Imports cast shadow on lantern trade in Egypt

Lights are part of Ramadan tradition but the flood of cheap, ready-made goods threaten fanoos craftsmen in ancient quarters of Cairo.
Fewer than a dozen fanoos makers remain in Cairo because of cheaper imports. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo
Fewer than a dozen fanoos makers remain in Cairo because of cheaper imports. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

CAIRO // 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 Ramadan.

As a symbol, the fanoos has been compared with a Christmas tree. It is hung on balconies during Ramadan and takes the centre of dinner tables when families break the 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.

But now, the future of the Egyptian fanoos may be 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 a challenge.

"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 was all imported and too expensive to buy.

Ready-made lanterns, especially ones produced in China, have undercut the traditional ones, 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 (Dh5.80), 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 were 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 (Dh22.03bn) of goods from China last year, while only exporting $1bn to that country, said Omaima Mabrouk, executive director for the Egyptian-Chinese Business Council.

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.

Many blame decades of widespread corruption under deposed president Hosni Mubarak for the inability of artisans to succeed while producing locally made products.

While most fanoos makers said the government had done little to protect their craft, Salma Jazayerli, a Syrian woman who has lived in Egypt for years, managed to start her own business making high-end lanterns.

Her products sell in upscale shops across Cairo and she has exported to select customers across the region.

"It's difficult to have Ramadan without a fanoos," she 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."

Published: August 18, 2011 04:00 AM


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