Halloween is a favorite holiday for children and candy connoisseurs alike but the storied holiday hasn’t always been so easy to celebrate in the Middle East. The history of Halloween stems from its tie between the fertile and sunny days of summer and autumn and the cusp of the shorter, more morose winter season that can often bring about gloom and depression. It is thought to have evolved from the Celtic festival known as Samhain which was a time when people would dress as ghosts and light fires in an attempt to scare off spirits.
In South America, specifically Mexico, there is a similar festival known as Dia De Los Muertos or “Day of the Dead,” held traditionally on November 2. This holiday is also centered around the spirits of the dead but instead of the focus being on protection from spirits, Dia De Los Muertos is a time to celebrate the lives of those who have passed and help ease their journey into the afterlife.
In this region, Middle Eastern Christians in Libya, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and parts of Turkey celebrate Eid Il-Burbara at the beginning of December. It is a celebration of Saint Barbara who disguised herself to escape the persecution of the Romans. Jack-O-Lanterns and other Halloween decorations can be seen, showing thematic elements common to Western celebrations.
The history of Halloween and similar festivals therefore is not new to the region; however, it has been tricky to enjoy this famous holiday and at the same time be mindful of local customs and beliefs. In 2014, Jordan banned Halloween celebrations. As Nabih Bulos wrote for the LA Times: “Jordan's Interior Ministry banned all celebrations related to the holiday, which is rooted in paganism but associated for centuries with the Feast of All Saints, marked by Christians. A ministry spokesman, Ziad Zoubi, cited previous years' festivities as being of “a character that hurts Jordan's security.”
As is often the case when there are a mix of cultures and heritage, it can be a delicate balance to respect local beliefs and customs and still cater to international communities. Halloween is no small blip on the scale either. It is an $8 billion industry because of the money spent on costumes, parties, candy, and events related to the day. “Halloween candy alone has run up a $2 billion tab every Halloween for the past three years… and the National Retail Federation estimates that Americans spend $350 million just on pet Halloween costumes,” wrote Bouree Lam for The Atlantic.
In Dubai alone, this past weekend has had more Halloween-themed dinners, parties, and brunches than could be counted hosted in hotels, clubs and restaurants across the emirate. Large supermarket chains to small corner bakkals (or corner shops) could be seen selling pumpkins, costume bits and bobs and even Halloween-themed cookies and treats. There are even Halloween themed yoga nights and pet-adoption parties.
But it’s a delicate line that must constantly be managed every year. As Hayat Norimine writes for Egyptian outlet Al Bawaba, “a mostly Western tradition like Halloween may still exist in the MENA region, but it's been a point of contention when raucous parties and raunchy costumes meet Muslim culture.”
It’s important to remember that celebrating Halloween in this region must be done in accordance with an understand of how the holiday can be perceived. “The holiday is technically considered idolatry and therefore haram, forbidden by Islamic law.” says Norimine.
So why do people push to celebrate this controversial holiday? For many, it’s the joy that they felt as children, dressing up in costume and walking around neighborhoods collecting candy with their friends and well as a chance for some creative expression. As Millington Hoyt, an expat youth and former Dubai resident explains, “I think everyone enjoys celebrating Halloween as it is a way to express yourself in a creative and artistic way that is out of the ordinary which is acceptable during this event. I just think that my parents are happy that I could have an experience in the UAE that they grew up with as well because that thought is comforting and they can see that Dubai is inviting of all cultures.”
Sofia Ammor, Dubai-resident and mom who was born in Morocco but spent large amounts of time in the States, elaborates: “It’s a day where kids really use their creativity to think of what they want to be and as a parent, I turn into a kid on Halloween myself; I also love getting dressed up. I grew up with Mardi Gras but then there was no Mardi Gras in the US and it was a smooth transition to celebrate Halloween in the States. I loved it a young adult and I’ve been celebrating it ever since.”
It’s the joint fun that parents can share with their children because of the youthful spirit of the day. As Ammor says: “It’s a day when my kids and I are the same level - we all get in it, get dressed up, and are having fun together.”