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Pandemic Ruins Ramadan Lantern Industry Season (with VIDEO)

Lantern makers around the Middle East complain of an enormous economic loss during the peak Ramadan season due to strict COVID-19 lockdown measures

For hundreds of years, lighting Ramadan lanterns has been a common tradition for Muslims around the world. Every year, houses and even whole cities are decorated with colorful lanterns of different sizes and shapes to celebrate and express joy during the holy month. The production and sale of lanterns have become a flourishing industry locally and internationally.

This year, however, was drastically and tragically different.

The coronavirus pandemic has paralyzed international trade and the economies of entire countries, and the impact on artisans has been enormous.

The Media Line spoke to lantern makers from different parts of the Middle East and asked them about their unique industry amid the pandemic.

At his small store in Jerusalem’s Old City, Essam Zghaier used to make and sell Islamic and eastern lanterns that were true masterpieces, in addition to selling valuable antiques, Arabian perfumes and Qurans.

Essam Zghaier at his store in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Courtesy)

Zghaier told The Media Line that there has always been a great demand for lanterns by Jerusalemites and other local residents. Moreover, because his store is located near Al-Aqsa Mosque, his customers regularly include hundreds of tourists per day from a wide variety of national backgrounds. But not this year.

“At this time of the year, the city used to be so crowded, you can’t even walk. Lanterns were hanging in every neighborhood, from every house. Jerusalem used to look like a shiny pearl. But now, it’s heartbreaking to see it a ghost town instead,” he said.

Zghaier, who had to shutter his store three months ago, when a state of emergency was declared in the West Bank, has lost his livelihood.

“With zero revenue, my income is 100% affected by the pandemic. And I’ve lost many books and precious lanterns, which rotted due to the humidity here in my store” he said.

However, he considers his top priority to be safety, for the public and himself: “Material loss doesn’t matter as long as we are safe and sound.”

Dania Alahwal, a talented young woman from Amman, Jordan, followed her passion and, with the support of her father, started a woodworking business three years ago.

She took graphic design courses and learned from YouTube how to make beautiful wooden decorations, crafts and different kinds of lanterns, as well.

Using wood, petroleum jelly and electrical wiring, Alahwal used to produce nearly 2,000 lanterns each Ramadan season. But due to the strict measures against the virus outbreak in Jordan, she had to halt production until further notice.

A wooden lantern by Dania Alahwal. (Courtesy)

“Although my woodshop is near my house, I was worried about myself and my family, so I stopped work when the lockdown started,” Alahwal told The Media Line, adding that “almost all orders and reservations have been canceled as a result.”

It’s not easy for a woman in the Middle East to work as an artisan, but Alahwal has successfully overcome many challenges. Now, the greatest obstacle to her work comes from COVID-19.

Unlike Alahwal, some have actually benefited from the lockdown, considering it a perfect opportunity to use their imaginations and creativity.

Manar Salem, an Egyptian journalist and crafts designer, has decided to spend her time in quarantine designing accessories and lanterns using colorful beads.

Step by step, Salem has learned via YouTube the basics of making bead lanterns, which, she tells The Media Line, “is not easy at all.” Then she adds her own touches to come up with innovative products that are different from others sold in the local market.

A bead lantern by Manar Salem. (Courtesy)

Although she is a skilled designer with brilliant ideas, Salem says she has no experience in marketing, and that this has been an obstacle preventing her from taking her fledgling craft business to the next level.

“Because I feel bored during this quarantine time, I make bead lanterns and other accessories just to have fun and spend my time doing something useful,” she says. “But I don’t have any marketing background and I don’t seek a profit. That’s why I still have most of the lanterns I made.”

Salem remains optimistic and full of positive energy despite the tremendous pressure caused by the pandemic but many people find this hard to do.

The Alya’qoubis, a family of seven in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip’s southern governorate, took advantage of the quarantine period by making cardboard lanterns covered with printed fabric and wired with mini-LEDs. The Alya’qoubis sell their lanterns to neighbors and traders, making pocket money for their small children.

Mohammed Alya’qoubi, the father of the family, told The Media Line that his main motivation was fear for his children’s safety: “After the lockdown of schools, parks and public facilities, my kids started to complain about staying home and pressured me to let them go out, which was dangerous.”

“So,” he continued, “my wife and I decided to keep them busy with something useful and fun –making lanterns.”

Mohammed Alya’qoubi with two of his children, alongside their lanterns. (Courtesy)

Mohammed’s wife, Om Feras, told The Media Line that she is proud of her children’s performance and that each one has a specific role to play in their lantern business.

Constructing the lanterns is only part of the job; the children have helped their parents leverage social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook for marketing purposes, resulting in the sale of more than 70 lanterns so far.