Every year, Muslims around the world eagerly await the sighting of the new crescent moon, which marks the beginning of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food, water, and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset. While fasting is obligatory for all Muslims, various categories of people are exempt from the fast, including young children, the sick, the elderly, long-distance travelers, and menstruating, pregnant, and breast-feeding women.
Throughout the month, Muslims strive to engage in more acts of devotion (such as praying and reading the Qur’an) to atone for their sins and spiritually grow closer to God. For Muslims, Ramadan is a sacred month because they believe it was when God revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). In addition to being a time of introspection and spirituality, the holy month is also a time for food, family, and community, shaped by unique customs. Egypt is the source of many of the Muslim world’s most popular Ramadan traditions.
The Pre-Dawn Wake-up call
Every day, Muslims eat a pre-dawn meal (“suhur” in Arabic) in preparation for the fasting day ahead. In various Arab countries, a Mesaharaty or a “night caller” walks around neighborhoods and village streets softly beating a small drum to rouse sleeping residents for the early morning meal. In villages in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt, it is still commonplace for a Tabbal (or “drummer”) to call out the name of individual families during his walks. Although Mesaharaties do not ask for compensation, people in their communities often give them small tips and even gifts at the end of the holy month.
“Ramadan has an essence of its own. It brings happiness. It has its own rituals. If there is no Mesaharaty, there is no Ramadan,” Hassan Baraka, a Mesaharaty in Cairo, told CGTN Africa. The seasonal job cannot be applied for, it is inherited and passed down from father to son. For generations, the men in Baraka’s family have carried out this Ramadan ritual and he wishes to do the same. “Because I only have daughters, I [have] not passed on the job yet. But maybe my grandchildren can [pass on] the Mesaharaty in the family,” Baraka added.
Although it is unconventional to have female Mesaharties, there are some. Dalal Abdel-Qader became a Mesaharaty after her older brother, Ahmed, a famous Mesaharaty in Cairo’s Ma’adi neighborhood, died in 2011. “I used to accompany Ahmed . . . to wake people up before dawn. . . . I fell in love with what he was doing from the outset,” Dalal told Daily News Egypt. While the number of Mesaharaties in Egypt has decreased over time, she continues to carry on the ritual because she wants to preserve the age-old Ramadan custom that her brother loved so much.
The Ramadan Lantern
One of the most popular decorative pieces of the Ramadan season is the lantern (or “fanous”). The lanterns, made from metal and tinted glass, come in different shapes and sizes and have become symbolic of the holy month. But where did the tradition of hanging them in homes, shops, and streets originate? Although there are different stories, the consensus is that it appeared during the Fatimid period in Egypt and then spread to the rest of the Arab world.
According to one account, in 969 CE Egyptians held lanterns as they waited for the arrival of the Fatimid Caliph al-Muizz li-Din Allah to Cairo for the first night of Ramadan. The Caliph supposedly so enjoyed the sight of the lanterns that he ordered craftsmen to make more of them. He even issued a decree that required people to hang lanterns on the doors of their shops and homes at night or risk a penalty, which led to a boom in the lantern-making craft.
While lanterns are no longer used as a source of light, many families and businesses across the Muslim world continue to use them as decorations. “I’ve been making lanterns for 60 years,” Mohammed Belaga, a lantern craftsman told Al Jazeera. Belaga learned the trade from his father who acquired it from his. Today, only a few dozen traditional lantern workshops remain and even though cheap Chinese plastic imports have impacted sales, Belaga believes that Egypt’s traditional lantern will outshine its competitors.
The Cannon to Break the Fast
In many countries in the Muslim world a cannon is fired to signal the end of the day’s fast so those who are fasting can eat iftar (the meal that breaks the fast). Some historians maintain that the custom of firing the Midfaa Al Iftar (or “iftar cannon”) originated in Egypt, although, there are different, sometimes conflicting, accounts of when the ritual was established. Some believe that it began in the 10th century during the Fatimid caliphate. The more popular story suggests that the tradition started by accident during the Mamluk rule of Egypt in the 15th century.
According to one account, the Egyptian Mamluk governor Khoshkadam received a canon from a German factory owner as a gift. On the first day of Ramadan in 1465 CE, the governor conducted a trial shot at sunset, which Cairo residents mistakenly took for a break-fast announcement. The following day, people flooded the governor’s palace to thank him for his innovative idea. Pleased with the response, the sultan ordered that the cannon be fired at sunset every day during Ramadan.
Many Egyptians believe another account, that Princess Fatima, the governor’s wife, was the one who convinced him to establish the iftar cannon as a Ramadan ritual. Subsequently, they named the iftar cannon “Haja Fatima.” Even though mosques now have sound amplification systems and many apps exist to let people know when it is time for iftar, Egyptians in Cairo still rejoice at the sound of the iftar cannon fired from the Muqatam plateau near Cairo Citadel.
While non-Muslims may perceive the month of Ramadan as a time of hunger, thirst, and deprivation, to Muslims this holy month is filled with many joyful customs and rituals as well as a time for spiritual expansion and strengthening of values and community.