Ramadan: A Time for Networking
by ALI CHENAR in Tehran
21 Aug 2011 21:28
[ dispatch ] In Iran, Ramadan is a month for fasting, praying, reciting the Qur'an, and networking. What happens during this holiest month in the Islamic calendar is most revealing about the dynamics of a sophisticated metropolitan society.
According to Islamic belief, it was during Ramadan that the Prophet received the revelations we know as the Qur'an. This is the month when all prayers are answered and, according to Islamic teaching, "the gates of heavens are open." Devout Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. There is no eating and no drinking. It is a time for purification and for remembering the oppressed. Hunger and thirst are supposed to remind the believers of their brothers and sisters who live in poverty. Nothing should pass one's throat. Even smoking is prohibited according to sharia, Islamic law. One should not commit any haram -- forbidden acts, such as lying. Thus good businessmen wait for sunset to negotiate their prices and close their deals.
During the daytime, restaurants, coffee shops, and fast food stands are closed. Business activities slow down, government offices close early, and people rush to their homes immediately after work. Still, it is wrong to assume that social life is hindered during Ramadan. On the contrary, it offers the unique opportunity for socializing called iftar.
As the sun sets, Iranians of all walks of life and all shades of political belief gather to break their fasts by having iftar. It is served right after azan, the call to prayers, marks the end of the day and the beginning of the night. The iftar includes hot tea, honeyed confections, bread and cheese, ash-e reshteh -- the classic Iranian spinach-bean-and-noodle soup -- and main courses ranging from kababs to stews. There has always been the tradition of inviting family members and friends to iftar in Iran. The feeding of fellow Muslims, particularly those less fortunate, is in part an act of faith. The fact that such gatherings display families' social prestige helps as well.
Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in both the number of these parties and what they cost. Nowadays government agencies, public organizations, politicians, and political groups routinely throw lavish iftars and invite political supporters and patrons as well as their counterparts from other government agencies and rival political parties. Often the meal is accompanied by a speech, in support of the host's political beliefs. The food for the body comes with fodder for the soul, in particular -- suggestions for some forthcoming election. The upcoming Majles election, to be held next March 2, prompted many candidates to distribute their policy statements and campaign brochures at their iftars. Last week, television satirist Reza Rafiei told his viewers, "If you are attending an iftar where your host is insisting he has no political ambition regarding the next election, rest assured -- you are at a political iftar and your host is running for a seat in the Majles."
Reza, a 40-year-old sociologist, told Tehran Bureau,"Iftars have become a way of seeking political support and patronage. Many politicians and political hopefuls use Ramadan for propaganda purposes and as opportunities to meet their constituents." He added, "They have become very popular venues. Usually there is no need for an official permit to hold them and they are so well rooted in the rites of Ramadan that no one dares call them political gatherings, even though most of them are."
It is not just politicians who throw iftar parties. Prominent businessmen and companies also use them to meet potential clients, to break bread with rivals, to thank their employees, and to maintain relationships with officials. Akbar, a middle-aged businessman, has an iftar every Ramadan. "My father used to invite all of his clerks and assistants to come to our house for an iftar. I have to include my fellow businessmen, members of our syndicate, and officials with whom I have to deal." For Akbar, it is an excuse "to meet everyone and to see what is going on, to initiate new partnerships and to see old acquaintances." It is important for him to keep up appearances: "An individual in my position has to remember what is expected of him."
At this point, a Tehrani's social standing can be measured by the number of invitations he or she receives. A midlevel official usually receives two or three invitations; high-ranking ones, many more. According to Reza, they "receive many invitations, not because the host expects them to come, because he has to show them deference." Sending an invitation is a way of showing respect to the office. The rank and file are happy with one or two invitations. Hamid, a business analyst with a private bank, said, "I usually receive a few invitations sometimes to iftars our competitors throw. I make sure I show up on time and talk to as many people as I can." He is not a devout Muslim and does not fast himself. Still, that does not change the fact that "iftars are great opportunities to meet the higher-ups. How else could I see the vice president of a major bank or our own institution's chief of staff? These are people whose phone numbers one cannot find easily -- let alone get a chance to meet them in person." For Hamid, iftars are purely business networking opportunities. "In the West, they have cocktail parties and Christmas parties. Here we have iftar."As iftar becomes more and more popular both as a venue for political activity and an opportunity for business networking, more food vendors offer catering for the event, at increasingly inflated figures. The Kabab, Haleem, and Traditional Food Vendors Syndicate has set the price of haleem, a thick meat stew popular during Ramadan, at $3.50 to $4 per serving; however, the syndicate has been criticized by the press because some vendors have been charging $6 or even $7. Last week, the president of the syndicate announced that Ramadan generates $81 million for the organization's members, or a daily average of $2.7 million. And, of course, his estimate does not include the seasonal vendors who sell their Ramadan meals without a syndicate license.
Yunis, who runs a dining hall in downtown Tehran, thinks the profits are exaggerated. "True, there is a high demand for iftar, but our costs increase too. The price of oil, rice, meat, and sugar skyrocket during Ramadan," he said. "Remember, we are closed for lunch -- in this business district, that is the most popular meal of the day and a huge breadmaker for us." Nonetheless, he makes good money during Ramadan. His establishment charges a flat entrance fee and a per head fee that varies widely depending on what the host wants on the menu. Yunis says, "Some people only want iftar that is bread, tea, cheese, sweets, dates, and sometimes soup. Some order a full meal as well, which can cost from 8 to 25 dollars per person." That is no small amount in Iran. Still, he says, "It costs way more to have an iftar in a hotel or a place in the northern part of Tehran."
The increasing costs have prompted many to criticize such events. This year, even fundamentalist Majles deputies spoke up against government-held iftar parties. Hossein Ibrahimi, a ranking member of the principlist caucus, told reporters, "No one has any right to throw an iftar with public funds." Last year, Education Minister Hamid Reza Hajibabaei was severely criticized for throwing an iftar paid for with public funds earmarked for school construction. The truth is that while government budgets have no line items for iftars, agencies routinely pay for them out of their budgets for other things. Fatemeh Rahbar, another ultraconservative Majles deputy, told reporters, "It is simply un-Islamic to throw parties, lavish or simple, with public funds."
Abuse of the public funds is not the only cause for concern. Political observers also follow who goes to whose iftar party. The reformist Etemad daily reported, "In this election year, political iftar parties are in full swing with the principlists having the upper hand." The paper added that regrettably reformists had only two "house parties" to date with one more scheduled before the end of Ramadan. Former President Mohammad Khatami's iftar is coming under scrutiny even before it takes place. Several conservative bloggers have already attacked him for trying to influence the selection of reformist candidates for the Majles and one suggest that "Khatami is worried about the reformist nominee for the presidential election" -- taking place in June 2013. One thing is for sure: political gossip does not fade away during Ramadan.
In consideration of the ongoing crisis in Somalia, a fellow Muslim country, this year some organizations and individuals donated the cost of their planned iftar parties to Somalians' aid, among them the Farabi Foundation, a movie producer, and various members of parliament. But no one believes this signals a general curtailment of purposeful iftars. Hamid believes, "It is impossible not to have them, they are part of Ramadan. As long as there is Ramadan, there will be iftars." He had to cut the conversation short -- he had an invitation that evening to an iftar in a five-star hotel.
Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau