Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 September 2008
Issue No. 913
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Magic lanterns

Inji El-Naggar searches for the perfect fanous

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Throughout the centuries, the traditional fanous has provided a job for its makers and joy for its buyers, remaining the icon of the holy month

Among the many symbols of Ramadan, it may well be that the Ramadan lantern or fanous that lights Egypt's streets is the most iconic. After all, once the fawanis are up, we all know, following months of waiting, Ramadan is finally here.

The lantern or fanous has been an icon since the Fatimids -- a Shia Muslim dynasty whose empire centred on Tunisia and which ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171. But it has been around for even longer. No one knows for certain when children's use of Ramadan lanterns began, but it is a very old Egyptian tradition. Indeed, lanterns and lamps of various kinds, of many hues and degrees of brightness, and even both real and imaginary, have always been special to Egypt. For centuries before electricity was introduced, Cairo was noted for its spectacular use of lanterns to illuminate the city, especially during the holy month.

The shape of the fanous has not changed much, but this year there are few differences in price and quality. "This year's quality is much better and cheaper than last year's," said Iglal Mohamed, teacher and mother of two. Though this is little consolation, she added, with the rising prices of food and other basic products. "I paid LE70 for the two fawanis I bought for my children," she told Al-Ahram Weekly.

In Egypt, only the fanous -makers know all the designs, manufacturing secrets and above all the names of their magical lanterns. Some vendors say they prefer the Chinese models -- since they're usually the kind of things that break or get lost and have to be replaced every year, and also because kids like them more than the traditional ones. As though to illustrate and to prove those vendors right, Mohamed's six-year-old daughter Zahra said: "I like the fanous that moves and sings, but the other metal one is silent."

But not everyone has this preference. Mohamed Ahmed, owner of a fanous workshop, disagrees with this view. He believes that although Chinese fawanis attract children because they move, light up and reproduce traditional Ramadan songs, all tourist locations and hotels depend on the solid lanterns because they carry the true spirit of the holy month of Ramadan, and can be used as decoration throughout the year.

And the race for the top takes on more dimensions than that. The traditional fanous is competing strongly, and its manufacturers are improving it, as new silver traditional lanterns were introduced in an effort to beat off the Chinese ones.

Chinese exporters invaded the Egyptian market in recent years, armed with colourful, plastic fawanis that played old Egyptian Ramadan songs. In every fanous shop, you will now find many shapes and styles. The shapes go from the predictable to the absurd: one is modelled on a bride, another on a chicken moving and laying eggs, and still others on donkeys and camels.

"I thought these Chinese fawanis would destroy ours, but as it turns out they didn't take over the market. I guess it's a very unique symbol that simply can't be replaced," Ahmed told the Weekly.

Lantern-makers usually work in a small room, situated in the hidden corners of narrow alleys, to produce thousands of lanterns. On the floor in a dim room in Al-Azhar district, using his basic tools to manufacture one of the many attractive fawanis, sat Ahmed Maher, a 32-year-old fanous -maker. He explained to the Weekly how the frame of the fanous is made of thin strips of tin, usually cut from used tin cans. Production is then divided into several phases. According to Maher, first he cuts the tin in different measures into pieces, and then he twists the sharpened edges to cut the tin and the coloured glass.

Then he begins to adjust the edges of the tin in line with the glass. "We begin to make different holes in the fanous using tools such as the hammer and awl. Then he bends the tin pieces using a machine that cuts the tin into a frame, leaving open a path to allow the glass to pass through. And finally, pieces of hand-coloured glass are then inserted into the frame, and the craftsman puts a candle or a small coloured lamp inside the fanous. Dozens of lamps of different designs are made and then carefully stored in wooden boxes.

As for the price, Walid Mohamed, another fanous -maker, explained that prices start from LE3.5 and go all the way up to the grand sum of LE1,000.

Fanous -makers work all year round but Egyptians begin to purchase their lantern in Ragab -- the seventh month in the Hijri Calendar. However, Egyptian workshops start to export to other countries long before Ramadan -- which is the ninth month in the Hijri calendar.

This year's trendiest and most popular fanous is called the khiamiya fanous -- or tent lantern. According to its makers, it takes 15 days to make the shiny fabric materials which decorate this fanous, and a few more to make its solid structure. The khiamiya model is high in demand, and stands out because of its colours -- a mixture of red, blue and white -- which suit the colours of Ramadan tents. This particular type of lantern comes in more than 10 colours, with prices starting from LE130, depending on the shape.

On the lighter side, a new, fun lantern for children designed to look like a toktok with a driver who has a number of coloured fawanis playing many Egyptian traditional songs, comes at a cost of LE20 to LE35.

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