x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Kashmiri Muslims brave guns to keep tradition alive

Hundreds known as suhor khawans walk though dark streets beating drums and shouting "wakhta-e-suhor" (it is time to wake up for suhor).

Muslims pray in the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar.
Muslims pray in the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar.

SRINAGAR, INDIA // Although a predominantly Muslim region, Kashmir remains a confluence of many cultures, religions and ethnic groups, a place where a rich and rare tapestry of civilisations has been woven over the years. While most traditions of the Ramadan fast and the iftar meal continue, one that has had to adapt in this troubled valley in the lap of the Himalayas is that of the suhor khawani. A couple of hours before Muslims begin their dawn-to-dusk fast, hundreds of men known as suhor khawans walk though dark alleys and streets beating drums and shouting "wakhta-e-suhor" (it is time to wake up for suhor).

Suhor khawans are mainly labourers or impecunious people from rural Kashmir, who move to Srinagar and other major towns to take up the self-appointed job. Previously, a suhor khawan used to loudly recite verses from the Quran, praise for the Prophet Mohammed and other speeches explaining the importance of fasting. He would be in traditional Kashmiri attire and besides beating a drum might blow a sheep horn pipe, the practice called nalla-e-hyder. Since few in a locality owned a watch or alarm clock, the suhor khawans were in great demand during Ramadan.

With security forces present in almost every nook of the valley however, the suhor khawans move from one locality to the other under the shadow of guns to serve the people. For the most part, Indian security forces are aware of the Ramadan tradition and do not trouble the suhor khawans, said Abd al Rashid, 37, who moved to Srinagar from the far off Lolab valley, 110 kilometres northwest of the city. Mr al Rashid performs his suhor khawan obligation in Aabi Guzar, one of the congested neighborhoods of Srinagar.

The Indian military men currently on counterinsurgency assignment in Kashmir are from various parts of India, but since they have been here for some time now they are expected to be conscious of local customs. It is with new recruits that difficulties might occur. "Two days ago, I was directed by a CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] man to stop beating the drum and place myself at a distance from the sandbag bunker he was standing guard behind, near Sheikh Bagh. Then another policeman came to me and after checking my identity card allowed me to go on," Mr al Rashid said.

It is equally important for a suhor khawan to know where security prevents him from entering. Mr al Rashid, who also works as a hammami (men hired during winter to warm up traditional corral in a mosque's bathrooms), and others from his tribe say they do the job not just to earn their livelihood but also to serve Islam and the people. Muhammad Ayub, a resident of the frontier district of Kupwara, who has served in Srinagar's Dal Gate area for many years and is among the hundreds who migrate to Srinagar and other towns during Ramadan to take up the job, said: "I feel proud that I have never been late. More than earning money, I get a feeling of contentment in undertaking the job. This is my way of serving Islam."

Since he became a suhor khawan, the first thing Mr Ayub does on reaching Srinagar before Ramadan is to meet the officers at the area camp of the CRPF. "I know it is important particularly for a person like me who comes from a militancy-infested region to tell them who I am and that I will have to move on the road during the night for the whole month. Each time I go there, they check my credentials and then say I can do that, but they pass on some instructions like I should move with a torch and make a sound of coughing near their pillboxes instead of beating the drum," he said. If Mr Ayub is scared of anything in the predawn hour, it is stray dogs. "When they rush towards me, I hit the drum hard, forcing them to flee," he said with a smile.

The residents do not allow the work of the suhor khawans to go unrewarded. In fact, at a time when the majority of Srinagar's Muslims own alarm clocks and watches, and when even mobile phones have alarms, it is mainly because residents allow the tradition to continue that suhor khawans have work at all. A couple of days before Eid al Fitr, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, each suhor khawan visits each house in the locality he may have served to receive offerings of cash or rice, fresh and dry fruits and vegetables, and pulses. Some women even pledge their precious belongings, including jewellery, for a suhor khawan, in hopes that they will be awarded by Allah for the offering.

"The money is enough to give us bread and butter for two to three months, and for the rest of the year we work as labourers. The earnings during Ramadan enable us to undertake repairs of our hutments (small village mud houses) and support education of our children," Mr Ayub said. foreign.desk@thenational.ae