'Amm Hussein Al-Hadari:
Making the rounds, if just for a month
A limited existence
In the holy month of Ramadan life begins later, production hours are shorter, the streets, people, and meals louder.
Hussein Mohamed Migadi Al-Hadari's existence runs along similar lines. This is hardly surprising, given that he is a product of Ramadan. He works three hours a night, in the middle of the night, and his job, simply, is to wake people up. By being loud.
That is during Ramadan. For the other eleven months of the year, he does -- by his own admission -- nothing.
"I used to work the whole year," he says. "But now this is all I do."
This is being a misaharati (night-caller to wake fasting Muslims for their last meal -- suhur -- before the fast).
"People ask me to call their names and wake them up in time for the suhur," he says.
"Children stand on their balconies waiting for me to come around," he continues. "And they call out, ' 'Amm Hussein, call our names'."
Sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn't, depending on whether he thinks they are naughty or nice.
Naughty, at times, brings with it a host of negative repercussions.
"One child threw stones once," he recalls. "And another," he begins, then trails off into a whisper.
'Amm Hussein, as he is known in his area, works the alleyways that make up Bulaq Abul- Ela Al-A'laya.
"I started in 1954," he recalls. "I was chosen. When 'Amm Madbouli died the people in the area told me to take over. So sheikh al-harah was called and he enquired about me and my ethics and principles."
He was deemed a sound character and worthy misaharati for the grid of 232 alleyways that make up the area known as Al-A'laya.
"I took over for two years," he says, holding his work tools in his hands. "After that they divided the area in two. I wasn't going to be greedy, so I took over this half," he continues, pointing into nowhere with the strip of leather that is his drum beater.
It was not simply a matter of morals, but also the simple fact that 'Amm Hussein -- not quite an 'amm (elder uncle figure) when he started, 50 years ago, at the age of 27 -- was very well liked.
Nevertheless, when it comes to work ethics, he keeps things firmly in place.
"I never go up to people's houses," he volunteers out-of-the-blue. "And I never look at how much money people give me during the feast. What is handed to me goes directly into my pocket."
Other elements of the profession he inherited directly from other sources. The tools, for a start.
"This is the drum I started with," he says, holding up the steel-base drum that rests comfortably in the palm of a cupped hand. "I have another one," he says, summoning one of his four daughters, Nasrit Al-Islam, to bring over the modernised version. "This one's aluminium. It's not as heavy," he explains. "But the sound isn't as rich. It's a light sound." Both drums, he offers, are covered in donkey skin.
"Taken from the thigh," he emphasises. The skin is thick, and lasts significantly longer than from other parts. He does, however, change it periodically.
"When it pops," he says. "And how long is that? As long as it lasts!"
'Amm Hussein is humorous. "You know," he says, cracking one of many jokes. "Sharon's mother used to sell neftolene (firewater) at the local market."
But either consciously or otherwise he intersperses his laughs with doses of contemplative thought and recollections of past name-calling dawns.
"Ramadan before was very different from now," he says, leaning forward and seemingly looking through his blind eyes. "Before, money was less, people were good, and good was lots. People really loved each other. Now, it's 'hambakuka'," he says, waving his hands in the air to interpret the mish-mash word. "Old people have died, and goodness has died with them. Before, giving was a lot, and love was a lot."
Times have changed.
"Now, you pass by homes and people tell you to go to such-and-such café and find so- and-so for the feast money," he says, explaining that misaharatia make their money through the tips they are given at the end of Ramadan, when all the people whose names were called offer tips. "And before the misaharatia were more, and authentic. The misaharati in Zamalek now wears a suit and tie!"
The concept of principle, duty, belonging, and of course money, have changed.
"I won't go begging for money," he says, shaking his head. "If they give they give. Lucky those who give, and lucky those who wake up to my drum beats."
It would be hard not to wake up to his drum in the narrow alleys that make up Aalaya. Sitting on the balcony of his two-room apartment, the neighbours come out onto their balconies. Those directly opposite are about a metre away.
"I know everyone in the neighbourhood," he announces. "I call out about six or 700 names a night. They're all in here," he continues, pointing to the notebook in his daughter's hand.
Nasrit Al-Islam flips through the notebook.
"Look," she explains. "It is divided street by street, and house by house. Each page is a street. Here are all the names."
One hundred and sixteen pages. Forty-eight years of practice. Almost 700 names committed to memory.
"I don't need the book anymore, really," he says. "I know the older people's names by memory. I don't know the children though. I don't have the head for them."
Not so much the head, but more the health. What he does have, however, is the heart.
'Amm Hussein jokes that he continues in his job out of habit. But then quickly adds that it's also for thawab (God's reward for good-will).
"When I die and go to the grave I don't want God to torture me," he says quite seriously, then laughs. Then cracks a joke.
"I like my job. My children want me to quit but I like it. I laugh with this, I laugh with that. Children call out to me from their windows and I call out their names. The girls follow me!" he trails-off laughing.
The girls are a favoured topic of choice.
'Amm Hussein is blind. He is aided around the alleys by young men that recite behind him.
"Thanawiya Amma students," he says. "The girls want to come too, but no to girls," he continues. "Because of harassment." he laughs. "A girl is like a date. If she's ripe, you find the flies all around. If I take the girls and teach them the flies will get more."
He jokes that he is a poet, then proceeds to explain what his entourage learns.
"What I recite," he says. "It stems from bits and pieces I pick up from TV."
The photographer points out that he started his name-calling long before TV.
"You know what," he says quite sternly. "You are absolutely right! Then I learnt from the radio. There was no dish at the time!"
He laughs, quietens down, takes an opera- size breathe, and recites:
"Wake up fasting ones, meet the month of goodness.
Wake up fasting ones, meet the month of mercy and faith.
Wake up fasting ones, meet the month that is kind to the poor, to the orphans, and to the helpless.
Wake up fasting ones, meet the month of the needy.
Wake up fasting ones, meet the month of praying and fasting.
Wake up fasting ones, meet the month where Prophet Mohamed won over all non-believers.
Wake up all those who worship God, there is only one God.
Wake up all fasting ones, believe that there is no-one but him and he is eternal."
His granddaughter, Alaa', stands shyly in the background. She mouths his chants behind him.
"She used to come running after me at night," he says. "But now she needs to be in bed."
Indeed, the 1am to 3am route would leave her exhausted for school the next day. Of his four daughters, two sons, and 11 grandsons, not one follows in his footsteps on those Ramadan nights. Nor, it appears, in life.
"It's really none of my business if any of them decides to take over or not," he says. "It's what I do and I like it."
"I liked my other job too," he says of his pre- retirement days. "I was a government employee, and I was at work by 8am or 9am each morning, even in Ramadan. They treated me well, and it was all girls, girls, girls. I like girls," he laughs.
His wife, Umm Hassan, stands in the doorway leading to the one-by-two-metre balcony. She laughs too. The couple have been together for 45 years.
"If you follow me at night," he laughs again, "you'll find all the girls running after me."
He sidetracks again.
"You know that they now have a satellite dish in Sa'eed," he shares. "But I'm not from there," he quickly adds. "We're from Al- Zara'aa', in Damietta."
Like many villagers, however, his family have been in the city for generations.
"This house," he says, stamping a foot down on the wooden-floorboards of the three-floor building at No.7 Bulaq Abul-Elaa Al-A'laya. "My father was born here. I was born here. All my uncles were born here. My grandfather was the first one to move into this house. This house is family history."
The house may be, but the job certainly is not. I enquire if the role of misaharati was passed down from his father.
"You keep my father out of this!" he responds. "Whose picture are you taking, mine or my fathers!"
What has become the focus of his life, and his claim to community fame, was born of chance.
"Did I look from my balcony as a boy and watch 'Amm Madbouli and say I wanted to become a misaharati? Not at all. I wanted to be what God wanted me to be."
In his case, it was more than just a misaharati waking Muslims up in time for their pre-dawn, pre-fasting meal.
"By the way," he says, raising his eyebrows. "I wake Christians up too."
His daughter and wife nod their heads eagerly.
"There's Ustaz Ramzi and Ustaz Hanna," he continues, "their names are in my book too. Like the Muslims. They ask to be woken up too."
That closeness is what characterises the alleyways that make up the Al-A'laya area in the heart of Bulaq; the bond and tradition serving as a present-day entrée to fading past times.
On a chilly Ramadan night the main alley is bursting with energy and light and noise. It is one, or maybe two in the morning, and 'Amm Hussein has started his rounds.
"Wake up Mohamed, and Farouk, and Hassan, and Fatemah, and Yassin," he calls, and drums, and chants. "Wake up fasting ones to this month of praying and fasting."
The sound of his drum bounces off the buildings, and the echoes act as a chorus to the names and chants and balcony calls. To the unaccustomed ear and eye, and even nose, it is chaos -- a firecracker of a community gathering. To the locals, the noise and time are far from disturbing. It is loud, it is late, it is teeming with people. At the centre of the crowds, of course, is the master of the show; 'Amm Hussein. He is thriving on the genuine warmth that fills the air. And he is thriving, as well, on what he said he did. And the girls? They are a part of the procession too.