From a small gathering in Bloomsbury, Omar Salha’s Open Iftar has grown into a global movement that aims to bridge the divisions between faiths…
‘I look forward to Ramadan all year. It’s the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, where Muslims abstain from food and drink for up to 19 hours at a time. My favourite bit is how everything is done together, from praying to breaking your fast – known as iftar. Celebrating iftar with your loved ones is really special.
In 2013, I was an international diplomacy undergraduate student at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies). I noticed that during Ramadan, I’d tend to break my fast at home, at a friend’s house or in the mosque. There wasn’t a place where Muslims could share the occasion with the wider community. That’s how I came up with the idea to set up Open Iftar as part of my social enterprise Ramadan Tent Project, so that London’s Muslims can come together and break their fast with people of all backgrounds.
We held the very first Open Iftar in 2013 on the SOAS campus. We invited international students, the wider community, passers-by and people from local homeless shelters. It was completely free to attend and 150 people turned up: people of different faiths and no faiths; tourists and international students; deaf and disabled people; toddlers, babies and 80-year-olds. Over the evening, guests got to appreciate the differences of their fellow Londoners while celebrating what we have in common. Most attendees said they couldn’t believe that something like it had never taken place before. That spurred me to keep going.
Since 2013, with the help of funding from several charities, we’ve held Open Iftar every Ramadan in Malet Street Gardens. Just over half of our guests are Muslim, but anyone from any background is always welcome. It’s a chance for British Muslims to feel a sense of belonging as citizens in society, and for the public to speak to us and to understand that we’re not a homogenous group: we’re actually pretty diverse.
There’s a great sense of achievement seeing strangers from all walks of life break their fast together with water and medjool dates. Everyone sits on the grass, sharing their meal with people of different ethnicities, faiths and nationalities, laughing and chatting despite having only met that night. The food celebrates the diversity of our community: Jamaican, Turkish, Malaysian, Indonesian. There are even burgers and chips! There’s a real sense of joy and euphoria. It’s like a massive family coming together, finding out they have a long-lost cousin they never knew about.
With the Manchester terror attack, the Westminster Bridge attack and the Grenfell fire last Ramadan, 2017 was a challenging year for British Muslims. Anti-Muslim hate crime rose by 40 percent in London. It felt important for us to stand united against fear and hatred, welcoming nearly 9,000 people to our Open Iftar.
We’ve also expanded the project beyond London, serving 60,000 meals in seven cities and four continents. Bringing people together and bridging different communities is the spirit of Ramadan. It’s really humbling to think back to that first year, when I turned up with a trolley full of juice cartons!’