Breaking Fast With Uncle Sam in Paris

The menu for iftar, the meal for breaking fast during Ramadan, at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Paris. Credit Akram Belkaïd

On June 8, I was invited to break the Ramadan fast at the residence of the United States ambassador. It wasn’t the first time I’d attended an iftar at the Hôtel de Pontalba (named after the baroness from New Orleans who built the mansion in the mid-19th century), on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. I always go there looking forward with some interest to what I’m going to see, hear and, incidentally, eat. Among the hundred guests or more — the number varies every year — I run into friends I haven’t seen for a long time or friends I never see except there, and at my table I always make the acquaintance of two or three people — academics, artists, entertainers, entrepreneurs — I would never have the opportunity to meet anywhere else.

Practically everyone belongs to the “community” — or rather the communities — of Muslim faith or culture. Representatives of other religions are also present, a sign of the residents’ commitment to ecumenism. Some attendees are fasting, others are not, but while calmly conversing everyone waits for the call to the maghrib, the sunset prayer that also signals the breaking of the day’s fast. When the hour arrives (“At last!”), feeding begins around a large table laden with dates, dried fruits, milk, water and various kinds of juice. In a side room, rugs are rolled out to accommodate those who wish to pray before joining the others in the grand dining room.

To hear a dignitary from the Paris mosque making the call to prayer in the heart of the 8th Arrondissement, under decorative woodwork and, more than anything, only a few meters from the Élysée Palace, always makes me smile. Laïcité and the ambient Islamophobia mean this scene couldn’t take place in any official building of the French Republic. That’s assuming that the Republic still organizes iftars: I was last invited to one in the mid-2000s.

Philippe Douste-Blazy, the foreign minister at the time, welcomed fasters and non-fasters alike in a salon of the ministry on Quai d’Orsay. There was no adhan, or call to worship; just a speech that prominently featured the fight against terrorism. The focus on that theme was so heavy, I remember, that several people at my table grew irritated, and one even decided to go and break his fast somewhere else.

Listening to the speeches delivered by the masters of the house is always instructive. In her remarks in June 2016, the U.S. ambassador then, Jane D. Hartley — who left the post early this year and whose replacement has yet to be appointed — had stressed, perhaps a little too much, the themes of interreligious tolerance and dialogue. More interestingly, she had informed guests that the White House hosted the first Ramadan iftar in 1805, because President Thomas Jefferson had wished to give a proper welcome to a Tunisian diplomatic envoy.

This year, Uzra Zeya, the U.S. chargé d’affaires, made a short, sober speech that earned her the gratitude of my fellow diners. As interesting as a speech may be, it’s never good to wait too long to eat after having fasted for nearly 17 hours, especially while being told in detail, as with Mr. Douste-Blazy, about the geopolitics of Muslim misfortune.

For the curious and the gourmets, here’s the dinner menu: harira (a Moroccan vegetable soup), followed by a buffet offering herbed kefta, couscous with golden raisins, assorted vegetables, carrots in chermoula (a sauce of lemon juice, garlic, pepper, paprika and cumin), a salad of oranges with cinnamon, other fruits and the obligatory Oriental pastries. Food fairly pleasant to absorb and sufficiently hearty to calm stomach cramps, but several notches below previous iftars given at the same address. This was, perhaps, a sign of the budget cuts mandated by the new American administration.

I raised the subject with an Algerian friend whom I usually see at these dinners. He had defected from this one because he has had enough of only ever being invited by the embassy for this one occasion. A communications and lobbying expert, he acknowledges that American diplomacy is making real, soft-power gestures toward European communities of Muslim faith or culture. But he suggests that the exercise, which has been performed at these gatherings of coreligionists for more than a decade, is beginning to come up against its limits.

Who knows, maybe he will change his mind if the American Embassy, by chance yet in keeping with its ecumenical mission, manages to persuade a few of the Republic’s ministers to participate in an iftar after obediently listening to the sunset prayer. Otherwise, according to my calculations, he will have to wait until 2053 — the next time an iftar might coincide with a reception for July 4, a gathering much prized in Paris and to which only a few Muslims, other than from the diplomatic corps, are usually invited.

Akram Belkaïd, a journalist and a writer, is the author of Pleine Lune sur Bagdad (Full Moon Over Baghdad). This essay was translated by John Cullen from the French.

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