A thousand-year-old tradition, the Ramadan fanous (lantern) is much more than a decorative element. The fanous—probably derived from the Greek word ‘hanos,’ meaning lantern or light—has become a worldwide symbol of the holy month and an essential part of its year-long awaited magical atmosphere.
From beautiful wooden crafts lit with a candle, which celebrate a diligent fusion of Egyptian folklore and Islamic designs, to colorful trendy lanterns made from recycled tin cans, copper, plastics and colored glass, lantern making is one of the oldest industries in Egypt, and has seen many changes over the years.
With Chinese lanterns of all kinds and shapes being shipped to Egypt every year, a new style takes the fawanis (lanterns) market by storm each season. Although the old-style fanous is still a favorite to many, according to several shopkeepers, Egyptian fanous-makers are left to compete with imported Chinese battery-operated lanterns, and have taken it upon themselves to keep up with children’s trends to ensure that they remain in business.
We headed to one of Egypt’s most famous districts for the production and sale of the Ramadan fanous: Taht El Rabea, or better know as El Rabea, district in Old Cairo. Off the main streets, there are dozens of kiosks and small shops selling lanterns made of wood or metal, then deeper down the alley, there is the production area where dozens of fanous-makers hunch over their pieces of art.
The neighborhood buzzes with the Ramadan spirit; two months before the holy month and the iconic red Ramadan cloth could be spotted everywhere. The shops are all decked with traditional fanoos lanterns, peppered with the more modern models, and we can immediately tell that this traditional area is everything but old and outdated. The mix between the very traditional lanterns and the battery-operated ones, shaped after popular characters and celebrities singing odd songs, shows that despite the make holding more conventional views, they ensure modernity and staying on top of the trends. And they weren’t old craftsmen leaning over outdated tools either. There were old, young and middle-aged men and women, all modern-looking, all extremely quick on their feet and merely radiating a sense of friendliness that is true to people working in an industry synonymous with one of the most sociable, charitable months of the year.
Tracing back the fanous tradition
The fanous-makers and shop owners, even though they have solid feet in the present, still value the origins of the lanterns; but even those who have inherited the craft from one generation to the next don’t seem to be certain about the exact origin of the lantern. However, most of those interviewed believe that the tradition dates back to the time of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz li-Deen Allah, or so they were told it all began.
“Growing up, my mother told me that when the Caliph [Al-Muizz li-Deen Allah] arrived, Egyptians were so happy, they went out and greeted him with lanterns at the gates. Since then, Ramadan, Cairo and the fanous have all been connected. They make us happy,” says Nadia, a resident and seller in the district.
Photo by Egypt Today
Nadia is not the only one who recalls this tale. A small market-owner, who overheard the conversation adds, “The children loved the Caliph so much that they would walk around his carriage with fawanis. He would then give them candy and money; I think this is why children today still love the lantern. After all, growing up, we would take the fanous and knock on doors; and they [residents] would give us money or candy.”
Other, less widespread tales suggest that it may have been an old tradition dating back to when children would go out with their lanterns chanting songs and accompanying the Caliph on his way out from the gates of Old Cairo to the Mokattam hill to observe the moon marking the beginning of Ramadan.
Staying in style … or not
Walking around the area, one cannot help but see the joy on people’s faces as they buy their lanterns and other celebratory items to complete the magic of the holy month, but the question remains: How did that shift away from the traditional wooden or metal lantern toward the Chinese battery-operated ones take place a few decades ago? And, as many tell Egypt Today, how was that trend reversed?
Recalling a time when hundreds would flock to her father’s shop to purchase their fanous every year, Fatma, a 28-year-old shopkeeper whose two brothers, 26 and 34, also craft lanterns, tells us that there has been a drop in sales of the classic fanous since the early 2000s.
“Since 2005, if my memory serves me right, we started to produce a fanous with Bakar [the famed Ramadan cartoon character] on it; it was my brother’s idea,” says Fatma. To keep up with the times, they have had to come up with new ideas every year to make sure that people keep buying and to compete with their “hip Chinese competitors,” she explains.
Joining our conversation, Aly, a 27-year-old university graduate who shared stories with us on what it was like growing up in the El Rabea district, explains that technological advances and continuously changing trends have made it harder for the crafters to keep up with trends and to ensure that they stay in style. “We start making the in-style lanterns maybe three months before Ramadan, but we are always scared that they may not be trendy anymore. What if we make them and they do not sell because a new trend has taken over?” Aly says, with a worried expression on his face. For Aly, projecting the trends correctly can make or break his business.
Although many shopkeepers seem to believe that keeping up with children’s trends is key to ensuring their sales stay up, not everyone agrees with the modernized lanterns trend.
Photo by Egypt Today
Abdo is a newly married 26-year-old who told us of his eight-year journey with his wife and how she inspires his pieces of art and helps him through hard days when he does not feel like working. “It is not right to have cartoons on lanterns, we are destroying our heritage,” he says.
Hany and his father also share their concerns about the issue. The two are inseparable, often spending their evenings watching football, even more so if Mohamed Salah is playing, and visiting Old Cairo. “Our children need to know what the fanous represents and what it means to Egypt and Cairo’s history. It is not just a piece of metal or plastic, it is their heritage, our shared history,” Hany says.
Hussein, a 47-year-old widower, also disagrees with the modernization of Egypt’s classic lantern. For him, even lanterns of homegrown cartoon characters Boogie and Tamtam, Fatouta, and Shakshak, much like car-shaped lanterns and so on, are all inappropriate. “We need to hold on to our heritage and Ramadan-themed songs and decorations; otherwise, we stand to become even more westernized. We will lose touch with our roots,” he says.
Fanous trends … from one Ramadan to the next
Whether locally made to keep up with the trends or Chinese-imported, special-themed fawanis have dominated the market throughout the past decade. From one season to the next, a beloved figure, movie or character took the market by storm.
The year of sports, 2008, according to Mohsen, a big football fan and an Al Ahly Club supporter, was the year of acclaimed Egyptian football player Mohamed Abu Treka. The beloved star spawned different fanous designs, all of which, according to multiple shopkeepers, sold well. “It was 10 years ago, so I do not remember exactly why everyone was going for them, but I would go for an Abu Treka fanous any day,” Mohsen says.
Moving on to 2010, Korombo, the detective cartoon that adults and children enjoyed watching at the time, was all the rage. Several shopkeepers and fanous-makers suggest that it was the most sold fanous shape ever. Recalling a few years back when they sold the Korombo fanous, childhood friends Mohamed and his partner Kamal, 27 and 28, respectively, explain, “People would come in and ask for it. specifically. They did not even look around, as they had been doing every other year, they knew what they wanted. The fanous we sold was funny, it told a joke; we also had another one that said his [Korombo’s] catchphrase,” says Mohamed. His partner adds, “Korombo was a great hit. Everyone loved him. Adults would buy him too and we used to ask them who it was for; some admitted it was for them, while others said it was for their children or relatives.”
In 2011 and 2012, the greatest hits were Egypt-themed, mainly military-themed, and the Smurf lanterns, shopkeepers tell us. As electric lanterns from China really hit off that year, says Montaser, a middle-aged married man, many shopkeepers, including himself, produced their own military-themed lanterns to keep up. They used colors, pictures and designs that follow the military theme. “That being said, 2012 was better in sales than 2011. In 2012, I made twice what I made in 2011; In 2011, I barely broke even,” he recalls.
In 2012 and 2013, the Smurf fanous ruled the market, according to Omar, the “lantern-enthusiast,” as he calls himself. “The Smurfs movie had just come out and many children, as well as adults who had watched the series when they were younger, absolutely loved them. They went crazy for them,” Omar, a seasonal fanous-producer and all-year handyman, explains. “That year I barely sold any copper or glass lanterns; they were going for about the same price, and some of the glass, wood and copper ones were even more expensive. Parents don’t want to pay that much and children want something that they can sing to. They no longer sing wahawi ya wahawi [the traditional Ramadan song],” he adds.
Ramadan in 2014 and 2015 was again affected by the political situation, with President El-Sisi lanterns taking the market by storm. “With Sisi on the scene, his lanterns were the ‘it’ item of the season,” explains Lamia, a shopkeeper whose family has been in the lantern business for generations. At 29, the law graduate with big dreams of one day creating a chain, recalls years of experience in the industry. There was only one design for President Sisi, according to Lamia, although another vendor recalls that there were two. Both vendors agree that it was the hit of the season.
Over the past few weeks, Chinese-made imported Salah-shaped lanterns have taken Cairo by storm with their prices rising out of control. Initially sold at LE 98, prices for the lanterns shaped like the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) player of the year for the 2017-18 season rose to LE 155 and more. To ensure they remain in the game, local manufacturers have started producing Salah-shaped lanterns, with one telling us, “Given that Mohamed Salah became the talk of the world, I wanted to design and manufacture another locally-produced Salah-shaped lantern that can be even better than the Chinese one.”
As it stands, classic lanterns begin at LE 20 and go up to LE 150 without lights; adding lights is expected to cost an additional LE 15 for a simple bulb and LE 30 for fairy lights. There are also side items being sold, like tablecloths that start at LE 30 and go up to LE 120, while tissue box covers go for LE 15 and the classic foul table ranges between LE 90 to LE 120.