The Red Wind of Memory: A Review of Susan Kenyon’s ‘Slaves and Spirits of Central Sudan’ (2012)

kenyon book cover

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

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Bathtub Seances, Delayed News of Passing, and Facebook as a Mausoleum

sammy bath tub

I just found out through a chance appearance on my Facebook feed that another friend and lover of mine in Denver passed away six months ago (it wasn’t that long ago that I learned that another friend and lover of mine in Denver, John, passed away as well – you can see my memorial to him and my conflicted reflections on public mourning and Facebook here). Somehow I missed this news entirely, no doubt because I’ve been away abroad doing other things. A friend of Sammy’s just posted on his wall saying that she had dreamed of him appearing in the back of a car. She’d asked him how it was he could be there, and he’d replied, “I’m everywhere”. I went to his page, realizing I’d not seen sign of him in ages, only to discover that he had taken his own life in July of last year at the age of 31.

Sammy came up in conversation only a day or two ago, while I was talking with my friend Ella who’s my current travelling partner in Rajasthan. I told Ella a story about an unusual experience that I once shared with Sammy that has always stuck with me. When I told it to her I made a mental note to reach out to Sammy to find out how he was, and to ask him if he’d mind recounting his version of events to me for comparison. I now realize this won’t be possible in the way that I had hoped.

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Facebook, Public Mourning, and Virtual Graveyards

john.jpg

Yesterday I found out that one of my friends and ex-lovers in Denver, John passed away. What a strange thing it is to be able to publicly tag a dead person on Facebook. I have mixed feelings about doing so, and about discussing John’s death at all. John wasn’t always a big talker. I doubt I wrote as much to him on here in the time we were friends and while he was alive as I am now. I don’t know what to think about virtual mourning. The whole narcissistic architecture of Facebook seems kind of gross in the face of death. The platform has none of the intimacy of a quiet, fleshy memorial, and I’m not sure yet what the social-ritual function of likes may be when it comes to honoring the departed. But John’s Facebook page has already become a space of commemoration Continue reading