Ramadan’s particular charm in medieval Tripoli
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.”