Tucked away in an alley in one of Cairo’s oldest quarters, Nasser Mustafa painstakingly welds small metal pieces that will come together to form a traditional lantern.
Egyptians turn to the lantern, known as a fanoos, as part of the tradition of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset in a process intended to light one’s path toward prayer and God.
As a symbol, the fanoos is somewhat similar to a Christmas tree or a 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 the fanoos in Egypt stretches back to the Fatimid Empire, which ruled large swaths of the Muslim world from Cairo starting in the 10th century. However, after nearly a century, the future of the Egyptian fanoos is under threat.
Less than a dozen fanoos makers remain in Cairo, as cheap Chinese imports and decades of government corruption have made plying their trade nearly impossible.
“Our great-grandfathers did this work, but our kids won’t,” said Rida Ashour, who stopped making the fanoos about 10 years ago.
A stroll down one of Cairo’s oldest streets shows this generational shift. Two decades ago, the street was known for its fanoos artisans, but today vendors complain that the metal and glass needed to make the lanterns is all imported and too expensive to buy. It’s easier and cheaper to buy ready-made lanterns, especially ones made in China, the vendors said.
It can take anywhere from three days to several weeks of cutting, hammering, melting and welding to create a single fanoos. The smaller ones can cost 10 Egyptian pounds (US$1.60), while larger custom-made ones can cost up to 10,000 Egyptian pounds.
“Everything we use to make the fanoos from is imported, from A to Z,” said Mohamed Fawzi, 27, who works in a small garage space with his two brothers and father making lanterns.
He said they are producing about a third as many lanterns as they made before the Chinese lanterns flooded the market some 13 years ago.
Egypt imported US$6 billion of goods from China last year, while only exporting US$1 billion to that country, Egyptian-Chinese Business Council executive director Omaima Mabrouk said.
To protect the local market, the government needs to create a system for workers’ rights and improve management in both the private and public sectors, she said.
“You have a society that is losing, and what made the people lose is the government,” Mabrouk said.
Many blame decades of widespread corruption under former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak for the inability of artisans to live off locally made products.
“The local police would come and take our stuff and trash our stores if we didn’t give them bribes,” Ashour said. “Police would come and kick our handmade work.”
The thousands of protesters who eventually forced Mubarak out of power complained that decades of corruption and police impunity were, in large part, responsible for the country’s ills.
While most fanoos makers said the government did little to -protect their craft, Salma Jazayerli, a Syrian woman who has lived in Egypt for years, managed to start her own business a few years ago making high-end lanterns. Her products sell in upscale supermarkets across Cairo and she exports to select customers across the region.
“It’s difficult to have Ramadan without a fanoos,” Jazayerli said. “You have a rare, locally made talent that is in Egypt and the first thing we have to do is stop importing it from China.”