Today, I was unexpectedly invited to attend the Lehigh Dialogue Center‘s 9th Annual Intercultural Dialogue and Friendship Ramadan Dinner. After a brief moment’s consideration, I canceled my plans for yoga class and began digging up a modest outfit to don for the event. One of the aspects of the Pacific Northwest that I admired so much was the apparent acceptance of a wide variety of people. Even in areas where diversity was not very visible, the townsfolk seemed accepting and jovial wherever we went. Here, I see so many hurtful comments on local news message boards (seriously, some of them are scary) and hear ignorant remarks throughout town from time to time. A group of friends and I even discovered evidence of a KKK meeting place along the Appalachian Trail in our area. It’s frightening to realize that sort of bigotry exists in this region at this point in time. Racial, sexual and religious intolerance are still real problems we need to address in order to make the Lehigh Valley, and the broader world, into the kind of society I would want to raise children in.
However, despite the sporadic occurrence of saddening and infuriating prejudiced events, there are glimmers of progress that are becoming more and more frequent in this area. Tonight’s Iftar dinner was one of those hope-filled events that inspired understanding and communication across all demographics. Walking in to the banquet hall, I was surprised at the number of people invited to attend this sponsored event. Individuals of all ages, races, and creeds respectfully commingled at tables, anticipating the evening’s programming and meal.
As we all waited for sundown to break the Ramadan fast, Abdulkadir Veziroglu, the LDC President, welcomed the group, reminding everyone to engage in meaningful discussion throughout the meal in the spirit of friendship and understanding. During the evening, two short films were screened, one highlighting the meaning of Ramadan for Islamic people and one stressing the importance of celebrating diversity. Mustafa E. Gurbuz of the University of Connecticut delivered a keynote address on the value and place of altruism (one of the focuses of Ramadan) in modern society, incorporating the belief system of Fethullah Gülen. An award was also presented to Walter Wagner (who happens to be a professor where I work) for his “significant contributions to dialogue and friendship” in the interfaith community. Throughout the evening, several political and religious leaders from the area rose to offer thoughts and gratitude for the conversations taking place.
The most fascinating part of the evening for me was the recital of the Qur’an and Azaan, or call to prayer. I have never read the Qur’an or any translation of it, nor have I ever heard a portion of it read or recited before. In fact, I don’t know that I have ever heard more than a couple of Arabic words in my life. When I read on the program that part of the text would be recited, I imagined someone walking up to the podium and reading (probably in some sort of monotone like I am used to from church) off of a printed sheet. Instead, the gentleman stood behind the podium and recited from memory. Not only had he memorized the portion of text, but he sang it. The singing was like a chant, almost trance inducing, mesmerizing despite my complete inability to comprehend the meaning of his words. Fortunately, the LDC provided a projected translation of the words on a screen in the room for the guests in attendance.
Of course, in order to break the Ramadan fast, a generous meal was provided by the LDC. I had noticed the spread of enticing Turkish dishes on the tables when I entered the room and had looked forward to sunset so we could all enjoy that feast. To my surprise, waitstaff later entered the room bearing trays of salads, then entrées of salmon or pasta in addition to the wealth of food on each table. While all of the food was good, the Turkish plates blew my mind with the complexity of flavors and textures. Accompanied with natural pomegranate and tart cherry juice imported by a Bethlehem-based Turkish beverage company, the meal was a wonderful complement to a night that renewed my hope for humanity in the Lehigh Valley.
Here are some pictures of the meal. I tried to guess and look up what each dish was called, but keep in mind that I may be wrong! Of course, several varieties of baklava were also served, but I was too focused on tasting them to take a picture. (I didn’t even know there were different kinds of baklava until tonight!)
Ramadan Kareem to my Muslim friends!