Public wakers roam the streets during Ramadan to get people up for a meal before the start of the daytime fast. Even in an age of alarm clocks and apps, the practice continues, as Naomi Conrad reports from Cairo.
The home of Mohammed Issam Mahmud Mohammed, a cheery man in his mid-forties, is a short, bumpy rickshaw ride from the bazaar stretching out from Helwan, the last stop on Cairo's metro line.
In his tiny living room, Mohammed, dressed in a long white tunic, proudly presents a cracked, gold-framed picture of his father. Neighbors, and several of his children, gather around: The earnest-looking man solemnly gazing from the picture used to take his eldest son when he roamed the streets on his donkey during Ramadan, reciting prayers, banging his drum and calling on the faithful to wake up for Suhur, the last meal before the sun rises, and the daytime fast begins.
'Ramadan without a mesaharati is bland'
When his father died 15 years ago, Mohammed took over the ancient tradition of the mesaharati, the public waker. It's a profession that's existed for centuries in Egypt as well as Morocco, Iraq and Syria and is still widespread in the countryside.
It's a job that had been on the decline in Egypt's bigger cities as many people rely on mobile phones to wake up and others stay awake all night with family and friends to while away the cooler summer nights. But the tradition is slowly making a comeback - aided in part by the country's recent political turmoil, said Khalid Abulial, head of Cairo University's Center for Folklore Studies.
"During times of conflict, people always go back to their origins," he told DW, adding that it gives them a feeling of safety and belonging.
For Mohammed, however, there is also another, more spiritual, factor in the resurgence in public wakers. "Ramadan without a mesaharati is bland, it lacks the true spirit."
Mohammed said he's never missed a single night. Even when he feels sick, he rides his donkey through the streets. "So many people depend on me to call their names. I feel responsible for them."
Making the rounds and waking people for a final nighttime meal is also a source of income for Mohammed, who said he barely finished primary school and works as a day laborer to feed his family of seven children. On a good night during Ramadan, he said he makes what amounts to between three and four euros ($3.30-$4.40) in donations from neighbors. His granddaughter, 4-year-old, inquisitive Rahma, dressed in a grubby yellow dress, sidles up, reaching for Mohammed's copper drum.
'Some women like it when I call their names'
Would she like to be a mesaharati one day? She nods and smiles broadly. Her grandfather leans across and shakes his head vehemently. He hopes his eldest son will follow in his footsteps; but he wouldn't allow Rahma to take on such work: "because of the culture here, people might harass her."
Egypt is still a conservative society - even when it comes to waking up the neighborhood. Mohammed said he doesn't call women's names, only those of their children and husbands. To address the women would run contrary to local culture, he repeated.
Although, he conceded - after some probing - that some married women do ask him to call their names. "Some women love it when I call out their names." But, he added, he always asks for their husbands' consent.
A glance at the gaudy, plastic watch hanging lopsidedly by the door tells Mohammed it's almost midnight and time for him to leave on his trip. It will take him between three and four hours to make his rounds.
A throng of children has gathered downstairs around his small grey donkey, laughing and pushing. They trot off down a dimly lit dirt road festooned with plastic garlands strung between the concrete houses. Mohammed calls out names and rhythmically bangs the drum as his donkey picks its way past the potholes, a dozen boys and girls straggling behind - like a Pied Piper from an Arabian fairy tale.
"It wouldn't feel like Ramadan without him," an old man said, adding that he was already awake but waiting for Mohammed to ride past before coming out. "We just love having him come around."