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During Ramadan In Cairo, It's Eat, Pray, Drum

Jun 26, 2016
Originally published on June 29, 2016 7:10 am
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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

It's the Islamic holy month of Ramadan when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. In Egypt, the atmosphere is festive. Lanterns adorn the outside of homes. Lights line the balconies. Just before dawn, families and friends gather for one last meal before the daily fast begins, and it's customary to have street drummers to wake them up to eat and pray. NPR's Leila Fadel made the rounds with one of those street drummers in Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: This is the sound of Ramadan for many Egyptians, the sound of the mesaharaty, the person who walks through the streets with a drum calling for people to wake up, eat and pray before the daily fast begins again.

FATHI MAHMOUD: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Wahedo, calls out this mesaharaty Fathi Mahmoud. He refers to the oneness of God. "All Muslims wake up. Wake up," he says, "there's no God, but one God. Wash and pray," he sings out.

He walks through the pre-dawn darkness with a drum tucked under his right arm, and in his left hand he holds a stick wrapped in tape that he uses to bang the drum.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

FADEL: The 55 year old walks through the streets of a middle-class neighborhood of Cairo. The singing draws people to their balconies to watch him. And like the pied piper, he draws first one child, then two, then it's a crowd of more than a dozen kids giggling and clapping along. He walks into alleyways, looks up at apartment buildings and yells names.

MAHMOUD: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Habiba, wake up. Wake your daddy up. Children whisper their friends' names into his ear. Call Hamza. Call Malak. Call Taher. And he does. Come down, Taher. Wake up. It's Ramadan, the month of happiness, the month of mercy, the month of worship.

The children follow him through the streets, and people slip tips into his hands. For 25 years, this is what Mahmoud has done in Ramadan. For two hours before dawn, he wakes up Muslims and reminds them to be merciful, to be happy, to love God.

A woman leans out her ground-floor window to listen.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: "When I hear him, I get a beautiful feeling. If he weren't here, it wouldn't be Ramadan," she says, "this is our tradition."

MAHMOUD: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Mahmoud says he does it because it makes the kids happy and because he wants to thank God for his health and for his life. But he does worry that the tradition could die with the next generation.

MAHMOUD: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Young people don't want to work for the small tips he receives, and in the age of alarm clocks - not to mention Internet and satellite dishes - people are losing interest in the mesaharaty.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

FADEL: But for Mahmoud, the mesaharaty growing up was the sound of joy and faith, so he does it every year and will do it every year that he still can.

MAHMOUD: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: "Ask the children about me," he tells me. So I turn my microphone to them.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: "I love him," a boy says. And then he giggles while imitating Mahmoud's singing.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing in foreign language).

FADEL: Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.