Ramadan in Damascus in 2010

A revival of Damascene jobs in Ramadan

Apart from festive meals, philanthropic spirit and religiousness, Ramadan in Syria marks the return of outdated professions which would have long been extinct in Arab culture were it not for the holy month.

Abu Reda, a 51-year-old employee at the state-run Syrian Waterworks Company, is getting ready for a temporary new night job, which lasts only for 30 days a year. Contrary to other “part-time” professions, he does not need the approval of his employers nor will he get paid a fixed salary for his services. All this job requires is a small drum, a loud voice, approval of the neighborhood Mukhtar and written authorization from the local police station. Abu Reda’s job will be to roam the streets around his home shortly before dusk during the month of Ramadan, waking people up for sohour (meal before a long day of summer fasting).

Long before alarm clocks invaded Syrian society, the job of a musharati used to be a respected “profession” in Syrian society, dating back to the Ottoman era. The profession completely disappeared in the 1990s, re-emerging in Beirut and then in Damascus. It has now become one of the hallmarks of the Syrian capital during Ramadan. But it was and still remains a man’s job. In a comic role in the early 1970s, Syrian starlet Sabah Jazairi played a musharati but women musharatis were never welcome.

Abu Reda told Weekend Review: “In the past, we had one musharati per district in Damascus. But as the city has expanded, we sometimes have one musharati per street. They often become noisy, banging on their drums at 4 am, chanting in voices that are not nice, to say the least.” A strong voice, not a nice one, was a prerequisite for the job, he added. In many cases, the profession is passed on from father to son.

An attire to go with the job

In the past, the musharati was known for his traditional costume, long moustache, white cloak, and baggy pants (shirwal). In today’s world, most of them go to work wearing jeans and sneakers.

Towards the end of the month of Ramadan, musharatis pass by residents of their respective zones and are given “rewards” for their volunteer work. It is not uncommon nowadays for more than one musharati to simultaneously knock on a given apartment’s door, if rumor has it that the resident is “generous.”

Another traditional profession that makes a return during Ramadan is that of the cannon man, who fires a shot indicating that the sun has set and it is time for iftar. This job, also dating back to the Ottoman era, was carried out on a voluntary basis well into the 1970s. It is now handled by an official from the Ministry of Religious Affairs in coordination with a particular municipality office.

However, the practice remains purely ceremonial, since modern TV tells faster exactly when the evening athan is announced, signalling them to end their fast. Despite modernity, residents of Damascus still wait to hear the cannon go off at sunset to start their meal. Old habits never die and the cannon’s sound is more reliable than what the TV presenter has to say.

The list of professions that emerge during Ramadan is a long one indeed and most of them are carried out voluntarily, with no official mandate. Na’em sellers, young men who sell a special Ramadan bread garnished with threads of molasses, make a return in Syrian cities.

Another profession is that of the hakawati, or storyteller. Although present throughout the year, the tradition of the hakawati thrives in the Nofara Café behind the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus during Ramadan.

Abu Shadi, the last storyteller of Damascus, told Weekend Review: “I took this job from my father back in the early 1970s. I am now an icon of Damascus. Around the world people know me and come to Nofara to hear my stories of Arab chivalry.”

The hakawati is usually paid by owners of the coffee shop in which he works. It was a popular entertainment in Syria up to the 1920s, when French colonizers introduced the radio. Their popularity began to gradually drop until the art form was taken over by TV in 1960. Most cafés have now switched to LCD screens for entertainment, running popular dramas such as the Syrian Bab Al Hara. But Nofara has retained the traditional form of entertainment.

The hakawati at Nofara comes to work approximately an hour after iftar and begins to read from an old tome. It is the love story of Abla and Antara Ibn Shaddad, a celebrated 6th-century, pre-Islamic era warrior and poet.

We asked Abu Shadi if people were still interested in such fairytales.

“You bet they are. And those who begin to doze off are brought back into the tale when I address them directly while reading, or strike at the copper table in front of me, either with my cane or with a sword I sometimes carry as a prop!”

In recent years, Nofara has brought in double entertainment, blending old and new by retaining Abu Shadi and adding an LCD screen to run popular Syrian and Egyptian dramas after he finishes recounting his Arabian fairytales. “This café is over 200 years old. I used to come here as a child with my father and listen to him with awe. Storytelling is an art no less challenging than singing or acting,” Abu Shadi said. “In the past, the café used to get divided in two, with one group of listeners supporting Antara and another opposing him. At times, a fight would break out between the two camps and they would destroy the café’s property. Listening to stories was the only form of entertainment for Damascenes. What I am doing is keeping the profession of my fathers and forefathers alive. During Ramadan it becomes all the more nostalgic and folkloric and that is why people come to the Old City to hear my stories.”

Gulf News, 27 August 2010