Ramadan trend: Iftar emerges as high-profile social event

In the Muslim world, breaking the daily fast at sunset was once a family event. Now it's upscale and political.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    FINE RAMADAN DINING: At the five-star Sonargaon Hotel in Dhakar, Bangladesh, orphaned girls are treated to what's becoming an Islamic-world trend: breaking the daily fast in style.
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    TRADITIONAL GIVING: During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, wealthy patrons sponsor iftar dinners for poorer members of society. In Cairo, a charity provided a free meal on Sept. 21.
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    GOING UPSCALE: In Cairo's Marriott hotel, a corporation hosted an iftar dinner for invited guests earlier this month. Once a family event, the meal is a major social, economic, and political event.
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The Ciragan Sarayi, an opulent 19th-century Ottoman palace turned into a luxury hotel, usually hosts high-society weddings. This month, however, it is booked solid by corporate clients celebrating iftar, the traditional meal after sundown that breaks the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

On a recent night, some 700 guests of a discount supermarket chain were seated at candlelit tables as a five-piece band played traditional Turkish music and a swarm of waiters in crimson-colored tuxedo jackets brought them plates of roast lamb.

"For a company to have iftar here is a kind of statement," says Ulku Karadaglilar, an executive at the Ciragan. "It's like 'Where did you have your wedding or your gala event?' They only have one chance to do it all year, so they want the best."

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Increasingly, iftar in Turkey – and in other parts of the Muslim world – has moved from being a family affair to an important economic and social statement. Businesses and other organizations now host lavish iftar dinners, using them as a kind of public relations tool and as a way, some critics charge, of showing off. Observers in Turkey say the rise of the corporate iftar dinner is another example of the rising visibility of religion in public life and of an increasingly bourgeois Islamic elite.

"The religiously conservative and newly urbanized middle classes and upper middle classes have given increased importance to the iftar dinner, and have influenced the established middle classes," says Nilufer Narli, a sociologist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

"Now these dinners are becoming more and more public and chic. It's becoming something that's kind of fashionable – almost every company or organization now gives one. It's the new thing."

New enough, apparently, that there are few critics. Ramadan marks the month when the Koran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. During daylight hours, it's a month of fasting (no food or water), purification, and reflection. But after sunset the fast is broken – and that's becoming a major focus of the holiday.

Ozlem Sandikci, an assistant professor of marketing at Ankara's Bilkent University who studies consumerism, says that in certain respects, Ramadan is starting to look a lot like Christmas.

"Across the Muslim world, there are numerous signs that Ramadan, a time of fasting, prayer, and reflection, is transforming from a religious month to a cultural and commercial holiday," she says.

"The resistance to this change is not very obvious," she adds. "People seem to be embracing it."

With an emphasis on family celebrations, Ramadan was once a slow period for Istanbul's hotels. That is no longer the case.

"It's become a busier period. It brings business," says Baris Atik, banquet manager at the Conrad Istanbul, another five-star hotel, which – like most of its competitors – offers discounted rates during Ramadan.

"Companies are now doing their annual gala dinners during Ramadan," he adds.

"Companies don't come here because of religion – they see iftar as a good time to bring their employees together, cheaply." (Relatively cheaply, despite the lowered rates, an iftar for 700 could still cost more than $70,000.)

The change is not limited to Turkey. Throughout the Muslim world, iftar is becoming big business, experts say.

In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for example, an increasing number of luxury hotels now erect iftar tents, where guests can break their fast (at least those who are actually fasting) with food from huge buffet tables.

In Cairo, people now flock to exclusive restaurants, clubs and hotels to break their fast as well as to see and be seen, spending on one dinner what the average Egyptian earns in two weeks.

The Cairo Marriott has 16 formal salons and ballrooms where they can host iftars for up to 1,000 guests. So far this month, clients like Vodafone and Mercedes Benz have hosted iftars at the hotel, holding events are that vaguely akin to office Christmas parties in North America.

Hesham Serry is the Cairo office manager for KGL Shipping, an Egyptian-Bahraini firm hosting its annual corporate iftar in the ornate room, which is lined with gold-framed mirrors and dripping with crystal chandeliers. He says they host an event like this every year because "it's Islamic tradition."

"Every company has to have an iftar for its clients and employees, it's Islam," he says. "But it's also kind of public relations. You could say this is half tradition and half PR."

In Turkey, hosting a large iftar dinner is now almost something of a requirement for many public figures and organizations. Even Turkey's chief rabbi now hosts an iftar, something he has been doing for the last eight years.

"I have an iftar to go to almost every night. I've only had a chance to have iftar with my family two times this Ramadan," says Cemal Usak, secretary-general of the Intercultural Dialogue Platform, an Istanbul-based group that organizes interfaith programs and which has hosted three iftars of its own this Ramadan. He has mixed feelings about the trend: "It's becoming more and more a social activity than a religious activity."

In India, local media reported that many of the iftar dinner parties hosted by top politicians have been canceled out of respect for the millions of people displaced by flooding.

Some of the politicians, the Times of India reported, were busy helping with relief efforts instead. One former minister canceled his iftar dinner party and said he was sending the money that would have been spent on the dinner to support relief efforts.

In Islamabad, Pakistan, the Indian High Commission canceled its Sept. 25 iftar dinner in the wake of Saturday's Marriott hotel attack – which occurred during an iftar dinner event at the hotel.

The High Commission issued a statement saying that "in solidarity with our friends in Pakistan, whose grief we share, we are calling off the reception."

In Turkey, at least, which is governed by the Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party, some also see a bit of politicking in the proliferation of public iftars.

"In one sense, it can be said that some rich people, some businessmen, and organizations are trying to show themselves as practicing Muslims by doing this," Usak says. "It might be a kind of sign, a kind of message to the ruling party."

Liam Stack contributed from Cairo.

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