I thought I would re-post a review that I wrote some months ago of anthropologist Susan Kenyon’s 2012 longitudinal study of zar possession practices in Central Sudan, Spirits and Slaves in Central Sudan: The Red Wind of Sennar. A slightly edited version of this review appeared in print in Anthropology News, and was also featured on the periodical’s website. Since the online review appears to no longer be accessible, I am re-sharing it here so people more people read it and learn about zar and Susan’s book.
Zar spirits and ‘healing cult’ phenomena are compelling for many reasons. Zar is distinctly transnational in both its cosmological scope and actual practice, yet it is also tied to specific regional histories and experiences, to very specific lives and biographies. With its layered and cosmopolitan spirit cosmologies, zar possession reveals beautifully how history lives in the body, how legacies of colonialism and violence, of upheaval and encounters with the culturally other, are intimate, living presences that may come as afflictions but also as lovers, friends, helpers, and teachers in disguise. Zar provides material for the study of religious pluralism, it presents rich examples of the tense back-and-forths between affliction and accommodation, oppression and opportunity that have fascinated and challenged anthropologists (and well, everyone else) for generations. Zar’s particular approach to placating and accommodating spirits is a distinctly gendered phenomenon. Zar has been described both as a women’s ‘cult of affliction’ and as a form of women’s resistance, an empowering spiritual club for women and gender misfits (or in the language of more contemporary, internet-assisted identity politics maybe, for ‘femmes’) which sits at times parallel and at times perpendicularly to mainstream Islam and its institutions
(For those less familiar, zar practices are widespread throughout Arabic-speaking parts of Africa. Zar/zayrin refers to various classes of spirit which possess individuals and bring them misfortune and health problems. Afflicted persons are usually women, and are brought to a sheikha, the female leader of a zar lineage or healing cult, who will diagnose and ‘cure’ the patient. Being cured amounts to learning how to accommodate one’s spirits and to joining a zar group for the rest of one’s life, where through drumming, trance and offerings one will serve the spirits and heal others who are afflicted. New recruits may become respected sheikhas themselves after decades of participation in healing possession ceremonies. The new initiate formalizes their commitment to their spirit/s in a kind of marriage ceremony, and is required to fulfill obligations and maintain relations with it/them thenceforth. Zar spirits are typically thought of as jinn and are heterogeneous and somewhat morally ambiguous in character. They are divided into various ‘houses’ or families of spirits, each of which are associated with particular histories, temperaments, clothing, scents, and musical/dance styles. Zayrin include the spirits of Sufi dervishes, black pagan slaves, colonial officials, and a host of other ethno-cultural others).
As I hope this review will make clear, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Kenyon’s monograph. I often find myself describing ethnographies that are both very, very good and very bad as ‘dense’. It’s difficult to write a book that is rich in ethnographic detail, that displays historical, contextual precision, that is reflexive, politically-aware and responsive, that clearly draws on a depth of personal experience and intimate engagement and have it NOT be dense. To her great credit, Kenyon’s monograph strikes me as one of those rare ethnographies that does all these things while still remaining accessible and easy to digest. The lightness of her work rarely if ever feels ethnographically thin or like a symptom of superficial familiarity, expertise or understanding. As I note in the review, this makes it a valuable piece of work for teaching, and I hope one day to use it in the classroom to see first-hand how students respond to it.
Anyway, here’s the review.
Kenyon, Susan M. 2012. Spirits and Slaves in Central Sudan: The Red Wind of Sennar. New York: Palgrave McMillan.(Contemporary anthropology of Religion series) Review
The central strength of this monograph is undoubtedly its rich longitudinal focus. In her historical ethnography of zar possession beliefs and practices in the Central Sudanese town of Sennar, Kenyon continues a well-established line of anthropological inquiry into the relationships between spirit possession, history, memory and power. Equally, by attending carefully to both the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of her particular case-study, she is able to offer novel insights about the ways that zar – and forms of specialist religious knowledge and practice more generally – are incorporated, popularized, adapted and contested across spaces and generations. Kenyon’s account is a highly localized one. As part of a broader project to account for Sennar zar’s longevity and resilience into the present, she concerns herself with tracing the history of Sennar zar’s most prominent lineage, brought to the town by charismatic matriarch and former slave Grandmother Zainab at the close of the 19th century. How do cosmologies and rituals associated so intimately with the life of one ex-slave healer in the 19th century, Kenyon asks, continue to have meaning and relevance for successive generations of very diverse Sudanese women? For Kenyon, while previous studies of Sudanese zar might provide “insight into the symbolism of possession activities and or link trance behavior to individual lives or to class and gender oppression…there has been little attempt to analyze the content, history or structure of whole groups.” (8)
Kenyon’s sustained contact with Sennar and her regular participation in zar as an observer and hostess of ceremonies place her in a unique position to respond to this lacuna, a task she attends to thoroughly and elegantly. Her ethnography is divided into five parts. Part I consists of a brief but well-rounded foreword in which Kenyon describes her more than three-decades long history with Sudan and Sudanese zar, followed by an introductory chapter that provides a concise and useful overview of Kenyon’s project and zar’s broader links to slavery and Islam. Part II includes the bulk of Kenyon’s historical and archival work. Here she traces the history of Sennar and Sennar zar through the biography of Zainab, whose peregrinations through Sudan and Egypt as a slave and ex-slave, and shifting political status within a turbulent late 19th/early 20th century colonial milieu, shed fascinating light on the roles played by the various families of spirits and ritual activities associated with them in Sennar zar. Zar today “remains a template of life associated with the ranks of the Ottoman army…both rituals and spirits can be directly correlated with that period.” (8). Yet this template is both something that was ‘imprinted’ on far older strata of belief and practice in African spiritual life, and one that continues too to provide “various new possibilities to each generation of adepts” (8). Chapters outlining Zainab’s childhood in Sudan, her life as a slave and soldier’s wife in Egypt and her eventual resettlement in Sennar as part of British colonial attempts to deal with displaced black, Southern ex-slaves and ‘de-tribalized’ ex-soldiers (or ‘Malakiya’) capture the flavor of a complex and tumultuous span of history. Closing Part II, Chapter 4 describes the development of zar and Sennar following Zainab’s death for her descendants, given new impacts of post-colonial independence, Islamism and modernity in the region. Part III turns to general cosmology and formal ritual procedure. Kenyon outlines the characteristics of the ‘nations’ of spirits prominent in Sennar zar and zar more generally, and the public ceremonies conducted to honor them and to induct the newly ‘afflicted’ into the fold. The focus on history continues here, with Chapter 7 turning to more contemporary developments within spirit hierarchies and ritual procedure, specifically the increasing popularity of a triad of savvy and salacious slave spirit siblings whose informal coffee klatches have come to dominate everyday healing practice in contemporary Sennar zar.. Connections between memories of slavery and the spirits are clearest here, and Kenyon’s descriptions of the healing antics of Bashir, Luliya and Dasholay are some of her finest, and present a rich window into dynamics of continuity and change in both zar and Sudanese society. Part IV, discussing questions of power, training and succession describes how contracts with spirits are understood and fulfilled. Kenyon offers important details on sometimes less explored issues of zar lineage-group interaction and conflict, questions of biological versus ‘spiritual’ descent and authority, and the challenges of ordaining new and competent zar leaders in times of change and uncertainty. Part V, a short epilogue, summarizes Kenyon’s main argument about zar’s adaptability and importance as a resource for women to deal with change.
Scholars before Kenyon have discussed zar’s relationship to both slavery and Islam. Kenyon’s work, however, offers a particularly sustained examination of zar as a zone for subaltern history and memory-work in such contexts. I found her use of a single biography to elucidate zar’s ‘oblique at best’ dramatization of history (21) fascinating, and for the most part successful. To her credit, Kenyon pursues such analysis cautiously, acknowledging how much of it amounts to tentative inference and guesswork. At times (when she seeks to correlate historical events to specific spirit mannerisms and costumes in ways not shared by zar participants themselves, for example) Kenyon’s historical detective-work is less convincing, but her gains in such difficult work outweigh these moments and merit congratulation. Kenyon’s intriguing tidbits about the subjectivities of male patients in zar, and the gender and sexual orientations of some of the spirits left me eager for a fuller discussion. Moreover, given Kenyon’s early assertion of zar’s important connections to Sufism in Sudan, readers may find the short shrift given to this topic in the rest of the book disappointing. Kenyon’s success at addressing many different aspects of zar in such a consistently thorough and ethnographically-contextualized fashion, however, makes of these minor complaints.
Kenyon’s prose is easy, and she turns to complex theory only when it best serves her main task of exploring the dynamism of religious knowledge and practice over time. Field note vignettes that open each section make for engaging reading, and help her primary ethnographic cast come to life as the work progresses. Her book should prove valuable in introductory classes on Sudan, women’s lives, religion and possession and in more specialist, graduate contexts. As an intimate and sensitive portrayal of how zar is lived and remains relevant over time as part of local histories, Kenyon’s book is a significant achievement, and is an important contribution to research on lineage, ritual knowledge, religious institutions and change, and historical ethnography more generally.