Ramadan’s particular charm in medieval Tripoli

Sunday 26/06/2016
A parade by a Turkish group a day before Ramadan kicked off in Tripoli, north Lebanon.

Tripoli, Lebanon - “You sleepers rise to the Glory of God… You fasting, Rama­dan is visiting… Wake up Abou Mo­hamad… Wake up Abou Ahmad,” shouts Radwan Othman with his remarkable strong voice as he beats his drums in the alleys of Tripoli’s old city.
Every night, Othman roams the streets and ancient alleyways to awaken people in time for suhur, the meal eaten before the sun rises when Muslims begin their daily fast during Ramadan.
The Musaharati, a tradition­al figure who is also referred to as “dawn awakener”, is a common sight in the Arab world during Ramadan, especially in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli.
“The profession of Musaharati has its own rules, customs and tra­ditions. The Musaha­rati should be a devoted Muslim. We have inher­ited this vocation from our fathers and forefathers who were apprenticed at the hands of leading Sufi clerics,” Othman said.
The function was part of the social life in the Islamic eras, particularly during Mamluk and Ottoman times. The Musahara­tis were officially appointed to do the job under Ottoman rule. “Even today, many Musaharatis still possess Ottoman decrees bestowed on their ancestors al­lowing them to carry out the job,” Othman pointed out.
“We still practice the tradition of the ‘farewell’, which is more than three centuries old. It is when the ‘farewell teams’ of Mu­saharatis go around the city on the last days of Ramadan, knocking on doors and singing religious chants to collect money for the work they have done throughout the month.”
In Tripoli, a mainly Sunni Mus­lim city, Ramadan spirit is the most prominent. Ramadan traditions dating to the Mamluk and Otto­man times are quite vivid, includ­ing religious chants and festivities that every year kick off a day be­fore Ramadan starts with a parade of Turkish drummers, singers and whirling dervishes roaming the streets.
The city comes alive with Rama­dan rituals in which groups from Turkey participate, demonstrating the historical links between Trip­oli and the Ottoman empire, said historian Khaled Tadmori. Among the rituals is “al-Athar al-Sharif” in which a relic from the Prophet Mohammad, namely a hair from his barb, kept in the city’s old Mansouri mosque is on display.
“The relic was offered by Ot­toman Sultan Abdel Hamid II to Tripoli in recognition for the city’s allegiance. It is preciously kept in a locked room in Mansouri Mosque and displayed publicly once a year — in the last week of Ramadan — in a ceremony attended by the mufti (highest Sunni religious authority) and senior clerics,” Tadmori said.
Competitions in recitals of Quranic verses are another Rama­dan tradition in vogue in Tripoli. Contestants prepare with the help of clerics for the contest at the end of Ramadan in a ceremony featur­ing Sufi singing.
Fasting being at the core of Ram­adan, special dishes and desserts are cooked for iftar, sunset fast-breaking meal, and exchanged between neighbours and fami­lies in what is known as al- Sakba.
“I have been living for decades in the old part of Tripoli where Rama­dan traditions have not changed a bit,” said Khadija Rifai, 65. “While men are busy cleaning the mosques and decorating the streets, women pre­pare typical dishes which we give away or exchange with neigh­bours and friends. That way we would please God Almighty and at the same time reinforce affa­bility and friendliness be­tween people,
“I have inherited this ritual from my mother and I passed it on to my children. We all share our food now.”
The city’s souks are exception­ally busy at this time of the year with food and agricultural prod­ucts overflowing on carts and stalls. “Prices here are cheaper than up­town supermarkets and you can find anything you need,” said Mo­hamad Aloush. “One can even bar­gain the price shortly before sunset because vendors are keen to sell what remains of their merchandise and want to go home for iftar. This is very convenient for us poor peo­ple.”
One particular drink — carob syr­up — is a must on the iftar menu. The drink, made of a long, dark, ed­ible pod that contains sweet-tasting pulp, is most popular and largely available during Ramadan because its nutritive and hydration qualities are appreciated by those who are fasting.
“I only drink carob in Ramadan. It is a habit I acquired since I was a child in my parents’ house. Today, my wife serves it for iftar and my children too. It helps you overcome thirst during the day,” said Khaled Abed.
The Hakawati, such as the Musa­harati, is another seasonal Rama­dan job that was revived in Tripoli five years ago. A storyteller clad in traditional attire goes around cafés in the evening, recounting epics and deeds from Arab and Islamic history.
“Our aim is to keep this heritage alive,” said storyteller Barrak Sabih. “We are becoming quite popular. People like our stories. In the past, the Hakawati was the alternative to present day television. In addition to informing people about past ep­ics, our stories carry a dictum about loving, charity and honesty.”