In Jerusalem’s Old City, lantern maker lights up Ramadhan

JERUSALEM (AFP) – At his shop in Jerusalem’s Old City, Palestinian craftsman Issam Zughair makes traditional lanterns for Muslims marking the holy month of Ramadhan, battling competition from cheap Chinese imports.

Zughair’s shop is decked out with lamps both large and small, some hanging from the ceiling and others displayed outside to draw the attention of passers-by during lively Ramadhan evenings.

He learned the trade from his father, a carpenter who originally made lanterns out of wood.

“My father opened this shop in the 1950s – we want to protect that heritage,” Zughair said, sitting with his wife in their small home above the business.

The largest lantern in the shop is two metres tall, shaped to resemble a mosque and created especially for Ramadhan.

Palestinian craftsman Issam Zughair (R) helps an elderly man transport a large Ramadhan lantern in his shop in the old city of Jerusalem. – AFP

It was made from sheet metal and glass, using a technique that is believed to date back to the Fatimid caliphate in 10th Century Egypt.

Zughair believes the lantern is the largest traditionally made one in Jerusalem.

“There is no-one that rivals me in building them,” he said.

The 67-year-old imports materials from Egypt and Turkey and crafts the lanterns in his Old City shop.

He can add verses from Al-Quran religious phrases or names of God, according to the wishes of buyers.

Lanterns play a special role during Ramadhan, which began last week.

As Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, nocturnal life takes on added significance. Traditionally, lanterns light the way for religious events.

Najeh Bkerat, from the Al-Aqsa Academy for Science and Heritage in Jerusalem, said they are a symbol of Islamic culture and heritage.

“People carry them as an expression of the light, the goodness and the joy of Ramadhan,” he said.

Zughair said he starts to receive requests for personalised lamps a month before Ramadhan.

Clients are from Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied West Bank as well as Arabs from Israel itself.

The lanterns sell for between ILS10 and ILS1,000 (USD3 to USD280), depending on their size and the intricacy of their design.

But Zughair said he has seen a major slump in demand for the more ornate models since the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in 2000.

Zughair also faces another threat – cheap Chinese knock-offs.

In a shop selling household appliances inside a gate of the walled Old City, Hamzeh Takish displayed a selection of small Chinese-made plastic lanterns, some of which play popular Arabic songs.

Their prices start from just ILS15 (USD4).