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Wake up, oh sleeping one

An old Ramadan tradition that persists despite the changing times

A mesaharati beats his drum in the early hours of the morning in Moqattam in Cairo (Photo by Halim Elshaarani )
A mesaharati beats his drum in the early hours of the morning in Moqattam in Cairo
(Photo by Halim Elshaarani )

To prepare for a long day of fasting, Muslims usually enjoy a very late night meal, sohour, an hour or two before the fajr, the dawn prayer that marks the start of the fast. The Prophet instructed his followers to delay their sohour as much as possible, so that they could sleep a few hours before waking up for the first prayer of day.

Since in the past there were no alarm clocks, people needed someone to wake them, and so the job of the mesaharati came to be. It is believed that one of the first was Belal, the Prophet’s moua’zen, the person that announces the azan, or call to prayers. Muslims knew that it was time to eat by Belal’s call, and that it was time to stop when Ibn Maktoom, one of the companions of the Prophet, called the faithful to prayer and to signal that the fast had started.

It is said that the first mesaharati was Egypt’s governor, Wali Anbasa Ibn Eshaq, in the Hijri year 228 (843 C.E.), who used to roam Cairo waking people for sohour, walking from the Fostat neighbourhood to Amr Ibn Al-As mosque. In the Fatimid period, it was the job of soldiers to go around and knock on doors to rouse people for the last meal of the day.

Later on, the job of the mesaharati was an official position, assigned by the governing powers of Egypt. It first entailed knocking on doors using a stick, and then later Egyptians added the small drum, called baza, and added chants and rhythmic verses.

One of the most popular verses is “Wake up, oh sleeping one. Wake up and praise God. Ramadan Kareem”. Despite the abundance of alarm clocks, and the habit of many to stay awake through the night during the holy month, the mesaharati did not become extinct, and people still count them as an essential part of Ramadan.

Usually, two hours before dawn, the mesaharati will go around neighbourhoods, banging on the small drum and chanting. Residents open their windows and watch him; some go down to greet him, give him some food and maybe a tip.

The mesaharati may not be waking people up anymore, but he is definitely contributing to enlivening the Ramadan spirit.

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