“At 8:11 the sun will set and all the Muslims in the room will turn into Christmas trees,” said Imam Antepli Abdullah from Duke University, as he and others anticipated sundown at an Iftar dinner hosted on Monday by Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren.
Iftar is the daily break-the-fast meal during the month of Ramadan, observed by Muslim across the world. “And if you thought Yom Kippur is difficult,” the Imam continued “you should try it my way. We fast for 30 days.”
At precisely 8:11 PM, as the sun officially set over Washington, servers came out from the kitchen with trays of juicy sweet rotab (ripe) dates. Tradition has it that Prophet Muhammad himself used to break his fast with dates and ever since it is customary to start off the Iftar with a date. Cold water and cranberry juice mixed with rose water were served as well, to quench the thirst after a long fast in the hot Washington weather.
The Imam invited all Muslims to join him in the Magrhrib prayer, while the Jews went to another room for Ma’ariv service. Yes, the two evening prayers share a similar name.
This Iftar dinner was the second hosted by Ambassador Oren, a sociable tradition he initiated last year in order to reach out to the Muslim community. Among the 60 or so guests, half of them were Muslim, including Ray Mahmood, ambassador-at-large for Pakistan; Farah Pandith, the State Department’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities; imams, community leaders, and U.S. officials. All were engaged in lively conversations and seemed to enjoy this new initiative.
In his speech Ambassador Oren quoted Sura 3 of the Quran, "O People of the Book! Let us rally to a common formula to be binding on both us and you." He also talked about the shared commitment of Muslims and Jews to family, tradition, and to food.
And food they shared indeed. I was honored to be the one preparing the food for this Iftar dinner at the ambassador’s kitchen. As always, I was working with my chef Mahmud (Michael) Abulhawa, a Palestinian from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, who moved to the U.S. some 30 years ago.
Chef Michael observes Ramadan too, and was fasting the morning we cooked together, as he’s been doing for the last four weeks. To quote Imam Abdullah: if you think Yom Kippur is difficult, try to imagine fasting while having to cook for dozens of people every day.
Sticking to the Middle Eastern tradition of welcoming your guests, we sought to fill the table with colors and flavors. Our menu included mezze of freshly made hummus, tahini dip with parsley, fava bean salad that we simply mixed with chopped garlic, parsley and olive oil, fried eggplant in roasted tomato sauce, and a chopped vegetable salad. To that we added an Iranian dish of chicken and rice with dried fruit, and beef kebab that chef Michael grilled over charcoal, that we later served with tahini sauce and tomato salsa on top.
It’s interesting, by the way, to notice the similarities between Muslim and Jewish dietary laws. Both sets of laws - kashrut for Jews and Halal for Muslims - forbid the use of pork, and require praising God’s name before the slaughtering.
Chef Michael suggested that we make the parsley tahini with tomato. This time I refused, and he was too tired to even argue with me because of his fast. But I did add the rose water to the cranberry juice as he suggested, and put a little dry mint into the chopped vegetable salad, which added a nice fresh scent to it.
After dinner, Imam Abdullah congratulated Ambassador Oren for practicing “shevet achim gam yachad” (the gathering of brothers together) that evening, both in action and in diplomacy.
In this same spirit of togetherness and of caring for each other, Farah Pandith talked about her project, 2012 Hours Against Hate, that she started last year with Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism,Hanna Rosenthal. The project encourages young people to volunteer an hour of their time to do something “for someone who does not look, live or pray like you”.
We served trays of baklava and cookies for dessert, with trays of champagne grapes, and fresh beautiful figs I was able to get from a local Iranian grocery store
Imam Abdullah concluded with what he said was his favorite Hebrew song, “oseh shalom bimromav” a prayer which asks, “May the One who makes peace send peace to us and all of Israel.” Imam Abdullah added his own ending, in Hebrew, to the prayer, “and to all of Ishmael, and all the world, and let us say Amen.”
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