It's midday on Saturday—lunch-time if it weren't Ramadan—and Farah Sheikh is on the air in a tiny studio decorated with religious posters and taped-up reminders to her and other announcers. She is hosting a phone-in discussion on religion and what it means to be a good Muslim—in Urdu, the mother tongue of many of her listeners. One caller asks whether it's right for him to go to Pakistan on vacation instead of accompanying the rest of his family on the pilgrimage to Makkah. No, says another caller, go on the Hajj. In a break in the discussion, Sheikh adjusts her headphones, then speaks into the microphone. "You're listening to FAST-FM on 105.8 fm, Ramadan radio service for Bradford."
FAST-FM is no ordinary radio station. Since 1992 it has been bringing its special Ramadan radio service to Muslims in the Yorkshire town of Bradford, in the north of England, and it was the first in Britain to do so. Under British law, almost anyone can apply for a"restricted service license" to broadcast on the public airwaves usually for up to a month, as long as there is no station in the area already serving the same audience. Often such licenses are granted to groups from the local community that are sponsored by local businesses, and the temporary stations are run by a mixture of amateur and professional broadcasters.
"I went 'round Bradford asking businesses if they would sponsor us," says Yaqoob Ali, one of the founders of FAST-FM. There was strong support for the idea among both Muslim and non-Muslim entrepreneurs, he found, and people donated money or equipment, or provided premises for the studio—housed this year above a travel agency run by Arshad Mahmood.
The station broadcasts around the clock in Urdu and English from the beginning of Ramadan until the 'Id, the festival which follows the month of daytime fasting. "Basically, we discuss Islam," says program editor Qasim Khan, also one of the station's founders. "We broadcast the prayer call five times a day, devotional programs and recitals of the Qur'an."
FAST-FM also features guests who provide community information on social services, education, health or immigration issues—all matters of interest to a large minority community embedded in a culture very different from its own. But the main aim of the station, Khan says, is to bring people together to dicuss their common faith. "All the presenters talk about religion and the significance of Ramadan."
Ramadan is a time of heightened spirituality, awareness and community feeling for Muslims around the world. For a month, they refrain from eating, drinking and smoking during daylight hours. Because the Muslim calendar is a lunar one (See Aramco World, July/August 1979), the holy month begins 11 days earlier each year than the year before; this year it began on January 21 of the western Gregorian calendar.
When Ramadan falls in winter and daylight hours are short, as now, it is in some ways easier to keep the fast—but northern England's bitter winter weather is hard to endure on an empty stomach. And most Muslims find that keeping Ramadan is more difficult in non-Muslim countries like Britain, where most people's routines carry on as normal, and where non-Muslim co-workers or friends do not observe—or perhaps even notice—the fast.
No one knows exactly how many Muslims there are in Britain, but estimates cluster around the figure one million. The country's total population is almost 57 million. In Bradford, however, around one in 10 of the town's residents is Muslim, many of them originally from Pakistan, India or Bangladesh.
Just 15 kilometers (10 miles) to the east, the city of Leeds also has a thriving Muslim community, and here too a radio station is on the air during the month of Ramadan. "We have a whole range of people involved in it," says Arshed Javed, one of the organizers of Ramadan Radio. "Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Arabs, Malays and Iranians—all living in Leeds."
This is the second year that Ramadan Radio has been broadcasting. During the rest of the year, when they are not actually on the air, the group runs training courses in radio production for unemployed people in the area, with funding from the local Training and Enterprise Council.
The station's trainer is Masood Sadiq, who lectures in radio journalism. During Ramadan, he is on hand to help the less experienced announcers like Nadim Tahir, Yasrab Shah and Omar Mian, whose program for younger listeners, "Islamic Vibes," goes out each weekday afternoon. Masood advises them on how to structure and present their show, and gives them support. "We do need the guidance," says Nadim. "And he'll be quite frank with you: He says things like 'You're sounding boring! Lighten up a bit,' or 'That conversation was too long.' I think it makes for a better show."
Ramadan Radio's programs are organized so that the announcers can carry out their religious duties and still keep the station running smoothly. "All of us observe the prayers and the fasting, but we don't go off to pray all at once; we go in groups," says Tayyeb Shah, who hosts a call-in show on weekday afternoons.
In his program, Tayyeb aims for an international flavor, with phone calls from Muslims around the world, including from Istanbul, Toronto or Rome. "I want people to realize that Muslims come in all colors, all nationalities," he says.
As the time to break the fast approaches, the family of one of the station's announcers brings bowls of food into the studio. Everyone there first eats a date, following the practice of the Prophet Muhammad when he observed Ramadan. Then they share traditional dishes such as bhajis, curry, rice and chappatis.
Outside the studio as well, there is a good atmosphere during Ramadan, as people meet at sunset to break their fast together and to pray; Muslims living in non-Muslim countries often feel drawn more closely to their worldwide community and to their faith. "For that particular month, you're transformed," explains Qasim Khan.
Radio stations like FAST-FM and Ramadan Radio play their part in bringing the local Muslim communities together in Britain. Radio reminds individuals that they are not alone. "A lot of people cried when we went off the air last year," says Ishtiaq Mir of Ramadan Radio. "For the older people especially, who may feel isolated, listening to the youngsters on the radio, in their own language, speaking of their own religion, is something very special."
Cathy Aitchison is a London journalist with a special interest in cross-cultural communications.
Melanie Friend is represented in London by Format Partners and Panos Pictures.