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In Jordan, drum bangs slowly for a fading Ramadan tradition

During Ramadan, musaharatis walk the streets before dawn, banging drums and singing to the faithful to wake up and eat the morning meal. But their ranks are dwindling.

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    Abu Saad Moghrabi, one of Jordan’s last musaharatis, collects donations ahead of his nightly pre-dawn route.
    Taylor Luck
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Alarm clock, Santa Claus, and street performer all wrapped up in one, the singing musaharati has long captured the imaginations and affection of generations of young Jordanians.

One of the oldest Ramadan traditions in the Arab world, the musaharati walks neighborhood streets each night during the holy month, banging rhythmically on leather-hide drums and singing to wake families for the dawn sohour meal.

Believed to have their roots in Sufi spiritual teachings, the earliest musaharatis date back to the 9th century in Egypt, when the governor, Otbah Ben Issac, walked the Cairo streets to wake residents before dawn.

For generations, children across Jordan and other Arab countries have raced out of their homes at the first beats of the drum, singing and clapping as they follow the musaharati on his pre-dawn route.

While traditionally they would chant “wake up to worship the creator,” modern musaharatis in Jordan have become more creative, singing a collection of folk and Islamic songs and catering to their young admirers as they pass by.

Yet with the rise of mobile-phone alarm clocks and a decline in interest among a new generation to carry on the tradition, the art of the musaharati in Jordan is quickly dying out.

As recently as the 1980s and 1990s, there were an estimated 500 musaharatis in the Jordanian capital, Amman, alone. Members of the musaharati fraternity say the number nationwide now is barely over 100.

“Before we were as much a part of Ramadan as the iftar (evening break-the-fast) meal itself – we were respected and treated like stars,” says Abu Saad Moghrabi, who inherited his role as musaharati in Amman’s Jabal Hussein neighborhood from his father in 1986. “Now we are seen more as a nuisance.”

Another major factor behind the practice’s decline is monetary. Unpaid, the musaharatis rely on the generosity of their neighbors, collecting donations from households in the final days of Ramadan leading up to the Eid holiday, which begins on Friday evening.

Musaharatis in Jordan say that in their heyday, before the rise of mobile phones, they would receive $400 to $500 for their month’s work. Now, with a decline in popularity and rising unemployment across the country, they say they barely receive $75.

Without any financial incentive, musaharatis say they are finding it difficult to find a new generation to take the reins.

“My 14-year-old son tried coming out for two nights, and he said it was too tiring and not worth the effort,” says the 52-year-old Moghrabi.

Musaharatis are looked upon with nostalgia, a symbol of a simpler time.

“I haven’t seen one of you since I was a child,” Hibba Ahmed says, stopping Moghrabi to photograph him with her three-year-old son.

“Will you come to our neighborhood?”

Although the dwindling practice is hanging on in close-knit communities such as lower-income neighborhoods and refugee camps, musaharatis themselves say they will soon become relics of the past.

“Here everyone loves the musaharati, but they just don’t want to be one,” says Abu Bashar, a musaharati in the Wihdat Palestinian refugee camp in southeast Amman, lifting his drum strap over his shoulder ahead of his nightly sojourn.

“The day I put down my drum, I don’t believe anyone will pick it back up.”

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