What does tolerance taste like? Find out at an interfaith iftar
There was a Godfather movie poster on the wall and a DVD of Pulp Fiction in the bookshelf; a TED Talks mug on the bureau alongside a framed picture of the man of the house meeting Amitabh Bachchan; a comfy chair with a cushion reading “friends make the best presents”.
These are holy objects of secular culture. They are not the stereotypical decorations for a prayer room. Yet on Wednesday, they were precisely what surrounded Nazia Erum as she performed namaz during an “interfaith iftar” party at her home in Noida.
It was the last such event in a booming season of them. Earlier this Ramzan, Erum, a 30-year-old writer and clothing designer, had posted on Facebook asking if any of her friends had ever attended an iftar. She heard back from over ten times the number of people she expected.
Banding together with 11 other Muslim women, each of whom contributed food or funds, Erum organized an iftar party for 70 people. Many guests had no familiarity with the nightly Ramzan celebration. Some had never been inside a Muslim person’s home. The hostesses set out to dispel increasingly common misperceptions of Islamic life.
Erum was struck by a study, released in April by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which said that only 33% of Indian Hindus have a close friend who is Muslim. What if she could help change that? In addition to organizing four events in Delhi, one of which was composed of orphans, Erum facilitated the spread of the interfaith iftars to Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Guwahati. In each city, the hostesses attracted around 30 to 100 people to their dinners and said they were intent on holding more, similar events in the future.
“Things have accelerated in the last few years,” Erum told me. “We need to save the world one iftar at a time.”
At her party on Wednesday, Erum was an energetic choreographer, directing the placement of numerous dishes, dabbing the wrists of each guest with a homemade attar, giving interviews to journalists from the Hindustan Times and BBC, and tending to her three-year-old daughter, Myra, who was running around in a black tutu.
As we broke fast, Rana Safvi, 60, a scholar and columnist who is among Erum’s 11 fellow organisers, held forth. “Ramzan is about controlling all the base instincts,” she said. “The biggest jihad you may fight is the evil within you.” During the holiday, she added, “you are more ascetic, more inclined towards spirituality.” Hana Khan, 32, another of the organisers, just finished her training to become a pilot. Khan said that she was hesitant to speak to the press, but had decided this could be one useful function of the dinners. “Muslim women need to talk. We’ve been silent too long. We’ve been letting other people talk for us.”
All the invitees reported having never attended an iftar, or not having gone to one for many years. Deepali Sapru Maini said she had not done so since her Kashmiri Pandit family left the Valley. “Why can’t we have a community that is a mix of cultures?” she asked. Maini said the event had inspired her to think of hosting an interfaith Diwali party.
Another guest, Debjani Mazumder, said she’d thought to come after witnessing intolerance close to home. In a WhatsApp group of local women Mazumder and Erum both belong to, someone sent a message describing an incident in which an unnamed woman was threatened by a taxi driver with a conspicuously Muslim name. He supposedly drove against her will into Batla House in Jamia, and she barely managed to escape.
Erum replied saying that this was obviously fake news, since cars cannot even drive into this part of the neighbourhood, and proposing to take anyone on the thread into Jamia to prove it. She didn’t get any takers, but Mazumder got in touch with her afterward.
“It’s everywhere,” said Erum of Islamaphobia. On her way home from her husband’s family’s Eid celebration in Moradabad last year, for the first time she can remember, Erum didn’t bring her share of mutton. Dadri is not far from the road back home. “You never know when your mutton will become beef,” she said.