In Turkey and other predominantly-Muslim countries, iftar -- the nightly meal that breaks the Ramadan fast -- has gone from being a humble affair based around dates, soup and some freshly baked bread to something much more elaborate (at least for those who can afford it). These days, hosting lavish iftar dinners has become a way for people to make a statement, either social, economic or -- as in the case when Israel's ambassador was pointedly not invited to a 2010 iftar hosted by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- political. (Update - This year its appears both the Israeli and Syrian envoys were not invited to Erdogan's iftar.) Here's how I described this trend in an article I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor in 2008, when I visited a large iftar dinner that was being hosted at a ballroom in Istanbul's swank Bosphorus-side Ciragan Palace hotel:
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."
For beer purists, alcohol-free suds are a joke, if not an insult. But one group in Turkey, where alcohol-free beer has been recently introduced, is taking this strange brew very seriously, warning that there's no way to have your cake and drink it too. From the Hurriyet Daily News:
Alcohol-free beer is a trap set for children by liquor producers, said Muharrem Balcı, the head of Yeşilay (Turkish Green Crescent), a Turkish association combating drug abuse and alcoholism, yesterday.
“Liquor producers target the youth to increase their market share and alcohol consumption and therefore come up with various tactics to lower the age to start drinking alcohol. One of them is the ‘alcohol-free beer’ hoax,” he said....
....“Although [the rate of alcohol in alcohol-free beer] is under the legal limit, [the amount] is very significant,” Balcı said, adding that the Institution of Forensic Medicine put forth that a 0.20 percent alcohol rise in human blood raises the fatal traffic accident risk by twofold.
As the HDN article points out, the alcohol level in Turkey's near beer is actually lower than that found in traditional fermented drinks, such as the grain-based boza or the dairy-based Kefir, that have been sold and consumed in Turkey for centuries, with little evidence showing that they have played a role in increasing traffic accidents.
Iftar, the meal that ends the daily Ramadan fast, has traditionally been a humble affair, a chance for family and friends to gather at home and celebrate. In recent year, though, Iftar has increasingly gone upscale, with individuals, businesses and public officials hosting large-scale, lavish catered affairs for hundreds of guests. In Turkey, where this trend has been especially pronounced, some groups are now asking if this is really the way Ramadan was meant to be observed. From Hurriyet:
If only one picture were used to depict the month of Ramadan, that image would likely be of an iftar, the traditional fast-breaking dinner, a ceremonial activity featuring a variety of dishes.
This picture is, however, now being challenged by one Islamic group and its supporters, who recently protested the glamorous and expensive iftars held in luxury hotels.
After breaking their fast on the street in front of Istanbul’s Conrad Hotel last week, members of the Labor and Justice Platform organized another protest dinner Saturday in the city’s well-known Taksim Square, which is bordered by three five-star hotels.
“We are against the waste of money during these dinners. Instead of spending that money on the [iftar] tables, patrons should give it away to their workers,” the group said in a statement. Members held up posters bearing messages such as “Fasting breaks capitalism and capitalism breaks fasting” and “Iftar menu: 318 Turkish Liras; Minimum wage: 658 liras.” “This is not just a protest against the iftars during Ramadan, but we did [the protests during this time] because these luxurious feasts have become symbols of a capitalist understanding that has grown in the last 15 years,” one of the participants, theologian and writer İhsan Eliaçık, told the Hürriyet Daily News.
"Turkey's for Life," a fun blog published by an English couple living in Fethiye, Turkey, has a great photo essay up about Ramadan pide. The very tasty flatbread is baked during the month-long Ramadan holiday and is a central part of the break fast Iftar meal. More here.
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