughout North-Eastern Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula, especially during the 19th century; and slaves carried off from the Horn of Africa certainly contributed to this expansion. When the spirit got into one’s body, there was great danger. The zar spirit came from places of suffering to possess a weary body. A feast was held, with music and perfumed smoke, where the sick person was made to dance to some special chants to purge the spirit of the zar from the affected body, after the receipt of gifts and money. Spirits liked clean, mostly white, dresses and perfumes. The zar ceremony could last from one to seven days, and was organised with musical instruments, with drums and dancing. A great variety of perfumes and incense were used: colocynth, benzoin, liquorice root, mastic, sandalwood, and perfumes; the use of these different items represented clear proofs of the multiple connections of the Red Sea and East Africa with short as well as with long-distance trades.
Italiano
IL CORNO D'AFRICA TRA MEDICINA POLITICA E STORIA
978-88-97339-06-9
Vincitore Progetto di ricerca PRIN 2007/8 Unità di ricerca: Università di Bologna. Coordinatore nazionale: Prof. A. Triulzi, Università degli Studi di Napoli.
Nicolini, B., "Nastri culturali" tra Africa orientale e Asia, in Nicolini, B. (ed.), IL CORNO D'AFRICA TRA MEDICINA POLITICA E STORIA, Novalogos, Roma 2011: 36- 55 [http://hdl.handle.net/10807/1926]
File in questo prodotto:
Non ci sono file associati a questo prodotto.

I documenti in IRIS sono protetti da copyright e tutti i diritti sono riservati, salvo diversa indicazione.

Utilizza questo identificativo per citare o creare un link a questo documento: http://hdl.handle.net/10807/1926
Citazioni
  • ???jsp.display-item.citation.pmc??? ND
  • Scopus ND
  • ???jsp.display-item.citation.isi??? ND
social impact