Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The fawanees of Ramadan

With demand for traditional Ramadan lanterns increasing in Egypt and across the Arab world, the Egyptian industry is thriving, writes Mai Samih

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Al-Ahram Weekly

‌One of the essential pieces of decoration in any Egyptian or Arab household, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan, is the fanoos lantern. Usually lit by a candle, the lanterns are traditionally made of metal and glass, with newer ones, powered by batteries, made of plastic.

‌The Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah ordered the imams of Cairo’s mosques to hang fawanees, the plural of fanoos, on the doors of buildings to illuminate the streets during the nights of Ramadan. Ever since the lantern has been a symbol of the Muslim holy month and a custom in Egypt and the Arab world.

‌Sales of the Egyptian lanterns were boosted this year after the minister of trade and industry, Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, banned the importation of fawanees from other countries to protect the Egyptian industry. Even without the ban, the prices of the Egyptian lanterns suit many people better as imported ones are often more expensive.

‌“I grew up with the traditional fanoos. This year the traditional lantern comes in different colours that attract children and give a certain flavour to the holy month. They are sold at reasonable prices as well, compared to the imported ones,” said one customer shopping for lanterns in Giza Square in Cairo.

‌Haj Magdi, 66, a shop and factory owner and an exporter in the Taht Al-Rab’ district of Cairo, explains how the famous fanoos industry came to life in Egypt. “My great-grandfather was one of the first fanoos-makers in Egypt. The craft in our family goes back to the time when the Fatimid caliph Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah came to Egypt and people greeted him with boxes that had lighted candles.’

‌“A year after that they made a lantern in the shape of a box that opened from the side called Farouq. After that another kind of lantern was made opening from the bottom, and this was called Abdel-Aziz.’

‌ “From that time to this, some 3,000 different types of lantern have been created. Our craft is not a seasonal one as we work all year round, even during feasts, to meet the demand for the lanterns in the Arab countries.’

‌“This year has seen particularly heavy demand, notably from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Some Arab merchants in the United States also import the lanterns,” Magdi said.

‌Customers buy the lanterns for different uses, sometimes to put on balconies and sometimes to put in the doorways of houses or in gardens. People also hang them in the streets or from their balconies during receptions. According to Magdi, a fanoos the size of a birthday candle costs LE7, while the largest size, practically the size of a building and called a borg or tower, costs LE5,000.

‌“Some lanterns that are four metres tall we make for hotels and government ministries like the Ministry of Defence and Civil Aviation,” he said.

‌For Magdi, only Egyptians can make genuine Ramadan lanterns. “Nobody can make the Ramadan fanoos like we Egyptians can. The imported Chinese lanterns are just children’s toys. They are nothing like the genuine article,” he added.

‌Not everyone who claims to be able to make the lanterns can really do so. “The Syrians have tried to make the lanterns but theirs were simply made of tin that was glued together.”

‌Magdi said the government’s decision to block imports has helped support the fanoos industry in Egypt. “After the minister of trade and industry decided to ban imports of foreign products, the traditional fanoos has returned to Egyptian homes. Some 40 workshops have gone back into business, meaning that this was the right decision at the right time,” he said.

‌However, the traditional industry still faces challenges, among them the price of materials, as the cost of tin and glass, essential for making the genuine lanterns, has gone up by some 50 per cent. Magdi has tried to adapt to the rising prices. “We bear half the burden of the high cost of raw materials and the customers bear the other half,” he said. ‌‌But higher costs have meant higher retail prices, and a lantern that ten years ago sold for LE3 now costs LE7. If the industry is to grow these prices will need to come down, Magdi said, but this can only happen if the cost of the raw materials decreases.

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