London, UK – Situated in the cultural and academic heart of the British capital, Mallet Street Gardens is iconic for its boulevard of London plane trees.
Over the past four years, however, the site in London’s Bloomsbury has gained newfound fame.
It has become the home of the Ramadan Tent Project’s (RTP) – Open Iftar, a social enterprise where up to 300 people break their fast together during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.
At 8pm every day, the wrought-iron gates outside the Sunken Garden open, allowing hungry Londoners to make their way towards a large tent. Like an urban lighthouse, the oblong marquee glows in the receding daylight hours, a transparent roof allowing the leafy foliage of the trees above to be seen.
At the tent, the visitors are greeted by volunteers who give them blue plastic bags to place their shoes in so that they can walk barefoot inside the tent – just like in any mosque.
Founded in 2011 by Omar Salha, then a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Open Iftar began as a community initiative for international students who lacked the familial and communal settings they might have had at home.
“The idea was to provide a home-away-from-home feel. We had around 15 people attending the first Open Iftar on a small patch of grass on the grounds of SOAS,” said Salha.
Since then, Open Iftar has blossomed into a thriving project that is open to anyone.
“It slowly grew into incorporating people from all backgrounds, people who are homeless, passers-by, professionals, people of other faiths and ethnicities. It’s humbling to look back and think of how we first started”, said Salha.
|Open Iftar aims to create a safe space for British Muslims to engage with one another and with those unfamiliar with Islam [Aina Khan/Al Jazeera]|
Inspired by the tradition of erecting tents in the Turkish city of Istanbul during Ramadan, Salha said the notable absence of seating in the tent was a reminder of humility.
“It reminds us to be humble, in the sense that we are all sat down on the ground. Whether you’re an investment banker or a janitor, here we all come together, and we are treated equally,” he said.
Since its founding, Open Iftar has hosted 50,000 guests in seven universities across four continents from Zambia to the United States. This year also saw Open Iftar embark on its first UK tour to Bradford, Birmingham and Manchester.
Salha said the most important purpose of Open Iftar was to create a safe space for British Muslims to engage with one another and with those unfamiliar with Islam amid an increasingly anti-Muslim climate in the UK.
“Quite often, Muslims are spoken about but never spoken to. Open Iftar is a good opportunity to reframe the way Muslims are portrayed in the media and to engage with one another through social interactions like this. This is a diplomacy initiative, diplomacy of food, of faith, and obviously of one another because we have people here who have come from so many different countries,” he said.
Integral to the smooth operation of Open Iftar is its band of dedicated volunteers, many of whom are students.
“I have to submit my thesis in four months, so I’m super stressed,” said PhD student Rafeah, who has been a volunteer for three years.
“But when I come here, no matter how your day has gone, you forget about everything for a few hours, how stressed you are,” she added.
For Rafeah, sharing Open Iftar was an ingenious way of stoking conversations among strangers that resulted in inter-faith discussions and unlikely learning experiences through which friendships and understanding could be forged.
“When I first came as a guest four years ago, I didn’t know anyone, so I just started talking to the people sat next to me about work, about fasting. There were non-Muslims, so they started asking me questions about fasting and praying as well, so it’s actually a good way for people to get to know about Islam, because people might not know why Muslims fast, why we pray five times a day, why we can’t drink water,” she said.
“You learn about Judaism and Christianity as well, because some people are from those faiths and they also give an insight to their faith. You can see the comparisons and the similarities between all three religions which is cool because you’re educating yourself by coming here,” she added.
Since 2017, Open Iftar has played host to a number of speakers who deliver a series of TEDx–style talks called “RTP Talks”.
This year’s roster of speakers included Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow and London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Speaking to the largest audience the tent had ever seen, Khan said: “When you look around this tent, you see people of different backgrounds, actually different faiths, different ages, different ethnicities, different parts of the country, different parts of the world, men and women coming together to do the simplest thing, which is breaking bread, but coming together for those of us who are Muslims in the most holy of months during the most holy time of the month during the last 10 days.”
|Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, addressed the tent on Saturday [RTP – Open Iftar]|