September 24, 2018

Israeli Ambassador’s Iftar Plays Matchmaker for Islam 

I kept studying the invitation embossed with the blue-andwhite Israeli escutcheon — the menorah flanked by olive branches. I was captivated by the novelty of the Jewish state hosting me, a Muslim, for Ramadan dinner.

Dismissing the delightful irony, I prepared for Maghrib, Islam’s evening prayer.  With faucets running, I methodically made my Islamic ablutions. Refreshed, I applied perfume, tucked a chiffon headscarf into my handbag and, after a final glance in the mirror, left the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C.

The car was waiting. In 30 minutes I was expected at the Israeli ambassador’s home for iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast.

Speeding past manicured lawns and patrician homes, I was slightly intrigued. I expected to spend the evening mostly among Israeli Jews — always interesting, but for me, far from novel. After 45 years of traveling to the region, two years of living in Saudi Arabia and almost a dozen visits to the Jewish state in the past five years, I was fairly certain: Israel, while very much ensnaring me in enchantment, now held few surprises in store.

Arriving early, I spied a dark-haired man pacing outside the gates: Israeli security, I decided and prepared my ID. Instead, like me, he was a guest who had also arrived too early. Squinting at the flag pin on his lapel (definitely not Israeli), I asked his nationality. Smiling broadly, he answered, “I’m from Kurdistan! My name is Rahim Rashidi.”

Hilarious! I hadn’t even set foot inside but was already incapable of distinguishing a Muslim from a Jew. And what were the chances? I had just returned from Kurdistan! What was a Kurd doing here?

Certainly, Kurdistan had resonated with affection for Israel. Many Kurds, in several areas of Kurdistan, had expressed passionate pro-Israel sentiment to me. The lionhearted Peshmerga — the famed Kurdish military — whom I met fresh off the battlefields with ISIS, held the Israel Defense Forces in particularly high regard. The Kurdish hills had reminded me deeply of Judea. As we continued conversing, Rahim and I crossed the threshold of the Israeli ambassador’s home to a warm welcome.

It was only that night that I sensed the measure of Israel’s profound acceptance, appreciation, admiration and nurturing of Islam. 

Surrounded by the other guests, I struggled to identify nationalities, ethnicities and religions. My curiosity began to mount. Forty-five years of Middle Eastern globetrotting aside, the familiar was beginning to feel unfamiliar. 

Seasoned though I was in my Israeli travels, perhaps Israel still had some secrets to relinquish?

After his welcome, Ambassador Ron Dermer turned over the podium to a Muslim expert on Sufism and medieval Islamic treatise. After almost 17 hours of fasting, the professor was, thankfully, brief. Juice and Medjool dates were served, and as our veins were moistened, the reward, we all hoped, was sealed, as we say in Islam.

I turned to the woman next to me, the bureau chief for i24 News, an Israeli TV channel. Her soft beauty was Sephardic. She talked about her French upbringing and childhood visits to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (her father was Saudi and her mother Algerian). A very strange Israeli, I decided, failing to comprehend. It was only when she gave me her card and I looked at her name that I understood she was, like me, a Muslim!

I was surprised at my inability to recognize fellow Muslims! Israel saw us more clearly than we saw ourselves. 

I studied the room. What a Rolodex the Jewish state had accumulated! How could there be so many of us? And such heterogeneity! The diversity of Israel’s Muslim guests was jaw-dropping. Excuse me? Was anyone boycotting Israel anymore?

There were Muslims from Europe — both West and East — the Americas, the Middle East, Turkey, West Africa, North Africa and so many others I didn’t get to meet. There was even an Iranian, for crying out loud.

Clearly, Israel’s Islamic dance card was full.

How had Israel cultivated such engagement with Muslims, I wondered? Besides Mecca during Hajj season, this room held the most ethnically and spiritually diverse groups of Muslims I had ever seen. Who knew? Israel provided such a good shidduch — an arranged marriage — for Islam! Maybe all Muslims needed to end 15 centuries of sectarian conflict within Islam was an Israeli shadchen — a matchmaker?

Time for Maghrib.

Aligning myself on the Persian rug, I joined the only other woman praying that evening. Salaat — at least something was familiar! I stood to the left of a West African woman and wife to an ambassador, draped in a gold-trimmed dress. A matching scarf framed her perfectly made face. Though fully veiled, she lacked the austerity of Wahhabi women I had known in Riyadh.

Enacting the fluid motions of our prayer synchronously, our gestures were fractionally different — unsurprising, given that Muslims come from dozens of different sects and make homes in more than 187 nations. She was reared in a highly pluralistic society where Muslims lived side by side with Christians, their faiths informing one another. Her Sunni Islam was deeply infused in Sufism. 

Other Muslims were straight out of central casting. 

Two portly Egyptian wallflowers — father and son — wore suits sans neckties, typical of both the post-colonial Arab world and post-revolutionary Iran. Bowing with an ancient gallantry, each smiled shyly as I described my time in Um Al-Dunya (Mother of the Universe, as Egypt is affectionately known).  

Elsewhere, a patrician ambassador to a Middle Eastern country that has established treaties with Israel chatted with me over dessert, flanked by his refined wife, a honey blond more Armani than Arab in appearance. Theirs was the sartorial elegance of moneyed Muslims enormously comfortable with their faith, their complex region, and Europe’s post-colonial legacy there.

Soon, I ran into a Muslim I knew. Raheel Reza and I enjoyed a brief reunion—-. Pakistani-born, Reza had been raised Sunni (Again, me and my assumptions — I had always thought her Shia), although today she identifies as a Muslim humanist.

Ever the dynamo, she tugged at my hand, insisting I meet a friend. She led me to a remarkably tall, bearded imam wearing sweeping black robes and a white turban — my first encounter with a Shiite cleric. 

Taller than Jim Comey, how the heck had he slipped in unnoticed?

The reform-minded imam was, like us, a sworn enemy of Islamism. Peculiarly, he was Australian. He wore a huge, hand- carved ring. (Muslims often wear semiprecious stones in line with the Prophet’s recommendations). Rendered in chalcedony, the ring was from Qum, the religious epicenter of Shi’ism.

As clerics go, he was strangely debonair. I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind: Was his turban (that made him even taller) “ready made” or did he wrap it daily? (Wrapped from a single piece of cloth, he answered). And yes, it was also ‘bespoke’ from Qum. 

Nothing off-the-rack for this man of cloth!  Just wouldn’t be kosher!

Iranian in origin and training, the imam was a descendant of the sixth-century legendary Arab Hatim Tai of the Arabian Peninsula, his ancestors’ tomb immortalized in the “Arabian Nights” folk tales.

By now, I was feeling not only ignorant but, as a Muslim in Israel’s Rolodex, distinctly undercredentialed. 

Israel’s iftar revealed how remarkably well Israel curated Islam. 

Israel was more intimately acquainted with a greater diversity of Muslims than my experience of almost 50 years of leading a Muslim life — living in, traveling to and coming from large parts of the Muslim-majority world. Despite my dozen visits to the Jewish state, it was only that night, outside of Israel, that I sensed the measure of Israel’s profound acceptance, appreciation, admiration and nurturing of Islam. 

Like a rainbow emerging from a summer downpour, after that iftar new worlds of Islam came into beguiling view. Israel’s prism of Islam had revealed the full spectrum of our multicolored iridescence: African Islam, Australian Islam, secular Islam, pluralist Islam, humanist Islam, Shiite Islam, Sufi Islam, Islamic mysticism and traditional Sunni Islam.

As we bid our farewells, drove home, and the graceful Washington lawns faded to black, I knew the others leaving that luminous evening felt as I did: Our gentle shidduch — home to Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Aharon Appelfeld’s port city on the shores of eternity — had strengthened not only our union with Israel, but most surprising of all, our own bonds of brethren within Islam. Baruch HaShem and Allahu akbar: A Ramadan bracha, indeed.


Qanta A. Ahmed is a Muslim physician, author and broadcast media commentator. Her first book is “In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom” (Sourcebooks 2008).