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Public Waker Alerts Cairo to Pray

January 5, 2000

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Bundled up against the winter chill, Garia Mohammed Bayoumi treads a familiar path through the darkened streets of old Cairo, thumping out a regular rhythm on a small drum and pausing to call sleeping residents by name.

``Wake up, Hassan! Wake up, Ali! Wake up and start your prayers!″

It is 2:30 a.m., and Bayoumi, wrapped in a long gray overcoat and dark woolen scarf, is performing an annual ritual that dates back seven generations in her family. She is a mesaharati, a public waker, who rouses faithful Muslims for prayers and breakfast in the wee hours of the holy month of Ramadan.

During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex from sunrise to sunset as an act of sacrifice and purification. They break the fast with a sunset meal, called iftar, and then wake early to eat a pre-dawn meal, called sohour, before fasting again. Ramadan ends with the first sighting of the crescent moon, likely on Thursday. However, if the moon is not seen, Ramadan ends a day later, on Friday. The three-day Eid al-Fitr feast begins the following day.

Mesaharatis were once a common sight _ and sound _ throughout Cairo, but now many neighborhoods are without a traditional waker. Sometimes young entrepreneurs fill the void, clanging noisemakers through the streets, hoping to be paid for their halfhearted services.

But Bayoumi, 52, is from the old school, trained by her father, whom she accompanied as a child, learning the names of every head of household in the neighborhood. Now, 36 years after she became the mesaharati of the Hosh Qadam section of old Cairo, she is a respected figure.

``A lot of people do not feel like Ramadan has started until they hear her voice,″ said her son, Mohammed, 17. ``I am very proud of my mother.″

It is unusual for a woman to be a mesaharati, but Bayoumi’s father had no sons and she wanted to keep the family tradition alive. The people of the neighborhood supported her, even turning away another mesaharati who tried to take over her area in 1992.

``I feel a responsibility to wake the people,″ she said. ``I like them and they like me.″

Bayoumi, who cleans lion cages at the National Circus during the day, begins her night job with a cup of ginseng tea and a few puffs on a water pipe known as a shisha at a coffee shop near her apartment. The shisha is habit; the tea is to soothe her throat for hours of calling and singing.

And then she’s ready. The regulars at the cafe bid her good luck as she heads back out into the narrow, unpaved streets for her two-hour night journey.

Her loud voice, rising in pitch in the traditional call, rouses most. The persistent drumming wakes others. And on some nights, Bayoumi also carries a wooden walking stick and raps on the doors of those sound sleepers who have requested special attention.

Children run out to hug the woman, distinctive in the light of her father’s rusted oil lantern, and two toddlers dance to the beat of her drum. Passers-by press money into her hand, calling her by name and wishing her a happy holiday. Groups of men in coffee shops squeeze into side streets, calling out their greetings.

``We saw her grandfather and father doing the same job,″ said an elderly man sipping hot, sweet tea. ``Garia is one of the cornerstones of the area.″

``The neighborhood would not be the same without her,″ said Nabil el-Mihy between puffs on a shisha pipe, lamenting that the tradition has been lost in other areas of Cairo.

Bayoumi said that while Cairo has changed over the past decades, there is still a need for her service.

``People used to sleep early. TV has changed their lives and they stay up late into the night,″ she said. ``But a lot of people are still waiting for me to wake them up.″

Most residents tip her, paying extra for special services, such as an extra rap on their door or adding the name of their young son to her repertoire during his first fast.

Some people wait until the end of the month to tip, but others show their appreciation during her moonlit walks. People come to their doors to hand her small bills; residents on higher floors open their windows and lower baskets containing money.

Bayoumi said neither illness nor bad weather can keep her from performing her duties.

``I’m going to keep my career until the last second of my life,″ she said.

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