Wake-up sleepers, praise Allah, calls the mesaharati as he strolls through the streets before dawn, banging his drums to wake people up for their sohour meal during Ramadan.
The neighborhood mesaharati has always shouldered the burden of waking people up, often by name, so they can have a late night meal in preparation for the next day’s fast.
Before alarm clocks and mobile phones, the mesaharati’s job was crucial, but even in the digital age, the mesaharati remains a steadfast Ramadan tradition.
While fading in some areas, the tradition is still alive and well in the popular districts of Old Cairo. Surprisingly, you may even find some female mesaharatis competing in the male-dominated profession.
In rural areas, each mesaharati is usually in charge of waking up their entire village. He would ride a bicycle and stop at each alley, beating his drum to tell sleepers it’s time for their pre-dawn meal.
The tradition has been maintained thanks to those who have refused to give up the job they take on for only one month a year. Still, one wonders why the tradition of the mesaharati has persisted for so long?
“We were handed down the job by our parents and grandparents, says Saber El Mesaharati, who has been in charge of El Darb El Gedid area in Sayeda Zeinab for the past 35 years.
“My mother was a mesaharati. My brother and I used to follow her on her route as she woke people up in this area for decades. My brother is now responsible for the Darb Elgamamiz area, he said.
Saber is responsible for El Darb El Gedid area, and pitches a small tent near the Sidi El Gineidi Mosque for the duration of Ramadan. Saber used to live in the area but had to move because his house was badly affected by the earthquake that hit the capital in 1992. Now he’s living in Salam City and works as a painter.
Every year he comes back to El Darb El Gedid at the residents’ request to wake them up for sohour each night. Everyone in the area knows the place near the mosque is his temporary home, and the municipality officials wouldn’t dare ask him to move an inch.
“This is because the residents would never be able to find another mesaharati, explained Saber. “Don’t underestimate our job. To be a mesaharati, you have to know every building in the district. You have to be able to remember the residents’ names, walk long distances, and call out loudly so your voice can reach the top floors. This is why it isn’t that easy to replace one mesaharati with another.
“You can’t be a mesaharati job in a district you’re not familiar with. This Ramadan I was asked to work in Dar El Salam, but I simply refused because I don’t know the place.
Saber starts his tour of the town at 1 am so that he can finish in time for the dawn prayers.
Question is, do people really depend on Saber more than their alarm clocks?
“Not really, he said, “Very few do, but mostly the mesaharati walks along beating his drum and calling out to the townspeople because it triggers a kind of joy with kids who have come to associate Ramadan nights with the mesaharati.
He recalled, “One time a man who lived on the fourth floor asked me to come up. I thought he was going to tip me, but it turns out his daughter just wanted to see the mesaharati. It’s one way of encouraging children to love Ramadan.
There is no guarantee that the residents will tip him, but sometimes parents give him money so he would call out to their children by name. Still, some people give the mesaharati a eidaya (a monetary gift offered during the Eid holiday).
At the end of Ramadan, Saber packs up his tent and heads back home to Salam City with his wife Om Mohamed, who insists on accompanying him to look after his needs.
“There is no Ramadan without a mesaharati, insists Saber.
“My only wish is to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. I am doing a religious duty for peanuts and the little I aspire to is to go to Mecca before I die, says Saber.