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‘Let there be light'
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 05 - 2019

In the beginning, darkness invaded the surface and God said: “Let there be light”, (Genesis 1:3), and there was light, now more than ever before.
Light is the essence of our lives. Humans need it to function properly. Humans needed it to build the lush, lavish, luxurious, civilisation we enjoy today.
As Muslims celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, its most enchanting feature is the fanous. You might call it a lamp or a lantern but it is far more than that. The fanous is a symbol of Ramadan, a symbol of Islam and a symbol of Egypt.
Over 1,000 years old, the fanous, some historians believe, goes back to Pharaonic times, announcing the Nile flood. What is certain is that it is purely an Egyptian creation. Lights are indispensable at all the world's festive events, but the fanous is unique in concept and beauty.
What a sad, dark place a city would be without the fanous.
Origins of the fanous are countless, but the most popular version dates back to the Fatimid dynasty.
Its birth began the day the caliph Al-Muizz li-Din Allah entered Egypt. The military commander Gawhar Al-Siqili asked the citizens to greet him with torches, candles and lamps to ensure that his path would be lit. He arrived on 15 Ramadan 968.
To ensure the candles would not blow out, the citizens shielded them from the wind, and wrapped them with palm fronds and leather. What a beautiful sight it must have been for the caliph. The glittering, glistening lights and the welcome of the citizens.
It was magic. From that moment onwards, the fanous became an essential part of the mythical, mystical charm of Ramadan.
This typical Egyptian tradition has spread to several Muslim countries, but the glamour and the glow of the nights of Ramadan are unique to Egypt.
Caliph Al-Hakim Bi Amr Allah (Ruler by God's command, 985-1021) used a fanous to check the moon, marking the beginning of the holy month. Accompanied by groups of children who lit his way, they danced and sang ahead, they swung and swayed their lanterns. They were never happier and they could see the moon as clear as if it were sunshine.
The caliph ordered imams to hang them by their mosques and light the candles at Iftar time.
Artisans in Old Cairo have been working diligently and meticulously for 1,000 year, creating different shapes of multi-coloured tin lanterns, always faithful to Islamic designs. The craft, handed from father to son bedazzles all visitors to their shops. How can they resist their ravishing reds, grass-green shades and angel blues? Words of wisdom and excerpts from the holy Quran and poetry verses are also included. Nobody walks away without buying at least one.
Fanous lanterns adorn streets, shops, coffee-shops, restaurants, theatres, mosques, schools, homes and their colours and flame force a smile. Like heavenly music, they hypnotise, they mesmerise.
Would Cairo be Cairo in Ramadan without the fanous?
Children became enamored with the fanous since the days of caliph Al-Hakim bi Amr Allah 1,000 years ago. A Christian child lies anxious and excited, dreaming of Santa's gift, so does a Muslim child awaiting the Ramadan fanous.
At eventide, children run around the streets with their prized fanous and sing their happy Ramadan songs. One of the most popular songs starts with incomprehensible words: “Wahawi ya wahawi, il yoha”, the song continues in Arabic. The incognisable words are said to be part of an ancient Egyptian song to a moon deity, light again. It all makes sense.
How can a song survive for, perhaps, thousands of years? It is a mystery.
The pursuit of light by man is more like a command from God. It never stopped.
The absence of lamps in ancient Egyptian digs is understandable. Egyptians used their own creation of light, floating wicks. The wick was made from twisted vegetable fibres.
Early Hebrews used this lighting technique. Some scholars believe this is the origin of the menorah, meaning light, and not the Moses dictum in Sinai. It is based on the technology of seven floating candles. The theory that the menorah is connected with the goddess Isis is disputable so is the belief that Christians adopted the Hebrew lights.
Candles have played a major role in providing light for man. Each culture found its own method of making them. They were first mentioned by the Chinese in 221 BC, made from whale fat or beeswax, a tradition which continues till today.
In Alaska and Canada the natives used candlefish, (small smelt fish) that contain big quantities of oil.
Tallow is the main ingredient now, first used by the ancient Romans.
Of course, there is nothing like sunlight. It has advantages and disadvantages. Beware of the diseases including cancer of the skin.
Finally, in 1878 Thomas Edison provided us with the electric bulb.
Now, at the flick of a switch we can banish darkness anytime.
We need light, at work, in stores, theatres, shops, especially at home.
A hundred years ago, we would have never dreamed of so much light.
Yet for 1,000 years the flicker of Ramadan's fanous has lit our streets, our lives and our hearts.
Its brilliance and beauty thrill and enchant. How about a fanous for you?
Better still, offer it to a child and see his/her eyes light up with joy.
Is that not the meaning of Ramadan/

“May it be light to you in dark places when all other lights go out.”
JRR Tolkien (1892-1975)


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