Remarks at the Annual State Department Iftar Dinner׀ Swearing-In Ceremony for Farah Pandith Special Representative to Muslim CommunitiesAbout the Author: Farah Pandith serves as the Secretary's Special Representative to Muslim Communities.September 15, 20095:00 a.m. It is a funny thing to wake up with a smile on your face. But I did today – because in a few hours I will be sworn-in by Secretary Clinton as our nation’s first Special Representative to Muslim Communities. I am really looking forward to today and more than anything else, so grateful for this opportunity.
8:04 a.m. My blackberry is going insane. Lots of excitement in the air, as friends and family are pinging me with best wishes. Many have flown to D.C. to share this moment with me. Later this evening, I will have the honor of giving remarks at the annual State Department Iftar, hosted by Secretary Clinton in the regal Ben Franklin Room. For those of you who are not familiar with the term, an “Iftar” is the breaking of the fast. And for Muslims observing Ramadan, you do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset each day for 30 days.
9:35 a.m. My family is with me waiting for the protocol team to take us upstairs for my swearing-in ceremony. We will have a few minutes with Secretary Clinton before the ceremony to talk and take pictures.
11:28 a.m. The swearing-in ceremony was an extraordinary experience. Having the a chance to look across a room filled with people from every part of my life, to be able to express my gratitude to those who have helped me along the way, and to stand with my family next to the Secretary of State with my left hand on my mother’s Holy Qu’ran and right hand in the air while executing the oath to serve my nation as Special Representative to Muslim Communities will stay with me forever.
1:14 p.m. Back to reality! We are crashing on final details for the Secretary’s Iftar, and I am fielding question about this morning’s swearing-in as well as today's main event: Secretary Clinton’s Iftar dinner for 200 tonight!
2:34 p.m. I just returned from meeting on the Iftar, and we are all set for tonight. The room is going to be packed. My office is receivinng lots of about the guest list, what the Secretary will be saying, and the menu for the dinner. As the expression goes: ”curiosity killed the cat.” I have told people they need to wait and see. They won’t be disappointed.
5:25 p.m. Huma Abedin (a close advisor to Secretary Clinton who has been with her since 1996 and has celebrated 13 Iftar’s with her) and I walk through the dining room. The room is gorgeous and elegant: light green silk table cloths with embroidered flowers in cream, tan and acru fall to the floor, exquisite centerpieces in autumn tones with fruits and flowers anchor the table, and golden wrapping paper covers small boxes of chocolates with ribbon securing a card that reads “Ramadan Mubarak” (written by hand in calligraphy and an ivory ribbon bow and chocolate medallion with the State Department seal and the Secretary’s signature) appear on each table setting for the guests. (I like this special touch.) Candles on the table and elegant calligraphy on the name cards and individual menus make the tables among the prettiest I have ever seen for an Iftar. The room is sparkling.
6:35 p.m. I am heading back upstairs to the Iftar. Guests have started to arrive and the front lobby is buzzing. We don’t break the fast until 7:17 p.m., so guests will have some time to mix and mingle before the call to prayer. There is a lovely poster near the elevators on the first floor of then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton when she held the nation’s first Eid Celebration at the White House in 1996 . When the guests arrive on the State Department's 8th floor, there will be another poster of President Obama and Secretary Clinton touring the Sultan Hassan mosque in Istanbul this last June.
9:56 p.m. What a great evening! Secretary Clinton hosts a great dinner! The energy in the room was palpable and the warmth, laughter, conversation, attentiveness to her remarks about the importance of Ramadan, and her personal history in establishing for our nation a significant milestone in bringing awareness of Ramadan to our nation’s capital was clear. But I am getting ahead of the evening….
Right before sunset, many guests were busy in conversation. Though the Washington sky was not as clear as I had hoped, guests were enjoying the view from the balcony, and also enjoying walking around the historic rooms where antique furniture, oil paintings, and historic items from our rich past decorate the Diplomatic Reception Rooms.
There was a diversity of guests invited to take part – Americans from all parts of our country as well as a special group of international visitors, women leaders from Africa. There were dozens of members of the ambassadorial corps – from Europe, Asia and Africa. People who were making a difference in a wide variety of ways were also invited: scholars and activists, musicians and nonprofit leaders, businesspeople and policymakers. It was quite a crowd!
When Imam Talal Eid called the prayer, waiters appeared with dates, and dried fruits, fruit juices and water. Some guests enjoyed and others left to pray in the room that had been specially prepared. Soon afterwards we were called into the Benjamin Franklin Room for the formal dinner.
The evening was very special for me because Secretary Clinton asked me to welcome the guests and make remarks. Just officially sworn-in hours before, it was my first official role as the new Special Representative to Muslim Communities. I really enjoyed having a chance to talk about Islam in America, a historic mosque in Quincy, Massachusetts, and the legacy of freedom of religion, pluralism and respect.
Secretary Clinton’s remarks were of course the highlight of the evening. The 200 guests clapped loudly as she came to the podium, and then there was pin-drop silence. She talked personally about the commonality of the human spirit and the need for us all to work together for the common good. She spoke with sincerity and care about respect for all faiths, and a country that values and celebrates its diversity. She talked about the Holy Month of Ramadan and what it teaches. Her remarks were meaningful.
After her remarks, we all began a delicious meal: from Tandoori halal chicken with raita to grilled halal lamb tenderloin and guava barbequed sea bass, to basmati rice with sun dried blueberries, herbs and blackberry sauce, to herb roasted plum tomatoes stuff with sautéed baby spinach and toasted pine nuts, to cardamom pear galette on puff pastry to cinnamon apricot iced tea. It was amazing.
Our table was having a great time – one of the co-authors of the American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook, Imran Hafiz, was there along with the Moroccan Ambassador Aziz Mehouar, Zeenat Rahman from Interfaith Youth Corps, Rami Nashashibi from IMAN and Naeem Muhammed, a member of the rap group Native Dean. We actually talked a lot about culture and music at our table. The Ambassador told us about a special concert that takes place every year in Fez. I was wondering if Naeem and other members of his group might do a little rap for us, but perhaps all the formalities presented a challenge.
11:27 p.m. Home now. I'm in a state of exhausted happiness from the day’s events. As I reflect on this day, I think how remarkable it is that a little girl born in Srinagar could come to Massachusetts and grow up to stand next to the Secretary of State, with one hand on the Holy Qu’ran, taking the oath to serve her nation. I have been so privileged to have been taught and influenced by so many, and raised in a place where I could embrace my faith, my heritage, and my new country all at the same time. I feel blessed.