It helps that he gets to most of his destinations by bike.
Already, over the course of the month in which Muslims abstain from drinking and eating from sunrise to sunset, he has made his way to 10 of the city’s mosques, or masjids in Arabic, and has been blogging about his experience so far at 30masjids.ca.
And even though he arrives to his destination hungry, his posts (other than a few pictures) are rarely about the food.
“I didn’t want to just say, hey, this is what I ate,” said Syed, who ran for mayor in 2010. “I am meeting the individuals who built the masjids. This is living history and oral traditions that nobody has been documenting,” he said.
Syed became inspired after following the travels of Americans Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq, as they decided to spend each night of Ramadan at a different mosque in 30 states around the country. Their blog eventually took on a life of its own, with the duo finding diverse and often controversial stories about Islam and Muslims in the United States. The idea, now in its third year, caught on and now has spin-offs within other U.S. cities, Indonesia and the Netherlands.
In Toronto, Syed visits all kinds of masjids. He visits storefront mosques struggling to get established, abandoned basements of apartment buildings that have been converted into prayer spaces, and community centres where singing and whirling dervishes are part of the spiritual experience.
“We are such a diverse community, but I don’t think people realize just how diverse,” said Syed. “We have representatives from every Muslim country here … and when they get here, I think most of them try to set up a masjid of some sort.”
Syed says he has no set method of choosing which mosque to visit and just decides that day. But he has a slew of options. According to torontomuslims.com, there are nearly 120 established mosques or community centres in the GTA.
He says it is unfortunate that most Muslims in the city tend to stick to what they know.
“Muslims go to the same masjid every night, or they might go to three or four in the course of Ramadan,” said Syed. In part, he says it’s because they are busy and because many are scared to go outside their comfort zones and challenge prejudices they may have about certain ethnic communities, or the way some people practise their faith.
At the end of the day, there is always one thing that brings people together — the food.
“People outdo themselves,” said Syed. “The food is often donated, and there is always so much of it.”
But one thing he’s learned early on in the project: Never try to have a conversation on an empty stomach. The best stories always come, he says, when everyone is full.