Trick or Treat, InshaAllah*

November 17, 2009

There is something wrong with stop signs in French. They don’t look right: ARRÊT. Stop is red, the color of blood, warning; it is eight-sided and four-lettered; S-T-O-P. Slapping an ARRÊT on a STOP sign doesn’t make it so – it just looks like a STOP sign with a weird word on it. And what’s with the circumflex? over the E? the crooked accent, that folded thing? Are they trying to be cute? They don’t fool me. Every time I see the circumflex I see the ‘s’ that used to be there: forêt means forest; hôpital, hospital; arrêt, arrest. They are not fooling anyone. Mr. Ostrowsky taught me that in 7th grade French class, that the circumflex is a sign, a reminder of a lost s. But why do French people need reminders of lost letters? Why not just leave the letter there? Why drop it and tack on a reminder? Indecisive, sentimental, nostalgic, fancy…ARRÊT… give me STOP any day, or, at a minimum, ARREST.

Such were the perverse thoughts that circumflexed my brain as Jo and I went trick or treating, door to door, (or should that be tricking or treating?) in Laval, Quebec three weeks ago, stopping at all those arrêt signs with their missing s’s, following a flock of Pakistani-Canadian children and their happy mothers. Actually it was door to every tenth, or twentieth door, as the good people of Laval do not make a fuss over Halloween. Most of the porch lights were off and there were virtually no decorations anywhere. We owned the street, but were hard pressed to find candy and only bumped into two other groups of trick or treaters all night. I wore my multicolored crazy quilt Joseph coat, Jo had on her wedding dress with a gigantic flaming pink fake boa while Sumera and the mothers wore typical and beautiful South Asian garb under Western style overcoats and –this was a first– no head scarves.

My family had had a big discussion a few days before the trip; Natessa expressing surprise that our devout Muslim friends would even celebrate Halloween and myself quibbling over whether celebrate is the proper term. Observe? Practice? What is Halloween? It’s not really a celebration. It’s more a concession, an accommodation, to the night, to the other side, to our strange superstitious past, to spirits, ghouls, to the idea of worlds — of the living, of the dead, and veils that grow thin between them. You don’t celebrate Halloween. You participate. You go trick or treating. You become the ghoul, the demon, the sweet-demanding devil.

The girls had a blast. When we found a house with a porch light on they would ring the bell and stand silently, smiling with their bags held high. I’d yell at them to say “trick of treat” but they didn’t obey. “Trick or treat” had less meaning than a circumflex to these five through eight year olds who spoke fluent Urdu, Punjabi, some French and Arabic but only a smattering of English. They were princesses, a comic book hero, and a bumblebee — no ghouls in sight. But they did know about a certain kind of veil, a place between worlds, or at least their parents did. Just a few years ago they were homeless, feared and fearful refugees, fleeing a post 9/11 America, stranded on the border, peering into the agents’ eyes, seeking asylum, a home, no trick, just an appeal to be treated with respect, and given a chance to prove themselves as new citizens. These are the lucky ones, Sumera and her family, and their friends. Let in, given that chance, now making the grade. And here they are, with head scarves off, laughing in the night with their wide-eyed children filling their bags with candy from strangers.

We saw only one jack o’ lantern — all night. The French really don’t celebrate Halloween. I guess it’s an Irish-Anglo thing; the French are too enlightened, too frank, too free, for such tawdry Celtic nonsense. Too abbreviated. I told Sumera about the turnips, about how, in pre-pumpkin Ireland, the people would hollow out a turnip and carve a face in it and place a burning ember inside and leave it on their doorstep to ward off the devil and his minions, and also leave sweets to satisfy them. She nodded as if she understood, perhaps thinking of the pre-Islam nature religions that Mohammed himself had to negotiate with, conquer, appease. I thought of Allah, originally the god of the idol worshippers in Mecca, now the great God of Creation and all Muslims, and of El, the high god of the nature religions of Canaan and Mesopotamia who donated his name to the great Lord God of the Jews. El-Shaddai. God Almighty. (Is it significant that the names Allah and El derive from the same word/name?)

Are they are still there, old Allah, old El, old Beelzebub and the others, those old nature gods, or are they just harmless devils to be mocked and bought off with sweets? Are they smiling from inside our pumpkins? Are they lost and gone forever or is Halloween a circumflex, a folded circle pointing forward and backward, cryptically, crookedly but directly at them? Or do I just need to work off this sugar high, learn to appreciate the French, abbreviate my fevered brain?

* Arabic for ‘if the God is willing’


4 Responses to “Trick or Treat, InshaAllah*”

  1. Catherine Says:

    Hallowe’en was always my favorite holiday when I was a child. Nice piece.

  2. Dan Wetmore Says:

    I can’t believe I left out the ‘ in Hallowe’en.
    oh dear.


  3. SK Werner Says:

    Wonderful! I really like your writing, your connections. Samhain is my favorite holiday, too! Always dress up, when I worked at the library and now, of course, at my job in an elementary school. Where else can a 55-1/2 year old get to be in a Halloween Parade???

  4. Salaam alaikum, brother.

    This piece pretty much sums it all up, re-enchants the veil of superstition between gods and God, so I won’t besmear its brilliance with my scant smatterings here. (And even better you left out the ‘ in Hallowe’en. We Americans – we abbreviate the abbreviation!)

    Bravo, man! Amen! Hooray for roots!
    As my dear dad says, they’ll always lead you to something.
    And you make the ride so much fun, we hardly remember we’re going anywhere…..

    So let me change the subject:

    Speaking of veils and monotheism ~ Shame

    Where does that come from?
    The sound of it instantly sends shivers across my temples.

    Can we have shame without blame? without guilt? without condescension?
    Or are they indelibly linked.

    “Shame on you!”

    Jesus would say it. But would Mary? Would Buddha?

    Can those words be uttered without pointing?
    But with an open palm of compassion, of receiving?

    Can the term be salvaged?
    Or ought we do away with it altogether?

    Should we be ashamed over what we’ve done to the polar bears or what we’ve recently gossiped about our crass and noisome neighbors?

    We recovering Catholics tend to be generally OK with this kind of shame, of self-blame.
    But why?
    If we are the heterodox polytheists that we pretend to be, professing that we’re all one at the source, Why put up with the shame-blame game ourselves if we won’t have it toward others?
    Or can we have it both ways – a shame sans blame?

    These are just my own musings of late, Dan. (Quite late, actually.)

    Thank you for your shamefully delightful prose!

    – From the righteously leftward Martin

    And so what of redemption then, if we abolish shame?
    Can we be free of that too, someday?

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