When the Canterbury Bankstown council announced it had cancelled the annual and extremely popular Ramadan night markets in Lakemba, there was disappointment all round.
The markets have grown to become a staple during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
The markets attract people from all over Sydney, who pour into Lakemba, for food stalls set up along Haldon Street for people to snack on late into the night, often hours after many have broken their fast.
Above: Chips on a stick and Lebanese shawarma rolls are some of the popular takeaway foods people line up for at the annual Ramadan night markets. Below: Lebanese coffee being made in hot sand, which allows the brewer to better control the temperature of the brew
And in recent years, the council has worked to help organise the markets, closing the street and setting up amenities for attendees. But for two years running, the council has cancelled the event in light of Covid concerns.
“Unfortunately, we are unable to run the Ramadan Nights Lakemba event this year,” the mayor, Khal Asfour, said in a statement. “This is because we cannot host a Covid-safe event, under the public health order, related to public gatherings, issued on 29 March 2021.”
But the markets didn’t begin as an official event, with closed streets and live entertainment. Instead, they started with a quiet barbecue on the side of the road, eventually growing to encompass the entirety of Haldon Street.
It had always been a more ad hoc affair, for many years looking like an impromptu street party, with stalls set up at random points along the street, people milling about along crossings and crowds struggling for space along the footpath.
And to Yusra Metwally, it is fitting that in their first iteration after last year’s lockdown-enforced closure, the market has returned to its roots.
Crowds at the Lakemba night markets often swell around 9pm when the night prayers are done and a second meal is on the agenda
“The markets are alive and well despite the council’s decision to not run it this year,” she says. “The continued operation of the markets is not a surprise to me considering it was always a small business-led annual street bazaar.”
Metwally once ran tours of the markets for people unfamiliar with the wide variety of cuisines on offer and for those looking to navigate the kaleidoscope of different cultures at the markets.
“I also worked with friends who hadn’t ventured out west and were keen to try out the delicious cuisines offered, and wanted a local with the insider understanding of the top-rated joints.”
She says there is a particular connection between the Muslim community in Sydney and the markets, a connection she thought was threatened by the council’s involvement.
Above: Playing cards at Al Andalos Cafe, an iconic establishment on Haldon Street, Lakemba. Below: Kanafeh nabulsi and traditional Ramadan drink sahlab, from Yummy Yummy Knafeh, stationed at Al Andalos Cafe
“While the markets have always been open for all Sydneysiders to experience, there is a protective element over the markets by the community that it remains a genuine and organic community-led event to mark a significant spiritual month in the Islamic calendar.”
But not everyone shares her sentiments.
Yassr Elyatim, along with his business partners Abdulqader Obeid and Mohammed Elyatim, runs one of the most popular stalls at the markets, Ramadan Camels, which serves their popular camel burger.
He told the Guardian the council’s involvement was welcome, and that they’d brought some organisation and recognition to the market.
“When the council is involved, it’s a lot more neater and cleaner. There are a lot more restrictions, but that’s good, for the public and for us.
“With their help, they liaised with different councils and different communities, and they brought in a lot more people. Without them, it’s a bit quieter, a bit less busy.”
The markets attract many families from across Sydney, many of whom want to celebrate the month of Ramadan with their children
Elyatim is a difficult man to get a hold of, as his stall occupies much of his time. The stall can get extremely busy, often serving up to 1,500 burgers a night, with lines stretching down the street.
When pushed for a time he would be free for an interview, he says he’ll only be free after 2am, working the grill as he speaks.
“It was a simple barbecue when we started, about a month prior to Ramadan, and maybe 10 days out we introduced the camel burgers. And from 2008, it just boomed, every year it got busier and busier.”
Elyatim says his stall was the first on Haldon Street, starting in 2008, and growing in size every year, with people coming from far and wide to try their unique camel burgers.
They had initially begun selling ka’ak (Lebanese bagels stuffed with cheese) and hot dogs, eventually adding burgers to the menu as well. But it wasn’t until a chance encounter with a friend that the camel burgers became a staple.
One of the busiest stalls on Haldon Street, Ramadan Camels is also the oldest stall on the strip, having started in 2008. It serves its famous camel burgers as well as fajitas and desserts
And although it seems odd now, he says he was initially reluctant to include them on the menu.
“One day, a brother who I had known for a while, told me there was a big problem in the Simpson desert with camels, they were apparently a pest down there.
“So a lot of butchers started using camel meat, and my mate said that he would make them into burger patties. And I was almost 100% against it at the start.
“He said to me I’m going to give you a kilo, try them and give it to the people, and see what happens. And since then, it’s been amazing. Nowadays, some nights we clear 150-250 kilos a night.”
The night markets often feel like an extended street party, with people passing the time in traffic by playing music and dancing
Western Australia is currently home to the largest herd of feral camels in the world, and with the damage they cause to the local environment, the camels have been declared a pest by the state.
Imported from British India and Afghanistan, camel numbers in central Australia had swelled to nearly a million by 2008, but a $19m management program eventually brought those numbers down to around 300,000 by 2013.
By then, camel burgers had become a staple of the Ramadan night markets, fuelling the event’s incredible popularity.
One of the many coffee brewers along Haldon Street
“Look, I’m not being biased when I say it’s one of the best burgers you can get. People like the camel burger, it’s just different, it has its own magic.”
The popularity of the markets and its offerings eventually attracted the attention of Canterbury Bankstown council, who Elyatim says got involved in 2013.
“They said you guys are getting too busy, you can’t just do this without proper permits, so they sat down and worked it out with us. And since then, they also brought a vastly different community to our market. Not just Arabs or Muslims, but everyone, from different areas and different states, they come down to Lakemba during Ramadan.”
Elyatim says the markets have become a hotspot, pointing out how popular the entire strip has become.
“You could get up to 40-50,000 people on a Friday or Saturday night. The whole strip is chockablock. Every single stand, whether they’re selling burgers, corn on a cob, or juice, they’re all killing it.”
Many of the bricks and mortar stores along Haldon Street stay open late into the night, remaining a fixture of the markets along with the food and drinks
The street buzzes with energy on a Saturday night, people carefully weaving their way up and down the street, navigating the long lines and difficult parking.
It’s the second time Issa Cuevas has brought his family to the event, saying his kids begged him to return after their first trip.
“I just think it’s the vibes and the electricity in the air, everyone comes out of hibernation during the day, after they break their fast, and they come here for the energy, even though the parking is terrible, but you put up with it.
“This is our second time here, we live in the inner west and there aren’t a lot of Muslims in our area, and my son has brought his two best friends with him. We came last week and they’ve been begging to come back, they love the energy and the food.”
Many of the stalls have developed social media followings, posting videos of their customers enjoying their food, or of particularly delicious-looking kanafeh cheese-pulls.
Nora Hamzy, visiting with a group of friends, says the markets bring a sense of community to Ramadan, something that was missed last year.
Children enjoy their snacks in the back of a ute. Many Muslims bring their families to the market to encourage their children to see Ramadan as a month of community and celebration
“It makes us feel more at home, with regards to where we come from, like Lebanon and the Middle East. And it feels more like Ramadan when we’re all together.”
It is a sentiment echoed often, up and down the street, with many saying the markets highlight the more communal elements of Ramadan.
“We come down so the kids can feel the Ramadan energy, it’s something different to the rest of the year. It has a similarly celebratory feel to the Easter Show here in Sydney,” Samar Elkedro says, pausing as her family snack on some kanafeh.
She says she preferred the markets when the council was involved, as it made navigating the street safer for children.
“It was better when they closed the street, now there’s lots of people and traffic and it makes us afraid for the children.”