Muslim drummers silenced

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In many Muslim towns and villages around the world, drummers march through the streets to wake up residents for a meal before sunrise. Matthew Brunwasser reports from a neighborhood in Turkey where the drummers are no longer welcome by all.

MARCO WERMAN: Muslims in Lebanon and around the world are preparing for Eid. That's the celebration ending the holy month of Ramadan. During the holiday in Turkey, Ramadan drummers have traditionally marched through streets waking people up before sunrise for Suhoor, the traditional Ramadan meal. But today, Ramadan drummers may be an endangered species as Matthew Brunwasser reports.

MATTHEW BRUNWASSER: Zekeriye Cenitas has been drumming in the Kadikoy neighborhood of Istanbul every Ramadan for the past 18 years. The tradition dates back to the Ottoman Empire, when drummers would march through the dark streets waking up residents so they could begin preparing for Suhoor. That's the pre-dawn meal eaten before sunrise. For the month of Ramadan, Muslims must fast during daylight. Fewer lights come on these days as Cenitas walks by. He says that means fewer people appreciate Ramadan traditions like drummers. People yell at him to stop. They threaten him with guns and they give him fewer tips. Cenitas feels sorry for the Muslim residents who don't observe Ramadan. He says he's saving souls by playing his drum.


ZEKERIYE CENITAS: I hit it hard so they wake up. So that they eat, fill their stomachs and make their prayers to God.

BRUNWASSER: Some neighborhoods have competitions so that only the best drummers can play. Others offer licenses to prevent disputes over territory and so that residents know who to tip at the end of the month. And it gets worse. The Kadikoy neighborhood has actually banned Ramadan drummers completely. Istanbul is a crowded city and silence is a precious commodity, so urban life here can make residents extra sensitive. Alican Kaya is the head of the municipal security guards in Kadikoy. It's one of Istanbul's more secular and liberal neighborhoods. He says the guards are instructed to confiscate Ramadan drums and keep them in storage until the end of the month. The municipality decided to ban the drumming about 8 years ago.


ALICAN KAYA: The night meal is at 2:30 am. People don't want to be woken up at 2:30 at night by the sound of a drum. The people say we'd rather set our alarm clocks or cell phones if we want to wake up for the night meal. So following all the complaints, we banned the drummers.

BRUNWASSER: At the Kadikoy port, commuters pass through the turnstile on their way to ferries crossing the Bosphorous. Ali Seran, who lives in Fatih, a relatively conservative and religious neighborhood, says he is happy to be woken up at night by the drummers. He says that tradition is essential, like nourishment for a nation's well-being.


ALI SERAN: Just as for a person, your mother, father, grandparents, your entire family are very important for you. For a country, the traditions from the past are just as important. They are our roots.

BRUNWASSER: Sezgen Gunesh supports the drumming but is appalled by the decline of the drummers' musicianship.


BRUNWASSER: Gunesh says the drummers don't wake us up with nice sounds like they used to. They don't sing nice melodies. They just bang the drum like it's a tin can as they walk. In the old days, it was better. Back out on the street, Cenitas says he does what he can to make a living. He's resigned to being squeezed from all sides.


CENITAS: If they say don't play here, I play over there. That's the way I do it. There's no other way. God is great. Now I'm going to play the drum.

BRUNWASSER: The city still seems to appreciate, or at least tolerate, these anachronistic alarm clocks. The neighborhoods which have banned the drummers aren't very consistent about enforcement. And as long as Istanbul's residents keep giving tips, the drummers will keep drumming. For the World, I'm Matthew Brunwasser in Istanbul.