Halloween: Censorship and the Carnivalesque

On the night of October 30, 1938, several million Americans thought the world was being attacked by Martians. That’s because they were tuned in to the popular “Chase and Sanborn Hour” radio show until past 8:15PM EST, meaning they missed the initial announcement that Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast was indeed fictional (the original broadcast can be heard here). The “news reports” that made up the first two thirds of the broadcast were not real. Earth was not actually being attacked by invaders from Mars. But despite this announcement being made several more times throughout the evening, widespread fear took hold. Distressed listeners flooded local police stations and newspaper offices with phone calls to the point where switchboards were rendered inoperable. People bought gas masks and hid in their basements with shotguns. They stormed hospitals seeking medical treatment. Many claimed to have seen UFOs.

Over 12,500 newspaper articles covered the panic that ensued after War of the Worlds

Experts still debate the nature and extent of this panic. Some – including Orson Welles himself – blamed the media for whipping up public fears (over 12,500 newspaper articles were published documenting the aftermath of the broadcast). But whatever the exact contours of the hysteria, its effects were real enough to prompt a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigation into whether radio censorship was necessary to avoid the type of panic that followed War of the Worlds. It eventually concluded that steps already taken by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in the wake of public outcry were sufficient to protect the public interest. No further action was unnecessary, although the FCC did order the CBS programming department not to use the format of a “simulated news broadcast” in future radio plays.


The War of the Worlds episode depicts the trust of mainstream media that still prevailed in 1930s America, a time before the immediacy of social networks coupled to the caustic irony of faux reporting like The Onion blunted the public’s taste for the nightly news. Yet it also bears witness to the kind of censorship that has arisen around Halloween throughout its history as a modern holiday. The most recent example is the costume controversy at Yale, but despite the claim that this kind of outrage is only a recent phenomenon borne of social media, offensive costumes on campus have been an issue since at least the 1990s, for example in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals case Iota Xi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason University over an “ugly woman contest.”

Horror movies like The Exorcist (1973) have traditionally been both blockbuster hits and the subject of controversy and censorship.

Horror movies are another perennial object of the censors, with films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) causing outrage, panic, and even heart attacks in theaters. Urban legends of Halloween “sadism” – e.g. poisoned candy, razor blades in candy apples – have been circulating since at least the early twentieth century and reached a fever pitch between the 1950s and the 1970s. And every year, Evangelical Christians prohibit their children from dressing up and lobby public schools to shut down Halloween celebrations (this year there’s an added twist – in some places in the U.S., police are discouraging clown costumes because of the rash of alleged serial killer clown sightings in wooded areas throughout the country!).

But Halloween as a modern holiday is no stranger to debates about the limits of proper expression. Controversy about such limits go back to at least the 19th century, when the holiday was associated with “licentious revelries and masqueraded parades.”  The first recorded instance of dressing up for Halloween – called “guising” – was in 1911, and scholars generally trace the holiday’s ancient origins to Celtic harvest festivals like Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) that were then Christianized by Pope Gregory III in the 8th century. Traditionally associated with commemorating and/or warding off dead souls wandering among the living, Halloween has also been a time for mischief and pranks, especially since the 18th century. “The conventions of rascality that invigorated turn-of-the-century Halloween took a long time to die,” writes Nicholas Rogers in Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, remarking on the holiday’s slow transition to respectability in the American context.


Licentious revelries, conventions of rascality, the dead among the living – at its core, Halloween is connected to ideas of transgression and reversal. It means surpassing or inverting the normal bounds of right and wrong, proper and improper, or even life and death. In this sense, it resonates with what Mikhail Bakhtin called “the carnivalesque,” roughly defined as a world upside-down created through humor and chaos. Bakhtin was referring specifically to the ribald satire of Gargantua and Pantagruel by 15th-century French monk François Rabelais, but the idea of a transgressive, topsy-turvy social space can be found in every culture – ancient Greek Aristophanic drama, the medieval European Feast of Asses, native American shamans and contraries (heyokas), the shadow play (khayal al-zill) in Middle Eastern cultures, or the “wise fool” archetype embodied by Yu Sze and Lan Ts’ai-ho in China, Birbal in India, and Nasreddin Hodja in Turkey.

Medieval “topsy-turvy” festivals like the Feast of Fools were closely scrutinized by religious authorities.

Little wonder that rituals and symbols like these – whose purpose is to be a kind of social catharsis, a temporary and fictionalized space for actions normally prohibited by social custom or law – should also traditionally be the object of both obsessive attention and vigilant policing. This partly has to do with the real potential to abuse brief allowances of bad behavior. The medieval European Feast of Fools, for example – the celebration vividly portrayed in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame – was perennially subject to condemnation by clerical authority figures like Robert Grosseteste, Eudes de Sully, and Cardinal Odo, out of fear that the celebration would lead to real subversion of legitimate religious and social custom. In this sense, the policing of “topsy-turvy” festivals partook of a similar spirit that led to various Inquisition offices springing up across western Europe.

But the censorship of ritualized behavior reversals also happened because such reversals have historically taken on the role of a political and social scapegoat. By singling out the sinful, the debased, the ‘low,’ a given social group can legitimize its own position as moral, exalted, ‘high.’ Yet ironically, this only happens because they are willing to let their gaze linger on the very thing they want to condemn. “Repugnance and fascination,” write Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, “are the twin poles of the process in which a political imperative to reject and eliminate the debasing ‘low’ conflicts powerfully and unpredictably with a desire for this Other.”


What does this mean for modern-day debates over proper expression which are bound to show up every year toward the end of October? It means that they take part in a longstanding struggle at the very core of human nature: the dance between hedonism and its suppression. We all have the urge to do something outrageous, unseemly, or even bad, yet at the same time we fear the real consequences of it. Days like Halloween provide a space to let us experience that fear but not the consequences, exploiting the positive benefits of a seemingly negative emotion (this is what Katerina Bantinaki calls the paradox of horror). The panic that ensued after War of the Worlds aired the night before Halloween came from fear and fascination all at once – it was, after all, one of the most popular radio broadcasts of all time.

As long as humans have a simultaneous desire for and fear of the macabre, the grotesque, and the diabolical, Halloween and its accompanying controversies will not be parting ways anytime soon.


Humans of the Middle East

During this latest trip abroad, I’ve been struck harder by something than before. Even though it’s kind of a cliché, what makes travel unique isn’t the sights, the architecture, the relaxation or even the food. What makes it unique is the people. Whether random passersby, baristas in a tiny café, or lifetime friends, the humans you meet on the road is what gives you new glasses to see the world. So without further ado, I wanted to introduce you to some humans of the Middle East I’ve met over the past few months.

My buddy Ibrahim, for example, who makes the meanest popcorn Rabat has to offer. Or the street band in Tunis who played nonstop for hours in protest of government land grabs, as the crowd around them heaved and swelled. Even in Rome I can’t get away from the Middle East — pictured in front of his own artwork is another Ibrahim, an Egyptian who moved to Rome in the 80s and has been selling paintings of the Colosseum ever since. And even though it’s hard to avoid raising eyebrows when I try to take pictures at a local market, some of the fish sellers couldn’t wait to goof off for the camera:

Now, if you ever come to Morocco, you must know: they love their seafood. All kinds of seafood. Including snails, which they boil alive in a broth seasoned with a dozen spices or so, then serve in bowls and eat straight out the shell with toothpicks (in recent years, this has gotten attention as an upscale snack among the locals. I’d say it’s a bit of an exaggeration). Here in Rabat, Abd al-Rahim makes the best snails in town. He’s been at it for over 30 years and, if you catch him with his friends, they’ll crack a smile before throwing down another snail.

Finally, I couldn’t resist including a few photos I took with these amazing people I’ve met. I see Abd al-Rahim the snailmaker pretty often, so of course he made it into the mix. The gents under the parasol are veggie sellers in Rabat, and the other two throwing up deuces talked politics with me in Tunis for a while. Of course no selfie collage is complete without my beautiful, amazing wife accompanying me on a train from Casablanca to Rabat (you’ll notice she’s the only woman pictured here, which is the result of fairly restrictive social norms plus a general shyness about being photographed among traditional Middle Eastern women). And two friends from home who were clearly fascinated with the sun setting on my baldness.

Denmark: The Land of Cozy

Okay, technically Denmark is not part of the Middle East, but I was there presenting research about the Middle East, which is more than enough of an excuse to post a few pictures. Although a brief conference trip can’t capture Scandinavia in all its clean and orderly glory, a few images will have to do. Most travelers know Copenhagen is worth a stop, but far fewer have made the 2-hour train ride to the sleepy college town of Odense, most famous as the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen:

One thing that’s immediately noticeable about Odense – and really any urban center in Denmark – is the abundance of green space. Woods, lakes, lawns and public parks dot the path around Odense, and on Sunday afternoon couples come to dance in the city square. This signals a broader cultural predilection for hygge, “cozy living,” exemplified by a rainy evening spent indoors watching a movie and snuggling under blankets:

Also, based solely on my impressionistic traveler’s intuition, the Danes are awfully fond of public statuary. Especially prominent are figures of medieval kings, which accompany a broader national fascination with pre-modern Scandinavian history (don’t miss the silhouette photo of Hans Christian Andersen’s statue!):

After conferencing in Odense for a few days, I spent some time in Copenhagen. Aside from the sumptuous royal palace and wide (wholly unoccupied) main streets, there were far too many bicycles than are reasonable for one nation to possess. Someone should talk to NATO about that. Also, traveling through the Copenhagen airport is an experience that everyone should have at least once. Among other things, it has a chocolate fountain and a massive Duty Free that one has no choice but to walk through on the way to departure gates:

To sum up, Denmark is beautiful and it should be on anyone’s travel bucket list. But be warned: if you go in summer, the sun refuses to stay down for very long. Bring a sleep mask! I took this photo in Odense at 10PM:

Odense sunset (at 10pm!)

“Living” Philosophy: Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon

Jeremy Bentham’s “auto-icon,” still on display at University College London.

Shortly before his death on June 6, 1832, Jeremy Bentham, English philosopher and the founder of modern utilitarianism, left detailed instructions for his body to be dissected, preserved, and placed in a wooden case, to be exhibited at the University of London and wheeled out for important administrative meetings. Known today as Bentham’s “auto-icon” (self-image), his post-taxidermy skeleton is still on display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of University College London (UCL), propped in a sitting position and outfitted with Bentham’s own clothes, plus a wax head.

Bentham’s preserved head

Bentham’s actual head currently resides in the Conservation Safe at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. Before that it had been on exhibit with the rest of the philosopher’s remains until in 1975, students from King’s College London — rival to UCL for over 200 years — stole the head and demanded a ransom of ₤100. In desperation, UCL finally agreed to pay ₤10, after which the head was returned and moved to storage. Todd Buchholz, writing of this incident, quips that it “just shows how difficult it is to measure fecundity and purity” (two key principles of Bentham’s method for calculating the economic value of pleasure versus pain).

The official website of the “UCL Bentham Project” recounts a number of legends about the auto-icon. “Its presence, it is claimed, is always recorded in the minutes with the words ‘Jeremy Bentham – present but not voting,’ ” the website explains. “Another version of the story asserts that the Auto-Icon does vote, but only on occasions when the votes of the other Council members are equally split. In these cases the Auto-Icon invariably votes for the motion.” Readers are assured that Bentham’s presence at these meetings is just a myth, but who knows for sure…

Jeremy Bentham, the “founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation.”

Bentham’s will is clear about why he bequeathed his body to UCL in the first place. “If it should so happen that my personal friends and other disciples should be disposed to meet together on some day or days of the year for the purpose of commemorating the founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation,” reads the will, “my executor will from time to time cause to be conveyed to the room in which they meet the said box or case with the contents therein to be stationed in such part of the room as to the assembled company shall seem meet.” However morbid or conceited, instruction for the auto-icon to preside at meetings certainly makes commemorating Jeremy Bentham’s ideas an unforgettable experience.


Qatar Digital Library: Over 750,000 Images

Last January, a joint effort by the Qatar Foundation, the Qatar National Library, and the British Library led to the creation of the Qatar Digital Library, a huge online repository of historical images and documents “free to use and reuse.” In less than 18 months, the online collection has grown to over 750,000 scanned images, mostly dealing with late 19th- and early 20th-century contact between Europeans and the Arabian Peninsula. The most impressive aspect of the library is wide variety of materials included — photos, prints, drawings, maps, newspaper clippings, letters, diaries, statistical tables and diagrams are among the scanned images. I’ve included a few samples below, but make sure to visit the official website for the full experience (you can browse in English or Arabic):

Lebanon: Pearl of the Levant

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Beirut and gave a presentation at the 2016 Arab-German Young Academy (AGYA) conference, “Insatiable Appetite: Food as a Cultural Signifier.” While I very much enjoyed the conference and related activities, seeing Lebanon’s capital for the first time trumped it all. From the posh downtown Centre Ville quarter, to the seaside corniche, to the bohemian quarter Jemmayzeh (think Adam’s Morgan in Washington, DC), it was difficult to choose which photos to post from the hundreds I took while visiting this beautiful country:

One of the most intriguing spots is the downtown area surrounding Martyr’s Square statue, which commemorates those executed under Ottoman rule and which served as the urban dividing line during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Across the street from the statue are the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque and the St. George Maronite Cathedral, built right next to each other in an effort (some would say a forced one) to demonstrate peaceful coexistence between Lebanese Christians and Muslims. The Armenian Church stands just a few blocks away, and at night the reflecting pool throws back images of the whole area lit up for display.

Another noteworthy stop, and one with a more local feel, was Souk El Ahad, the “Sunday Market” open only on weekends and which amounts to a giant convenient store spread out over dozens of kiosks. Sellers truck in wares like basic foodstuffs, music and electronics, clothes and appliance hardware. The souk is decidedly not geared for tourists:

During and after the conference, I also trekked outside Beirut to a few places in the mountain region of Beqaa, plus Byblos and Tyre along the coast. Churches large and small dot Christian quarters of these towns, as do mosques in the Muslim areas. While in Saghbine, I stopped and chatted with Daniel, a mechanic whose family has lived for generations in the small town:

Of course a post about my trip to Lebanon wouldn’t be complete without a few images from the AGYA conference. Over the course of four days we visited several spots in Lebanon, including the Litani River and the mountainside town of Saghbine in the Beqaa province, to eat hummus and chat about the cultural implications of food.

La Chambre Bleue: A Hidden Gem in a Vacant City

Ever since the 2015 mass shooting near the seaside resort town of Sousse, tourism in Tunisia has taken a big hit. People have been skittish about visiting the country, despite the relatively cheap prices and continued political and economic stability. This means that travelers are missing out on one of Tunisia’s greatest treasures: the old quarter (medina) of the city of Tunis, a UNESCO world heritage site and home to a number of auberges and quaint travel lodgings (here are just a few scenes from the medina):

One of these lodgings is La Chambre Bleue, a historical B&B owned and operated by Tunisian actress and dancer Sondos Belhassen. Part of the charm of the place is the effort required to find it. Guests can’t book online, but rather are directed to write Sondos directly. Knowing full well that she would get more business if people could reserve a room on the website, Sondos prefers setting a friendly tone for client relationships with a personal email. Then once at the medina, travelers must wander through narrow cobblestone streets, flanked by bright blue doors and lazily-spreading branches, until they arrive at 24 rue Diwan:

There are two lodging options at La Chambre Bleue. For 70 euros a night, guests can have El Makhzen (where I stayed for three nights), or for 90 euros, they can occupy the B&B’s namesake, La Chambre Bleue (pictured on the official website). Each is lovely and inviting in its own way; I personally couldn’t help feeling indulgent being surrounded by such a luxurious setting (and at an affordable price):

The common areas are a constant play of color and light, reflecting both the historical charm of the medina and the owner’s graceful personality. Sondos personally serves a breakfast of fresh bread, cheese and olive oil, and an assortment of homemade jams, all eaten in the natural light of the upstairs courtyard:

In recent years, La Chambre Bleue has gotten a lot of attention on social media. Most recently, it was ranked by Lonely Planet as the #1 accommodation in all of Tunis. However, business has remained slow because of last year’s attacks, plus the generally negative impression of the Middle East in western media. This is a real shame. The historical beauty of Tunis’s medina, and the personal attention given guests at La Chambre Bleue, belong on any travel bucket list.