Tales of Elephant Pond and Light of Darkness Street
Hagg Mohamed Balaga is a sturdy, gruff, slow-paced man in his early 60s, and has been making traditional fawanees (Ramadan lanterns, singular: fanous) out of tin and recycled glass for the last 55 years.
Born in 1940, Hagg Mohamed began to accompany his father to the workshop before the age of 10. He would watch the old man drafting designs with a pencil on a piece of paper, taking measurements and then cutting, polishing, welding, constructing, thinking up solutions to problems as they presented themselves -- being creative, in short. Now Hagg Mohamed presides over one of the oldest fanous-making workshops in Egypt. Ask anyone where the archetypal fanous is made and they will immediately point to Berket Al-Fil (Elephant Pond), a cluster of alleyways within walking distance of the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque. It is here that his father first founded this factory of magical lanterns.
"I was eight or nine when I started. I would sit with my father and copy him. I liked the job so much I got passionate about it," Hagg Mohamed insists, "fell in love with it." His father, the late Hagg Ahmed Balaga, was the first to start a workshop in Sayeda, Hagg Mohamed recalls with pride. "And all the masters around -- today they are masters and people learn from them -- were students of his. He taught them their craft, and he was good at it. He taught me, too, yes, of course."
Penetrating the narrow paths lined with fruit stalls and the crumbing façades of dimly lit workshops, you eventually reach Nour Al-Zalam (Light of Darkness) Street, a place whose evocative name draws on both Hagg Mohamed's objets d'art (introduced into the country as a Ramadan-specific celebratory motif during Fatimid times), and the central Muslim metaphor they seem to embody: the Qur'an, which was given to mankind during the holy month, being the light that dispelled the darkness of Jahiliya (pre-Islamic ignorance).
Not that Hagg Mohamed is particularly aware of this: his approach to the business of making fawanees is remarkably mundane, his understanding of their meaning quaintly routine. What is intriguing about him, rather, is his choice of career path. Hagg Mohamed had choices: he could have opted for university and a white-collar job, the way his younger brothers did. He could have utilised his skill in a range of more lucrative professions. But he stuck with the fanous.
"God gave me no sons to teach this craft. All my children are girls. But I had three brothers, one of them, Said -- the next in line after me -- was martyred in the 1973 War. My father grieved for him very deeply, and my mother is still grieving to this day. She lives alone. She refuses to stay with any of us. And she keeps his pictures everywhere in the house. Whenever we pressure her to come and stay with one of us, she'll say, 'But I'm not alone, I have Said here with me.'
"My second brother is named Abdu, and the third Magdi. Now, it's true that they're both government employees, so they go to work every day. But as soon as they're done with their work they immediately come to the workshop and start working, and their children too, once they're done with their school work. Because we can't let the craft go. It must be passed from generation to generation. It's sad that we have such a lot of difficulty teaching little boys the craft. This craft you have to learn at a very early age, otherwise you don't grow up knowing it."
The reasons for Hagg Mohamed's choice made as a boy emerge. "The trade is basically a family monopoly, so much so that when we have somebody like Ahmed here," Hagg Mohamed points to the little boy who has been working since I arrived, "we're really happy about it. Because all the others -- they come during the summer holidays, leave to go back to school and then never show up again. That's the way it tends to be ..."
Now he begins to warm to his theme.
Hagg Mohamed is initially reluctant to talk. He has started having a fight with one of his neighbours, and he points out that he has no time for this kind of thing. It has taken nearly an hour, and the efforts of at least two intermediaries, to bring him from his house to the workshop, where he finally arrives straddling his vespa. The death of Hagg Ahmed and the disappearance of one brother in combat, his 40-year-old nephew points out, left him with high blood pressure and diabetes; a slight limp became evident as he curtly shakes my hand. "We have work to do," he snaps, the fight underway.
The power is out. We sit drinking tea. Coaxing, as it turns out, is the name of the game. Hagg Mohamed responds well to flat denials of his worst traits -- an unpleasant demeanour, a ruthless disciplinarian temperament and a palpable lack of sympathy with his subordinates. The more you stress his pleasantness, his subtlety, his diplomatic ways -- lying through your teeth as you do so, that is -- the more willing he becomes to engage in conversation, perhaps even consenting to having his picture taken. "I am an artist too," he likes to reiterate as he proudly demonstrates his achievements. "Not any old craftsman, you know..."
"We have two workshops." Hagg Mohamed speeds up as he resumes, "this one in Sayeda and another one in Helmeya. The one in Helmeya is a bit bigger, that's why we store the work there once it's finished. I supervise both workshops. Any master in the area who wants to understand something or is having difficulty with something comes to me and I explain it to him. After all, everyone knows that I drank this craft from the bowl of Hagg Ahmed Balaga, no less.
"The last day of Shaaban we stop working. And we take the whole of Ramadan off. But the fact that the workshop is shut for long periods doesn't mean that we forget our trade. No, no. Is it possible for anyone to forget his home? My trade is my home, it's my people, my livelihood. I could give everything up for my trade. You couldn't possibly imagine how much time I spend thinking, turning things this way and that in my head, and making little sketches all through the holiday -- so that when I started working I'd be ready with new ideas.
"I dream it up, every fanous. Sometimes I come up with something completely new and I show it to someone, and if they like it they'll tell other people about it and it starts to sell. Directly after the Eid we start receiving orders from wholesalers from Cairo, Ismailia, Damietta ... And we start working. Some order 500 pieces, some 1,000. Occasionally there is an order for 10,000 pieces. And everything has to be ready by the start of Shaaban.
"Sometimes the tradesmen or an individual will come up with a design of their own ..." By now Hagg Mohamed is sufficiently involved in the conversation to show me examples of the better known varieties, each of which is named after an idiosyncrasy of shape: Farouk (after the late king's crown); shaqet al-batikh (watermelon portion); ballaman (parliament building); al-negma (star); abu-welad (father of sons); etc. "But even then we still make suggestions.
"So for example we'll tell them the shape is fine, but the glass should be a different colour. Or we'd take measurements and realise that, in order to be done, the fanous would have to be a little taller. Yes, yes, discarded glass arrives as it is from the garbage dumps and we cut, polish and paint it here in the workshop as part of our work. Both the tin and the glass we acquire from Taht Al-Rab', where we buy it by the kilo. You can see bits and pieces lying about.
"You'd be surprised, though. The imported plastic fanous, which is machine-made and has neither the beauty nor the variety of the real thing, has taken over the market for hand-held fawanees. We only really sell the big ones now. Our hand-held ones are cheaper, and if they fall and break they can be fixed very easily -- often at no cost at all. Yet people still buy the plastic ones for their children.
"Developments -- well yes," Hagg Mohamed supplies off-handedly. "The shapes of the decorative motifs are no longer pointed, and the handle no longer too short -- to protect the children who play with it against wounding or burning their hands. The glass used to be painted using oil paint, which didn't stick properly and muted the light. Now we use car paint, applied with an air brush, which is far more permanent and makes for pretty translucent colours. Many fawanees that used to be small got bigger as time went by. The batikh used to be made in the hand-held size only, now people ask you for up to three-metre tall ones. People put them in terraces or in front of gateways. They're a nice decoration whether or not it's Ramadan.
"Traditionally the fanous is made of tin, only tin," Hagg Mohamed insists. "But it can be made of copper too. The copper ones are much more expensive so they're only made on demand -- mostly for Khan Al-Khalili bazaars. They're luxury items, these, for the really well off or for foreigners, not every man's fanous..."
By now the power is back, a third glass of tea is steaming by my side and the subdued glory of the workshop's interior is manifest once more. Hagg Mohamed sits to one side on the floor, demonstrating his usual working position. A work flow is maintained, with each of three-man team undertaking a specific task, he explains, so that up to 50 large fawanees can be produced in a week.
"The machinery hasn't changed, no. It's exactly the same as it used to be when I started. What has changed," Hagg Mohamed sighs, "is the attitude of the artisan. The artisans of our times are a strange lot indeed. When I was their age I definitely wasn't like them. They don't start until six pm. Now, it's true that they go on working till morning but this kind of upside-down way is beyond me." Hagg Mohamed reveals the rare, muted grin as he resumes, "so long as they do their work -- they're free to do whatever they like. So long as they're working," he repeats.
"In the past your master could beat you up ruthlessly if you made a mistake -- with the doqmaq (large wooden hammer) on your head -- or he would touch your arm with the burning metal tip of the welding iron, just to show you how much it would hurt if you dropped it. My father did this to me, yes, the way he did it to everyone who worked under him. But that's why we learned, it's how we acquired our skill. Because once punished this way you would never, ever repeat a mistake. And if you did you just gave up the craft, it obviously wasn't for you.
"Today if you hit one of your boys ever so slightly on the shoulder he doesn't show up the next morning -- and that's that.
"From age eight on I worked in this workshop from six am to six pm every day." As a child he was at the centre of a heated debate, he goes on to recount: his mother insisted that he should give up working with his father in favour of a proper education, while the father in question was understandably happier with the idea of his eldest son taking over the workshop. "I was paid three piastres a day," Hagg Mohamed recalls, "and in order to appease my mother I enrolled at a night school with that money until I learned to read and write." Although he also spent three years as an army conscript, at the age of 20 he was already a master of his trade -- teaching the very owners of other workshops, he says.
"Once, during my first year in the workshop I think, she locked me in my room with a book -- so that I would not find my way to the workshop. But by the time my father returned I had adequately polished and moulded 10 straps of tin that, unbeknown to her, I carried with me from the workshop the night before."
Several neighbours come and go, interrupting the by now abundant flow of his conversation to ask for a fanous, relay a message or pick a fight. Only now, as he squats by his hand-operated machinery, does the depth of Hagg Mohamed's connection with his trade become clear.
'...we can't let the craft go. It must be passed from generation to generation.'