ZAR Ceremony in Qeshm Island: Fighting the bad spirits by unique and extraordinary rituals

Qeshm Island in the south coast of Iran has one of the most amazing nature on our planet and is a delight for the eye.
But the island can offer much more – a delight to the soul and for the mind. Local traditions are so colorful and unknown for the western citizens, that being lucky to see them your own eyes is an adventure one could never forget.

The most popular and celebrated tradition in Qeshm is the ZAR ceremony.  It is different even to the customs and traditions in the other parts of Iran which makes it even more amazing and extraordinary for the visitors.

Perhaps it will sound a bit strange, but ZAR is connected with the wind. It comes about a bad wind and bad spirit. That kind of believe is widely spread in Qeshm.  People deeply trust in the existence of winds that can be both vicious or peaceful. They even trust the wind could be believer (Muslim) or non-believer (infidel). Many varieties of ZAR are known. They have names like Maturi, Šayḵ Šangar, Dingemāru, Omagāre, Bumaryom, Pepe, Bābur, Bibi, Namrud. As they are associates with bad spirit, the local believe ZAR-s are very dangerous and cause disease, discomfort and serious illnesses for the victim. No one can escape ZAR – no matter how rich or famous he is. But in general, the local believe the poor and the deprived people are the most common victims.  Not only this, but ZAR-s are also considered contagious!  For example, when people love or hate one another, they can give their “ZAR” to each other. The belief is that one can  never hide from ZAR-s, but can only come to peacefully living with them.  

So, the locals participate in massive ZAR ceremony - to make these bad winds and bad spirits more peaceful and less harmful.  At these ceremonies a chosen cult leader brings together the patient and those previously afflicted by the ZAR together. The ceremony involve incense, music, and movement.  In the past there was riding of sacrifice animals before slaughtering them or drinking blood, but they are not practice often nowadays.  From time to time important role in the ceremony was held by young females with good voices and dancing abilities, but their presence is very rare now too.

Today the ZAR ceremony in Qeshm Island has two main phases during the ritual: separation and incorporation. Preparations for the ZAR go under the separation phase. It begins with a person complaining from feelings of disease and discomfort. He explains everything in details to the to cult leaders – which are called Bābā ZAR if male and Mama ZAR if female.  As some cult leaders have already been possessed by ZARS and have managed to control them, they can help in a best way others. Sometimes it happens that the leader asks the patient to visit first doctor.  But other leaders can go in completely different directions, asking the patient to even stop taking his prescribed by doctor medicine and rely on his believe only! Which can cause some serious troubles to patient’s health, of course..

Another important moment is that being opted for a remedy from Baba or Mama ZAR, the patient will prepare to stay in isolation for up to seven days. During this period only the cult leaders can visit the patient and use specific treatments such as acombination of aromatic herbs. In fact, this is the end of the separation phase. It is believed that after that phase the patient’s body is cleaned and washed and is ready for the incorporation phase.  

Members of the cult inform everyone about the upcoming ceremony.  Participation in it is very important. It is considered a sin not to attend ZAR  ceremony.
During the main phase of the ceremony everyone gathers in a circle.  The patient stays in the center while a piece of cloth, with eggs, dates, confetti, and aromatic herbs, is spread on the floor. The patient’s head is covered with white cloth - to keep him/her from the glances of strangers.  Aromatic herbs are spread around the patient. Then the participants are  incensed with the smoke from the aromatic mixture.

Meanwhile the ZAR leader takes the lead on music which consists mostly of drums. The leader reads the name of the ZAR-s and under specific rhythm. Baba or Mama ZARS starts to sing and the participants follow them. It is believed that during the singing the bad ZAR makes appearence by specific signs, recognized by the possessed person, who suddenly feels a strong inner urge to move and twist. Then every piece of the music goes with a specific spirit. Some people may start to move and shake. (If there is no reaction from the patient, musicians change the tune until they see one).

When the ZAR is identified, the healer starts a conversation with it to understand what the ZAR wants in exchange for leaving the patient alone. Mama ZAR or Baba ZAR speaks with the spirit through the patient. The ZAR names its demands, which may be as simple as a few prayers or a sacrifice. Then the cult leader makes a “binding” by tying a piece of cloth around the patient’s arm. This is an assurance that the demands of the ZAR will be met.

The belief says that if the ZAR wishes are not answered, the ZAR will return and create more problems for the patient. If the demands are easily obtained, they are immediately completed during the ceremony. Otherwise, the demands will be met at a later time, but in a similar ceremony. For example, if the ZAR asks for a sacrifice or blood (though it doesn’t happen often nowadays), there will be a ceremony where the sacrificial animal is brought in  - with the patient riding it - and slaughtered. After that the blood is drunk by the leader and the patient.

When ZAR’s demands are completed, the incorporation phase is completed too.  The patient becomes a member of the cult and is expected to participate in all future ceremonies.

ZAR  ceremonies may last up to seven days beyond the separation phase. Members of the cult must follow some rules – like wearing always clean and white dresses. Also, they must not touch corpses - both animal or human, drink alcohol, make sex with unlawful partners. Selling or letting go of the object the ZAR has asked for is prohibited as well.  

Some researchers think ZAR ceremony in Qeshm has African origin as it has many similarities to some African traditions. The most popular believes are that it has Abyssinian or Ethiopian origin, but there were also theories or Persian origin.  No matter what its origin is, the ZAE ceremony is a spectacle everyone must see if has a chance.  It is a lifetime experience - both spiritual and adventurous!

Written by: Biserka Borisova

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