Lighting up the earth
Abeya El-Bakry witnesses the famous Ramadan lanterns illuminating the streets and alleyways of Islamic Cairo
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Lanterns this year are available in every size imaginable and many of them carry the slogans of the 25 January Revolution
Every year, people wait for Ramadan as the beginning of a spiritual new year and a time to start a new quest for spiritual awakening. In Islamic Cairo, this renewal is marked by streets lined with magical lanterns, or fanous, made in every size imaginable. The fanous are a signal that Ramadan is near, and they remain on display until the end of the holy month.
This year, Ramadan comes at a time when Egyptians are celebrating an end to tyranny after the fall of a corrupt regime, and in the streets around Al-Azhar and Al-Hussein, there are signs that the new spirit of the Egyptian revolution is taking over the country.
The lanterns are associated with other aspects of Ramadan, including Ramadan songs and shoppers buying the traditional Ramadan yameesh; qamareddin (sheets of dried apricots), nuts, dates, dried figs, and other dried fruits. These are bought in preparation for the Eid and to fuel socialising and performing the taraweeh prayers.
Many of the lanterns to be seen in Egypt this year carry the slogans of the 25 January Revolution, while also carrying messages urging Egyptians to protect the country from internal strife. Small, Chinese-made lanterns can be seen containing the Egyptian flag.
The first days of Ramadan this year coincided with the beginning of the historic trial of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, and to mark this event fewer people than usual could be seen on the streets. Police officers could be seen scattered throughout the Al-Hussein area, usually populated by thousands of people living in the vicinity.
Tourists were rare on the first days of Ramadan, and even late in the evening coffee shops were struggling to attract visitors. There were few shoppers on the street, and many shopkeepers in Al-Hussein, one of the busiest and oldest commercial areas in Egypt, had opted to take a holiday to pursue their fast. In the few shops open in the vicinity, people were listening to recitations from the Quran on tape.
In the heart of Al-Azhar, the oldest Islamic area in Cairo, a church carried banners congratulating the area's Muslims on the arrival of the holy month.
Throughout the area are displays of the traditional Ramadan lanterns that have remained unchanged for centuries, as well as of more modern Chinese-made ones that work on batteries. These took the market by surprise some years ago, and since then they have taken over much of the market.
However, this year there is more demand for Egyptian-made lanterns, especially those containing candles. In larger sizes, they are also fitted with electric bulbs, and these can be placed on balconies, at the entrances of villas, signalling to passers-by the arrival of Ramadan.
Surprisingly, this year Chinese-made lanterns are sometimes more expensive than Egyptian ones. Nabil, who works in a shop selling lanterns in Al-Hussein, says he is not sure where the increase in prices has come from, perhaps from the original manufacturing, or perhaps from the supply chain, passing on price increases from manufacturer to wholesaler to retailer.
Naglaa Abdel-Tawab, who buys the traditional lanterns every year, has not bought as many as usual this year. Usually, she buys lanterns for the children in her family, as well as for her home and office. "I love Ramadan," she says, "and I like people to feel that Ramadan has arrived."
Most years, Abdel-Tawab buys lanterns from the Sayed Zeinab district of Cairo, but the streets have been very crowded this year so it has been difficult for her to go. She has also made a tablecloth from the traditional khayamiya, or tentmakers, material, which is used for ceremonial tents.
There are many reasons why people may not be feeling their usual cheer this year at the onset of Ramadan. The massacres in Syria and Libya and the news of famine in Somalia have all lowered spirits. While Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo has been closed to the revolutionaries who had previously occupied it since the start of Ramadan, they have been preparing their fast there nevertheless.
While people have in some cases felt overwhelmed this year by the political situation, nevertheless Ramadan for many has been even more spiritual. Fewer eateries have been set up for fasting passers-by this year, but there have also been fewer people begging on the streets. Even though the promised increases in salaries have not been implemented, and it is reported that prices are high, people appear to be content.
The first days of Ramadan this year were a good start for the weeks to come, these promising to be full of surprises for the future of Egypt. While it is not possible to predict how events will turn out, this year promises to bring more contentment and tolerance than has been the case in recent years, and this has been in evidence during this year's Ramadan.