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Central Asian Children Keep Ramadan Caroling Alive

Turkmen Children Welcome Ramadan With Door-To-Door Songs
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WATCH: Turkmen children welcome Ramadan with door-to-door songs

Ramadan fasting in Tashkent was nearly over on the evening of July 10 when Lola Yunusova heard a loud knock on her front door.

Opening it, she was met by three children practicing a tradition found mostly only in Central Asia -- Ramadan caroling.

Much like Christmas caroling in the West, during Ramadan Central Asian children go door-to-door to sing for their neighbors. As with Halloween's "Trick or Treat" tradition in some Western countries, Central Asian carolers ask for a treat -- usually receiving money or candy.

But unlike Christmas and Halloween, Central Asian Ramadan caroling can last an entire month and that's why Yunusova sometimes finds the tradition tedious.

"Small kids come every day singing," she says. "We give them money. But when the same children come every day, we say, 'That's enough. Don't come again.' Because every day, the same children are coming. Many parents do not allow their children to go out singing for Ramadan -- and neither do we. Why should we? They are like beggars. Nobody likes them. They pound on your door and keep ringing the doorbell. Personally, I don't like it. When you come out, there are usually three or four of them practically shouting, 'Blah, blah, blah, blah...give us some money.'"

Yunusova's neighbor Ahmadjon says he enjoys Ramadan caroling. He always greets the children with a smile and gives them some money, asking them to sing more.

That's because Ahmadjon has fond memories of the time when he was a child and went door-to-door with his friends to sing in the evening just before the end of the day's fast.

Uzbek children say they love the tradition, noting mischievously that it is the one time of the year when they can go out with their friends and get away with kicking somebody's door.

The lyrics of a Ramadan carol often reflect the enthusiasm in Central Asia for the birth of a healthy boy.

One typical Uzbek blessing says: "We came and sang a Ramadan song at your door. We are wishing you'll next have in your cradle a boy who is as strong as a ram."

But there is an acerbic edge to the tradition as well, with carolers pouring scorn on those who don't offer treats: "We came and you heard us sing, but you didn't give us anything. May your newborn turnout to be a girl -- not a boy."

Turkmen children sing verses on the same theme. "Let there always be celebrations at your home," is how one refrain goes. "Let a girl be born to those who give less. Let a boy be born to those who give more."

Room For Improvisation

The structure of a Ramadan carol also allows singers to improvise lyrics in the middle of the song.

But some Central Asians complain that teenagers are abusing the improvisation by shouting rudely at those who don't offer gifts: "We will never come to your doorstep again and we are putting a stick in your [key] hole," was the reaction of one group that came away from a house empty-handed.

In Kazakhstan, Ramadan caroling was suppressed during the Soviet era. In fact, Kazakhs who fasted during Ramadan in those days usually did so in secret to avoid being listed by authorities as a potential troublemaker.

But nowadays, Ramadan carolers in eastern Kazakhstan can be heard singing: "We are children of Muhammad. We are one community. If you give us some treats, it will make us stronger."

They also sing: "May the Lord Almighty accept your prayers and to all who are fasting for Ramadan, may the Lord be good to you."

WATCH: Young men from Kyrgyzstan's Issyk-Kul region sing Ramadan songs in national dress.

Ramadan caroling was common across Afghanistan before the 1979 Soviet invasion. The tradition was practiced as far south as the Pashtun neighborhoods of Kandahar.

But door-to-door singing disappeared during Afghanistan's decades of war and the emergence of the Taliban regime, which considered all music to be un-Islamic.

Only in recent years has door-to-door caroling resurfaced in some Afghan villages -- particularly the ethnic Uzbek, ethnic Turkmen, and ethnic Tajik neighborhoods of northern Afghanistan.

In Kyrgyzstan, where most caroling takes place during the last three days of Ramadan, adults who support the tradition lament how Western materialism is creeping into the songs.

Bishkek children have been heard wishing listeners the good fortune of being able to "drive a Mercedes" and "have a pocketful of U.S. dollars."

Pre-Islamic Rituals

In northern parts of Tajikistan, carols often consist of folklore rhymes without reference to religion.

There are also variations of Ramadan caroling beyond Central Asia.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, even before the dissolution of Yugoslavia, children used to collect money by knocking on doors and shouting "Ramadan bank."

It is also common in some Arab countries, such as Egypt, for drummers to play for money in the streets during Ramadan celebrations.

But ultraconservative Sunni Wahabbists and other religious extremists argue that Ramadan caroling is un-Islamic and should be forbidden.

According to Tora Mirzayev, a professor of folklore at Uzbekistan's Academy of Science, Central Asia's caroling tradition dates back to the pre-Islam era.

"In old times Ramadan songs were sung by adults as well," he says. "But since the beginning of the 20th century, these songs have been sung only as children's songs. There is a mixture of different pre-Islamic rituals like 'calling for rain' or 'stopping the wind.' All these rituals were accompanied by such songs. When Islam came to the region, these rituals were transformed into Islamic rituals."

Mirzayev maintains that it is wrong to label Ramadan caroling un-Islamic simply because the tradition doesn't exist in Saudi Arabia.

Written and reported by Ron Synovitz, with additional reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen services and Radio Free Afghanistan