062 Iftar diplomacy summer 2016

The always vibrant city of Istanbul calms around sunset during Ramadan. A golden glow covers the city, pleasantly few cars on the road, the ferries are out of sight, and the Bosporus has become unruffled. Traditional Sufi or Turkish music plays, and the city is waiting for the firing of the Ramadan cannon. And then Iftar starts. This year’s evening ‘breakfast’ took place in June; the days were long and people had to fast for more than 17 hours. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, but it’s not easy when it coincides with summer. The prayers echo from the mosques. The iftariyelik (cheese, dates, olives, honey, jam, pastirma and the delicious Ramazan pidesi) had already been prepared, soup is served, and a main course follows. The guests drink water and a kind of Turkish buttermilk (Ayran), sometimes Sherbet (known to be the favorite beverage of many Sultans). Some people retreat to the prayer rooms, after the first dishes were consumed in relative quiet.

Traditionally all guests are welcome and everyone is equal in principal. Solidarity with and support for the poor are permanent elements. Extensive Iftars are organized daily at the well-known Taksim and Sultanahmet Squares, and all sections of society join in, also homeless people and refugees. Iftars are more and more becoming a part of Turkish public and political life. I received tens of invitations during Ramadan; sometimes organized for a limited group of people, sometimes for more than 4000 guests. Although modern Iftars also promote dialogue between different religions, they sometimes feel a bit (too much) like a PR moment.

Slowly but surely, these Iftars are being incorporated in the responsibilities of foreign diplomatic missions. Iftar-diplomacy: a religious moment indeed used for networking, but also to show that a diplomatic representation is aware of developments in Turkey, even though they are yabanci and non-Muslim. I started in 2015 with organizing the first Iftar in the Consulate’s garden, with many guests from the Turkish business community and society. It was a beautiful summer night with a Dutch cook as a part of our culinary diplomacy. We did forget one thing last year though, the prayer rooms…

This year we didn’t; the prayer rooms were present and our guests enjoyed the Music for Peace Foundation’s nice tunes. Children from poor families play in this orchestra and thanks to donations other talented but poor children have access to musical education.

On International Refugee Day, 20 June, the Consulate cooperated with the NGO ASAM and offered an Iftar to 100 Syrian refugees. ASAM is focused on accommodating mainly Syrian refugees in Istanbul, and was visited by Dutch minister Ploumen only a short time before. In Istanbul alone there are some 500,000 Syrian refugees, a number that continues to rise.

Iftar-diplomacy: after our Consulate in Istanbul organized Iftars for the last two years, we have the ambition to involve Dutch companies next year. Our intention is to have them sponsor neighborhoods in Istanbul, as part of an ‘Orange Iftar’. Respect for each other’s religions and habits, for diversity, knowledge of and experience with Iftar offers a different perspective on Turkey. It might not be a traditional way of doing diplomacy but I am glad it found its way into our toolbox.

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