After I graduated university, I moved to Indonesia where I was lucky enough attend a number of iftar dinners. Although I wasn’t fasting during Ramzan, I loved how every meal was a celebration to be enjoyed with family, friends, and even strangers. I also appreciated learning that for Muslims Ramzan is a time spent becoming a better person by overcoming your desires, and it is a period spent reaching out to your neighbors and those less fortunate than you. Although most Americans think of Ramzan and Islam when we think of fasting, the idea of fasting isn’t unique to Islam. I’ve heard from Hindu colleagues that fasting during a specific time of a month or during a festival is common. Growing up, I saw some of my Catholic family members give up certain food items for the duration of Lent. So although Ramzan is an Islamic holiday, much of the world has similar traditions.
Iftars are not just celebrated in Islamic countries, but worldwide. As I mentioned, I attended many iftars in Indonesia, but I was also invited to a few in Washington, DC. Just last week President Obama hosted a dinner at the White House for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In his speech he mentioned that the very first iftar dinner at the White House was organized by America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, and took place over 200 years ago! Even a country as young as America has a long history of iftar dinners.
I arrived in Hyderabad a few weeks ago – just in time for this year’s Ramzan. The consulate sponsored an iftar dinner at MESCO Grade School in the Old City. When we first arrived at the school we split up and I distributed an American quiz – a worksheet with ten questions about the U.S. Many of the students had never talked to Americans before, but they knew a lot about the U.S. I was impressed by their enthusiasm and their curiosity. I answered a lot of questions about my background and American culture, food, and geography, and I learned more about how Indian schools and classes are organized. It was a learning experience for all of us.
My husband is originally from Tunisia and he is Muslim-American, so he gave a presentation about his experiences as a Muslim in America. Not only did he show slideshows of all the beautiful mosques in the States as well as present information about the great things Muslim-Americans are doing, he was also able to talk about some of his personal experiences. I hope that some of the younger students understood that America isn’t composed of one type of people, but many races, religions, cultures, and languages.
Afterwards we all went upstairs to break the fast with fruit and dates and I got the opportunity to talk to some of the students at the school. Most of the kids had been fasting all day, and I was impressed that they had all been so enthusiastic during our interactions before dinner. After breaking the fast the students went to pray, and when they came back we all had a dinner of haleem, biryani, and khubani ka meetha for dessert. Although the students were young, a lot of them expressed interest in travelling to the U.S. for travel or to study. I hope that if they do, they will feel as welcome in the U.S. as I did during our iftar dinner. After Eid-al-fitr next week it will be another eleven months before the next Ramzan, but I hope that the same spirit of community and generosity continues throughout the year.
Courtney Kline is a Vice Consul at the U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad