I’m on a farm in England where thousands of people have come from all over the world, camping gear in tow. They’ve been waiting for this event all year. Rows of flags are billowing in the wind. Beneath them, men are prostrated in prayer. They rise when a voice calls “Allahu Akbar.” This is Jalsa Salana – or ‘Muslim Glastonbury’, as it’s also known – a three-day annual convention for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community that brings together 39,000 people to a 200-acre farm in Alton, Hampshire, to learn more about the faith.
In a way, Jalsa Salana is just like Glasto except it’s been running for longer (53 years) and is a fifth of the size. Oh, and there’s no music or alcohol. OK, it’s quite different, but one common point is the abundance of food. Free hot meals are cooked and served daily on site, run entirely by volunteers. I’m here to find out how a food operation of this scale happens.
At the four pop-up kitchens, you see men everywhere. Chopping, cooking, cleaning – everything is done by more than 200 male volunteers. They get through tonnes of rice, lentils, pasta, mutton, spices. “We’re making 80,000 meals per day,” says Rafi Shah, manager of the main kitchen, casually as if that isn’t the most stressful thing in the world to be in charge of. “At times it’s tense, you’ve got so many people and things to co-ordinate. But it always comes together.”
The menu caters for various diets, but the traditional dish is aloo gosht (meat and potato curry). Each 50-litre pot feeds 150 people and takes three hours to make, starting with enough chopping to put your arm in a sling. Volunteers chop 30 boxes of coriander and cut 2,800 onions and potatoes, daily.
I’m starting to sweat, either from the stress of watching people work or because we’re basically in a giant stove; it’s fucking hot. Waseem Ahmedi has endured the stifling temperatures for hours, but he greets me with a smile. “I’ve been volunteering here for 15 years,” he says. By day, he’s a police sergeant. “It’s a relaxed atmosphere because it’s so well-run.”
He’s right – despite the pressure, there’s no Ramsay-style screaming or people having meltdowns. They work diligently as the clock ticks down to lunchtime. “Timing is everything,” states Rafi. “We have deadlines to keep – it’s more-or-less non-stop.”
The same is true of their neighbours in the roti plant. A fully-fledged bread factory is making 10,000 rotis per hour (300,000 in three days). Puffed-up pittas march along a winding conveyor belt where they are met by a small army of bread-stacking and packing troops. Machines are shaping and cooling the dough before a 350-degree furnace cooks each one in under ten seconds. I tilt my head to peek into the big clay oven – they inflate magically like pufferfish.
Another team makes a fresh batch of dough, pouring ingredients (water, flour, yeast, salt, sugar, oil) into a massive mixer. The dough is cut, boxed and labelled with the exact time, so they can monitor how long it takes to rise – one hour and 15 minutes, according to manager Agha Abid. Having an aura of cool-headedness seems key to working here; he, too, is chill. “I came up with the timing system so I can relax,” he jokes. “We turn the oven on at 3.50AM and off at 7PM – there’s no stopping in between.”
He points at the dough-cutting machine. “Me and my colleague designed and built that.” I look blankly at a huge contraption in the corner. Pilot-slash-machine-maker Fathay Rashid explains: “Before, the volunteers would cut the dough by hand but it was taking too long. I built the machine myself and got most of the parts from eBay and Gumtree.”
Usman Ahmad has been a bread-packer for two years. “It’s quite intense because the bread doesn’t stop, so we can’t either! It’s very different from my day job as a railway conductor but that’s why I love it so much – you can see the finished product.” Even children get involved: ten-year-old Ayaan Mirza is busy stacking bread with his friends. “It’s fun but hard work,” he says. “Everyone is here out of passion,” says trainee imam Talat Syam. “I’ve had three hours of sleep but when you’re doing something for a good cause, sleep doesn’t matter.”
Lunch time. Volunteers are plating up dishes in the marquees and putting bread onto the tables. Just outside, there is only the quiet hum of people performing afternoon prayers. It’s the calm before the storm.
Moments later, a stampede of hungry guests pile in, some grabbing two or three bowls and dashing to find a free spot. The place fills up in seconds, queues begin to form, people are asking for seconds. The food is popular. “I need an IV bag for the dhal, it’s so good I want it injected in me,” says Sa’ad Ahmad. Zaki Dard adds: “It’s all fresh because it’s made on site and tastes amazing.”
The same thing is happening on the women’s side. Men and women are segregated at Jalsa Salana, but women can attend talks and exhibitions on the men’s side freely. I’ve only seen a handful of women and, frankly, I’m craving their company. Women run everything here and it’s more strict – I go through airport-style security and I can’t take photos. Men cannot enter except for two instances: “They deliver the food and take our rubbish – it’s quite nice!” laughs volunteer Maleeha Mansur. “There’s a role reversal, men do the cooking and cleaning and we get the weekend off,” observes Ayesha Malik.
Sameea Ahmad thinks it’s empowering for young girls to see that “women can do everything men can do.” They tell me an event like this brings them closer together, especially at a time when Islamophobia is growing in the UK. “Mainstream media is quick to spread negative messages about Muslims, including our Prime Minister,” says Ayesha. “But here, you drop all the barriers of discrimination. We can be ourselves without fear.”
“People come here to spread peace,” says press worker Jamal Fateh-Uddin Akbar. I feel that from everyone I meet at Jalsa Salana – a serenity hovers over the place, even in the busy kitchens. I think back to watching people praying beneath rows of flags, only the whisper of the wind in our ears. “Maybe if more people knew about this,” adds Jamal, “they would have a different perspective of Muslims.”