DUBAI, 14 September 2007 — Boom! With a mighty blast, the cannon announces the end of a day of Ramadan fasting. For Emiratis the cannon is part of the Ramadan tradition. It’s common to see during Maghreb (sunset) families and their children gawking nearby as the old cannon heralds in the iftar.
The “Cannon of Iftar” (“Midfar Al Iftar”), as it is called, is a throwback to days when life was simpler and clocks were a rare luxury. The cannon was implemented as a tool to announce the official daily sunset for the people too far away to hear the Adhaan Al Maghreb announce the breaking of the fast.
The tradition of using artillery to announce sunset has its roots in the sands of Egypt when it was governed by the Ottoman Khosh Qadam, more than two centuries ago. The story goes that Qadam had been given a cannon as a gift, which he was testing during Iftar of the first day of Ramadan. When he fired it, the whole of Cairo reverberated with the sound of the cannon.
The inhabitants of Cairo were impressed and thought that this was a new method of announcing sunset. The next day Qadam was visited by people who congratulated him on such a clever way for everyone in the city to be informed of the breaking of the fast.
Till this day in Cairo, there is a cannon known as “Hajjah Fatimah” which, according to some, was named after the daughter of Qadam.
Other countries adopted this technique. The late Sheikh Rashid ibn Saeed Al-Maktoum introduced the Ramadan cannon to Dubai in the 1960s. The task of firing the cannon has been entrusted to Dubai police and since then they have been faithful to the practice.
Capt. Mohammed ibn Mussabah, who is in charge of the Dubai Police Department’s armory division, said the cannon fires blank shells enhanced for maximum “boom”.
He said that currently they use four cannons that date back to World War II period.
He said that the cannons are placed in the Musalla Deira area, Musalla Karama, Al Ras and outside gate No. 4 in Al Safa Park. He pointed out that the cannons do not serve any other purpose other than announcing Ramadan and Eid.
“The tradition is to fire two shots to herald the month of fasting and Eid while a single shot is fired daily to announce Iftar,” he said.
Brig. Abdul Rahman Rafiee has fond memories of the Ramadan Cannon. Back when he was a young recruit, he was put in charge of the cannon. This was in 1975 and at that time Dubai was still a small town, he said.
Rafiee, who is now director of the Community Affairs Department, remembers how scared he was when he fired his first shot.
“Those cannons were made in 1917 and they created such a loud bang,” he said. “We were so scared of the sound that we all ran for cover,” he laughed. The ancient cannons caused a lot of problems for Rafiee’s team.
“We had to tow one of the cannons from Bur Dubai, where it was stored, to Al Ras through Al Maktoum Bridge. Because it was so old, one of its wheels got loose and we nearly ended up dumped in the sea. Those cannons were replaced in 1980 as the police found it very difficult to find any spare parts for them and the blank shells used were no longer being produced. These cannons now stand proudly in front of Dubai Police Museum.
Rafiee remembered how enamored the kids were of the cannons.
“We would have lines of kids following us when we moved the cannons. It was a spectacle for them.”
According to him, only two cannons were used one of which was placed in front of Al Ras area in Deira, near the public library, and the other one was in Zaabeel. One shot would be fired to announce Iftar.
The cannon firing team would prepare them a few days before Ramadan and wait for the moon to be sighted.
“After that the Ruler of Dubai would order the cannon to be fired to herald the holy month. Later during the month we would also be on standby to announce Eid Al-Fitr,” he said.