CAIRO – Dalal Abdelkader takes to the unpaved streets of Cairo’s modest neighborhood of Al-Basatin every midnight during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims, banging a drum to wake people up for their pre-dawn meal.
She wanders the streets, whipping a drum with a hose and shouting the names of her neighbors, so they do not forget the “Suhur,” the last meal before the sun brings a new day of fasting.
“It’s time to eat, Mohamed! Wake up, Fatima! Wake up your parents too!” Abdelkader shouts.
The 47-year-old mother and grandmother works in a laundry during the day and at night she becomes the “Mesaharati” – public waker for Suhur – of the neighborhood, a kind of night watchperson who warns neighbors about the last chance to eat.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims should fast and abstain from smoking, as well as engaging in sexual activities during daylight hours. These restrictions end at sunset and are re-imposed at dawn.
The task of the Mesaharati in each neighborhood of Cairo is to awaken neighbors by beating the drum while shouting their names in the wee hours, so that they can eat their last meal before they resume fasting.
The Mesaharati is an ancient Islamic tradition normally reserved for men, but with time, those available to keep the tradition alive are getting fewer and fewer.
Aware that being a woman and a Mesaharati at the same time is something exceptional, Abdelkader has never had any problems because she is known in her neighborhood.
However, she confesses there are neighbors who are “surprised” to hear a woman beating the drum and shouting their names.
“I represent the Egyptian women living in popular neighborhoods, who are capable of everything, as well as giving joy to others no matter how little she has,” a proud Abdelkader says.
Every night of the holy month, after breaking her own fast and having her date-infused water, she tunes her drum as well as her throat, the instruments that every Mesaharati must master to brighten the colorful early hours of Egypt’s Ramadan and make sure no one goes to sleep on an empty stomach.
She leaves the house a little before midnight, accompanied by one of her children, who helps her carry the drum, and gets into a tuk-tuk (a three-wheel auto rickshaw) to reach the other end of the neighborhood, a three-hour trip she does daily on foot while shouting loudly.
When she takes out her percussion instrument, decorated with Islamic motifs and the Liverpool soccer player Mohamed Salah, the “pride of Egypt” as Egyptian people define him, the children recognize her instantly and run after her asking her to shout their names while beating the drum.
She herself recognizes that the children of the neighborhood consider her a second mother and the rest of the neighbors as a sister for the effort she makes every day to keep alive the folklore of Ramadan and preserve the tradition.
A daughter and sister of a Mesaharati, eight years ago Abdelkader decided to draw the drum for the first time to protect her family’s legacy following the death of her brother, from whom she learned the tradition when she was accompanying him during his nocturnal journeys.
“My brother told me that Ramadan is a very dear guest that should be received with honors,” she said, adding that she should keep her brother’s passion alive because it reminds her so much of him and of their father.
Although every night she puts smiles on other people’s faces, she tells EFE that after the death of her brother Ramadan became a “difficult moment” that is relieved by going out with the company of the younger children.
“We wait for her every night and we follow her to learn to sing and to be able to do it again (myself), because when I grow up I want to be a Mesaharati,” says Wissa, a 6-year-old boy who follows Abdelkader and keeps asking her to shout his name louder than the others.
The neighborhood children look out from the balcony or leave their homes to follow her through the labyrinthine streets of Al-Basatin until their parents, also excited by the presence of the Mesaharati, order them to go back.
But first, the children surround Abdelkader and prevent her from continuing until she calls them by name.