Al mashriq - The Levant

One man's quest to carry on an old and vital tradition

Robert Tuttle
Daily Star staff

Courtesy of The Daily Star, Bierut, Jan. 1 , 1999

As the neighborhood's musahharati, Mustafa Abu Ahmad, 55, is fiercely territorial.
Charged with the duty of waking Muslims before sunrise during Ramadan, he has been walking the streets of an area extending from the Union building on Spears Street to Dar al-Fatwa in Aisha Bakkar in the wee hours of Ramadan mornings for 38 years. He pounds on his drum and greets the excited children who wake up just to see him. Mr. Abu Ahmad never ventures into another musahharati's neighborhood and he does not take kindly to other musahharaties strolling into his.
"If you are from this area, you drum this area. If you're from that area, you drum in that area. That's how it has been for many years," he said.
But lately he has been facing competition from a handful of unwanted intruders.
"Yesterday, I ran into, not one, but five or six walking together in my area and pounding on drums at around 2:45 A.M. As soon as I heard them, I approached them and thumped my drum once," he said, explaining that the move was a sort of warning.
"If more than one person walks through the neighborhood waking people up, it becomes an annoyance for the neighbors," he explained.
In the southern suburbs, residents are often woken up three times: first by the neighborhood musahharati, next by a group of Hizbullah musahharatis beating their drums and carrying a donation box and lastly by an Amal car blaring patriotic songs from a loudspeaker.
When Mr. Abu Ahmad started out, he could rely on the zakat, an Islamic tax given out by Dar al-Fatwa the highest Sunni Muslim religious authority, for his livelihood. He no longer receives this income. Now, only donations from people in the neighborhood sustain him, so competition from outsiders naturally cuts into his livelihood.
But that is not why he objects to the intruders.
"It is not a business issue," he explained. Rather, he sees the seasoned musahharatis, such as himself, as those most qualified to carry on an old and important tradition.
When he first became a musahharati in 1960 it took Mr. Abu Ahmad no more than half an hour to wake-up his entire neighborhood of Sanayeh.  "There weren't as many buildings back then," he said. He has been beating his drum ever since. Not even the shell fire of the civil war could stop him.
Over the year, Mr. Abu Ahmad has slowly expanded his turf. He took over the duty of waking-up residents in two neighboring areas, after one of the masahharatis died and another left his area. He now spends nearly two and a half hours, from 1:30 A.M. to 3:45 A.M., walking his lengthy route.
He has more than five drums which he uses to wake the neighbors. Each is custom-made from clay with a leather membrane and "each one is for different kinds of weather conditions," he said, as he tapped gently on the top of his winter drum.
"This is our heritage. Our heritage does not come to life with just any old drum or with blaring music. It comes to life with the drum that belongs to me."

(Ed's note: Ramadan started December 19, 1998)