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Ramadan Lanterns Brighten Egyptians' Holy Month

  • Margaret Besheer

CAIRO — In Egypt, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, streets become illuminated at night with colorful lanterns known as "fanous." Some say this tradition began with the Pharaohs, others believe Coptic Christians originated it, but what is clear, the fanous has become a uniquely Egyptian Ramadan tradition.

In the weeks leading up to Ramadan, vendors like Ahmed Abu Kamel start popping up in the markets and streets of Cairo selling fanous - or "fawanees" as they are called in the plural.

"Workers start manufacturing the fanous ahead of the season to prepare for it, and 20 days ahead of Ramadan you see a huge amount of fawanees spread along El Sad Street at Sayeda Zeinab [district]," said vendor Ahmed Abu Kamel. "It is a huge number of fawanees, not millions but billions. They are good ones as you see, look at this one and that one, all the different shapes."

Traditional Egyptian fawanees are made of tin and glass and cost between $10 and $20. But they have some modern competition from cheaper imitations made in China that are battery-operated and play music.

There are many stories of how this tradition began. One tale says the colorful lanterns evolved from Pharaonic times. Over five nights, ancient Egyptians celebrated the birthdays of five important deities, using torches to light the streets.

Another story says the lantern tradition evolved from Coptic Christians, who used colorful candles at Christmas.

And yet another tale says that in the 10th century, children used lanterns and sang songs as they lit the way for the Fatimid Caliph as he went out in search of the crescent moon that would signal the start of Ramadan.

Today, grandmother Amal Ahmed says all children wish for a new fanous at the start of Ramadan.

"It is a must that I come every year to buy a fanous - a fanous for myself and one for my grandson," she said.

Children used to go out at night with their fawanees. But now, they stay at home and after the family breaks the daily fast with the evening Iftar meal, they play with their lanterns, singing a traditional rhyme welcoming Ramadan and waiting for little treats from their relatives.

Twelve-year-old Ahmed lives in the U.S. state of Virginia. He is visiting his Egyptian relatives for the summer and says he looks forward to the fanous tradition each Ramadan.

"We get presents from our mother and parents and our family, and it's fun for kids and we play together. It makes our family together. And we get chocolate. And we dance," said Ahmed.

But treats or not, the tradition of the fanous lends Egyptian nights a magical quality during Ramadan.

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