Friday 9 September 2011

The Lantern & Colors!

Tucked away in an alley in one of Cairo's oldest quarters, craftsmen weld small metal pieces that will come together to form a traditional lantern. Ramadan lanterns, known as 'fanous' (singular) or 'fawanees' (plural), light Cairo nights in celebration of the holy month of Ramadan.

The traditional fanous are shaped from tin, wire rings and coloured glass, and lit by a candle. Plastic battery-operated versions are available these days, but they lack the charm of the original.

In Ramadan Egyptians turn to lanterns, Fanous is a time-honoured accompaniment of the holy month. As a symbol, the Fanous is somewhat similar to a christmas tree or menorah. It is hung on balconies during Ramadan and takes the center of dinner tables when families gather to break fast together. The history of Fanous in Egypt streches back to Fatimid era, which ruled large swaths of the muslim world starting the 10th century. Actually there are many different stories about the origins of the fanous. The most interesting story dates from the reign of the Fatimid Caliph, Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah. Apparently women were only allowed to go outside their homes during Ramadan, and they were preceded by a little boy carrying a copper lantern so that men in the streets would move away. But even after the laws were relaxed, people liked the lanterns so much that their children would carry them in the streets every Ramadan. Since then, fanous has always been an integral part of Ramadan in Egypt. However, the most probable origins of fanous were described by Al-Maqrizi. He traces it back to the Coptic Christians who celebrated Christmas by decorating the streets of ancient Egypt with colorful candles. The tradition of celebrating with lights goes back even further to the torches used by the Ancient Egyptians, which was continued by the Copts using candles, and endures today with Fanous Ramadan.

Nowadays children still take to the streets in Ramadan nights carrying their candle-lit lanterns and singing the famous rhyme, “wahawi ya wahawi iyyaha,” which some researcher believe is an old pharaonic song to the moon deity. In one version of the song, the children say, “if it were not for Ramadan, we wouldn’t have come, or bothered to get our feet tired, o merciful God.” In another version, they say, “the sultan’s daughter... iyyaha, is wearing a caftan... iyyaha, with tussels... iyyaha, let’s go get it... iyyaha.”

My work here is a tribute to the holly month of Ramadan and also to Adly Rizkallah, a writer and painter whose work I have long admired since childhood. I was starry-eyed to meet him and his work in flesh couple of years ago before his departure from our world. I was humbled to have him admire my work and this memory of our encounter, even though brief effected me deeply, and his words of encouragment still echo in my ears every time I hold a pencil and set to work.

(Hussam Elsherif, I see my youth in you, I wish you success. Adly Rizallah)

I was inspired by one of his books that I deeply enjoyed, the book is called "The Lantern & Colors" and it speaks of Ramadan's flying lantern and it's three guardians that roam the skies in search of someone worthy of the colorful, musical and magical lantern. It struck me that this was the only fantasy book dedicated to children that speaks of the spirit of the Holy month of Ramadan!

I thought that since the book of which my inspiration came from is called "the lantern & colors" It's only appropriate to color my sketch. Coloring is far away from my comfort zone, unlike working with pencils, once you add colors there is no going back. but I guess in order to learn we have to travel beyond our comfort zone and experince new alternatives and realities which in turn could change the way we comprehand the world around us.
I've tried experimenting with colors on a draft of this sketch but I wasn't satisfied with the result, I think there are many details which makes it difficult for a first step with colors, so I decided that I need more time to experiment with colors, get equanted and hear their voice...
So here they are.. the three lantern guardians...

riding the glowing orb that flies, soaring high through the skies
They play their instruments, they sing it loudly
those ancient rhymes of "wahawi ya wahawi"

With the beginning of September we said goodbye to Ramadan, after a month of daily fasting it is a joy of all Muslims to celebrate the three days long "Eid Al Fitr" that translates as the breakfast feast. People went out with family and friends, and it's tradition to buy new clothes and then to show them off of course.

And every where there was colors colors colors!


  1. ". . .in order to learn we have to travel beyond our comfort zone and experince new alternatives and realities which in turn could change the way we comprehand the world around us."
    Well said! And a beautiful post. The lanterns are so beautiful! And your three guardians are very sweet.

  2. More images celebrating a beloved custom! "tucked away in an alley" shows a photo of the artist at work. I love this!

    Your drawing is a wonderful tribute to the artist in whose work you admire. Mr. Rizallah is smiling and says, "yes, listen to the voice of the colors Hussam".

    The lantern guardians riding the night sky are wondrous and delightful. An exquisite drawing that shows playfulness and a loving attention to detail. Superb!

  3. Beautiful photo's and I love your lantern drawing. It sounds a beautiful magical story.
    You have a very interesting blog here. Thank you so much for paying mine a visit. :)

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