At midnight on each day of Ramadan, Dalal Abdel Qader is roaming the streets of her neighborhood, banging a drum hanging around her neck, singing a rhyme, waking people up for Sohour. A mother of four, Dalal makes a living ironing clothes in a shop owned by one of her neighbors, but she has taken up this role during Ramadan since the death of her brother who had been a mesahharaty or Sohour caller for 21 years.
Dalal, known locally as Um Atef, is adamant that women can get things done as well as men. “It has nothing to do with being a man or a woman. It has to do with my manners and respect. If you respect yourself, you will force people to respect you,” she says. “Go and ask anyone in our neighborhood about Um Atef. They will tell you that the way she deals with people is like that of a man, so there is no need to get a male go-between to get things done, as they often do.”
As a rare woman mesahharaty — or mesahharateyya — Dalal did not meet with local disapproval in her neighborhood of Arab al-Maadi, a low-income district in the upmarket Cairo area of Maadi, until she attracted media attention. “I don’t like to say no and upset anyone, so when I get calls about a photo session or video shooting, I accept and welcome them out of good intentions. I don’t want to upset them.”
Dalal also wants to capitalize on media attention to help keep the traditional identity of the mesahharaty alive, a practice once prevalent and now becoming less common.
But ever since Dalal started appearing in photos and videos on the internet and television, some of her neighbors have begun to imply that she is in it just for show and fame. “I started to be known as the mesahharateyya that goes on TV, not Al-Hagg Ahmed’s sister. I wanted to be known as Dalal, Al-Hagg Ahmed’s sister the mesahharateyya.”
When Dalal took up working as a mesahharateyya, people in the neighborhood were very welcoming and encouraged her. They knew she and her sister had a great responsibility to carry after the departure of her brother, so, she recounts, they would tell her sweet prayers to keep her chin up and carry out the good deeds she’s doing for her family.
A mesahharaty receives small donations for their efforts. The extra money Dalal makes is much needed, as she and her sister have supported her brother’s four sons since his death, as their mother has infantile paralysis. One son lives abroad. Two are married, but they turn to their aunts when they are in financial need. The youngest son, Omar, is a high school student, and, apart from his work in the evenings driving a tuktuk, he is financially dependent on them.
“My father used to wake people up for Sohour in Old Cairo until he died,” Dala says. Her brother worked as a vocalist at religious events and weddings as a side job, next to his original day job as an employee in the municipality. “He made LE280 at the municipality, so he thought of using his beautiful voice to gain extra money to be able to support his family,” she continues. But later he started to age, and with emerging technology his role was given away to DJs “When that happened, people suggested he become a mesahharaty, like his father, as he had a good voice,” Dalal says.
And so it was that he worked as a mesahharaty for over 20 years. As a young girl, Dalal would accompany her brother every night, as he went to call on their neighbors, by name, door to door, so they would wake up and eat something before the call to prayer.
Her brother bought her a new dress every Ramadan, and she would follow him around with a fanous (a Ramadan lantern). “Once the kids of the neighborhood saw my brother’s face, they’d start jumping up and down, dancing and singing, and I would clap in joy, jump, dance and sing along. This Ramadan vibe was embedded with my spirituality — I loved it so much.”
But in 2011, one month before Ramadan, her brother passed away. “It was such a bad year on us all. It was the first Ramadan we spent without his presence at the Iftar dining table. One day, the 12th day of Ramadan, I was gazing at my brother’s lonely drum, thinking about how no one will again wake up for Sohour through his beautiful voice.”
She calmed down, reflected, and, after thinking deeply, grabbed the drum and took to the street. “I kept on banging on the drum without even being aware of what I was saying. So, whoever hears the drum would ask where my brother was, and I would tell them of his passing.”
They would offer their condolences and ask if it would be her waking them for Sohour instead of him. “I would tell them yes, if it’s God’s will.”
Dalal made a vow to herself that she would wake up her neighbors for Sohour every Ramadan for as long as she was healthy enough to do so.
“I made this vow for two reasons. First to keep the memory of my brother alive and to remind people to keep praying for him.”
The second reason Dalal gave for her vow is to preserve the meaning of the mesahharaty in Egyptian culture and prevent its disappearance.
The tradition in Egypt of beating a drum to wake people up for Sohour is said to have been begun by Anbassa Ibn Ishaq — who later became Egypt’s governor — in 228 AH (843 AD), when he walked from Askar city in Fustat to Amr Ibn al-Aas Mosque banging a drum to wake people up.
Dalal feels strongly that it is an important tradition. “The mesahharaty isn’t just someone who calls people’s names and that’s it. They must know how to be liked, how to make people happy and at peace with themselves,” she says.
Dalal does not like to miss anyone, though sometimes it is inevitable. “And, if one day I find that there’s only 15 minutes left to dawn, I skip the street I just entered or am about to enter and head to the mosque to pray. The following night, I start with the street I skipped so the people living there don’t get upset.”
“I start heading to the street by 11.30 pm so I can reach the start point of my route by midnight. I say a little prayer and hang my brother’s drum around my neck and walk. The drum is very heavy, and adding to that the two hours of walking while I chant, shout out and sing, it makes me tired and lose my voice for a while … but I do all that out of love and great passion. All these tired symptoms vanish when I see people happy.”
Photos by Mohamed El-Raai