Since its inception, Open Iftar has hosted 50,000 guests in seven universities across four continents.
Situated in the cultural and academic heart of the British capital, Malet 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.
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.