Breaking Fast With Uncle Sam in Paris

Source: The New York Times


PARIS — 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.

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