Photographers / Scroll.In

Abdul Halik Azeez, Amjad Saleem, Amaani Niyaz, Hana Niyaz: Celebrating Ramadan in Sri Lanka

The twelve people behind The Ramadan Project are good friends – some are even related. Four of them gather in a home in Colombo, after prayers on a Wednesday evening to talk about a project they hope will help change the way Muslims are perceived in Sri Lanka.

By @mufarris Roadside cap stall. Eid rush #EidMubarak #MyRamadan #ramadanlk #ramadaninsl #thepettahproject

A photo posted by The Ramadan Project (@theramadanproject) on Jul 17, 2015 at 5:02pm PDT

Among the group is Abdul Halik Azeez, a young economist with a background in journalism and an interest in photography. With over 19,000 followers on the popular photo sharing site, Azeez a.k.a @colombedouin is among Sri Lanka’s most popular Instagrammars. He remembers the day he signed up for an account on the site simply because it was also his first time visiting the courts in Hulftsdorp. (In a dramatic twist, he was there to provide a witness account of a mutilated corpse he found on the side of the road. He thought his first visit to the courts might be worth immortalising.)

Since he first logged on in late 2012, he has shared some 1300 images on the site, and was even invited to stage an exhibition at the Saskia Fernando Gallery last year – a first not just for the gallery but for the country. The exhibition served to highlight how he functions in part as a documentary photographer, accompanying his striking images with incisive captions that provided context and insight.

By @colombedouin Kid Samosa. One thing Aluthkade (aka Hulftsdorp) seemingly has no shortage of during Ramadan is street food, even on less crowded streets such as this. In fact, at first glance there appears to be more food than people. But then you realize that there are way more people living here than is immediately obvious. We ran into a huge street iftar that must have easily fed 2000, all sitting in two rows facing each other along a narrow side street. All the usual Ramadan fare is out in force, and then some. Didn’t have a chance to try out a whole lotta food, but I had some milk hoppers that I could have kept eating all night if I hadn’t controlled myself with the kind of willpower that only Ramadan can give you. Alhamdulillah. Great photo-walking with @nazlyahmed and @christianhutterphoto, check out their feeds for more. #samosa #vscocam #RamadanLK #srilanka  #streetphotography #ramadan #ramadaninsl

A photo posted by The Ramadan Project (@theramadanproject) on Jul 11, 2015 at 11:39pm PDT

It’s the same approach that makes The Ramadan Project interesting. A small group of instagrammars have been updating the account with images and stories related to their experiences of Ramadan. They also have a Facebook group and are active on Twitter. Anyone wishing to contribute can do so using #RamadanLK.

By @mufarris Roadside cap stall. Eid rush #EidMubarak #MyRamadan #ramadanlk #ramadaninsl #thepettahproject

A photo posted by The Ramadan Project (@theramadanproject) on Jul 17, 2015 at 5:02pm PDT

Interestingly, the submissions that have been pouring in seem to be meant for non-Muslims, as they explain not just the customs and rituals around the period of fasting but also reveal its personal relevance to those of the faith. Together, they also seem to be enjoying discovering the ways in which Sri Lanka’s Ramadan festivities are unique – from the delicious kanji recipes to variations in celebrations across different mosques in the city.

Amjad Saleem came up with the original idea for The Ramadan Project, and for him it’s a way of “reimagining Ramadan.” With a day job as a consultant on peacebuilding and humanitarian affairs, he wanted to help people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, understand what Ramadan really is about. For Muslims, he sees it as way to go beyond the ritualistic aspects to find true spirituality. His wife Amaani Niyaz agrees. For her these days of fasting are about family and friends, a reiteration that coming together as a community makes them all stronger. It’s also a time of year when she sees herself progress and grow spiritually.

Referring to the tensions between some local Buddhists and Muslims in recent years, Saleem says he hopes the stories and photographs will help Sri Lankans of every faith understand his community better. “To some it must seem like Muslims disappear into some black hole for a month,” he says. Sitting next to him, Azeez agrees. He says he’s still surprised by how little some of his friends and acquaintances understand his community’s customs but also wants to encourage his fellow believers to step out of their bubble and examine their faith.

The collection of posts do offer you unique, intimate images – from the sprawl of men catching a quick nap in the mosque before prayers to the little room where the women come to say theirs. Hana Niyaz, the fourth in the group, is quick to admit she doesn’t have a way with words but she speaks with a quiet intensity when she describes what it is like to be at the mosque.

Explaining that a majority of mosques are not open to women the rest of the year, Hana says “there’s a huge difference when we have the opportunity to go the mosque to pray. I feel an inner peace that I do not when I am at home, when I can feel bombarded with other thoughts. I feel like my faith is much stronger and I love being there with everybody.”

Social media has provided this generation of progressive but deeply spiritual young people a space in which to share their thoughts and learn from each other. “In some Muslim establishments, ‘progressive’ can be a dirty word,” says Azeez, explaining he and others like him are actually interested in unearthing the truths that underlie their faith.

By @colombedouin Kid Samosa. One thing Aluthkade (aka Hulftsdorp) seemingly has no shortage of during Ramadan is street food, even on less crowded streets such as this. In fact, at first glance there appears to be more food than people. But then you realize that there are way more people living here than is immediately obvious. We ran into a huge street iftar that must have easily fed 2000, all sitting in two rows facing each other along a narrow side street. All the usual Ramadan fare is out in force, and then some. Didn’t have a chance to try out a whole lotta food, but I had some milk hoppers that I could have kept eating all night if I hadn’t controlled myself with the kind of willpower that only Ramadan can give you. Alhamdulillah. Great photo-walking with @nazlyahmed and @christianhutterphoto, check out their feeds for more. #samosa #vscocam #RamadanLK #srilanka  #streetphotography #ramadan #ramadaninsl

A photo posted by The Ramadan Project (@theramadanproject) on Jul 11, 2015 at 11:39pm PDT

Later this month, Amaani and Hana are looking forward to exploring healthier diets during Ramadan. Amaani is a dentist, Hana a student of nutrition and dietetics. As part of a “healthy Ramadan” campaign Hana tells people to cut out diuretics like tea and coffee and go easy on the dates, which though extremely nutritious are also high in calories.  The group are also planning ‘potluck Ramadans’ with invitees from many different faiths. Next year they hope to expand into larger real world events and reach out on varied platforms in local languages like Sinhala and Tamil.

Says Saleem, “For us, The Ramadan Project is not about an organisation, we’re actually just a loose group of friends who want to talk about what being Muslim means to us, not because we want to convert anyone but because we are proud of our culture.”

By @thegutterflower While fasting when in university, sahars were maggi or leftovers from dinner and ifthar, often water and dates. Sometimes I’d go out for a meal with friends if I wanted to indulge myself but this was rare – Delhi summers are unmerciful and the weather leaves you wilted and with little energy. Ramadan is such a communal time and fasting alone can be incredibly lonely. One of the things I’m grateful for about being back in SL during #ramadan is the family time and camaraderie it brings with it. Here, our uncle has dropped in after a shift at the hospital to break fast and we have coaxed our reclusive grandmother to join us. You can’t see our faces, but we’re smiling. #vscocam#ramadanlk #srilanka #ramadan #myramadan #Islam #muslim #sharingRamadan

A photo posted by The Ramadan Project (@theramadanproject) on Jun 30, 2015 at 9:54am PDT

Published in Scroll.in on July 14, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy the Ramadan Project. 

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