The Zar in the Persian Gulf

Performative dimensions

  • William O. Beeman
Keywords: Zar, spirit possession, Persian Gulf, traditional medicine, ceremony, ritual, emotional disorder, performance, music, dance


This article explores the performative dimensions of the Zar ceremony as carried out throughout the Persian Gulf. This ceremony is mirrored by similar ones throughout North and East Africa, suggesting that the Zar may have resulted from cultural diffusion along historical trade routes. The Zar practitioners, the baba and the mama, have extensive demands in musical performance, movement and coordination in order to affect a palliative relief for persons affected by spirit ‘winds’ that inhabit them. The analysis in this paper uses the framework of ritual structure developed by Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner to show how the practitioners skilfully guide the person at the centre of the ceremony and the community of the ‘People of the Wind’ to a successful conclusion by bringing persons under treatment from a ‘normal’ state through a ‘liminal’ state to an eventual ‘reincorporated’ state in which relief is experienced. The performative aspects of the ceremony move those who are being treated through stages in which the inhabiting spirit is addressed: induction, movement into a trance state both for the practitioner and the person
being treated, addressing of the spirit by the practitioners and return of the person being treated to normal life. All of these stages are marked by special music, chanting and movement. The Zar ceremony is an important method of non-allopathic treatment for emotional disorders that might elsewhere be treated through psychiatry in clinical settings.