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Host nation invites Grand Slam officers to Iftar dinner

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Craig A. Punches
  • Host Nation Coordination Cell Deputy Director
Sunday I was lucky enough to be invited to an Iftar dinner hosted by a local military leader at his Falcon Sanctuary. Iftar literally means "to break fast," and refers to the evening meal after sunset when Muslims break their fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan.

Annually, the military leader invites 60 coalition military officers, including 30 Americans, for the celebration. The evening began at 6 p.m., and as we arrived, were greeted by the host and his entourage. Casual conversations both in English and Arabic commenced around the room shortly after arrival. Socializing is done in the first tent called a "Majlis," which means sitting area.

The room was immense, about the size of one to two football fields. It had red rugs covering the entire floor and lighting was provided by elegant chandeliers. Decorative chairs and tables lined the outer parameter of the tent providing seating along the peripheries while allowing large gatherings of people in the middle. Neatly arranged on each side table were candied dates, raw dates, water and juices.

At around 6:30 p.m., the 'Call to Prayer' occurred, signaling the breaking of the fast. Everyone began snacking on some dates and drinking water or juices. Sunset is a highly anticipated time of the day, since our Muslim hosts have been fasting all day, not eating or drinking anything even in the extreme heat.

After four to five minutes had passed, all the Muslims moved to the left side of the tent for prayers while all others moved to the right side of the tent to sit quietly in respect of this unique and sacred tradition. The prayers are completed in a rhythmic pattern and with military precision by the muezzin, the individual appointed to lead the prayer. With each pronouncement of Allah Akbar (God is great), hundreds of Muslims transitioned from standing with hands raised, to bowing, to kneeling...repeating this movement several times.

After approximately five minutes of prayer, hosts and guests proceed to the second tent to participate in the Iftar dinner. Many of the hosts and locals ate in the traditional Bedouin manner -- eating with hands only. However, plates and silverware were provided since the locals respect Western customs.

In the center of each table, there was a large silver platter brandishing a whole cooked lamb with head and body precisely placed atop a bed of rice. It was a little unnerving at first to have a lamb's head staring at me while I ate, but I just "rolled with the punches" and accepted it as a cultural experience.

At each individual's place setting, there were individual bowls of hummus, dates, chopped black and green olives, soft drinks and water. On the buffet serving line, there were two cooked baby camels on a bed of rice, chicken and fish dishes. There were also dessert tables against the back wall that had rice pudding, baklava, flan and many other desserts. The camel tasted like tender, juicy roast beef and everything else was fantastic.

The Iftar dinner was over at around 7:30 p.m., at which time many of the locals left the dinner area to share their proper evening meal with their families. However, guests were allowed to remain and complete their meals in no rush.