Ramadan, Islam’s holiest season has just begun, and as Muslims around the world begin a month-long period of prayer and fasting, manufacturers across the Middle East have little reason to smile as they find themselves edged out with increasing numbers of Chinese producers flooding their markets with products that are cheaper and better than their own. Adding salt to injury is the fact that many of these products are symbols of their own cultural and history. Gulf News reports that made-in-China Ramadan lanterns are all the rage now, much to the chagrin of traditional Egyptian craftsmen:
Since walking into the vocation of lantern-making more than 30 years ago, Ahmad Abdul Gafour has been attached to Ramadan.
“We had to work all year in my father’s workshop in order to meet the high demand for the traditional tin and glass lanterns celebrating the month of Ram-adan,” Abdul Gafour, 53, told Gulf News. “But gone are the days.”
“Over recent years, Chinese lanterns, made of plastics and powered by batteries have invaded Egypt, upstaging the local lanterns,” he explained.
Chinese-made lanterns, which play music, have attracted many people in this predominantly Muslim country of 80 million due to their attractive look and cheap prices.
Every Ramadan, Chinese manufacturers are keen to introduce into the Egyptian market lanterns of various shapes. The most popular lanterns this Ramadan are those shaped like tuk-tuks (three wheelers) and camels.
Meanwhile, as the iconic Palestinian keffiyeh (pictured above) has been carried across the globe by anti-war activists and fashion wannabe’s, the black-and-white checkered scarf (first worn by Yasser Arafat in the 1960s), has become increasingly disconnected from the land in which it was born and the struggle it represents. AFP reports:
…for Yasser al-Hirbawi, the owner of a keffiyeh factory in the southern West Bank town of Hebron, the growing demand has brought increased competition from Chinese manufacturers which are capturing local markets.
“Before they started importing from China we had 15 machines running 20 hours a day. Now we only use four, and we only work eight hours,” Hirbawi says above the roar of the looms inside a dark, mostly unused warehouse.
When the 75-year-old started his factory in 1961 the keffiyeh was not yet a political symbol but a normal part of local dress.
“This is our national dress. You don’t see them much now in the summer, but in the winter everyone wears them because it keeps the cold out,” Hirbawi says, pulling the corner of his loose-hanging keffiyeh across his face.
He wears the scarf with an ankle-length grey robe, a tweed sportscoat, and brown sandals, the standard outfit of Palestinian men of his generation.
But since China’s rise in the 1990s, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, like much of the rest of the world, has been flooded with mass-produced goods.
And in the global fervour that followed the outbreak of the 2000 Palestinian uprising foreign manufacturers were much better placed to benefit from the increased demand than merchants like Hirbawi, who does not export.
“Today the customers, especially the foreigners, prefer the imports. God only knows why,” he says as he pinches tobacco from an old silver case and rolls a cigarette. “They should buy from us and support the local industry.”
The above news should come as no surprise. For a long time now, Chinese manufacturers have been making everything from statues of Guru Nanak (revered by the Sikhs), to Hindu gods such as Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesh, to the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico.
Photo by Andrew Coulter Enright