Tracing the origins of Ramadan decorations

A man prepares Ramadan decorations including a lantern known as a ‘Fanous.’ AFP
Updated 02 June 2018

Tracing the origins of Ramadan decorations

  • Celebrating the holy month in style has become an integral part of the Saudi way of life
  • The tradition of dressing modestly has developed in the last few years and become a lucrative market for fashion designers

JEDDAH: The holy month of Ramadan is no longer just about fasting, iftar and sahoor meals, and night prayers. With the passage of time, Muslims across the world have found ways to express their love for this holy month in different manners.

Using special decorations is one of the ways to celebrate the holy month. As a matter of fact, Ramadan decorations are increasingly becoming an integral part of Ramadan preparations for many families in Saudi Arabia.
There are two main elements of these Ramadan decorations: Lanterns and colorful fabric with red patterns used in various types of decorations.
The combination of these two elements gives a reddish oriental theme to Ramadan celebrations in Saudi Arabia.
A few years ago, Ramadan decorations were available only in big markets and huge stores and people had fewer options. However, the advent of the internet and the social media revolution have changed the situation with major brands and stores coming up with innovative ideas to attract customers thus changing the way we used to celebrate Ramadan in the past.
Local and international brands offer innovative Ramadan products and collections every year ranging from home accessories, items, party supplies, Ramadan pillows, mattresses, tablecloths, Ramadan jewelry, dresses, perfumes, and even Ramadan cake designs, food presentation, packaging and much more. Special prints and symbols are used in the making of these items to give them a touch of Ramadan.
The print used on all types of product is either the traditional red-themed oriental pattern, or a redesign of it, and the most recognizable symbols used on most of the Ramadan-related items are the traditional lantern and crescent.  
Contrary to popular belief, using decorations to celebrate Ramadan is not a recent phenomenon. Historians may differ over the exact origins but they do agree that the use of lanterns and the traditional red patterned fabric first began in Egypt.
It is said that lanterns were used during the Fatimid Caliphate at the end of the 10th century and at the beginning of the 11th century.
History books tell us that during the month of Ramadan in 362 AH, Caliph Al-Muizz Lideenillah Fatimi arrived in Cairo from Morocco. The Egyptians went out in large processions to greet him at night holding torches and decorated colorful lanterns to light the streets. These lanterns remained lighted until the end of Ramadan filling the streets with joy.
In that connection, Abu Bakr Al-Jassas, a Muslim scholar of the 9th century, in his book “Unanimity of Scholars” stressed that the celebration of festivals (Eids) and the month of Ramadan began in the period during which the Tolonic state was established i.e. between 868 and 905 AC. According to him, squares were lighted and streets decorated during the month of Ramadan and festivals (Eids).
Others choose to refer these Ramadan social traditions to earlier times. Ziad Sami Itani said in an article, titled “Ramadan customs: Ramadan decorations,” that the first to start celebrating the coming of Ramadan was Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab, who was a companion of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Itani said that Caliph Umar decorated mosques and lit them starting from the first day of Ramadan so that Muslims could perform Taraweeh prayers and other religious rituals comfortably.
The traditional red-patterned fabric originates from Al-Khayamiyya art, which means Tentmakers art. It is an authentic Egyptian art used to decorate tents and it is one of the unique Egyptian traditions.

It is said that it existed since the era of the Pharaohs, yet it indeed flourished in the Islamic era, especially during the Mamluk rule in Egypt (between 1250 and 1517).

Decorative applique
Al-Khayamiyya was associated with the Kaaba cloth embroidered in gold and silver threads, which used to be manufactured in Egypt until the 1960s. It was sent to the Hijaz in a majestic procession known as the “Mahmal.”
This craft of tentmakers is widely present in Al-Khayamiyya Street in Cairo. Al-Khayamiyya market was built in the 1600s. It is Cairo’s sole remaining medieval covered market located in a 300-meter-long street near Bab Zuwayla, Cairo’s medieval gate and the only one remaining from the 11th and 12th-century walls of Fatimid Cairo.
The market is famous for its colored fabrics used for the massive street tents set for funerals, weddings, shop openings and other gatherings.
The market includes other goods like applique works, cushions, covers, Egyptian cotton bed covers, wall hangings, car covers and traditional Egyptian “galabeyas” (long traditional dress).
Ramadan decorations had varied during the centuries, yet the most significant traditions that influenced the region and the world derived from Egypt.

Special outfits
The society’s respect for the holy month of Ramadan has indirectly developed a dress code that limits outfit choices during Ramadan, especially for women.
People dress modestly in Ramadan. In family and friends’ gatherings, they wear the “jellabiya,” which is a traditional Arab garment worn by both males and females. In Saudi Arabia, the female garment is called “jellabiya,” while its male version is called “thobe.”


 The tradition of dressing modestly has developed in the last few years and become a lucrative market for fashion designers. For many designers, Ramadan is a remarkable season — more exhibitions targeting female customers are organized before and during Ramadan, more designs and collections are launched every year for adults and children.
International brands have also started to launch special collections for Ramadan, targeting Muslim women in the Middle East.

What do Saudis think of Ramadan trends?
Banan Mohammed from Jeddah views Ramadan traditions as a form of social pressure.
“It is really a nice thing to make one whole month of the year a special one at all levels. But I feel, whatever  (commercialization) is happening around us, is only piling up pressure on us to make us more consumptive,” she told Arab News.
She lamented the growing irresponsible consumerism in society.
“Ramadan should serve as a spiritual journey for us to strengthen our connection with our Creator, our families and people we love, and to ourselves too,” she added “Ramadan decorations and outfits should support the goal of moral and spiritual purity. If not, then I think we are missing the whole point of Ramadan, and moving in the opposite direction.”
She said: “In my family, we make very little efforts in preparing for Ramadan, I like that we don’t overdo it, it is nice and beautiful because it is simple and it still positively influences the atmosphere at home.”
Samia Bahaziq, another Jeddah resident, takes Ramadan preparations more seriously and pays attention even to minor details and she believes she has a reason to do so. “I do that to make my kids happy and excited for Ramadan. It also helps and encourages them with their fasting,” she told Arab News.
“Preparing for Ramadan is our family custom. We always make special preparations for Ramadan so as to ensure it is not like any other month of the year. It is something etched in our minds,” she said.
“But honestly, now I see that social media platforms are promoting opulence in society, which is alarming,” Bahaziq added.


What is Al-Khayamiyya?

It is a type of decorative applique textile developed in Egypt and historically used to decorate tents across the Middle East.

90-year anniversary: How the Arab world came to know Tintin and Popeye

Updated 18 January 2019

90-year anniversary: How the Arab world came to know Tintin and Popeye

  • Middle Eastern fans fondly look back at two comic icons who share a birthday this year, although they’re not without controversy
  • An Egyptian publisher printed Tintin in Arabic, while Popeye was broadcast on Saudi Channel 2 and Spacetoon

Popeye, the scruffy sailor who remains one of the most loveable characters of all time, has been a popular fixture in Middle Eastern pop culture since the early 1980s. In addition to mountains of merchandise, particularly stuffed toys, being available in local shops, the cartoons were broadcast on Saudi Channel 2 (in their original English) and on Spacetoon (with Arabic dubbing). 
“I remember the first time I watched Popeye,” Zainab Basrawi, a 36-year-old insurance lawyer and self-professed Popeye enthusiast, told Arab News. “I learned to love spinach just from watching him save Olive every time. I believed him. I think he was a great influence on children to subtly ease them into eating their greens.”
Just one week after Tintin first appeared in “Le Petit Vingtieme,” Popeye made his debut on Jan. 17, 1929 as a side character in the daily King Features comic strip “Thimble Theatre.”
Created by the American cartoonist Elzie Crisler Segar, the one-eyed sailor with bulging forearms quickly grew in popularity, becoming the star of his own strip, an animated TV cartoon and a 1980 movie starring
Robin Williams. The theme song from the cartoon, “I’m Popeye the Sailorman,” is one of the most recognized pieces of music in pop culture history.
Compared to boyish, clean-cut, good- natured Tintin, Popeye is his polar opposite.
The sailor is rough, gruff and extremely tough, famous for the super-strength he gets from eating canned spinach, and his never-ending love triangle with his girlfriend Olive Oyl and rival Bluto.
Like Tintin, as a relic from another era, Popeye has also been criticized for racial stereotypes. In “Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and His Forty Thieves,” he is shown beating up poorly made caricatures of Arab men. In “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap,” the Japanese characters in the cartoon get the same treatment.
However, literary critic Sophie Cline said the comic strip is reflective of the time it was created in, almost a century ago. “I think it’s important not to ignore these pieces of our history, or hide them away, but rather to own up to our mistakes and learn from them,” she told Arab News.
She alluded to the new disclaimer that now precedes old Looney Tunes cartoons, informing viewers that their outdated “racial prejudices” no longer reflect Warner Bros. values but are “products of their time.”
“Popeye cartoons reflect the common view of the era,” she said. “A disclaimer should be enough.”

Tintin, one of the world’s most famous fictional journalists, traveled the world seeking stories and adventure, so he naturally spent a good amount of time in the Middle East.
Created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, better known by his pseudonym Herge (say his initials in reverse out loud in a French accent), Tintin travels the region in four of his books: “Cigars of the Pharaoh,” “The Crab with the Golden Claws,” “Land of Black Gold” and “The Red Sea Sharks.”
Tintin gained more of a foothold in the region when Egyptian publisher Dar Al-Maarif began printing the comics in Arabic in 1971. Renaming him “Tantan,” Dar Al-Maarif continued to publish the comics weekly
until 1980.
“Tintin has been one of my idols for as long as I can remember,” said Haytham Faisal, a journalist from Cairo. “I literally became a journalist because I wanted to be him. My dad used to take me to buy the comics from the local bookstore. I remember them being so expensive, so they were a rare treat. I’d always think twice before buying them, but I couldn’t always wait for the next comic to see what new story they have next. I still have some of them, they were that precious to me.”
Before appearing in book format, Tintin and his constant companion, the dog Snowy, were first introduced to audiences in “Le Petit Vingtieme,” or “The Little Twentieth,” a supplement to the Belgian newspaper “Le Vingtieme Siecle” (The Twentieth Century) on Jan. 4, 1929. Herge, however, maintained that Tintin was actually “born” on Jan. 10, when “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets” began its serialization in the paper.
Despite the fact that he never seems to hand in any stories, the loveable and quirky Tintin is portrayed as talented at his profession, so much so that he is shown to be in high demand, with many press agencies offering him bribes for his dispatches.
Over the years, Tintin’s face has been used to advertise quintessentially French items such as Citroen cars and La Vache Qui Rit cheese. Enthusiasts of Tintin lore, known as Tintinolo- gists, have written entire books devoted to him.
Since 1929, more than 250 million copies of the Tintin comic books have been sold. His adventures have been translated in more than 110 languages, and the books are sold in almost every country in the world.
Tintin continues to grow in popularity, even 90 years on. He was the star of a full-length feature film, directed by Steven Spielberg, in 2011 and of an animated television series. The latter was broadcast on Saudi Channel 2 between 1991 and 1992 and a dubbed version has been on MBC 3 since 2003.
However, the history of Tintin has not been without its hiccups. Over the years, critics have argued that, like many of the comics of the era, it should undergo censorship or even outright banning from bookstores and libraries. One of the more troublesome ones is his second adventure, “Tintin in the Congo.”
The natives Tintin visits are crude stereo- types of African people, who are portrayed as ignorant and uneducated, and the references to slavery, such as when the natives refer to Tintin as “master,” make the comics hard to stomach.
Similarly, “Land of Black Gold,” which takes place in a fictional Red Sea state named Khemed, is also banned in several Middle Eastern countries today for its stereotypical portrayal of Arabs.
While some argue the comics are simply byproducts of their era, they are nonetheless somewhat difficult to revisit in the modern era. Attempts have been made to soften some of the references, with edits being made to “Tintin in the Congo” in 1975, but is that enough?
Not according to the London-based human rights lawyer David Enright, who wrote in the Guardian newspaper that “Tintin in the Congo” shouldn’t be sold to children. “Books are precious, but so are the minds of young children. It is vital that our children learn and explore the grotesque history of slavery, racism and anti-Semitism, but in the proper context of the school curriculum.”