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How Old Dhaka wakes up on a Ramadan night

  • Published at 01:06 am May 22nd, 2018
old dhaka
An old tradition from Old Dhaka / SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

The unique sound of Ramadan

“The sky became unusually dark all of a sudden. I could hear a buzzing noise approaching from a distance. It sounded like a swarm of angry bees.” 

“Take cover, the Luftwaffes have arrived,” screamed one fellow soldier. It was a typical cloudy September in London, but this time, it wasn’t the clouds which covered the skies. Myriads of war planes flew over our heads. 

I was directed towards that claustrophobic dugout inside the church, while being covered by the Royal Flying Corps members. Hundreds of people were already inside it. Within moments, the entire city of London started to make its alert call. 

Civil Defense Sirens echoed through the streets, alarming everyone about the German air raid. Heavy breaths and pale faces filled up the church. Anything could happen. Many people started praying, believing this could be their end. The buzzing jumbled in with the siren into chaos. Then suddenly, I heard a loud noise and a forceful push.

“It’s suhoor time, wake up!” said my mother as I opened my eyes, petrified, gasping for air. I found myself lying on my bed. The entire scenario was gone. I could no longer hear the buzzing sound of fighter jets. When I was almost convinced that it was a dream, I realized something. 

The surreal sound of the air raid sirens was still there. My mother shook me playfully, figuring that I was in state of trance. It’s true that the sirens kept wailing, not in 1940s London, but in Azimpur, Dhaka, in 2016. How could I forget the age-old alarm service of Old Dhaka that marks the start of suhoor time in the month of Ramadan?

A person cannot claim to be a true member of Old Dhaka if he has never woken up to the sound of air raid sirens in the middle of the night in the month of Ramadan. These harbingers are used by most mosques situated in this part of Dhaka city, which is to wake people up for sehri

Although not a lot is known about its origin, this practice has been there for a long time. It is believed that most of the sirens used now were used in the 1971 Liberation War in Bangladesh, to alert citizens of incoming raids by the Pakistan Air Force. However, many elderly persons from areas of Old Dhaka claim that this practice originates from the British era. With the sound of multiple mosques setting off sirens at the same time, one can easily be compelled to believe that he is in a war zone. 

My dream about witnessing “the Blitz” was no exception.

Not just for Ramadan

Sirens are not only limited to warnings. In Bangladesh, we are fortunate enough not to hear it any other day. It is limited to the month of Ramadan only, being a friendly community service equipment. The timing of the siren is an hour before the sehri, the end of it, and on iftar time, running parallel to the Azan. 

It provides an important indication, especially for iftar, since it is operated on a set time. The fast is then broken, even if the Azan is given a minute later. It largely depends on people living in areas where there are fewer mosques or in places where the sound of Azan doesn’t reach. 

According to Wikipedia, modern sirens can develop a sound level of up to 135 decibels at 100 feet (30 m). Hence, it increases the possibility of people to know when to break their fast. There are several types of civil defense sirens made since the Second World War, for example, Federal Model 5, ACA Allertor 125, Chrysler Air Raid Siren, etc. The ones used in Dhaka are mostly hand cranked, while some of them are installed along with the loud speakers of the mosques.

The world today

Just like any other tradition, the siren is losing its importance. Its use today is substantially ornamental. Since it is a voluntary service, new groups are reluctant in taking up this “daunting” task. With the introduction of internet and smartphones, we make do with our own alarm services. 

Built-in alarms on phones are comfortably relied on, since it is more convenient. Several Ramadan apps are available to be downloaded, which are programmed to wake the user up at the correct time. The more we are progressing ahead of time, the less we are paying heed to preserve our age old conventional methods. 

Setting off the siren elsewhere outside Bangladesh might, however, produce negative reactions. It is uniquely a custom of Dhaka, making it among the many other things that we can boast about.

It takes me back to my childhood, when I used to wait patiently to hear the “Waaow” sound and sip a glass of Rooh Afza to break my fast. 

I smile a little every time I remember the punishments I received for mimicking the sound of the siren just before the iftar time. It remains an important part of Ramadan for many.

The service remains one of the best methods of alert since time immemorial, no matter how advanced the latest technology can become. 

Aiman R Khan is a trainee Lawyer, Dhaka Judge Court.