Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

The Street of Ramadan Lanterns

Over 15 years ago, this article appeared in the March/April edition of SaudiAramco World.

showimg.jpg

Blessed is He who made constellations in the skies and placed therein a lamp and a moon giving light; and it is He who made the night and day to follow each other: For such as have the will to celebrate His praises or to show their gratitude.

The Qu’ran, Chapter XXV (Al-Funqan, The Criterion), Verses 61-62

Written and photographed by John Feeney

No one knows for certain when the use of children’s Ramadan lanterns began, but it is a very old Egyptian tradition. Indeed, lanterns and lamps of various kinds, of many hues and degrees of brightness, and even both real and imaginary, have always been special to Egypt. For centuries before the coming of electricity, Cairo itself was noted for its spectacular use of lanterns to illuminate the city, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim lunar year, is a time of fasting, blessings and prayers. It also commemorates the revelation of the first verses of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad.

As a way of giving thanks to God during this holy month, and as a way of unifying the worldwide community of believers, Muslims – with special exceptions for the sick, nursing mothers, pregnant women and travelers – spend the daylight hours fasting. The hours of the night, until dawn, are marked by prayers, ceremonial meals and celebration of the day’s spiritual victory over human desires. After sunset, streets and squares all over the Muslim world are thronged with people out buying food after the long day’s fast, or visiting friends, or preparing for sahur, the last meal of the night, which will be taken before dawn. It is then that young Cairenes, allowed to stay up late because of Ramadan, traditionally gather in groups of three or four to go out among the crowds, swinging their glowing lanterns and chanting their ancient song of Ramadan – just as children in other lands go caroling – hoping to receive in return a few nuts or sweets for their vocal efforts.

Passed on by children from generation to generation, the traditional song, in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, accompanies the swinging of the lanterns in the little ones’ hands. It goes like this:

Wahawi, ya wahawi

iyyahah

You have gone, O Sha’ban,

You have come, O Ramadan,

iyyahah

The daughter of the Sultan

is wearing her caftan,

iyyahah

For God the forgiver

Give us this season’s gift.

Some believe that the children’s lantern song comes all the way from Pharaonic times, like the ancient Egyptian song called O-Faleh in the Pharaonic tongue and al-Bahr Sa’id in Arabic (meaning “The River Has Risen”). In the days before the Aswan Dam was built, that song was sung by groups out in small boats on the night the Nile reached the peak of its annual flood. Certainly, the lantern song is very old, and very Egyptian.

The opening lines – “Wahawi ya, wahawi iyyahah” – have no known meaning. “You have gone, O Sha’ban” refers to the month that comes before Ramadan in the Muslims’ lunar hijri calendar, and “the daughter of the Sultan is wearing her caftan” means she is dressed in the garment worn when going out, maybe to the mosque. “Give us this season’s gift” refers to the small presents children receive from family and friends at the time of the ‘Id or holiday that follows the month of fasting.

In the days leading up to Ramadan, children become more insistent about having a lantern; many can hardly wait to start swinging and singing – for what child, from its earliest years, is not attracted by a glowing, magical lantern? Yet Cairo children may be the most “lantern-struck” of all: Recent research by Dr. Marsin Mahdi of Harvard University indicates that Scheherezade’s ‘Alaa’ al-Din (Aladdin) of the magic lamp may well have been a Cairo boy.

One week before Ramadan begins, part of Ahmad Maher Street, for most of the year a humble thoroughfare in the old medieval quarter of Cairo, is transformed. Usually home to tinsmiths, marble-cutters and makers of mousetraps, for one glorious month it becomes “The Street of the Lanterns.”

Filmmaker John Feeney, who has lived in Cairo for a quarter century, is a long-time contributor toAramco World. He wishes to thank Laila Ibrahim, renowned authority on Mamluk Egypt, for her help with this article.

This article appeared on pages 14-23 of the March/April 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

You can read the rest of this fascinating article HERE.

I love the Ramadan lanterns. I’ve been to Cairo, and found the heat and the teeming population, the gridlocked traffic and all the begging a little scary. But I would go back in a heartbeat to see this street of lanterns!

For my non-Muslim readers, I found a wonderful site while researching Ramadan lanterns that gives a simple overview of Ramadan: Hamad El Afandi’s Ramadan Kareem. It is heavily illustrated with photos.

August 31, 2007 - Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Community, Cultural, Public Art, Ramadan, Shopping, Spiritual

2 Comments »

  1. I LOVE ARAMCO World – I love their articles and I love that they are full-text searchable online. I have found fascinating articles on Lebanon from the early 1970s, fascinating ones on Syria from the 1980s, etc.

    I keep applying to receive a subscription but no luck thus far. So I am doubly grateful that the magazine is available online 🙂

    Comment by adiamondinsunlight | August 31, 2007 | Reply

  2. You are right, Little Diamond. And their articles are well researched and heavily photo’d. It is a very cool magazine. Why don’t you go to work for Aramco, and then maybe you would get a subscription for free? 🙂

    Comment by intlxpatr | August 31, 2007 | Reply


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: