The technology of the internet age has made its mark on the holy month and yet, within living memory, drums echo to rouse the faithful in time for suhoor, cannon announce the breaking of the fast and storytellers bring myths to life.
Oh wake up you who sleep, and praise Allah!”
Mariam Al Nuaimi remembers a special Ramadan as a child in her traditional neighbourhood of Al Rufa in Sharjah.
Every night, her Emirati neighbour Hajji AbdulAziz would bang away at his drum, chanting the same line to wake Muslims for suhoor.
“Even though we had alarm clocks, there was something special about waking up to the beating of the drum echoing across the neighbourhood,” the Emirati artist recalls.
“All the neighbours would come out to greet him and, in a way, making us all greet each other and reconnect early each morning.”
Hajji would feed on dates and bread with cheese or yoghurt, have his coffee and water, and head out on his rounds before meeting worshippers for prayers.
“We would see his drum right outside next to the pile of shoes and sandals at the mosque,” says Ms Al Nuaimi, 28. “It was a warm and cozy sight.
“We miss it and it is a shame the new generation of Emiratis don’t know about this. I am glad I grew up to his beats as a child.”
The drummer has long since passed – in the late 1990s, at the age of 90 – like others of his kind. These days, neighbourhoods in the UAE and most of the Arab and Muslim world are quiet at suhoor time.
Any drumming that happens here or there, for a day or two, is done out of fun and a performance, rather than a Ramadan tradition.
“With the development of technology and modernisation of life, many of the old Ramadan traditions have disappeared, like the drummer boy,” says Dr Hasan Naboodah, an Emirati historian at UAE University in Al Ain.
The practice originated in Egypt during the Mamluk era (1250-1517) and was prevalent during some parts of the Ottoman reign (1299-1923).
Known as mosaharaty, or Abu Tabla, the drummers used to be chosen for the quality of their voices. They would chant variations of “Oh you who is fasting, wake up for suhoor!” before fajr prayer, waking people for the early meal.
Sometimes they would be paid tips by neighbours, especially if they were little boys, and remained a popular part of Islamic societies until modern alarms took over.
Most mosques in traditional neighbourhoods have two calls for prayers, says Dr Naboodah – “One to wake you up for suhoor, and the other an actual call to prayers”.
But today, with apps to help keep tabs on prayers and fasting, the drummers are obsolete.
Another tradition that still endures is the Ramadan cannon, or midfa al iftar, that announces the breaking of the fast. While mainly now a ceremonial tradition, broadcast on TV and carried out by the police, the cannon is first fired for the start of the holy month, and then each day for the breaking of the fast at maghrib prayers.
Some historians believe the custom dates back as far as 10th century Egypt, when one of the Fatimid caliphs ordered a cannon be placed on Cairo’s Muqatam Hill so all Muslims would hear the signal to break their fasts.
“It was useful when people were out in the desert or mountains, and could hear the echo far off wherever they are, so they know not to miss breaking their fast,” says Dr Naboodah.
Another big change is in how neighbours used to cooperate on iftars, says Dr Naboodah.
“Families would decide on who cooks what” and share their meals, he says. “There was no waste of food, as there is now, as one family would make haris [a wheat dish] for the whole neighbourhood and others would make other dishes.”
Dr Naboodah, who is in his 50s, fondly remembers times at the beach and around a fireplace in the desert, where after iftar, the elders would tell stories of myth or mystery.
“The Bedu were always storytellers and in other parts of the Arab world, the hakawati would be paid to tell stories in coffee shops or special gatherings, especially during Ramadan,” he says.
During Ramadan, the storytellers would compete to see who could attract the largest audience. Yet “with TV and the internet, the hakawati found himself out of a job,” Dr Naboodah says.
Some experts argue that this love for storytelling is one of the bases for the popularity of Ramadan soaps and drama on TV.
“Arabs love to listen to stories and the more mysterious they are, with some old pearls of wisdom carefully disguised in them, the more popular they are,” says Abdulaziz Al Musallam, chairman of the Sharjah Institute for Heritage, who is also known as the UAE’s hakawati.
“There is a revival of this oral tradition, and we see more and more people asking for books of old tales and bedtime type of stories.”
Leila Barclay, a Lebanese-American, is the founder and publisher of al-hakawati.net, launched in 2006, a website dedicated to the tradition of storytelling.
“It was conceived as a way to bring stories of all genres and traditions to all ages throughout the Arabic-speaking world,” Ms Barclay says.
“It is, in a way, a hope of the revival of the hakawati tradition, in that the site has preserved traditional stories that communities can use as they please. We also have a small collection of short audio stories read by their author.
“In some ways the Ramadan soaps is a new hakawati: the viewer waits for the next evening to continue the story.”
One enduring Ramadan tradition is the colourful glass fanous, or lantern, which has become symbolic with Ramadan celebrations across the region and beyond.
The tradition is believed to have come from Egypt. Linked to pharaonic tradition and inspired by the lamps found inside mosques, some sources have also linked the fanous to historic figures.
Egyptians were said to have greeted the fourth Fatimid caliphate in the year 968, Ma’ad Al-Muizz li-Din Allah, who entered Egypt on 15 Ramadan of 358AD, with lamps and torches.
Others attribute the tradition to the sixth Fatimid caliph Al Hakim Bi-Amr Allah, who would check for the Moon marking the beginning of the holy month accompanied by children, who lit his way with lanterns while singing songs. He is also ordered imams to hang lanterns at the minarets of every mosque at iftar.
“Perhaps because each culture can add their own touch to the fanous, it is one of the reasons it spread and stayed on as a Ramadan tradition,” says Dr Naboodah. “Not all traditions need a practical reason to survive.”