Singing to start the day: a Ramadan tradition

Abu Atwan is on the left

Abdel Kaheq Abu Atwan opens his eyes when his alarm goes off. It’s 3 a.m.; still inky black outside. He shakes his wife gently awake, prodding her to start making suhur—the last meal before the day’s fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins.

He moves slowly, his legs struggling to walk upright as he wakes up. He heads to the wooden hooks on the wall, where his colorful costume hangs. Getting dressed takes very little time compared to the struggle of leaving his warm bed, which calls to him. But he has only 15 to 20 mins to get ready to leave and his inner voice wins the battle every time—there are many people awaiting him!

Abu Atwan’s mother sits on her bed, covered with her red and green blanket while holding the holy Quran near her small, wrinkled eyes so she can see the words. She is waiting for him to appear from his small bedroom to start his duaa, a prayer of supplication. She continues reading until the sound of his steps disappears into the streets.

Abdel Kaheq Abu Atwan is a volunteer musaharati, who walks through the streets singing and beating a drum to awaken Muslims for the dawn (al-Fajer) prayer during the holy month of Ramadan, signaling the time when people eat their suhur—the last meal before the day’s fast begins.

His friend Mohammed, whose house is opposite to him, waits on the corner under the yellowish light of an old building. They have known each other since they were kids and can see in their minds every block in their neighborhood. In contrast to Abu Atwan, Mohammed stays awake all night, saying no sleep is better than a three-hour “nap.” They don't even shake hands; they simply start banging their drums as soon as they see each other's smile.

The streets are always nearly empty at that time. There is no nightlife in Rafah, the southern Gaza city where they live. Even during the holy month of Ramadan, when people stay awake at night since they fast all day, most stay inside their houses. But around 3:30 a.m., lights start twinkling on, helping the moon light the streets.  

The neighborhood journey of the musaharati is one of the oldest and deepest-rooted traditions of Ramadan. He sings, Es ha ya nayem Wahed el dayem. Ramadan Karim es ha ya nayem Wahed el razaq—meaning "Awake, oh faster and praise Allah. Welcome to you Ramadan, month of forgiveness." He walks to nearly every house in the neighborhood, calling out the names of children: Mohammed, Mahmoud, Abeer, Hassan! Typically, since his duty is to wake people up, the musaharati makes so much noise he can be heard for several blocks in all directions.

Abu Atwan, 34, is a barber and father of three children, ages 8, 7 and 4. He and his family live in a small home in Rafah. Also living with him is his brother and his family, consisting of seven members. Abu Atwan is the only source of income for the 13 housemates, including his disabled mother.

"Maybe people have a hard time believing that someone with so many financial responsibilities as me, and thus is often dejected and depressed, would want to do this work to spread joy. But I do," Abu Atwan says. "And I've never asked for pay. I am obsessed with wearing these colorful, embroidered clothes, hitting the drum and calling for people to wake up. I cannot fee more satisfied the moment I finish my journey around the neighborhood; I feel as if I'm a historical character, a conqueror!”

Abu Atwan has been filling this role in his neighborhood since the Ramadan of 2011, when he decided to act on his wish to be like the voices he heard in his childhood, bringing happiness to his home. He loved to wake up to the sound, which lingered in the air as his mother prepared the meal and they all gathered to eat and pray.

This Islamic tradition continues to be significant even though today, alarms and smart phones exist to make it easier to awaken at the time you want. For those already awake, they wait for the musaharati just because they enjoy hearing his traditional songs, drums and jokes. Children memorize his songs and repeat them after him, often hanging from windows and balconies. In the morning, children roam the streets recalling his songs, Hal hilalk, hal gamalk,hal beouda ya shaher kareem (“Ramadan moon appears with its beauty; it comes with the hope of having it next year with health and blessings.")

"I do this every night with my friend, Mohammed. We bought our costumes to help continue this tradition from Arabic history in the minds of young generations," Abu Atwan explains. "I grew up hearing several of them during Ramadan nights. I wanted to children today feel the joy I did."

To show their appreciation, people often give the musaharati some money and/or small gifts for musaharati during the last few days of Ramadan or on the first day of Eid, the celebration that follows

"During the last 10 days of Ramadan, people open their doors to shake hands and give us some gifts. Alhough they are not expensive, they are very valuable to me," Abu Atwan explains. "Sometimes they us incense, perfume and the holy book of Quran."

When asked about the most memorable experience during his years in this role, Abu Atwan laughs loudly, saying he will never forget when some big, black dogs started chasing them. The two men threw down their drums and ran!

The only year Abu Atwan and Mohammed have missed is 2014, when Israel launched its last, brutal war on Gaza during the month of Ramadan—forcing everyone to hide inside.

“The war stole the spirit of Ramadan,” he recalls. “We fasted, but never felt the holiness of Ramadan. Gazans were busy mourning their beloved one!

This year, the fear of the possible arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Gaza has cast a bit of a pall over Ramadan, but it is not stopping these musaharati.

“During this Ramadan, I remind people of the coronavirus in a funny and religious way. Every night I say, Ya muslimin eshu w la tnsu.. tedu Allah yhmina min corona ("Oh Muslims wake up, and do not forget to pray for Allah… ask Him to protect us from corona"). I believe we have to enjoy life until we die. We should never live waiting for our death!"

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Mentor: Pam Bailey

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