We were just dusting off our annual “please observe Halloween responsibly” email message to students when bars and clubs began announcing via social media that they were cancelling their Halloween parties at the request of the government. Shortly thereafter, the Ministry of Interior confirmed this. It cited security concerns, such as some highly-publicized mob assaults on similar parties in recent years (invariably blamed on Islamists hurling accusations of “Satanism” and “homosexuality”). The ministry predictably also cited the incompatibility of Halloween parties with Jordan’s alleged traditions and values. By Thursday night, the beginning of our Friday-Saturday weekend, the US Embassy had sent a message alerting its citizens about a planned demonstration in downtown Amman after Friday prayers. The protest was against recent developments in Jerusalem, particularly deadly provocations regarding al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif. The US Embassy warned in the same message that public expressions of Halloween had been banned, and that police would take action.
Cue the cognitive dissonance. And the outrage, of course.
The range of reaction and over-reaction was predictable. So too were both the pro- and the anti-Halloween party loyalties visible in both Arabic- and English-language venues. And while many of those in the pro-Halloween party camp—Jordanian and not—predictably expressed their outrage by mocking the government and/or Jordanians, those in the anti-Halloween party camp expressed theirs in ways that enabled and/or served to validate the mockery.
Predictably, too, is how the story has been publicized outside of Jordan. While it certainly does not seem to have gone viral in the true sense of the word, Jordan’s ban on Halloween parties— out of fear of offending conservative interests—was reported in some news outlets and a range of interest group venues, particularly those both left and right on the US political spectrum, with the same mockery, devoid of nuance or context. Even the Los Angeles Times, pulling quotes from social media, failed to pursue what was interesting about its own story: someone describing people in the anti-Halloween camp with the Arabic saying, “Those who can’t reach the grapes say they’re sour.” What are the grapes? Why can people not reach them? And what does it all have to do with Halloween?
This hints at something far more complicated than religiously or generally conservative people being scandalized by Halloween parties. This is particularly so as we head into the fifth year of a period characterized by regional mass mobilizations and counter-mobilizations. Common to all such mobilization is the disparity of economic opportunity, authoritarianism dressed up as “democracy” (or endless “democratizing”), and the links between the aid structures of development and militarization. One Jordanian blogger who writes primarily in English even titled her own response to the ban, “Halloween: A Ghost of Social Inequality in Jordan?” But in a broader Da‘ish [the Arabic acronym for ISIL]-obsessed world where categories and causations are more easily visible than specters to the naked Western eye, who wants to talk about that?
The most comprehensive take so far on this kind-of-story in Western analysis pointed directly to Da‘ish. Offering to explain what, “the government’s fraught balancing act has to do with costume parties,” The Atlantic asks, “Why did Jordan ban Halloween?” The piece opens with the author’s description of her experience celebrating at a “typically rowdy Halloween house party . . . dressed as a ‘Real Housewife of Amman’” with a bottle of wine in her apron. This could be funny if, as a costume, it was intentionally ironic, a deliberate commentary on a particular confluence of elite and expat life in the very unfunny context of Amman and Jordan: social inequality, related issues of urbanization, migration, and space, and the constant recalibration of those issues within the sticky rubric of Jordanian identity politics that gives words like “real,” “housewife,” “Amman,” and many others particular and sensitive shades of meaning here. In fact, the author goes on to say, “In my experience, Halloween celebrations in Amman mostly exist in very particular bubbles for the wealthy and the foreigners.”
However, the connection between the geographic location of most Halloween celebrations and the government’s fraught balancing act that ends in the banning of Halloween never materializes. Instead, the piece latches onto all the usual suspects: Islamists; Jordan’s alliance with the United States; its part in the war on terror and Da‘ish despite what polls indicate is the unpopularity of those official positions; and the division between the reality of a growing religious conservatism of Jordanian society and the official image of moderation that the government would like to project. This time, Jordan banned silly Halloween excesses as an easy bit of appeasement for the conservatives. But what will it be next time? That is the balancing act, and it is ominous.
The Atlantic article thus treads a well-worn path of self-styled liberal discourse that perpetuates the range of easy and easy-because-they’re-not-entirely-untrue narratives of Jordan—from the popular to the academic—in the West. And the government cancelled Halloween because it is smart and benefits from those narratives.
The mainstream US take on Jordan’s cancellation of Halloween follows a specific pattern. Every time something in a similar vein happens, such an incident becomes a popular measure of Jordan’s moderation and modernity. An example is when a business that serves alcohol is harassed by the ubiquitous religious conservatives or the authorities who are said to step in because of them. The impact on the narrative and the outrage it generates is even greater if the establishment is understood to cater to particularly vulnerable groups in society—women, LGBTQIA communities, specific third-country nationals. Beyond the realm of popular narrative and mainstream activism, the policy narrative that wraps itself in academic credentials despairs that the liberal-moderate governments of Western-educated technocrats could accomplish so much if they were not always struggling to pull their recalcitrant people—with their traditional mentalities—kicking and screaming into the now and the future. By way of example, it was not that long ago that The Atlantic controversially portrayed King Abdullah II’s problems in terms of exactly this long-held meme of Jordan’s leadership.
And the support, material and rhetorical, rolls in—all the nineteenth- and twentieth-century solutions that remain just out of reach for the problems that just never end, all couched in twenty-first-century jargon. Furthermore, the experts, elites, and expats—having built capacities, empowered women and youth, done something humanitarian for a refugee, trained some people for some stuff, written some papers, and padded their resumes with field and area experience—roll out to the next gig looking forward to next Halloween in Jordan or a country where it probably will not be cancelled.
The perpetuation of easy and unquestioned narrative aside, perhaps what is most troubling about The Atlantic’s answer to why Jordan banned Halloween is that it draws the line from A to Da‘ish by very narrowly cherry-picking two excellent and comprehensive Jordanian responses to the issue. It cites Naseem Tarawneh’s commentary on the appeasement of conservatives and the dangers of that. However, it does not reference the types appeasement and nuances among conservatives as he discusses them in Jordanian political and socioeconomic milieu. Consequently, much of the substance of Tarawneh’s “few random thoughts on the matter” that paint a holistic context in which to better understand “the government getting involved in the most absurd things at a time and place where one would safely assume there to be bigger priorities” are lost. These include hypocrisy, particularly that of elites; preservation of the status quo in face of the developments of the past four years; further erosion of press freedom (an issue very dear to the blogger, for those who have followed this troubling trajectory); the limitations of the great Halloween debacle to the affluent and elite “west Ammani bubble”; the detachment of that bubble from issues of basic access experienced by “the overwhelming majority of the population”; the “othering” of that majority in space and rhetoric; the tragedies and consequences of the larger regional picture; and very humanly living day-to-day here as a Jordanian in the midst of all of the above.
The Atlantic article also mentions the work of cartoonist Emad Hajjaj. However, to observe the cartoon as merely “criticizing the government’s new approach to the holiday” is to miss the point not just of this particular cartoon, but Hajjaj’s incredible body of work generally over many years. Noting that “Halloween in Jordan is truly frightful,” the cartoon depicts six jack-o-laterns, each with a recognizable scary and shadowy character behind it, the following words forming their carved mouths: poverty; unemployment; corruption; radicalization; sectarianism; war. Yes, a government ban on Halloween is absurd, but in it is everything—everything that has always been there, that is holistically part of an unsustainable contextual status quo, that exists with or without Da‘ish, and drove a lot of people to draw, write, and comment. Rather than asking why Jordan banned Halloween, perhaps more would be gained if more people gave some thought to the grapes, and why they are always out of reach. That, of course, requires broad recognition that a lot of people can’t reach them, and even if they could, would have no desire to invest them in costumes and alcohol. And that is just as legitimate and “real” as the desires of those who do.
The deeper issue in the cancellation of Halloween is thus not what it superficially represents about caving to conservatives. Rather, it is what it represents about the whole of an untenable status quo—and either the total lack of (comfortable) extant solutions once it is acknowledged, or the lack of necessity to recognize it in the first place. Narratives are simpler and still beneficial without that recognition. And that is exactly what the ban on Halloween and the need for balance that drove it were all about: the normative narrative diversion.