Zar in Africa and the Middle East

Zar is a culture bound syndrome of spirit possession that leads to disease in its hosts.  It occurs in countries throughout the Middle East and Northeast Africa, primarily affecting middle-aged women.  The term zar refers to not only the illness, but also to the healing rituals that treat it by pacifying the intruding spirits.  These spirits cover a spectrum of individual entities that constantly expands to include characters from current culture.  These include religious and political figures, and each have their own personality and whims.  Physical symptoms of zar include headaches, chest pain, anorexia, gastrointestinal disorders, fatigue, body aches, and fear.  Zar is most common among women who are infertile, divorced, unhappily married, unemployed, or with a family history of the condition.  Considering these life situations as risk factors, I think zar typically affects women who feel anxious and vulnerable from their life situations.  Women without a position in a stable family structure, or with a low quality of life because of poverty, are more apt to develop mood disorders like zar.  The way zar victims feel split between themselves and an intruding spirit resembles what the Western world calls multiple identity disorder.

Most people who experience the symptoms of this disease first seek treatment by Western physicians and traditional healers, who comprise the professional and folk sectors of healthcare.  If this treatment proves unsuccessful, the client will then turn to zar practitioners called shaykhas, who occupy a specific niche of the folk sector.  After diagnosing the condition, the shaykha conducts an inception ceremony, a week-long celebration with singing, dancing and feasting, that symbolizes a wedding for the client, the “bride” of zar.  This culminates in the client going into a trance and the shaykha negotiating with the spirit.  The end result of this treatment is a liberation from the negative symptoms of zar, but not from the spirit possession itself.  The client will continue to live as a host of the spirit, obligated to comply with that spirit’s demands. In an objective view of this therapy, the client benefits from the social support in the ceremony.  The resulting feeling of involvement and sense of belonging may help alleviate the causes that initially led to the sensation of spirit possession.

This information came from an article written by Sheikh Idris Rahim and printed in  pp. 146-147 of Encyclopedia of Multicultural Psychology, which can be accessed online through the following link:


Leave a Reply