Monday, June 26, 2017

Eid Mubarak

No pictures to be found of Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, but the Thomas Jefferson Foundation offers these alternative Barbary States officials, in a 19th-century engraving.

Eid Mubarak from President Donald Trump, who has decided to celebrate by not holding the traditional White House iftar celebration, for the first time since 1996. I don't think this necessarily means he's anti-Muslim in particular. After all, he refused to attend the White House Passover seder, a tradition since 2009, though it did take place. His Jewish daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren didn't go either, but apparently had their own private feast.

As Dinesh D'Souza pointed out, moreover,

So perhaps he is hostile to religion in general. He doesn't go to church much either (twice since the inauguration) and he doesn't look hella comfortable when he's there (see below).

A curious thing about the Ramadan iftar, though, is about the first White House iftar, in 1805, when President Jefferson had a dinner during Ramadan for Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, envoy of the Beylik of Tunis, and scheduled it for sunset instead of the normal 3:30 so that the ambassador would be able to eat. The State Department had a posting about this, according to the Houston Chronicle
A state department website posted about the first White House iftar, held by President Thomas Jefferson in 1805
and Wikipedia, but it seems to have been scrubbed, and yesterday the President's friends at Breitbart put up an angry denial that any such thing ever happened—it's FAKE NEWS!
Thomas Jefferson was faced with two choices: cancel the dinner entirely or simply have the meal later in the evening at a time when his guest could attend. As a good host and a decent person, Jefferson chose the latter. In fact, all Jefferson did was change the time of his meal. He had no intention of honoring Islam. Jefferson simply was not honoring the religion of “the Musselmen”—as he termed Muslims at the time—when he changed the time of the meal. Also, there is no evidence that Jefferson asked Melli Melli what sort of food a “Musselman” would eat, so no special food was prepared to suit a Muslim’s religious needs.
Breitbart, of course, is obviously wrong. If Jefferson was a good host and a decent person, he certainly did make an effort to keep the meal halal, at least avoiding pork, whether there's evidence or not. And he could easily have postponed the meal—Mellimelli was staying in Washington for six months—or invited him over in the evening for coffee, as Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, according to the inestimable diaries of Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire:

There's an erroneous footnote at the Monticello site where the standard version of Jefferson's iftar story comes from, tracing it to Plumer, who doesn't in fact tell the story, so I don't know where they actually got it. But there's another version from none other than John Quincy Adams, then a Senator from Massachusetts, who attended the dinner and described it in his own diary. He seems to have felt that the Ambassador was not very fussy about the food anyway, though his secretaries didn't dare drink wine in his presence but waited until he had left. And Breitbart is quite wrong about his "changing the time"; sunset was specified on the original invitation as Senator Adams received it:

 I dined at the President's, in company with the Tunisian Ambassador and 
his two secretaries. By the invitation, dinner was to have been 
on the table precisely at sunset — it being in the midst of 
Ramadan, during which the Turks fast while the sun is above 
the horizon. He did not arrive until half an hour after sunset, 
and, immediately after greeting the President and the company, 
proposed to retire and smoke his pipe. The President requested 
him to smoke it there, which he accordingly did, taking at the 
same time snuff deeply scented with otto of roses. We then 
went to dinner, where he freely partook of the dishes on the 
table without enquiring into the cookery. Mrs. Randolph the 
President's daughter, and her daughter, were the only ladies 
there, and immediately after they returned to the drawing-room 
after dinner the ambassador followed them to smoke his pipe 
again. His secretaries remained after him just long enough to 
take each a glass of wine, which they did not venture to do in 
his presence. His dress differed from that of the Turks. He 
wears his beard long. His secretaries only wear whiskers. 
His manners are courteous, but we were all unable to converse 
with him, except through the medium of an interpreter. The 
company was Mr. S. Smith, President of the Senate, Dr. Logan 
and Dr. Mitchell, Mr. John Randolph, Mr. Nicholson, and Mr. 
Dawson, of the House of Representatives, and the President's 
two sons-in-law, Mr. T. M. Randolph and Mr. Eppes, with 
Mr. Coles, his secretary, and Dr. Davis, who acted as interpreter. 
(The language the interpreter used was Italian, if you want to know.) The suggestion here—given that we know about his strictness all round (observing the fast, exact prayer times, and being "a firm believer in the Alcoran")—is that he didn't "enquire into the cookery" because he knew in advance his dietary needs were being seen to, which Adams didn't realize, though he clearly wondered about it. It was definitely a proper state dinner, in any case, and I can't see why it shouldn't be considered a proper iftar (إفطار‎‎ ʾifṭār  simply means "fast-breaking"). It is likely that Jefferson, very well read in this kind of thing, understood the tradition according to which feeding the stranger at a Ramadan sunset is regard as an especially meritorious act, and expected the ambassador to be pleased by the gesture, which is important (they were busy making a deal to avoid a war).

Much more startling, anyhow, is Plumer's report that the US government "provided him with one or more women" to help him make it through the night during his stay:

I wonder what Breitbart would have to say to that!

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