My Last White House Iftar with President Bush
By Seeme Gull Hasan
President Bush addresses the Iftar gathering at the White House
The most memorable Iftar for me has always been at my parents’ house in Lahore. A twelve-foot long table was laid out with all kinds of food items night after night. My mother wanted to make sure that we had the same Iftar that she had growing up at her ancestral home in Ludihana, India. President George Bush and the White House have managed to change that image. Now my most memorable Iftar will be the one we had on September 17, 2008.
The invitation promised a great evening. As we entered the east entrance of the White House, we were greeted every few feet by military personnel, attired in colorful uniforms. They were ready to answer any questions and lead us to our destination - the main foyer of the White House.
On our way to the stairs at the lower level, we walked by the map room. The vermeil room, which is famous for the portraits of the First Ladies. The library displays books added by every President who had resided in the White House.
The staff at the White House was extremely polite and accommodating. Most of the people who figure in hosting an event are from various arms of the armed forces.
The White House main foyer had a table set up on one side, laden with jumbo sized juicy dates. There were small tables with chairs set up for anyone who wanted to sit to open their fast. Most people chose to stand. The hundred-and- fifty plus guests included ambassadors from Muslim countries who opened their fast with the most sonorous and resonating recitation of the Azan.
Dr Malik and Mrs Seeme Hasan at the Iftar dinner held at the White House on September 17, 2008
The Azan, Masahllah, was being broadcast in a very crisp tone over the speakers, while the Imam was standing in the East Room. The East Room is the largest in the White House. It is painted in white and golden colors and has huge chandeliers. The room had been emptied and white sheets were spread all over the floor. On top of the sheets were prayer rugs for those who wanted to perform their prayers.
After the Azan, the Imam conducted the prayer. He had come from North Carolina where he served as Imam for an army unit.
Everyone was very respectfully quiet as waiters walked around offering various kinds of drinks and dates on silver trays. It was an overwhelming experience to hear the Azan in the middle of the White House. From where I was standing I could see the mall from the south windows of the White House. From the north windows I could see the front of the White House. In the midst of those two entrancing views, I was hearing the Kalima being recited from loud speakers. This touched me to the depths of my soul. At that moment I wished we could have telecast the edifying spectacle over the Muslim world to show what respect our religion was receiving at the first house of the United States.
I thanked President Bush in my mind. Only he would have the courage to have the Azan performed so loud and clear in the White House. I was also informed that President Bush had officially placed a copy of the Holy Qur’an in the official library of the White House. The Qur’an will be in the library as a permanent addition.
The Imam from an Army Unit who led the Maghrib prayers at the Iftar Dinner is seen with Senator Keith Ellison and Dr Malik Hasan
Mrs Hillary Clinton had White House Eid receptions which she hosted and attended for her friends who were Muslims.
President Bush was the first American President to host an annual Iftar Dinner at the White House, right after 9/11 in 2001. The dinner became an annual feature and soon all US embassies around the world began to host an Iftar dinner the same night it was held at the White House.
President Bush also instructed various departments to hold Iftar dinners. The State Department hosts a huge dinner every year. Other departments also follow suit while Mrs Bush hosts a private Iftar for her Muslim friends and guests separately.
Each year President Bush picks a theme for the dinner. This year’s theme was ‘American Muslim innovators and technology development.’ A gentleman from Orange County who develops video games was wondering how he got invited. A young woman who was from Chicago was saying the same thing. I told them the White House has its own ways.
The first year, the theme was American Muslim women who are involved in their communities. I had presented the names of a few of Pakistani ladies, including Dr Rana Akbar from Michigan, and Shahmim Ibraheem from Los Angeles. Both were invited.
Congressman Ellison and Dr Hasan
The prayers had been performed and everyone had opened the fast. We were led into the dining room while I slipped away to take photos of the East Room with the prayer rugs still on the floor. On my way back I met the Imam who informed me that he not only knew me but also knew my brilliant daughter Asma. We exchanged phone numbers.
The dining room was beautifully decorated with fall color flowers. Each place setting had a menu card written by hand with a small crescent moon on the top. Each person’s name was hand-written and placed at the place setting. I was lucky enough to be seated between the Ambassador of Djibouti and Congressman Keith Ellison. The Congressman and I had a good laugh on how we were both from different parties but our hearts and minds were on the same issues.
The four-course dinner was served right after President Bush entered the dining room and welcomed the chief guest, the Prime Minister of Kuwait. He then gave a speech complimentary to Muslims and appreciative of the creative work and research being conducted by American Muslims.
Invitation for the Iftar Dinner at the White House
As the dinner ended, President Bush moved to a different room, to facilitate individual photos with all the attendees. The ambassadors were especially happy because they said ordinarily they would not be invited to a White House dinner. Most ambassadors would have liked to bring their spouses along with them, but due to limited space only the invited guests could attend.
My husband and I were the only couple to have been invited. When we met President Bush we told him that we were saddened that this was the last Iftar dinner with him at the White House. We also thanked him for his efforts to help American Muslims, especially after 9/11.We thanked him for visiting the mosques. We thanked him for his kind words in various speeches that he always had about Muslims.
People would question our expression of gratitude to President Bush. I would like to say that the USA is a huge country. It is not right to roll up the presidency as a whole. One has to separate the policy of the administration from the role the President performs. One should also separate foreign affairs from national affairs. Regardless of the foreign relations of President Bush, he was most helpful to American Muslims here in the USA. A few days after 9/11, if President Bush had not visited the Washington DC mosque and given a speech about Muslims and Islam, we American Muslims would have suffered much more hatred and violence. He had again and again in his speeches and his actions supported Muslims. Members of his administration have also shown respect to Islam and its followers. Obama has yet to visit a mosque and I worry if he became President and God forbid a nine eleven type incident happened how he would treat the Muslims.
I would be the first to agree that the civil rights of American Muslims have not been fully safeguarded under the policies of the Bush administration. I would also be the first to say that they have been extremely open to listening to any criticism and changing their policies.
As my husband and I walked out during a full moon night, the White House looked serene and quiet and every guest felt overwhelmed with the respect accorded to him and his religion. That was our last Iftar dinner with President George Bush, a truly memorable one.