Part of Ramadan's Egyptian rituals is Al-Mesahharati, that midnight stranger that roams the streets of Cairo after midnight with a small drum, calling for people to wake up and eat their pre-dawn meal.
In Prophet Mohammad’s time, Bilal Bin Rabah, a man known for his enchanting voice, assumed this responsibility. In the year 853, the wali (governor) of Egypt used to walk all the way from the city of Askar, now Ibn Toulon, to Amr’s Mosque in Fustat, now Masr al-Qadima, accompanied by an entourage who called out to people to have the sohour. Ghabsa Bin Ishaq is said to have started the practice.
In Fatimid times, a celebrated singer called Ibn Noqta turned the practice into an art form. Around the year 597, he invented what he called qawma (waking up) singing. Generations of folk singers followed in his footsteps. Mesahharatis became a much-respected class of poet-singers who wrote and performed songs of religious character. “O, sleepers get up and succeed, praise God who commands the wind, the army of the night is leaving, and the soldiers of dawn are coming,” goes one of their songs.
The mesahharatis of Egypt traditionally started the night with madih (praise of the prophet), such as: “My heart, speak freely about the allure of the prophet, Taha al-Hashem al-Zamzami.”
Then they would go into a tahia, a stanza improvised specifically for members of the household in front of which the mesahharati is performing. “Mohammad Effendi, may God increase your benevolence, and may you see the Ka’ba and may God make you defeat the unjust ones.”
In late Ramadan, the mesahharatis would sing al-wada’ (parting) or the khattama (closure), which are their odes to the holy month.
Sung usually late at night, the mesahharati songs have an unusual allure. At the end of the month, the mesahharatis would receive their wages in the form of an undetermined amount of cash or in kind; cakes, for example.
The small drum the mesahharatis play, called al-bazah, is a half globe of brass or pottery covered with taught leather.
At present, the mesahharatis don’t sing much. But their rhythmic drumming is more or less the same. On television and radio, special programmes have taken up their role. One popular programme was the radio show called mesahharati, which was written and performed by the poet Fouad Haddad.
In Mamluk times, the mesahharatis were professional singers who wrote their own songs and took more than one musician along in their rounds. Their art was so popular that some of the best singers took to the profession.
No one knows exactly when the musical tradition of the mesahharati took its current form. But researchers say that the four-stroke rhythm of current mesahharati songs goes back at least one century.
Compiled by Haitham Younis