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 Continue reading →
A friend of mine recently alerted me to the existence of a new TV show that is a spin-off from CBS’ popular crime-procedural series Criminal Minds. Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, which kicked off in March this year, presents us with the amazingly un-ironic spectacle of a Criminal Minds-style team of American profilers and crime experts gone global. This diverse (yet still deeply patriot) team is headed by series veteran Gary Sinise/Jack Garrett, and even has its own fucking jet, by means of which it flies, Team America-style around the world to save US citizens who’ve been so stupid as to actually travel outside of their own country. Continue reading →
When I was a kid growing up in pre- and post-Apartheid South Africa it wasn’t easy to study occultism.
To be sure, South Africa is a country filled with professional and semi-professional sorcerers, but it is also a nation whose white supremacist government for a long time directly funded a special ‘Occult-Related Crimes Unit’ attached to the national police force. This unit, which was founded in 1992 and which was supposedly officially disbanded/absorbed in 2006 (but which is in fact still operating in various capacities) was guided for the most part by the expertise and priorities of white, Afrikaner Christian investigators. Working under the auspices of the state, pastors with police training, criminology degrees and a measure of knowledge about local black South African ‘customs and traditions’ investigated South Africa’s dark and criminal occult underbelly. While the existence of witch-lynching and so-called ‘muthi killings’ – ritual murders conducted to ostensibly secure human parts for sale in criminal magical economies and rituals – served as the primary justification for state-spending on the Unit, the majority of the Unit’s time appears to have been spent on locating and routing out ‘cells’ of adult and teenage Satanists, and assisting especially young South Africans who had been afflicted by demons and other Satanic forces. Continue reading →
Debates about hairstyles, fashion, identity and culture have been in the news in the last few days. After posting pictures of his new blond dreadlocks, pop star Justin Bieber was roundly criticized for cultural appropriation – for capitalizing on a cultural aesthetic that in the US is historically associated with black histories, identities, and struggles. Commentators noted that while people/celebrities of colour in the US have been routinely criminalized or villianized for sporting a hairstyle connected to their history and experiences as minorities, when Bieber as a white person casually took on this style as his own it came with none of the meaning, and context, and also none of the backlash. Continue reading →