‘It’s not ours any more’: the changing face of Lakemba’s Ramadan night markets

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Steven Saphore/AAP</span>
Photograph: Steven Saphore/AAP

Fauzan Ahmad has watched the Ramadan night markets in Sydney’s Lakemba grow from a low-key, informal gathering to a full-scale festival.

The food markets, held annually in the suburb that is a significant hub for Muslims in Sydney, have grown in popularity in recent years. Today Ramadan Nights attracts thousands of people from across the city – Muslim and non-Muslim – to Haldon Street.

Held every night over the month of Ramadan, the markets feature a range of food stalls selling everything from camel burgers to tandoori chicken, as well as sweets such as knafeh and drinks including Kashmiri tea or sahlab.

But to Ahmad, the manager at Lakemba institution the Darussalam bookstore, things changed two years ago when the local council got involved in organising the event. Despite the market’s success, it is a change he has observed with some sadness.

“It went from a few hundred people on the road to tens of thousands of people, and the sheer number of people is great, but it isn’t a Muslim event any more.

“There just isn’t an Islamic ethos that frames the festival any more. Before, it used to be centred on our prayers, people would finish praying and go out. Now the council sets the time and the streets are full, regardless of what the prayer times are,” he says.

The markets were initially set up around the rituals of Ramadan, a month where Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and practice various forms of self-restraint as a means of getting closer to God.

A number of ad hoc stalls emerged in Haldon Street roughly a decade ago, providing Muslims a place to eat and gather late at night once their prayers were completed.

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Two years ago Canterbury-Bankstown Council stepped in, closed the street and advertised the markets to a wider audience, bringing in thousands of non-Muslims from across the city and prompting other councils to organise their own Ramadan night markets.

But not everyone in the Muslim community is enamoured with the success.

“It’s something that’s not ours any more. It’s a very spiritual month for us, and there’s nothing there that represents the rituals or the fasting,” says Ahmad.

He says people attempting to pray the special nightly Ramadan prayers at Lakemba mosque have struggled with traffic and parking due to the market’s popularity.

Muslim worshipers pray at the Lakemba mosque on the first night of Ramadan on 22 March.
Muslim worshipers pray at the Lakemba mosque on the first night of Ramadan on 22 March. Photograph: Roni Bintang/Getty Images

To Ahmad, that reflects the market becoming more distant from its roots as a Muslim space.

“A majority of the attendees are non-Muslim, and while that is not a negative, it would have been good to explain to them what Ramadan is and not have this glossed-up event instead.”

Ahmad acknowledges Canterbury-Bankstown Council did make efforts to engage the community, but says more can be done.

To the local restaurants, the growth of the markets has proven a boon for business.

People attend the Ramadan Nights food and cultural festival in Lakemba.
Food vendors chat to customers at the Ramadan night markets. Photograph: Steven Saphore/AAP

Salim Shaikh, owner and manager of Haldon Street chicken shop Extra Crispy, says: “It’s good for Lakemba, good for Haldon Street, good for us all. Personally, this isn’t about making the markets more overtly Muslim, but about bringing in more people.

“It has become very commercialised, yes, but this event should be for everyone.”

Shaikh says he welcomes the involvement of the council as it has made the event more organised and attracted more customers.

“It’s been better under the council, no doubt about it. We want it to get bigger, it brings more people here and improves our area.”

Food vendors chat to customers at the Ramadan night markets.
Ramadan Nights attracts visitors from across Sydney and interstate. Photograph: Steven Saphore/EPA

The mayor, Khal Asfour, says the council had to get involved when the markets began attracting “huge numbers of people” from across Sydney and interstate.

“Council’s role includes overseeing road closures, crowd management, safety and food handling, along with parking issues,” he says.

But concern remains among some members of the Muslim community about the perceived “commercialisation” of the event.

Food vendors cater for the crowds on Haldon Street.
Food vendors cater for the crowds on Haldon Street. Photograph: Steven Saphore/AAP

Dr Mehal Krayem, researcher and author with a focus on race and gender, says the “bureaucratisation” of these events strips them of their meaning.

“Once the councils get involved, it no longer becomes a thing that is curated by and for the Muslim community. It then becomes a much bigger community event and organisers must think about how you make it palatable to non-Muslims. And I think it changes the experience,” she says.

Krayem argues the shifting purposes behind the event amounts to gentrification. She points to increased food and drink prices as well as the application process for stalls that could prevent more ad hoc stalls taking part.

“This is the way that you gentrify these spaces – you no longer make them about the community that started them.”

Food vendors prepare Turkish coffee at the Ramadan nights markets.
A vendor prepares Turkish coffee at the Ramadan nights markets. Photograph: Steven Saphore/AAP

Krayem says it is important to also recognise the political context the festival exists in, coming after two decades of rising Islamophobia and demonisation of Muslims.

“I don’t feel like there is wider acknowledgement of the trauma Muslims have been through in the past two decades, where Muslims were treated like terrorists. And these festivals are arguably sweeping the rhetoric surrounding the war on terror under the rug,” she says.

“And they do that by appropriating Ramadan and making it about the consumption of food, when it is about the opposite.”