London's West End lit up in 'surreal moment' to celebrate Ramadan
Renowned for its annual Christmas display, Picadilly Circus being lit up for the 1st time for the holy month
When Aisha Desai was a child growing up in North London, one of her favourite things was going to see the Christmas lights in the West End every year.
She had no idea that one day she would be on Coventry Street near Piccadilly Square, and when the holiday lights were switched on, they would be celebrating a holiday closer to her heart — Ramadan.
"It was a surreal moment. It was a pinch-me moment," Desai, founder of Ramadan Lights UK and a major force behind the display, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.
"I never would have thought in my years of living in the West, in London, that I would be able to see my faith represented in such a positive light, in such a beautiful way."
Mayor flipped the switch
The iconic Piccadilly Circus area is renowned for its stunning holiday lights display every December: Santas, snowflakes, angels and other Christmas-themed symbols hang above the road amidst thousands of lights.
But this is the first time the street has been lit up to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, despite the fact that Muslims make up the second largest religious group in the city, according to the most recent U.K. census.
London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, himself a Muslim, flipped the switch that turned them on for the very first time last week.
During the holy month of Ramadan — this year celebrated from March 22 to April 21 — Muslims fast during the daylight hours, breaking the fast at sundown with a celebratory meal.
Desai says while there are a lot of Muslims in the U.K. and in London itself, interest in the Ramadan lights has stretched far beyond just people of her faith.
"It's been really amazing to see so many tourists take pictures, and then tourists actually asking Muslims on the roads, you know, 'What does this mean? What does Ramadan mean?'" she said.
"It's really beautiful to see our non-Muslim neighbours taking an interest in the light."
Reaction from around the world
Desai got the idea for the Ramadan display about three years ago. She and her sister were talking about the lights they had seen in the Middle East for the holiday, and they wondered if they could bring the sense of joy they felt there back to London.
"We said, maybe we can just start putting Happy Ramadan signs, lit up. So I crowdfunded through the community in North London, in particular — my hometown where I'm from — and that's where we started the project."
She says she never expected it to come together so soon in London's iconic West End — or be met with such positivity from right around the world — including Canada.
"I've had a lot of people, individuals messaging me ... on Instagram asking if we can bring this to Canada next year and how they can replicate that, which is amazing," she said.
"This is exactly why I wanted to do something like this. [It] was to inspire other people to do the same for their faith."
Shift in acceptance of other faiths
She says she has seen a great shift in London toward the acceptance of Islam and traditions like Ramadan since she was a child. She credits the younger generation.
"There's so many other young Muslims starting such great initiatives. We have open iftars around," she said, referring to public meals where people of all faiths are invited to join and break the Ramadan fast.
"There's just so many things happening now coming from the younger generation. And it's really causing, creating, this shift…. It's a beautiful moment."
The turnout for the first night the lights came on in London was even bigger than Desai expected, with hundreds of people filling the street.
"Everyone had the biggest smiles on their faces. And when I spoke to everyone after, they were like, 'This is such a historic moment. We have never seen something like this before. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.'"
She responded to the praise by saying that she did it for everyone.
"This is for me. This is for my four-year-old niece. This is for my parents. This is for, you know, all walks of lives, Muslim, non-Muslim — it's for everyone," she said.
"I hope it inspires other young people of other faiths to do the same."
Interview produced by Devin Nguyen.