Over 15 years ago, this article appeared in the March/April edition of SaudiAramco World.
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
You have gone, O Sha’ban,
You have come, O Ramadan,
The daughter of the Sultan
is wearing her caftan,
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.
The fish must be running today. When I got up, there were about 25 fishing boats, the old fashioned shuwi. just off the coast. Sorry, they are about a kilometer off the shore, so I can’t get a great photo. I found a photo at agmgifts however, that shows what the boats look like:
Weather Underground says it’s going to be 118° F/ 48°C today – how can they bear it? Some of the boats have no cover? How can they be out under the hot, scorching sun with no cover?
For my non-Kuwait readers, this is a very special weekend, a Thursday-Friday-Saturday weekend, to celebrate the shift to a Friday – Saturday weekend. It has been a long time coming; Kuwait is one of the last countries in the Gulf to make the shift. We were also living in Qatar when the shift to Friday – Saturday happened, but in Qatar, there was no uproar. Here, some people were outraged, saying that Saturday was the Jewish day, and it was a fire-and-brimstone kind of sin to take a day off on the Jewish day.
The government announced the weekend would switch to Friday-Saturday, and then the National Assembly announced that no, it wouldn’t, it would remain Thursday – Friday. Then the government offices started sending out notices to the people working there, and to customers, etc. giving new working hours, and here we go, Friday – Saturday. I am hearing rumors that even Saudi Arabia is considering the change, the last great hold out.
It brings the working week into closer alignment with the rest of the world, having more business days in common. It will make the traffic in Kuwait even worse than it already is.