JEDDAH – We all need to wake up at a particular time, usually to go to work, catch a flight or perform some religious duty, such as the Fajr prayer. Once we get used to early rising, it becomes a matter of routine and is not difficult to follow.
This need to wake up at a certain time acquires added significance during Ramadan, when one has to get up for Suhoor, the morning breakfast that begins the fast of the Muslim. Punctuality is very important in Islam – the five daily and other prayers, such as Friday and the two Eids, have to be offered at their duly appointed time.
We live in the age of digital alarm clocks that can wake a person in Ramadan at the set time with adhan, verses from the Qur’an, or the radio set to a particular station.
However, this was not always so and the time was when this role was performed by a man going round from house to house in a particular community or area well before suhoor time in the morning so that people could prepare themselves for the fast and the Fajr prayer.
This man, known as the Musaharati, was one of the noble characters of the bygone era, and he used to dutifully wake people every night in the month of Ramadan so that they could have their Suhoor.
Makkah Mayor Dr. Ossama Fadul Albar told Saudi Gazette that the place and purpose of the Musaharati has been taken over by the midfa (cannon) which is fired three times a day beginning at 2.00 A.M., under the supervision of the Ministry of Defense.
“Ye sleepers … Get up and praise Allah…,” used to be the Musaharati’s cry. It was difficult to find this gentleman in the daytime, but he came alive at night, and the early dawn.
The Musaharati’s appearance was seasonal, and his function limited to the holy month of Ramadan. Yet, this function carried a lot of historic, symbolic and ritualistic meanings. In the course of his duties, he linked the night hours with the earliest hours of the morning. He was known to all by his remarkable voice that filled the air at dawn, calling people to get up, have suhoor, prepare for the fajr prayer, and start a fresh day of Ramadan.
Nadia Baeshen, general manager, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Dallah Al-Baraka, recalled, “We grew up with the tradition,” she said, and added that their house Bait Baeshen accommodated 50-60 people - adults and children.
She said that the neighborhood used to come to life in Ramadan, and children played in the streets.
The Musaharati in her area was named Yahya Hallangi, whom they called Amm Yahya out of respect. “Every child knew him in the neighborhood. He blessed everybody. He came after taraweeh holding his small drum in his left hand, and sticks in his right, beating the drum and saying, “Mashak Allah bir ridda wa al naeem” meaning “may God keep you satisfied this evening, happy and contended.” He said this with a certain rhythm. It was a long song which he kept repeating,” said Baeshen.
She said what was fascinating was that he knew the name of every single male member in each and every house, which he proclaimed loudly. “He was part of the community,” she stressed.
“We got upset at his calling out the names of just the boys and not the girls. We used to pester him, but he kept saying ‘aeeb, aeeb’ (not becoming, not proper to say the names of girls and women on the street). But we still insisted that he say our names, which he mentioned almost inaudibly,” Baeshen added.
She said that Ramadan in her mind is connected with Amm Yahya. “I still hear his drum in my head. It was a glorious tradition. He was like confirmation of the month of Ramadan coming,” she said.
Hadeel Alabbasi, author of children’s books, said all she remembers is that the masahharaty, used to come two times in the morning – first to wake up people to prepare for suhoor, and then again the second time to announce that suhoor time was over, marking the beginning of the day’s fast and that it was time for Fajr prayer. She said it was a nice tradition and she was interested in writing about it in a book for children with illustrations, “so that they can remember our heritage.”
Kholoud Al-Amoudi, who works in a financial training company, said that she was too young to see the Musaharati do his rounds during Ramadan, as by that time the tradition had already faded away.
However, from what she has seen on television, it seemed to her to be a good and very Islamic practice, because religion encourages good deeds and social responsibility, especially during the holy month, which is full of blessings.
“We are expected to serve and help our fellow human beings and the neighborhood as much and in any way we can, each according to his ability and capacity,” she said.
One yearns for the life in Makkah in the old times – its lanes, twisting alleyways, gates, the great municipal lanterns that existed till the mid-70s. Now all these are getting buried in peoples’ memories. In this age the voice, role and work of the Musaharati, is fading from memory.
The Musaharati was a true symbol of the old quarters and towns. In the present age, his role has become extinct.
Life these days is highly indifferent to the old division of night and day. Consequently, this noble character has naturally disappeared and been forgotten. He has become an “antique,” and is remembered only in conversations during suhoor. It seems that our modern cities have decided to strangle the past, take away the unique features and turn our memories into museums of no value but entertainment.
The history of the Musaharati in the Hijaz dates back many centuries. It seems that his function was part of the social life in the Islamic eras, particularly during the Mameluk and Ottoman times.
The Dutch traveler Hurgronje referred to this character in his book: Makkah Al-Mukarramah At the End of the Thirteenth Century Hijra, while writing about the Ramadan atmosphere in the Holy City. The same atmosphere was prevalent in the main cities of the Hijaz - Madina, Jeddah, and Taif - and was enjoyed and relished by the residents of that time. Hurgronje also writes about the Makkans getting ready for Ramadan.
Describing the Musaharati’s function, he writes: “It comprises alerting the people to take the suhoor meal before starting to fast - ‘Ye sleepers get up. Supplicate to Allah who has endowed thee with winds … the army of the night is retreating … and the armies of the morning are shining … Drink water hastily because the morning is about to break.’ At the end of Ramadan, usually on Eid Al-Fitr, these masahharatis visit houses, where they are given gifts. Some people give them money, others give grains and some may give them Zakat Al-Fitr too.”
Of the most interesting writings on the masahharatis is that reported by the late Mohammed Tahir Al-Kurdi Al-Makki in his book Authentic History of Makkah and The Holy Mosque.
He writes: “We may report here some interesting poems which the ancient masahharatis recited to wake up the Caliphs. One Musaharati, Ibn Nogtah, who was assigned to awaken Caliph Al-Nasir for suhoor, adopted his own style of reciting poems. One of his sons was also very good in this profession. When Ibn Nogtah died, his son could not approach the Caliph to be put in place of his father as the Chief of masahharatis. He waited until the advent of Ramadan. He took his father’s followers to a place where the Caliph could hear him recite poems. He said: “Ye the master of all masters, famous for generosity, I am the son of Ibn Nogtah, May Allah the Almighty bestow long life upon thee, My father is dead.”
“The Caliph was very pleased with these verses. He called the son, appointed him to his court, instituted him in his father’s place, and as a reward gave him double of what he used to give his father.”
Another fascinating example of the masahharatis’ recitations reported by Al-Makki is a poem composed in honor of one of the Caliphs.
It goes: “We wish you every good luck and happiness. We wish that you always be blessed on every fasting day and on Eid. You are, and your opinions are always right.
“You never fear difficult situations. We wish you every support in fasting and when celebrating Eid. We wish you always a happy new year. This is why we praise you in prose and poetry. We wish your good deeds to reach everywhere. You are intensely caring for us and nobody is ever more generous than you. You have always bestowed your benevolence upon everyone, far and near. We wish you all the good luck and happiness every Eid. We wish you a long life, plenty of power and high respect.”
On the same lines, another writer, the late Mohammed Ali Maghrabi did not forget to mention the Musaharati of his quarters. In his book on The Social Life in The Hijaz, he writes: “The most famous Musaharati in Jeddah – whom I believe was assigned to the Sham and Al-Mazhloom quarters where I was living – was the late Uncle Moharram. He was an owner of a small shop in Al-Mazhloom quarters selling sugar and tea. He also rented out books such as the Arabian Nights, the Biography of Antarah Ibn Shaddad and other famous ones, which were most popular at that time. People used to gather in a house to spend the evening listening to these stories but later on the radio broadcasts replaced the storytelling.” – SG