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In the fawanees district
Published in The Egyptian Gazette on 26 - 07 - 2011

CAIRO – They sit in their farsha (a huge tent in which merchants display their wares), as they have nothing to do but wait. They may have to wait for a very long time, but still they have faith that there's better to come.
Walking down Ahmed Maher Street in Bab Zuwayla, Islamic Cairo, one gets to meet many old craftsmen who have been making fawanees (Ramadan lanterns) since they were young, having inherited the job from their fathers.
To make their fawanees, the craftsmen sit on the floor in their farsha or a separate, humble room, with very basic tools, including a small blowtorch.
They are particularly busy every year in the run-up to the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
The craftsmen usually erect their farsha two months before the beginning of Ramadan, in the ‘fawanees district' in Ahmed Maher Street, a long thoroughfare and the most famous and oldest place in Egypt for manufacturing and selling lanterns.
As Ramadan approaches, children become excited and kept pestering their parents to buy them a fanous. About a week before the first day of Ramadan, many Egyptian streets suddenly look like workshops, where tinsmiths hammer out new fawanees around the clock.
In the fawanees nieghbourhood, elegant, classic lanterns, that you put a real candle in and that are made in Egypt, compete with the tacky plastic Chinese variety.
"We manufacture the classic lanterns as well as the latest fashions, as we have to go with the flow. We still have customers who want a traditional fanous with a lighted candle inside," says Abu Adab, 63, a farsha owner.
Many of the Chinese lanterns play pop music.
"We sell both Egyptian and Chinese fawanees. You might be surprised to know that the traditional Egyptian ones are still popular. People still ask about them, even though the Chinese are laughing," he adds.
Lanterns vary between LE25 and LE500 in price. Of course, the price depends on the size and the materials used. In the past, fawanees were made of copper and brass, but now they're made of recycled tin.
In the lead-up to Ramadan, the fawanees district used always to be very crowded. Many of the customers were tourists and Egyptian families buying lanterns for their children.
But this year everything is different. The streets have been nearly empty except for a few visitors.
"This year the number of clients has decreased, maybe because of the revolution and the instability. Our exports have also decreased," Abu Adab explains. "We usually take two or three weeks' holiday after Ramadan and then we're start preparing for the next Ramadan.
"We spend about 11 months of the year making lanterns," adds Abu Adab, who inherited this job from his father who died at the grand old age of 107. Abu Adab's sons also work with him.
Just a few yards from their farsha, a kanafani (kunafa seller) stands outside his shop.
His shop, ‘Kanafani el-Gomhuria', is open all year round, but his kunafa is always tastes extra special during the holy fasting month.
"The people who live in this district love kunafa, but we do especially well in Ramadan," says Am Ahmed Saeed, the kanafani.
Ahmed Maher Street can be described as a traditional Egyptian souq. Small cafés, kunafa and fiteer shops, furniture workshops and smithies are all tightly squeezed together.
You can find birdcages, ostrich feather dusters, barbecues grills, and herbal remedies. You can also pop into one of the marble and alabaster workshops and order a headstone for your grave.
Peek into the fawanees workshops and watch the craftsmen making the lanterns. Be sure to stop and try a fiteer (a flat, round pastry, normally sweet but sometimes containing cheese) at Hagg's café.


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