In Turkey and other predominantly-Muslim countries, iftar -- the nightly meal that breaks the Ramadan fast -- has gone from being a humble affair based around dates, soup and some freshly baked bread to something much more elaborate (at least for those who can afford it). These days, hosting lavish iftar dinners has become a way for people to make a statement, either social, economic or -- as in the case when Israel's ambassador was pointedly not invited to a 2010 iftar hosted by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- political. (Update - This year its appears both the Israeli and Syrian envoys were not invited to Erdogan's iftar.) Here's how I described this trend in an article I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor in 2008, when I visited a large iftar dinner that was being hosted at a ballroom in Istanbul's swank Bosphorus-side Ciragan Palace hotel:
On a recent night, some 700 guests of a discount supermarket chain were seated at candlelit tables as a five-piece band played traditional Turkish music and a swarm of waiters in crimson-colored tuxedo jackets brought them plates of roast lamb.
"For a company to have iftar here is a kind of statement," says Ulku Karadaglilar, an executive at the Ciragan. "It's like 'Where did you have your wedding or your gala event?' They only have one chance to do it all year, so they want the best."
Increasingly, iftar in Turkey – and in other parts of the Muslim world – has moved from being a family affair to an important economic and social statement. Businesses and other organizations now host lavish iftar dinners, using them as a kind of public relations tool and as a way, some critics charge, of showing off. Observers in Turkey say the rise of the corporate iftar dinner is another example of the rising visibility of religion in public life and of an increasingly bourgeois Islamic elite.
"The religiously conservative and newly urbanized middle classes and upper middle classes have given increased importance to the iftar dinner, and have influenced the established middle classes," says Nilufer Narli, a sociologist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.
"Now these dinners are becoming more and more public and chic. It's becoming something that's kind of fashionable – almost every company or organization now gives one. It's the new thing."
Has this iftar mania gone overboard? Some people were already complaining about the trend several years ago, with one official with an organization affiliated with one of Turkey's Islamic movements telling me he has to go to so many corporate and organizational iftars every night that he hardly has a chance to celebrate the meal with his family. "It's becoming more and more of a social activity, not a religious activity," he told me. And last year, in response to to the rise of these "5 star" iftar meals, some groups in Istanbul started organizing protest meals not far from some of the hotels hosting the lavish dinners.
Perhaps realizing that things have gone too far, this year, just before last night's start of the month-long fast, the head of Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs (also known as "Diyanet") issued a plea for downsizing the event. "It has become a pressing issue that Ramadan has become some kind of festival or carnival in which the desire to sho off the prestige of different social classes translates into wasteful ‘iftar’ tables that contradict the main tradition of giving that is behind this month," said the Diyanet head, Mehmet Gormez, who is essentially Turkey's top cleri. "The joy of Ramadan should not be converted to pretension and gimmickry.”
For those in Istanbul looking to experience iftar and haven't managed to score an invitation to any of the flashier dinners around town, Istanbul Eats rounds up some suggestions for classic restaurants where the meal can indeed be had without "pretension or gimmickry."