Initially, it may be alarming to suddenly be woken up to the sound of a loud dhol (drum) beating in the dead of night, accompanied by a man’s chants exhorting people to wake up. But as Ramazan proceeds, one gets quite dependent and a tad amused at this traditional, real-life alarm clock for the pre-fasting meal, still practised in many big and small cities.
Sixty-year-old Abid Hussain is a dholwallah (drum beater) from Peshawar who has been waking people up for sehri for over 30 years. Hussain stays up all night, glancing at his mobile phone from time to time in his house in Gharibabad. At 2 am, with sleep-deprived red eyes, Hussain gets out of bed and wakes his wife up so she can prepare sehri for them.
Having had his own meal and wearing a sling around his shoulders that will place the drum in front of his body, Hussain picks up his drumsticks and walks to the end of his street around 2.30 am, every day in Ramazan. From here he will start beating the drum and chant his wake up call for people for the following hour, as he walks through the streets of his assigned area.
About a decade ago, more than 70 dholwallahs from Insaaf Mohalla, Gharibabad, would go to University Town, Saddar, and even farther up to Ring Road and Hayatabad, to wake people up. Now, their number has declined to 25.
“Some people believe that drum-beating in Ramazan has un-Islamic origins,” Hussain says. “After extremist and terrorist attacks on artists of the region, we feel safer in the central city areas and we try to move in groups. Before Ramazan, we discuss among ourselves as to who will go where and two dholwallahs are assigned to specific streets and areas for the entire month.”
Over the last two decades, technology, changing lifestyles and misinformed extremist attitudes have posed a challenge to an endearing centuries-old tradition
Hussain recalls an incident in the Yakatoot area in Peshawar some time ago, when a cleric insulted him and bashed up his drum. “I could do nothing, so I just came back home,” he says. “After that incident, we try to get the permission of the elders of the street to work there in Ramazan. However, no untoward incident has happened in the past few years, except some verbal attacks and name-calling with some people using derogatory terms for us.”
Hussain remembers how once, he had woken up people for sehri in Mominabad for all of Ramazan, but when he went to collect money at Eid, they told him that someone else had taken away the money already by falsely claiming that he had been beating the drum at sehri. “That is why it is important to show your face to the elders of the residential area when Ramazan starts, so that they know who wakes them up and who has to be paid,” he says.
Other than the off-and-on hostile attitude, technology and lifestyle changes probably pose bigger challenges to the dholwallahs. “With people being on social media all night, they either don’t need to wake up for sehri or they set an alarm on their mobile phones to wake up,” Hussain says. “But some love this tradition and organise the residents of their street to pool money and arrange for a drum-beater to wake them up at sehri.”
Mian Irfanullah, a university student relies on his mobile phone to wake up for the pre-dawn meal, but he still likes the tradition of drum-beating to wake people up. “It is a reminder of how our forefathers would get up for sehri,” he says. On the other hand, 23-year-old Uzair Khan is annoyed with his elders for allowing the dholwallah to come to their street. “The dhol creates unneccessary noise,” says Uzair. “It is an un-Islamic tradition adopted by our forefathers unknowingly.” He is relieved that the tradition is disappearing.
Hussain, however, believes that waking people for sehri is not only a source of livelihood, it is a deed that the Almighty may reward him for in the after-life. It is his ancestral work and he learnt to play the dhol from his father. According to him, his forefathers have woken up the people of Peshawar since even before Partition. When there was no drum available, they would beat ghee canisters with a stick or play the tambourine and sing naats.
But Hussain does not want his sons to take on his traditional livelihood that pays too little. “We are daily wagers and I hardly earn 25,000 rupees a month,” says Hussain. “Although beating the drum outside Eid congregations pays little, sometimes people give anything from 50 rupees to 2,000 rupees, of their own will. With no weddings and festivities during the corona pandemic and with the lockdowns, we earn even less.”
“We usually take our children with us to weddings and festivities, and they learn to play while they are still young,” says Hussain. “Learning to play the dhol is not difficult and, if a person is really interested, he can learn the basics in two months. But to get expertise, you have to practise.”
But Hussain does not want his sons to take on his traditional livelihood that pays too little. “We are daily wagers and I hardly earn 25,000 rupees a month,” says Hussain. “Although beating the drum outside Eid congregations pays little, sometimes people give anything from 50 rupees to 2,000 rupees, of their own will. With no weddings and festivities during the corona pandemic and with the lockdowns, we earn even less. People don’t see us adding value to their lives anymore. I cannot acquire new skills to earn my livelihood at this age, nor can I do heavy labour, otherwise I would have been doing something else too.”
With Hussain’s encouragement and support, Hussain’s sons who learnt to play the drum from him, have branched out as so-called disc jockeys, and play music at weddings and other festivities. “Since we could not benefit from the PM’s Ehsaas programme or any other compensation during the pandemic, some of us have put funds together for our sons to drive a taxi or open a small grocery shop.”
This is tragic. “Tradition and culture give people identity and adds richness to their lives,” says Saeed Ahmad Sahil, a Pashto writer, poet and researcher. “This centuries-old tradition has its origins in Central Asia. After the Afghan and Pashtun regions, it reached interior Sindh and Kashmir. A few months ago, a video from Afghanistan went viral on social media in which allegedly the Taliban burnt not only musical instruments but shaved the heads of the artists too. Religious extremism is unhealthy and discourages those who earn their livelihood through art and talent.”
As Hussain reaches the last door of his assigned streets, he can see lights on in people’s houses, hear the sounds of the radio or TV from inside, and smell the parathas being fried in their kitchens.
He may feel sad about the youngsters who don’t realise the value of tradition and culture. He may recall wistfully that, at one time, he would wake up more than 1,500 houses for sehri in Chaka Gali, Hashtnagri. But for now, the satisfaction he gets from accomplishing his job in these streets is enough.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar. He tweets at @Wasim_Chashmato
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 9th, 2021