A thousand years of light
Lubna Abdel-Aziz, , Monday 3 May 2021
Controversy continues about is origins — the whens, hows, wheres and whys, but at least science hatched a name for it — Covid-19. Its very sound still makes your heart jump a beat

It hit an unsuspecting world suddenly and mercilessly. Much like a global tsunami, it destroyed and exterminated, tortured, and tormented an innocent population, with no end in sight.

Controversy continues about is origins — the whens, hows, wheres and whys, but at least science hatched a name for it — Covid-19. Its very sound still makes your heart jump a beat.

What is certain is that our lives are not the same.

It is similar to the movement of the earth’s plates, following a quake. Nothing seems to be in the same place as it was. We have lost our equilibrium, priorities, stability and freedoms.

Then comes Ramadan, the blessed month of fasting and worship for almost two billion Muslims worldwide. We regain our footing somehow and return to a degree of normalcy. Religion always comes to the aid of an ailing world and we regain our sense of orderliness.

We fast, we pray, we love and forgive, we perform our duties, charities, and above all our joys and celebrations.

Ramadan Kareem is heard everywhere. It is pregnant with meanings of generosity — not only of the material kind, but of heart and soul, towards our fellow man.

There is, however, something unique about an Egyptian Ramadan, perhaps reflecting the singular character of an 8,000-year old population. Egyptians are blessed with a great sense of humour. They are the first to laugh at themselves — the world will keep on turning, so let us get on with it.

This is as practical as it is philosophically sane and explains the endurance of this civilisation.

Walk through any street in Cairo, after the break of the fast and you will sense the sounds and colours of the country. Laughter and music fill the air, cafes are crowded with merrymakers and the scrumptious sweets of the season are devoured uncontrollably.

Most important of all is the lights of hundreds of the most colourful lanterns all lit up in joyous celebrations, from store-fronts, to shops, windows, balconies, street-alleys, every way you turn you will be greeted by the glowing light of the picturesque fanous.

That is the name of the unique lanterns that only appear in Ramadan, but take artisans all year to design, assemble and polish their craft. They exist in all Muslim cities as they have come to symbolise this holy month, but they were born and bred in Egypt over 1,000 years ago.

There are several sources as to its origin, but all agree that it was during the Egyptian Fatimid period, in 968 AD.

One story tells of the Fatimid leader Muizz li Din Allah who entered Egypt on the 15th day of Ramadan and was greeted by Egyptians with candles and torches. In order to shield the candles from the wind some placed them on a wooden platform wrapped with palm fronds or leather.

Another version attributes its development to Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi amr Allah who would check the moon marking the beginning of Ramadan accompanied by children who led the way with lanterns, while singing joyous songs.

A Fatimid tradition was also escorting women on their way to the mosque, by a young boy carrying a lantern to alert men that women are present.

The Fatimids introduced the lanterns to Egypt, who were used to walking around at night to and from the mosque.

It was Al-Hakim bi amr Allah who ordered shop owners in every neighbourhood to place a lantern as well as at the entrance of every mosque, shops, homes keeping streets lit for passengers’ safety.

Another story attributes the lantern to a Coptic tradition associated with Christmas when Christians paraded the streets with colourful candles.

It is historically clear that the lantern industry started in Egypt in the Fatimid era, regardless of the different versions of its origin. The fanous remains a very unique symbol of Ramadan and of Egypt.

There are certain areas in Egypt that are famous for making Ramadan lanterns such as Al-Ghoreya, Sayeda Zeinab Mosky, Ataba Square, Bab Al-Sheariya, and Al-Azhar.

Though they come in all shapes, colours and sizes, they also have famous names of styles, such as “the Parliament”, shaped after a similar lantern that decorated the halls of Parliament and the “Farouk”, after the late king, designed to decorate the royal palace. On the occasion of his birthday 500 lanterns were used.

Many other names are associated with the artisans who made the lanterns, such as Abul-Walid with his very distinct style.

Children and the fanous go hand in hand. Each child carries his or hers as they swing it to and fro, singing a traditional song Wahawi ya Wahawi, Ayoha, written by poet Hussein Helmi Al-Ministerly and composed by Ahmed Al-Sherif,

The word Wahawi is an ancient Egyptian word, which meant gold or light. The word Ayoha meant moon or crescent.

Any light is a symbol of hope. The sun, the moon, the stars are nature’s way of lighting our lives and bringing hope in the darkest hours.

Even Edison’s light bulbs and the eco-friendly solar- powered paraphernalia, cannot replace the glory and magic of an old-fashioned candle.

No city can rival Cairo during Ramadan. The songs, jokes, laughter, joy, faith and fanous.

We can grab happiness out of the depth of despair, if we try.

Long before Paris and electricity, Cairo was — and remains — the City of Light.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 April, 2021 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly