The Abboud neighborhood in Acre's Old City was completely silent a little before 2 A.M. last Monday. The only sounds to be clearly heard were the sea waves that crashed again and again against the city's western wall. Dressed head-to-toe in traditional Syrian clothing – known in Arabic as "Shami" – and carrying a small drum and stick, Michel Ayoub stands at the entrance to the neighborhood.
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When the clock dials reached 2 A.M., he takes a deep breath, drummed strongly three times and began singing in Arabic: "You who are asleep, wake up, declare your loyalty to God and get up to eat the dawn meal." At the end of the call he added another three drum beats.
Drumming and singing, singing and drumming, Ayoub slowly walked across the alleys of the Abboud neighborhood, carrying out the part of a "masharati" – the person responsible for waking up Muslim believers before dawn during the month of Ramadan so that they eat their pre-fast meal in time. This is a thousand-year-long tradition, and Ayoub has been carrying it out voluntarily for over a decade.
"I wait for Michel every year, it's part of the tradition," says Mohammed Omar, who heard Ayoub's voice from afar and came out to the door with his mother and months-old baby. "There are people who are anyway asleep and don’t care. And he decides, without any obligation, to do something nice like this, and that's why everyone respects him."
With no any legal obligation, surely, but also with no religious affinity. Ayoub is actually a member of a Christian family who lives in Makr, a mixed Muslim-Christian town east of Acre. A 40-year-old single man who makes his living in construction, Ayoub says he took up the role out of love and with no emotional or sectarian barrier.
"On the contrary," he says. "I see it as a step that brings people together and symbolizes fellowship and living together in a community. We are of the same people and ultimately pray to the same God."
He doesn’t make any exceptions for himself, either. Every night, he puts on the full costume that comes with the job – long black pants, heel-less black shoes, and a white shirt topped with a shiny red vest. On his head he dons a white keffiyeh, as well as the black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh on his shoulders. His hands are always holding the drum and the stick. His outfit is specially sewn by a Druze woman from the village of Yarka. "That also symbolizes a kind of fellowship," he says.
He says that he has never encountered a negative reaction because of his religion. "Everyone is respectful and encouraging. I pass through a few towns in the area, not only Acre. I pass through my town, Makr village, the adjoining village of Jadeida and also Abu Snan. Sometimes I receive invitations to tour other villages, because people like it and like the tradition."
In recent years Ayoub also received exposure abroad. A few Arab channels have reported of the Christian masharati in the Galilee. "Maybe it receives more meaning and importance because of the catastrophe and the wars that are taking place in our region now," he says. "They should see that there's no need to butcher one another. It's possible to live together."
According to tradition, the first muezzin in Islam was Bilal bin Rabah, who lived between the sixth and seventh centuries C.E, and who used to wake up believers with his clear voice. Since then, the role of the masharati passed down from generation to generation, until it became formalized at the beginning of the ninth century, and a person was appointed to carry out this role in every neighborhood and quarter during the month of Ramadan.
Upon taking up the role, Ayoub used the known and traditional tunes from the Palestinian and Syrian cultures, but also composed some of it himself – to great success, as was seen last Monday. His singing brought people out to the balconies, some of them waved toward him, others came out to shake his hand, and quite a few hurried to get out their mobile phones to film the event – and to take a selfie with the star of the moment.
"In today's age, when you have a smartphone and an alarm clock, you don’t need to have someone like Michel to wake you up," says Suleiman Askeri, a resident of Acre's Old City and a social activist. "But look how nice it is to wake up with such a voice and with Old Acre's atmosphere – with the alleys, the stones and the ancient walls. It looks and sounds amazing. You can hear the voice's echo from afar."
"The figure of the masharati is a bit similar to the figure of Santa Claus at Christmas – the night-time show, the prayers and the special singing. This presence does its own thing to the holiday atmosphere," he says.
Ayoub stops near some of the houses whose owners he knows, calling residents by name. "Abu Marwan, wake up!" he calls into one of the neighborhood's homes. "Yalla, yalla," a strong and clear voice sounds from inside the house, "God, bless the Prophet Mohammed."
After getting through all of Abboud's alleyways, Ayoub moves on to the nearby Sheikh Abdallah neighborhood. There, at the entrance to one of the houses, stands Hajjah Umm-Bilal, her head adorned with a traditional covering, and a few of her family members beside her. "I'm waiting for you for an hour already, Michel, every Ramadan I have to see you and hear you," says the woman, in her 60s. "Join the meal," she urges. But Ayoub politely declines – he needs to get to another few alleyways, and the fast will soon start.
Ayoub finishes his tour inside the Old City, at the home of Ahmed Askeri, Suleiman's brother. The breakfast table is already set. Tahrir Akkar, the mother-in-law, asks Ayoub to come to the city again, if possible on a Friday. "We want the children to see you and maybe to walk with you," she tells him. "It's important, it gives a feeling and an atmosphere, they should learn about what there once was, that not everything goes by a clock and a phone." Ayoub agrees, "God willing, I will come on Friday and also next week," he says.
On the way back to his car, a few children gather around him. The youngest one turns to his friend, asking, "Isn't he a Christian?" His friend scolds him. "Shame on you, it's Michel, what does it matter what religion he is?"