Courageous Conversations At A Brooklyn Iftar BBQ
The sun was setting on Brooklyn Heights promenade on a recent Thursday evening. A hipster walked by with his dog and an African American couple listened to music, gazing across East River.
Near the riverfront of Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 5, dinner preparations were underway to break the fast in the final two days of Ramadan.
To guide dinner participants to the correct table among dozens of identical ones on the pier, two young volunteers were trying to attach a sign with the word “iftar” (breaking fast) to a blue umbrella. It covered a table laid out with pita and Challah breads, kosher food, halal meat and homemade Turkish “kısır” bulgur salad.
At one point, with not much success finding a sticky tape, Faheemuddin Mohammed, an Indian Muslim software engineer from Hyderabad, and her friend, also of Indian descent, seemed to give up. “We’re the only brown people who aren’t eating yet. People will know which table it is,” they joked.
Everyone, including Faheem, was on first-name terms with each other. They joined more than 50 others from countries as diverse as the U.S., Turkey, Indonesia and Uzbekistan who had gathered to break fast (or stopped by out of curiosity).
These volunteers, most of them millennials, are part of NYC Muslim Jewish Solidarity Committee, a group of Jews, Muslims and people of many faiths and color, supporting one another against common threats to civil rights. For the past three years, they have been organizing musical and poetic performances, “mocktail” networking events and intimate themed meals that they call “interfeasts” around New York City. Everything they do boils down to facilitating what many refer to as “difficult conversations” between believers of different faiths — or no faith.
Conversations curated by grassroots organizations have been popping up across the nation especially after the toxic presidential election of 2016, and theirs aim is “to combat the chain of prejudice,” explains Michelle Koch, the red-haired Jewish executive director of the group and the co-host of the dinner tonight.
“It may not be a big movement, but the change that it brings lasts forever,” she says of the solidarity movement she helped found.
Since the committee’s previous iftar dinner held a week ago at Temple Emanu-El, a synagog on the Upper East Side, their efforts seem to have gained momentum during Ramadan — the holiest month in Muslim calendar, which started on 26 May and ended with the celebration of Eid on 27 June.
One of the participants, Gregory Freeman, is a white engineer who converted from Catholicism to Islam and is now working in downtown Manhattan. He says he has been going to these events since November 2015.
Another participant, a Muslim convert of Asian origin, tells me that solidarity gatherings like this one have increased since the election of Donald Trump as president, which seems to have fueled anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, opening up friendship opportunities for Jews and Muslims to work together in solidarity.
For those who fast, refraining from eating and drinking from dusk till dawn during Ramadan offers a unique opportunity to cleanse not just the body. Iftar, which is the meal that follows the daily fast aimed at taming the body by depriving it from earthly desires, also nourishes the mind — especially if it brings together in solidarity those communities thought to have historically opposing views on religion, race and politics.
Opening the dinner with his 9-month-old son Max in her arms, Koch urges people to mingle with strangers instead of retreating into small clusters with relatives and friends.
“Think of it as a stranger coming to your home. Get to know each other to break down the prejudice,” she says.
The other co-host, Mehmet Rezan Altınkaynak is a 27-year-old Muslim activist and former CNN journalist from Turkey. He jokes, “Everybody is scared. We are such a big group!” and agrees with Koch’s request that the diners interact with each other and with those at other tables.
Rezan remembers that it was just his second week in the United States during Ramadan in July 2013, when he first attended a similar multifaith iftar dinner at New York University Islamic Center. After that one, he also went to iftar dinners at several Jewish shuls, and prayed in a midtown church.
“I was trying to understand the minorities in a new country,” he says.
When I ask him about the meaning of Ramadan and fasting in his life, he says, “Other than being a religious ritual, in America, [Islam] seems to me like an ‘identity’ that needs to be protected, I must confess.”
When he first arrived, his religion enabled him to adapt socially among fellow Muslims whose way of thinking he is more or less familiar with, and therefore whose “life experiences teach me more things compared to those of a Christian’s or a Jew’s,” he says.
As a result of the current social, cultural and political environment, Rezan is now friends with many people from various faith traditions.
Through mutual friends, he met Florence, a 27-year-old Syrian Jew whose family left Aleppo in the 1940s and immigrated to Flatbush, Brooklyn. The unlikely duo — a Muslim Kurdish man and an Arab-Jewish artist and dancer — have since been advocating together on the Muslim Jewish Solidarity Committee, trying to show people of these two faiths that there is far more that brings them together than sets them apart.
“In Jewish culture, Jews are allowed to pray in a mosque if there’s nowhere else to pray. Also, Jews are allowed to drink wine made by Muslims,” Florence says.
Rezan mentions polarization in recent times as just one of the issues on which the Muslim and Jewish members of the committee are in solidarity with each other.
“I’m the kind of person who believes that the more people get to know each other, the more problems get solved,” he says. “We have a saying in Turkish: ‘A person is the enemy of something he doesn’t know.’”
One of those breaking fast this evening is Riskariyani Tirtawijaya. She is an Indonesian graduate student of American Studies at Northwestern Oklahoma State University and came to the United States through the AFS Intercultural Exchange Program.
Tirtawijaya, who wears hijab, tells the story of the time when she was walking in her campus in Alva, Oklahoma. Suddenly, somebody from the upper floors of one of the buildings threw a tennis ball, targeting her head. She saw the person hiding behind the curtain. “I held the ball in my hand and demanded that he come down to talk to me before I could release the ball,” she says. The person fled.
For some people, having a difficult conversation with those at the opposite end of the political, religious, racial, class and sexual orientation spectrum is an ever-increasing challenge, leaving culture brokers and leaders of faith and moral courage like Rezan, Florence and Michelle in need of new tools. To that end, a new program called Courageous Conversations is currently being developed at Auburn Seminary to engage across difference and conduct challenging conversations like those encouraged by Rezan and Florence’s Muslim-Jewish events.
Recognizing that the fate of the communities, even the nation, hangs in the balance of how its members come to know and value one another’s lives, Macky Alston, a senior vice president at Auburn, says, “Inside and outside our families, communities, networks, movements and nation, we live at the edge of difference and divides with loved ones, neighbors and strangers that most of us feel ill equipped to discuss with those who live on the other side of those divides.”
Rezan observes “the rule of agreeing to disagree” when it comes to his interactions with people of other faiths on religious issues. “I prefer ‘understanding’ over faith. I even remember once telling a Jewish friend of mine, ‘If I believed what you’re telling me, I should have been a Jew!’… [When we meet], neither do we the Muslims mention too much about ‘fiqh’ (Islamic jurisprudence), nor do our Jewish friends open Torah and start reading to us from it.”
The table is already set by the time Florence arrives. She takes out “sarma” (stuffed vine leaves), spring potato salad and red cabbage slaw, among other items she brought for potluck iftar. She hopes some of her Jewish community members and neighbors will show up here for dinner later tonight.
The sun has now set and it’s almost adhan (call to prayer) time. Someone takes out a cell phone and the mechanical muezzin’s voice is heard as he recites “Allahu Akbar” — the first line of the call to prayer. In a matter of minutes, rugs are rolled out by the dozens while Faris Almontaser, an imam at Masjid Al-Farooq on Atlantic Avenue, puts his hand behind his ears to prepare for the evening prayers.
At the backdrop of a Manhattan dusk skyline, at least 30 people line up behind the imam and take their respective praying positions — men in the front with their hands clasped (folded) on their tummies and women behind them with hands on their chests.
Two white non-Muslim men in t-shirts and shorts and one wearing a baseball cap, share the BBQ grill with the Solidarity Committee’s iftar crowd and seem unfazed by a group of Muslim men in robes and women in hijabs praying, which, in another part of the nation outside the liberal New York City, could easily have spurred cries of Sharia overtaking America.
Mücahit Bilici is an associate professor of sociology at John Jay College, City University of New York and the author of Finding Mecca in America: How Islam Is Becoming an American Religion. As he finishes his evening prayers and rolls up his rug with the others, he tells me an anecdote about an encounter he witnessed recently in Times Square between an American tourist and a Muslim driver.
“This white American guy had obviously not been to New York City before. You can imagine the shock on his face when he saw this taxi driver — I think he was Pakistani or something — with a long robe and a skull cap getting out of his car,” he says.
It’s almost dark by the time the whole group sits down to dinner. Florence is still waiting for a couple of members of her Syrian Jewish community who told her that they would stop by. “They will come, I’m sure. They promised,” she says.