As Muslims around the world celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, images of dinner tables, food recipes and group iftars and celebrations begin to flood social media.
One British documentary photographer thought he would share something different. He wanted to explore what Ramadan is really all about and what it means to Muslims who mark it every year.
Based in the Qatari capital of Doha, Nigel Downes says his day starts with the early morning (Fajr) call to prayer and ends with that of the last prayer of the day (Isha). Inspired by the spirit of Ramadan and the values shared by Muslims around him, he set out to capture the essence of the holy month with the help of his producer Samantha Maeer.
Each Muslim country celebrates the holy month differently, but at its core are shared Islamic values of tolerance, patience, empathy and selflessness. "30 Holy Days" features portraits of Doha's residents, their stories and how they perceive Ramadan.
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"I've been based in Qatar for almost a decade, so I have a large portfolio of mosque and minaret photographs," Nigel says. "We thought we could lead with artful Islamic images. However, as we discussed the project, and started shooting, we felt the need to understand Ramadan in a little more detail."
"Almost everyone we spoke to has their own personal take on the Holy period, and each one had valuable words of wisdom to impart," he says. "Regardless of race, religion or geographic locations these were simple messages that needed to be shared, especially in light of recent dark events around the world."
"We've met well known imams, bead makers, sweet makers, mothers and ordinary folk from around the world," Samantha told MEMO. "So over the holy month we will post one celebratory image per day on all our social media channels."
"By asking people what Ramadan means to them we have been invited into their homes and are now telling the story of how Qatar celebrates this special period."
30 Holy days
On the first day of Ramadan, Nigel shared his first portrait of the series featuring Dominic Foley, an Englishman from Woking, Surrey in the UK. Dominic converted to Islam from Catholicism in his early 30s and moved to Doha ten years ago. Now, he is an Imam at two of the most prominent mosques in Doha; Qatar State Mosque and Al-Fanar Mosque.
"Samantha was introduced to Dominic by one of our newly acquired friends from Qatar Foundation, who had sent a link to his video on YouTube. We watched it and immediately said 'we need to meet this guy, I just know you will both get along'. And that was that, Sam tracked Dominic down (that's what she does) and the next thing I knew we were stood in the State Mosque watching and listening to Dominic as he entertained and enlightened visitors and gave them their first introduction to Islam. Sam was right, I liked Dominic immediately.
Dominic reverted to Islam from Catholicism in the early 2000s. He moved to Qatar in 2009 and following a period of study, recital and memorisation of the Qu'ran is now an imam at both the State Mosque and Al Fanar Mosque where he leads prayers and often gives tours.
Since then we've interacted with Dominic regularly whilst he explained his views on Ramadan. This will be Dominic's 12th year within Islam and yet he never takes it lightly. In his words 'fasting teaches him consciousness over his environment, especially when it comes to reacting to social situations' – it's also an incredibly social time and gives gravity and empathy to those less fortunate than ourselves who cannot or do not eat on a daily basis. During Ramadan, we still only fast on our own terms and for that we should be grateful. According to Dominic, Eid is a wondrous charitable time where rich and poor come together with an amazing sense of Brotherhood seldom experienced anywhere else."
Day 2 – Reem Hamid
"This Ramadan photograph typifies what I always set out to do in my mind, nothing big, nothing amazing and nothing sensational. For me, Reem's photograph is the perfect Ramadan image, and I hope it sends out the perfect message.
I try and capture something of the spirit in people and I hope that comes across. If you have ever been photographed by me you know I chat a lot during the process, but what you don't know is I'm actually watching your reactions and working out how best to frame you. It helps that I like most people and I find most people interesting.
The best compliment I could receive for my photography would be for the viewer to feel comfortable with my subjects to the point they would want to share a cup of tea and maybe a ginger biscuit (or a cake) and have a chat with the person. Obviously during Ramadan that would be in the evening. And that brings me to today's introduction Reem Hamid.
We met Reem for a friendly conversation and cake (it wasn't Ramadan) as she explained her personal side of the holy month. Reem was born in the Czech Republic, and grew up in the UK, Yemen and Egypt. She moved to Qatar in 2016, that's a story all on its own.
In her words:
'Ramadan is my favourite month of the year, where I get a chance to reset spiritually, reflect, count and observe all of God's blessings. The Ramadan spirit makes it easy to take actions towards a positive change. Most of my recitation of the Qur'an happens in Ramadan as many Muslims complete it cover to cover.
Every page holds for me a key to myself, stories of the world and hereafter and brings me back to my centre. I have observed Ramadan in a few countries, and I love how communities come together in worship and small acts of support and giving. It really is heartwarming.'
If you have access to the Qur'an Reem recommends you read Surah Al-Baqara, verse 185 for a better understanding of the holy month."
Day 3 – Ahmed Mohammed, 'the sweet maker'
"Whilst location scouting in Souq Waqif, Samantha (my producer) and I came across 'Al Jamal Sweets' a small artisan shop producing in house traditional sweets. As we entered we were welcomed in Arabic by Ahmed Mohammed the Iranian sweet maker and confectioner. It has to be said, just like his craft Ahmed Mohammed has the sweetest of smiles.
Al Jamal Sweets was established in 1967 and has been making and supplying traditional sweet treats and confectionary to the residents of Doha for 52 years. For the last 15 years almost all of the products have been produced on site in the family's small shop deep in the heart of Souq Waqif.
Ahmed Mohammed has been a resident of Doha for 60 years and has spent most of his life making traditional sweets from ancient recipes. Whilst Ahmed follows the religious aspect of Ramadan very closely, he feels a special bond with Ramadan due to his unique craft. Ahmed's sweets and confectionary play an essential part in supporting the cultural practices of Ramadan.
Ahmad explained that at the end of the day when the fast is broken people feel the need to quickly increase blood sugar for medicinal purposes, this is done by way of sweet drinks and sweet confectionary. During the holy month, Ahmed and his small family team increase production by at least 300 per cent in order to supply the demand for Iftar and Suhor. Additionally Ahmed's sweets will also be used in most households as an offering of hospitality to guests."
Day 4 – Zahra Shikara
"During our research into Ramadan we came across a self-awareness discussion group and met Zahra. Zahra's articulate explanation of her personal Ramadan journey gave us the inspiration to make this project more about people.
Born in Edinburgh to Iraqi parents, Zahra grew up in London and has lived in Doha for 13 years. Zahra somehow finds time to be a holistic health and wellness coach, a motivational speaker and a social media influencer. I forgot to mention she's also a martial art expert so don't disagree with her opinions. If all of the above isn't impressive enough, she also bakes healthy organic confectionary, and so we went to see her bake.
In her words:
'Ramadan is a time for self-reflection, which I believe is best done in silence and in service. Cooking can be a meditative experience as you focus on combining delicious ingredients, flavours and textures to please the taste-buds of those breaking fast. Personally, I eat in homes at Ramadan.
I avoid commercial mass-produced foods, preferring friends, family and my own creations! I love experiencing how different families break their fast and I treasure the energy and love that goes into cooking.
A staple dessert in my home is the delectable baklawa, layers of filo pastry lightly brushed with melted butter, filled with brown sugar, rose water and crushed pistachios, then drenched in sweet rose-flavoured syrup and sprinkled with more pistachios and rose petals – you won't find anything like it in the shops – it's fresh, crisp, light, nutty and chocolatey yet not overly sweet.
One of the best things about home-cooking in Ramadan is sharing our meals with workers in the area. They enjoy quality wholesome home-cooked food as most of them are away from their families and their big smiles light up my day each and every time.'"
Day 5 – Education City Mosque
"Education City Mosque is located in the Minaretein building on the Qatar Foundation campus. We reached out to Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies (QFIS) to learn more about Ramadan, they were incredibly welcoming and invited Samantha and I to Friday prayers.
I photographed the facility in 2018 and I can honestly say it's an architectural masterpiece. Under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser, the building was designed to unite worship and knowledge in one place.
Although an extremely modern building it contains many symbolic and poetic references to Islam and its civilisation. With a capacity for 1,800 worshippers in its main prayer hall and another 1,000 in its exterior courtyard it serves as both a centre of learning and a community mosque for the surrounding Al Rayyan area.
The Mosque rests on five large columns representing the five pillars of Islam, each pillar featuring a verse drawn from the Holy Qur'an.
The Shahadah (Declaration of faith).
Fasting during the month of Ramadan (Sawm)
Charity or alms-giving (zakah)
I photographed the mosque using extremely slow shutter speeds to demonstrate the enormity and beauty of the space and its accessibility to the local community all the while respecting the personal privacy of the nature of prayer. You can clearly see the prayer lines extending from the interior prayer hall to the exterior landscape of the building, echoing the notion that the entire earth is a ground for prayer."
Day 6 – Mohammed Younus, 'Maker of prayer beads'
"After Photographing a mosque during sunset, we came across Younus from Bangladesh, making prayers beads in one of the narrow alleyways in Souq Waqif. It was a chance meeting.
Sam is similar to me in that she's also a people person, she immediately struck up a conversation with Younus and asked the meaning behind the beads. Younus was fascinating, lovely and uber friendly. We liked Younus so much we decided to photograph him working and include his story.
Younus produces huge amounts of prayer beads for the season, throughout our conversation he never once stopped working. Business is good during the holy period and he eventually hopes to earn enough money to return home to his wife and start a family.
During the holy month Younus' fasting constantly reminds him of his connection to his faith, and more importantly, he wishes to behave in a way that will please God. We asked him if fasting was difficult and he replied: 'Of course the sacrifice is not easy, but I will be rewarded for my devotion when I reach heaven.'"
Day 7 – Elizabeth Wood
"Elizabeth was put forward as someone we should meet, the best way to do so was to attend one of her group personal development discussions held weekly at the Pearl. We enjoyed the event and had a good debate over the meaning of the word vulnerability. I should point out Elizabeth is a life coach and extremely interesting to chat to.
Elizabeth is an English revert originally from Yorkshire in the North of England. If you don't know England, the northern part is where all the clever and wonderful people live. Sam and I can state this is 100 per cent accurate because we are also Northerners! She moved to Doha ten years ago and started a family with her Iranian husband.
'Ramadan is a month in which introspection of my own self occurs more frequently. It is a month of heightened awareness about my ego, worship, emotions, actions or lack thereof, and my personal connection with my Creator.
The overall concept of Ramadan occurs in the preceding months, and I can only measure my success upon how I have improved when Ramadan is over, and how I am doing the rest of the year.
I ask myself how well have I achieved the goals I set? Are they on par with my potential? Are those successes aligned with what I believe my Creator wishes from me? As much as I question others and existential concepts as part of my innate energy, Ramadan is a month to put myself under the microscope and ask myself questions, with the aim to live purposefully and attain a better state of piety.'"
Day 8 – Adnan, 'the drink maker'
"I have always enjoyed the traditional drinks that appear during Ramadan, to discover more we tracked down the man who makes them, Chef Adnan of the Four Seasons.
Growing up in the mountain region of Syria, Adnan was influenced by his mother who taught traditional cooking. Driven by his mother's passion for cooking he began experimenting by mixing traditional recipes with herbs and spices from the surrounding area. Adnan believes a good way of understanding a culture is by trying the food, and he often includes ingredients unique to his place of birth.
His culinary journey has taken him from Saudi Arabia to the Royal Family's Chef in Qatar. Adnan believes Ramadan is the month that shows you the true meaning of Islam, the religion of mercy, love and tolerance and a time when we are closest to our god.
This year the Holy Month falls in the summer season, making fasting a difficult task for Muslims. As the body loses liquids, it is necessary to drink more water and juices after Iftar, and so Adnan prepares the following traditional popular drinks that are both healthy and great taste.
Qamar Al-Din, made from either rolled dried apricot or dried apricot paste.
Karkadeh, a sweet infusion made from hibiscus flowers which can be consumed either cold or as a hot tea.
Tamr Hindi, a popular summer drink in the Middle East, which is widely sold on the street and in shops. It is named after the Arabic for tamarind fruit, the name literally translates to 'Indian dates'. Erk Sous, a black, mildly sweet and slightly bitter beverage, although not to everyone's taste, this healthy drink is made from liquorice root."
Follow Nigel's photostory on Instagram and Facebook as he continues to share the stories of the people of Qatar throughout Ramadan.
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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.