The Art of Waking People Up

The History Behind Mesaharaties and Their Distinct Art
An Egyptian dawn awakener ''al-Mesaharati'' walks through streets to wake up Muslims for a meal before sunrise during the fasting month of Ramadan, in Egypt.

“Wake up sleepy heads, wake up and praise Allah, wake up and say Ramadan Kareem (Generous).” These were the usual calls for sohour (eating before dawn breaks) and were atypical Egyptian tradition for the holy month of Ramadan in Egypt. When we were younger, some families would ask the Mesaharati to call their children’s names every night. In certain districts some of the Mesaharaties were women. They would roam the district and chant their call in time to the small drum they played to help awaken the whole district. 

However, according to the Egyptian Archive of Folk Life and Folk Traditions, the origin of the Mesaharati, i.e., a man whose job was to awaken Moslems to eat a meal before fasting the following morning, started out during the time of Prophet Mohamed himself, as Belal Ebn Rabah did with his enchanting voice. 

In Egypt, 238 Hejra, the Walli (Governor) used to go on foot for dawn prayers at Amr Ibn Al-Ass mosque during the call of Mesaharati.  However, it was the Fatimids who turned it into an art form. In 597 Hejra, Ibn Noqta invented the art of “alqowma” to help people get ready for sohour.  This is a folk poetry that has a specific artistic format. From that day on, the Mesaharaties improvised and rhymed a multitude of poems that speak of piety while reminding people to eat and drink. Among their famous verses:

أيها النوام قومـوا للفــلاح

واذكروا الله الذى أجرى الرياح

إن جيش الليل قد ولـى وراح

وتدانى عسكـر الصبـح ولاح

اشربوا عجلى فقد جاء الصباح

You who are sleeping, wake up to do good, and remember Allah who summoned the winds. The army of the night is gone and the army of the morning is in the horizon. Drink quickly for the morning has come.

In Egypt, the Mesaharaties’ poetic stanzas beganwith madih (praising of prophet Mohamed) as follows:

يا قلبى زيد وامدح جمال النبى

طه بن راما الهاشم الزمزمى

Oh my heart praises more the grace of our prophet, Taha, the son of Rama Al-Hashim Al-Zamzamy.

This is followed by a religious story about the miracles and graciousness of all of the prophets. Sometimes the Mesaharati would be asked to entertain people with witty tales and they would give him baksheesh (a tip) for these stories. This would usually be followed by Al-Tahia (greetings) which are verses he would tailor for the occupantsof each house at which he stops: 

محمد أفندى الله يزيدك كرم

وتشاهد الكعبة وباب الحرم

وينصرك ربى على من ظلم

Mohamed Efendi may God make you more generous

May you see the holy shrine and the door of al haram

May God stand by you against all those who did you wrong

However, during the final days of Ramadan, the Mesaharati would chant another form of Inshad (religious song) that they call (Farewell/Finale) as they would bid farewell to the holy month and get ready to receive the joy of the feast.

Al-Mesaharati’s musical instrument was a small drum (Al-Baza). With the invention of radio and television the artistic role of al Mesaharati diminished to the call for eating and the sound of the drum beat. But the fact that he/she still roams the streets of Egypt means that Egyptians are intent to pass on this form of spiritual heritage to succeeding generations.