Qanta A. Ahmed
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The ambassador’s iftar: Muslims celebrate Ramadan with the State of Israel

I broke my Ramadan fast at a multi-faith, multinational, multicultural affair, much like my experiences in Israel
Illustrative: Jews and Arabs sharing an Iftar (breakfast) together during the month of Ramadan, in the town of Tayibe, June 9, 2016. (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: Jews and Arabs sharing an Iftar (breakfast) together during the month of Ramadan, in the town of Tayibe, June 9, 2016. (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)

It was my unique and poignant pleasure to enjoy my iftar — the breaking of the Ramadan fast, at the home of Ambassador and Mrs. Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, at their home in Washington, DC, last night.

The invitation had arrived three weeks ago, and having been unable to attend for the last several years (Ambassador Dermer has hosted this event for five years continuing the legacy of his predecessor), I felt it was imperative I respond to this remarkable act of good will. More pressing was my curiosity about the other Muslims I might find at such an unusual gathering.

The evening turned out to be one of the most meaningful of my entire month of Ramadan this year — the holy month of fasting obligatory upon healthy Muslims, a ritual I have been fortunate to be able to observe without pause for the last 20 years.

Disembarking from my car outside the event, arriving too early, I noticed another person patiently waiting to enter and after saying hello, discovered he was a journalist from Kurdistan, Mr. Rahim Rashida. Delighted to meet him since I was recently returned from Kurdistan, I invited him to wait with me until it was the proper time to enter. Ironically, at first sight, I had mistaken him for an Israeli! A mistake I continually made all evening — as sibling believers, to me, Muslims and Jews so often look indistinguishable.

On crossing the threshold, the iftar gathering was already intimate and charmingly diverse. Though I was in a chic Washington suburb, I was immediately transported to Israel.

Just as in Israel (I have visited 10 times in the last four years) the warmth of the multi-faith, multinational and multicultural attendees was immediately embracing. And as in so many Israeli gatherings, I was unable to distinguish a Muslim from a Christian from a Jew, and also just as in Israel, hazarding a guess with the specific greeting of either Shalom or Salaam triggered a pleasant smile, the appropriate reciprocal greeting and then an explanation of the guest’s actual faith identity. It was a wonderfully accepting scene, and mirrored exactly what I have learned is the true nature of the State of Israel — the home and heart of all the great monotheisms, which somehow manages to be both simultaneously open to the secular and the religious without judgement.

I was soon greeted by a particularly radiant and friendly woman whose ethnicity again stumped me. For a while, we talked about her work as Bureau chief of Israel’s I24 television network, and so I naturally made the assumption that she must be Israeli. Her beautiful features and dark hair certainly reminded me of Sephardic ladies I have known. Instead, when she introduced her Muslim name — Mounira AlHmoud — I was amazed to find she was of Saudi and Algerian origin. Like me, she was a Muslim. Together, we met with other guests and at the end of the evening, I realized I hadn’t discovered how a Muslim woman came to be bureau chief at an Israeli television network. My curiosity remains piqued.

It was some time after I had arrived (we had gathered 45 minutes prior to sunset), and, even though the gathering was multi-faith and many attendees were not Muslim and even among the Muslims, not everyone was able to observe Ramadan, no refreshments were offered until after the fast ended — a touching and sensitive gesture respecting both the ritual of fasting and those who had observed the self-denial of food and drink from dawn until dusk — almost 17 hours in Washington DC.

It was therefore just as the ambassador concluded his opening remarks to a parlor full of his guests that someone’s cellphone emitted the call to prayer, and, with the sound of the Azaan, we were served juice and Mejdool dates — no doubt Israeli. I felt utterly welcomed and at home.

After welcoming remarks from a Muslim leader, dinner was served and those of us who wished could pray beforehand. I was so moved by the arrangements for us to pray that even though I could delay my supplications, I wanted to join immediately. Some of us left the main gathering to an adjoining living room adorned with a large Persian rug.

About a dozen Muslim men had already gathered in neat lines, another was confirming the Qibla — the direction to Mecca. Nearby, the ambassador stood briefly, to ensure we had everything we needed. I joined the only other lady in the gathering and together we stood side by side, yet discreetly, behind the men praying, and commenced the Islamic prayer. It was such a lovely feeling to be offered every accommodation to our need: the dignity and privacy and yet inclusion of a special place to pray, our friendly Jewish hosts attending to our every need and the complete acceptance of modes of dress, denominations of Islam, pluralism in nationality and ethnicity that gathered on that rug. Our simple ranks of diverse Muslims reminded me of being in line with Muslims from around the world in Mecca — the last time I had experienced such diversity in prayer.

After we finished the brief prayer and greeted the angels on our shoulders, as is the Islamic custom, I asked the beautiful African lady next to me about her opulent golden trimmed scarf and dress and inquired as to her country of origin.

“I’m from Africa. My name is Mariam,” she said, and, with a dazzling smile, signaled toward a nearby gentleman among the others dispersing from the prayer rug, adding, “and that’s my husband, he’s the ambassador to the US.”

It was the first time I had met anyone from her country, which is home to many Muslims. I discovered her elaborate dress was from India, and together we went in search of food and more refreshment. I find my appetite often fails me after a day of fasting, but wanting to participate in the festivity, I joined many guests gathering around the sumptuous buffet of Middle Eastern dishes carefully labeled in their phonetic Arabic names.

Time and time again, men and women gave way to those of us who had been fasting. Again, I was so touched at such simply generosity and remarked the same to a dinner companion standing in line with me. Again, I failed to place either his nationality or ethnicity, and discovered I was speaking to the minister and deputy chief of mission for a Balkan nation. Like many other guests, this senior diplomat withheld his title or rank and, again reminiscent of egalitarian and anti-hierarchical Israel, found myself a private citizen cheek and jowl alongside senior political, military, security, and foreign service dignitaries.

Turning around from one of the tables I ran into my friend and colleague, celebrated Canadian Muslim Raheel Reza, the respected human rights campaigner and founder and leader of “Muslims Facing Tomorrow,” which does important work combating Islamism and fighting anti-Semitism (the two often go hand in hand). We squealed at delight in finding each other. She was accompanied by her devoted husband, Sohail, and after catching up, they both lead me to a striking figure in the room, wearing long flowing robes and an imposing beard, turban and elegant gold trimmed cloak. This was a Shia cleric from Australia. I was struck at the diversity among us, as Muslims. This was the first time I had met a Shia scholar, again an unexpected discovery that expanded my world.

For me, nothing, however, vanquishes the desiccation of the fast better than melon, so I made a beeline for a beautiful fruit station and there overhead an elegant gentleman remarking on his difficulty sleeping. Being a sleep specialist, I immediately interjected, and found myself speaking with an ambassador from an Arab country. Like me, he suffered from sleep deprivation related to waking up before dawn to make the all-important intention to fast, which is essential to legitimately fasting for the pleasure, and with the blessing, of God. About his sleep deprivation, all I could do was concur — I was experiencing this myself and struggling with it much more than the lack of food or water.

Quickly dispensing with our Ramadan routines we talked of more pressing matters and our mutual concern about the Muslim Brotherhood — concerns that both pluralist Muslims and Israelis share alike, and a fearsome threat that no nation knows better than post Arab Spring Egypt. We resolved to exchange articles on the matter.

Elsewhere, I spied a dazzling uniform, but did not recognize it. I found myself with an Israeli general. Just the man I was looking for! I recently returned from Kurdistan, where I had spent time with the Peshmerga and there at their military base in Duhok, I had mentioned how similar their combat philosophy appeared to what I had read about the Israeli Defense Forces, though I explained to the Peshmerga I had never been to an IDF base. This, I hoped the general could change. I asked and he listened intently, as I described the men and women of the Peshmerga army fighting alongside one another at the front line, the Peshmerga female commanders, who are sometimes more experienced than younger male recruits, with the command of less experienced male officers. I spoke also of the proud Peshmerga tradition of Peshmerga officers, like Israel’s famed IDF officers, leading into battle themselves, with junior ranks following behind. A mirror reflection of one another and understanding the cost of fighting for nationhood, the  two militaries need very much to know one another.

But it was the ambassador’s words in his brief welcoming address that transported me most to my years of traveling throughout the rich cultural, academic, ethnic and religious tapestry that is Israel. Ambassador Dermer spoke of Israel’s desire to continue to enhance integration among Israel’s Muslim population: 20 percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish, and the vast majority is Muslim.

As he spoke about Israel’s desire to be as much a home to Muslim Israelis as America has become  to American Jews — a wonderfully intelligent analogy — I could only think of the integrated and thriving yet intensely competitive climate for Israel’s Muslim scholars at the Technion —Israel Institute of Technology, where I have met many Muslim leaders including female leaders, and discovered that, with the tremendous support of the Technion, Israel’s Muslims are competing, engaging, and ultimately graduating with a deep desire to serve Israel itself. Even though the MD-PhD candidates and other medical students I met all recognized the Technion’s expectations that they would study for a time internationally, each one I spoke to at length explained a deep desire to return to serve and strengthen the Israeli communities that had given them such remarkable opportunities in scholarship.

Just as I lapsed into this reverie, Ambassador Dermer mentioned the remarkable Israeli Arab Muslim valedictorian of Medicine at the Technion, Dr. Mais Ali Saleh, now a talented obstetrician and valedictorian of one of the world’s premiere scientific institutions, herself a child of a plumber from Nazareth for whom his daughter’s education was paramount. I was reminded of my extraordinary visit with her and other fellow Arab Muslims at the Technion, who shared with me the true diversity of Israel as they experience it.

At the end of his remarks, Ambassador Dermer shared his own experiences as a young student at Oxford University, where his closest friend was a Pakistani Shia Muslim. While the ambassador noted that his young friend was not particularly devout, it was during Ramadan that his friend became most homesick for Pakistan. Thus, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States began to learn about Ramadan’s familial and religious connections that Muslims in every corner of the globe experience, and crave when away from home crave, far from their families. We seek to recreate the experience of that tradition in the generous societies surrounding us.

It was this spirit that the ambassador so captured in the gracious hospitality not only of his home, but his family, and his nation, that suffuses my last days of Ramadan ending this week.

This touching sincerity that the State of Israel has been able to share, through Israel’s devoted public servants, with Muslims not only here in the United States, but in other consulates as well, including Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem, particularly affects me, as I conclude a blessed and most supported Ramadan, where I was surrounded by Americans of all faiths and, in a beautiful evening this week, by so many Israeli Jews.

This powerful spirit of Israel closes my Ramadan and leaves it with a lasting fragrance of hope and possibility around the world, as Israel shows us not only how Muslims and Jews coexist within the Jewish nation but how the world beyond Israel might one day truly become.

About the Author
Qanta Ahmed, MD, is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, a life member, Council on Foreign Relations and an Honorary Fellow at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. She is the author of 'In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom'
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