Wahawy ya wahawy
What has happened to the old traditions that once distinguished Ramadan, asks Salonaz Sami
Wahawy ya wahawy, eyaha, wa kaman wahawy, eyaha“ê¶ these words, the lyrics of one of the holy month of Ramadan's most famous songs, were written by Hussein El-Menasterli many years ago.
For as long as I can remember, even when I was a kid and into my adolescent years, I have wondered about the meaning of eyaha. It wasn't until recently that I found out that eyaha, actually taken from the ancient Egyptian, means "moon". The phrase was used in ancient times in honour of Eyaha, the mother of the Pharaoh Ahmose I, who expelled the invading Hyksos from Egypt when he was just 16 years old. Wahawy ya wahawy, eyaha, means something like "welcome Eyaha". Since Muslims worldwide use the moon to determine the beginning and end of the holy month, the use of this phrase makes perfect sense.
When I was small, my late grandmother and I would go out a week or so before the beginning of Ramadan to buy a fanous, or Ramadan lantern, another custom of the holy month. I would usually pick one made of copper and containing a candle rather than a lamp. That was 20 years ago. Last week, I decided to carry on the tradition and go out and get my one-year-old son his own fanous in honour of Ramadan.
"Al-Sayeda Zeinab is the place to go," my father told me, and so I went to the Cairo district in search of the perfect fanous. Looking around me when I got there, I soon realised that finding a traditional fanous could be as hard as finding a needle in a haystack.
I was told that I would find dozens of shops selling fawanees, the plural of fanous, but I only found a handful. "Most people in the business have gone bankrupt and have had to close," Haj Abdel-Qader El-Mogui said. El-Mogui, one of the few who are struggling to compete with Chinese imported fawanees, said that it has become very hard for him and others to continue making traditional Ramadan lanterns.
A small handmade fanous can cost between LE15 and 40, and the bigger the fanous, the more expensive it is. On the other hand, a Chinese-made fanous can sell for LE10 or less. "And to tell you the truth, when it comes to the materials used and the finishing of the product, they win hands down," said Tareq Ferieh, who sells Ramadan lanterns in a small shop with his brothers.
Traditional Ramadan lanterns were once used by the caliph Al-Hakim Bi-Amrillah to light the streets of Cairo during the holy month. However, the new generation of lanterns is nothing like the old ones we grew up to love. They are often made in the shape of famous cartoon characters, like Sponge Bob Square Pants and Winnie the Pooh, and they also play the latest songs. Unlike traditional fawanees, made of copper, the new ones are mostly made of recycled plastic.
"They are taking over the market," said El-Mogui, though 72-year-old grandmother Aida El-Tabakh disagreed. "The Chinese lanterns are everywhere, but I believe that Egyptians have a keen sense of their heritage and they would not buy a Chinese lantern instead of a traditional fanous. It would hardly be Ramadan without one."
Like El-Tabakh, 33-year-old Hossam Magdi, a father of two, believes that Chinese lanterns are part of what he calls the new, "Westernised" Ramadan. "Why does a lantern shaped like a Western cartoon character singing an English song have anything to do with Ramadan," he asked. "In the good old days, the holy month was nothing like it is today. It was a spiritual month filled with group activities, family gatherings and charitable works. Today, on the other hand, no matter how often we get together with family and friends we still feel distant from each other, everyone living in his own virtual world."
"Beside the spiritual aspect, the colourful lanterns hung on balconies or Ammo Fouad's riddles also made the month of Ramadan what it used to be," Magdi added. Ammo Fouad, a television character, was once a big hit during Ramadan. Starring the late Fouad El-Mohandes as Ammo Fouad, the programmes featured his adventures, and they were only broadcast during Ramadan on state TV.
Another example of a special Ramadan tradition that we may be in danger of losing today in Magdi's view is the tradition of firing a cannon to mark the end of the daily fast. It was once the custom for every Muslim to wait to hear the Ramadan cannon fired from the citadel in Cairo before breaking the fast and tucking into Iftar. The cannon's boom was heard throughout Cairo and was later aired on the radio. Iftar is "not the same without it", Magdi said, wondering what has happened to the cannon.
It is said that the story behind the cannon goes back to the days of Mohamed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt in the early 19th century. Mohamed Ali had bought new cannons to add to his army's arsenal, and since it was the month of Ramadan and at Iftar time, he decided to try one out. People took the firing of the cannon to mean that the day's fast had ended, and they thanked Mohamed Ali for this new signal in Ramadan. As a result, Mohamed Ali was then forced to fire the cannon daily during the month of Ramadan out of courtesy to his fellow citizens.
In the same way that the cannon's firing was associated with Iftar, the mesaharaty, a man who used to roam the streets at night banging his drum during Ramadan, was associated with Sohour, the meal before the fast begins. "Esha ya nayem, wahhed al-dayem, Ramadan kareem," the mesaharaty would chant, which loosely translates as ""wake up sleepy ones and praise God, Ramadan is the month of forgiveness."
Such deeply rooted customs and traditions are today fading away, claims 46-year-old Hatem Gad, "because we are not fighting to keep them alive".
"Instead of looking forward to the fanous, the cannon and the mesaharaty, many people today wait for television dramas and quiz shows during Ramadan instead," he said. "It's not as if there is anything good on, unlike in the days of Nelly, Samir Ghanim and Sherihan," mentioning some of the stars who used to take part in the must-watch Fawazeer Ramadan, or Ramadan Riddles, a once enjoyable aspect of Ramadan for many that stopped being broadcast in 2000.
One good thing that has continued from traditional Ramadan, said Gad, is the custom of eating Ramadan desserts such as konafa and qatayef, the later a sort of sweet dumpling filled with nuts or cream and deep fried and served with a honey syrup. The former is a traditional Arab pastry soaked in sweet syrup and filled with cream and topped with pastry and crushed nuts.
Legend has it that konafa first appeared during the Fatimid era, when the caliph Al-Muizz li-Deenallah entered Cairo during the month of Ramadan and the inhabitants came out to greet him with konafa among other gifts. "One shouldn't forget khoushaf and qamar al-deen," Gad adds, referring to a traditional Ramadan dish that consists of dates, dried apricots and black plums marinated in water over night and usually eaten at the beginning of Iftar.
However, with many old Ramadan traditions now fading away to be replaced by Sponge Bob lanterns, one wonders if in a few years from now we will be able to celebrate Ramadan with anything but fasting and TV shows.