As Ramadan ends, one woman loudly leaves her mark

In Cairo, a female voice joined the chorus of men who wake up neighborhoods to eat and pray before fasting.

When Ramadan ends here Monday, Nadia Ibrahim Desouki Emam will fold up her temporary home, a multicolored tent in the old Islamic neighborhood of Sayyida Zeinab where she spent the past month upholding a vanishing tradition.

Over the past 30 days, Ms. Emam has walked through these streets every night from midnight until 4 a.m. banging on a heavy drum and calling on people to get out of bed in time to eat and pray before daily fasting starts.

"Wake up, all you sleepers, and acknowledge He who is immortal," she chanted in Arabic, just like the others who have have come before her in Cairo and throughout the Arab world.

But the irony found in Emam's nightly ritual is that she's helping maintain an ancient custom – replaced by alarm clocks and mosque loudspeakers in some neighborhoods – that has long been the province of men.

Emam is a mesaharatia (wake-up woman) in a mesaharaty (wake-up man) world.

But while there is no religious problem with women working as mesaharatia, says Soad Saleh, the highest ranking woman at Al Azhar, Cairo's most important center of Sunni learning, her month-long job as the neighborhood's human Ramadan alarm clock has pushed the boundaries of this city's traditional gender roles.

"This is the last thing a woman should be doing," says Ahmed Ali, a taxi driver breaking his fast at an open-air table with his son in the suburb of Giza. "Does she shout loudly like a man? This is my first time hearing this."

Emam said even her friends laughed when she first mentioned seven years ago that she was thinking about taking over the family profession from her father, who worked as the neighborhood wake-up man until his death in 1980. Her brothers and sons weren't interested; she was unemployed and needed the money.

"I thought, why not give it a try?" she says, sitting cross-legged in her tent before her evening rounds last Thursday. Tea boiled on a propane stove, and her possessions hung in plastic bags around her.

Emam says she believes that she is the only female mesaharatia working in Cairo today, and though there are no statistics on the practice, scholars say it is extremely rare for a woman to do the job.

New economic realities

Many other Cairenes were shocked when they heard that a woman was working at a task that requires her to be out all night and is immortalized as exclusively male in popular songs and poems.

"Having a woman alone in the street banging a drum takes away from her piety and position. It could also be dangerous for her," says Sheikh Abdel-Hadi, who leads prayers in the relatively upscale Cairo neighborhood of Dokki.

But times are changing, and no one knows that better than Emam's neighbors in crowded Sayyida Zeinab.

Rising prices and worsening economic conditions are forcing many women to work, even if they would rather stay home. There are a now a handful of women taxi and truck drivers in Cairo, says Amal Mohammed, a mother of two whose apartment balcony overlooks Emam's tent.

"Women need to help support the family. There's no shame in what the mesaharatia is doing," she says.

In 1996, just 18 percent of Egyptian women worked outside the home. By 2004, 31 percent did, according to the United Nations' 2005 Egypt Development Report – and this does not count women in the informal labor force like Emam. Most of the increase is due to women making an effort to escape the cycle of poverty, says Hania Sholkawy, a professor at the Social Research Center of the American University of Cairo.

Her Ramadan palace

After seven years working as a mesaharatia, Emam's stout body is not what it used to be. Yet she sleeps on the ground for Ramadan, cushioned by a few layers of blankets, in an 8-foot-by-8-foot tent she calls her palace and shares with her son-in-law and 18-year-old pregnant daughter.

Emam used to live nearby, but she became homeless when the 1992 earthquake struck Cairo, and her building – along with many others – collapsed. The government relocated her to an apartment on the northern outskirts of the city.

She found work as a maid, then as a filler of propane gas tanks. But she says the fumes from the gas made her ill, and she began to think of taking over her father's role. She could return to her old neighborhood, and gain special blessings for helping people wake for sohour, the predawn meal. Her lineage as the daughter and granddaughter of wake-up men gave her a special claim to the job.

Though it is tiring, Emam says she loves her work, which will come to an end this year with the close of Ramadan. The best part, she says, is the gleeful reaction of the children when they hear her coming around.

The nightly rounds

On the job last Thursday, Emam moved confidently through the streets, her wooden tabla, or drum, under right arm, and a cut-off piece of plastic tubing in her left. Her head was covered in a simple wrap; her neck with a light scarf. Most people gave her only a passing glance, accepting her as part of the Ramadan scene.

Then Emam shouted out the names of the children who live in each building, which she had memorized over the years. "'Isha Omar!" she chanted, calling on a boy named Omar to wake up. A small face peeked over a balcony. "'Isha Abdel-Rahman!" she called. Other kids ran out to greet her.

Every block or so, someone reached out to hand Emam a bit of money – generally the equivalent of 10 cents or less. Most of her earnings come at the end of Ramadan, when she goes door-to-door collecting alms for her month's work. But the donations are barely enough to get by for the rest of the year, and have been decreasing in recent years.

Some of the young men in the street laugh as she passes, and one man followed her, staring. She is undaunted – she is older than them. "It used to be that even a 30-year-old man would bow his head when talking to someone of my age. Now the younger generation, they don't care about such things," she says.

Emam dismisses the notion that there may be anything wrong or dangerous about what she is doing, and hopes her daughter will take over for her one day.

"At first the people here were shocked, but then they got used to me," she says. "They say I bring back some of the old spirit of Ramadan. Seeing me reminds them of my father," she says.

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