Mesaharati: An ancient career fights extinction in digital age
A mesaharati is a person who wakes others up before dawn in order to eat before their fast during Ramadan. The job has been around for generations, and despite the technological revolution, it is an honoured tradition that continues to this day. The Al-Jabarti family, for instance — from which the great historian Abdul Rahman Al-Jabarti is descended — is famous for having members perform the task. Its origins, though, are disputed. Historian Abdelmajid Abdul Aziz said mesaharati first appeared in Egypt during the Fatimid dynasty, arguably the most decorated period for Ramadan celebrations.
According to 15th century Egyptian historian Mohammed bin Iyas, the profession began in the days of the Caliph Bi’amr Allah, who commanded citizens to sleep immediately after the Taraweeh prayer. He would then send out his soldiers in the early hours, knocking on doors and shouting before dawn prayers began, to wake people for suhoor. Abdul Aziz said that the Egyptian Governor Ibn Ishaq was the first to individually perform the task professionally in 832 AH (1432 CE). He would walk from the city of Fustat to the mosque at Amr ibn AlAas, and call out “O worshippers of Allah, eat. Suhoor is a blessing.”
That tradition has continued until modern times, lasting almost 600 years. But now, it is facing extinction as fewer people are drawn to take up the role, and technology supplants it. ‘Am Magdy, a 59-year-old mesaharati, told Arab News that his work begins from the last day of the month of Shaaban all the way until after Eid Al-Fitr. He has performed the task annually for more than 40 years, having inherited the role from his father, and knows the names of all his neighbours so as to call each one personally before dawn.
Magdy said that he thought of leaving the profession, though, because of the spread of television and the extension of programs into the early hours of the morning, but his neighbours and children asked him to continue. Sometimes he is accompanied by a group of children as he roams the streets, echoing phrases that have been recalled over centuries such as: “Wake up sleeping person, there is only one God, it is time for suhoor fasting people.”
He also rhythmically bangs a drum called a “baza,” which according to him is loud enough to wake up a whole neighbourhood. After Eid Al-Fitr prayers, he then passes through the areas he walks one last time to collect money for his efforts throughout Ramadan. But he is unsure whether his sons will inherit the task as he did.
“My children are not interested in the profession. I used to take them with me when they were young, and they would be so happy to see their friends responding to our calls. But over time they lost this joy and became preoccupied with their work, and some even advised me to stop practicing it myself,” he said.