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http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2010/1013/feature.htm

26 August - 1 September 2010
Issue No. 1013
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Wake-up call for the faithful
Banging his drum in the early hours of the morning during Ramadan to wake 
people before the daily fast, the mesaharati has been disappearing from Egypt's 
towns and villages in recent years. Ahmed Abu Ghazala talks to one man keeping 
the tradition alive 

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       Click to view caption 
      The mesaharati of Nasr City has only started his job this Ramadan. 
Roaming the streets, he tries to reach out to the residents to remind them of 
Sohour time. The job has become rather difficult and insignificant in the noisy 
streets of the big cities
      photos: Sherif Sonbol 
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It has become very rare to hear a real mesaharati, the man who traditionally 
wakes people up before sunrise during Ramadan in order to eat before fasting 
starts. Indeed, the mesaharati has become something of a dying profession, even 
though it has been practised since the early days of Islam. 

The first mesaharati is believed to have been Bilal Ibn Rabah, one of the 
Prophet Mohamed's companions, who was well known for his harmonious voice. 
Since Ibn Rabah's time, however, a harmonious voice has not always sufficed, 
and later the mesaharati used a small drum, calling out people's names in order 
to wake them for sohour, the last meal before sunrise in Ramadan.

Later still, it sometimes became difficult even to walk in the city streets, 
what with the noise and the traffic. Happily, people today have other wake-up 
calls to choose from, with televisions, mobiles and alarm clocks all at hand. 
All this has contributed to the decline of the mesaharati 's trade, even though 
many people still love to hear one.

One mesaharati who continues in the ancient ways is 48-year-old Rabea Hussein, 
who walks through the streets of Nasr City every night in Ramadan from half 
past one in the morning until quarter past three, banging his drum and calling 
on people to wake.

His nightly round starts in Abu Dawoud Al-Dhaheri Street, moving to the Hadiqat 
Al-Tifl (the children's park) and the Institute of Social Services in Ahmed 
Fakhri Street, before returning to Hassan Al-Maamoun Street to finish. Hussein 
wears the traditional clothing of turban, galabiya and scarf, and he has worked 
in the district for 13 years as an employee of the local mosque, though this 
Ramadan is the first time he has been employed as a mesaharati.

Hussein first entered the profession by helping a friend, the mesaharati of his 
hometown, the village of Abbad Sharona in Minya in Upper Egypt. "Ahmed Saleh, 
head of the Wa Islamah Association, proposed that I work in Nasr City as 
mesaharati this Ramadan. I liked the idea, so they provided me with a drum and 
I started working," Hussein comments.

Wa Islamah, a charitable association, carries out activities in seven Egyptian 
governorates, among them finding foster parents for orphaned children, running 
educational programmes, distributing clothes to the needy, helping to cover the 
medical costs of those not able to afford them, and helping school pupils and 
women to memorise the Quran. The association has many supporters from the field 
of business and sport, including football stars Sayed Abdel-Hafiz and Ahmed 
Koshari.

Hussein says that because he is responsible for a fairly large area, he likes 
to start early, at half past one rather than three in the morning. "I myself 
barely have time to eat before beginning to fast again during Ramadan. One day 
I couldn't find the time to eat anything at all, as I was late on my round," he 
says.

When he worked as mesaharati in his village, he used to sing religious songs 
and call people by their names. This is not possible in the different 
circumstances of Nasr City, Hussein says, because of the district's size and 
the number of people living there. "However, if I do know someone, then I call 
him by his name. The children also ask me to call them by their names," he 
says. 

Hussein loves the work, which he sees both as a way of drawing closer to God 
and as a way of helping people. "Many people wake up as soon as they hear my 
drum. Two days ago, I didn't go along Mahmoud Ghoneim Street as usual, and 
people were quite upset because their children had been waiting for me. A few 
days ago some Arab tourists in Egypt asked me if they could have their 
photographs taken with me, saying that they liked to spend Ramadan in Egypt 
because of the presence of the mesaharati." 

As Hussein does his rounds at night, many children and some adults can be seen 
watching him from their balconies. Sometimes children clap along with him as he 
passes.

According to Hani Abdel-Ghani, a member of Wa Islamah and a Nasr City resident, 
Hussein's round was small at the beginning, but when residents expressed their 
plaudits for his work the association decided to expand it. 

For 11-year-old Louay Khaled, who lives in an 11th-floor flat in the area, it 
is important to stay awake during Ramadan to see the mesaharati pass by. "It is 
better to have a mesaharati in Ramadan than not to have one, and I very much 
enjoy seeing him," he said. 

However, while the children and many adult residents of the district like the 
idea of having a traditional mesaharati during Ramadan, others see another 
side. One resident, a student at the Faculty of Commerce at Ain Shams 
University, thinks that a mesaharati should work in traditional areas, where he 
knows the residents, rather than in middle-class areas where he does not.

However, despite such criticisms, Ahmed Saleh, head of Wa Islamah, insists that 
having a mesaharati in areas like Nasr City is important because it can 
contribute to reviving and strengthening religious traditions. 

"We weren't sure that the idea would work when we started it, and we were even 
half expecting it to fail. But to our pleasure and surprise people liked it," 
Saleh said. 






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