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Halloween In Tashkent

Ruby Long

The only Halloween parties held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, are ones the Americans have, and if you see individuals on the street in a costume at that time of year, you know they are American and on their way to a party. There is no such thing as trick or treat. If you go to the neighbors, knock on the door and say, “Trick or treat!” they will probably look at you with curiosity or alarm. Not knowing what else to do, they will likely invite you in and serve you tea. Yet my most memorable Halloween was spent there when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer English teacher.

All my students, who were mostly late teens or young adults, had heard about Halloween and had seen pictures, but they had never celebrated it. They were fascinated and had lots of questions when I gave a lecture about the history of the holiday and described how we celebrated it in the United States.

One group I worked with pleaded with me to help them have a real Halloween party. “Please, Miss Ruby, can’t we have a Halloween party? We want to carve pumpkins and make the lanterns.”

I agreed to help them with arrangements for a party, but I discouraged them from trying to make jack-o’-lanterns.

“Your Uzbek pumpkins won’t be as easy to carve as American pumpkins. These Uzbek pumpkins are much meatier; the walls are a lot thicker. It will take longer and be more dangerous than carving an American pumpkin.”

They insisted, though. They really wanted to have this experience, and I was overruled. Several people said they would bring pumpkins to the party.

At our next meeting, I presented my plan for the party, which included apple bobbing and playing some old-fashioned American games like pin the tail on the donkey. After that we would have refreshments and carve the pumpkins. When the pumpkin carving was finished, we would light the candles inside them, turn out the lights, and I would tell a scary story in English.

I reminded them, “Don’t forget that you’ll have to speak English during this party. Just because it’s a party doesn’t mean that you can speak Uzbek or Russian. It’s a good chance for you to get some conversation practice.”

“We know, we know. We’ll speak English.”

“And each person can bring two apples for the apple bobbing and something for refreshments. But what about the pumpkins? We have to have pumpkins we can carve. Who said they would bring pumpkins? How are you going to get them here?”

The logistics of getting 20 pumpkins to our meeting place by public transportation was not a simple issue, and we spent several minutes discussing it.

Finally, I had a proposal. “How about if everyone who wants to carve a pumpkin brings one and a knife?”

“Good plan,” they agreed.

In the tradition-bound Uzbek culture, there is little deviation in dress. You can often tell the age of a person within about 10 years by the clothes they wear. Certain garments—all the same style and usually the same color (lots of black)—are dictated by the season. Anything different is regarded with suspicion. For example, later in the year when I wore a Polartec hat instead of a fur one, everyone on the metro and the street stared at me.

So the evening of the party, when a lot of my students arrived in costume, carrying a pumpkin and a couple of apples, I admired their courage. For most of them, they had ridden public transport dressed like that.

Others changed after they arrived, and emerged from the bathroom wearing dramatic makeup and exotic clothes. Of course, through television, they knew about current monsters and space characters and some people copied those, but others used more traditional vampires as their inspiration. Two or three seemed to be composites of several horror film predators. Among the girls, regardless of their costume character, tight black dresses and long, bright red fingernails were the norm.

All of these outfits were created out of materials on hand, of course, since even the largest and most modern stores in town didn’t sell ready-made costumes. The students gathered in knots, discussing their costumes in Russian.

“Speak English,” I chided. “Remember this is an English class.”

“Yes, Miss Ruby,” they responded each time, then returned immediately to speaking Russian.

The apple bobbing was very popular, and noisy, with lots of screams and laughter. And cheers when someone finally emerged triumphant from the water, holding the apple in their teeth. They loved seeing each other get wet and without my supervision it would have been a big, wet melee among the boys. As it was, several of them nearly got soaked.

The girls helped each other with their hair. Lots of young women in Uzbekistan wear their hair at least to their shoulders, so one girl stood beside the other and held her hair back while she dunked for an apple. After she either gave up or was successful, they went in twos, threes, or fours to the bathroom and stood there, with the door open, chattering in Russian as they refreshed their makeup.

“Remember to speak English,” I reminded them when I passed.

“Yes, Miss Ruby,” they replied in English. But every time, the next words between them were in Russian.

I got them started with carving the jack-o’-lanterns. They all gathered around as I demonstrated how to get the top of the pumpkin off and the insides out. Then I left them on their own to design a face and cut it out. Not everyone had brought a pumpkin, so several of the jack-o’-lanterns were collaborative attempts. I listened as those groups discussed the design—in Russian.

“Speak English, speak English,” I urged.

“Yes, Miss Ruby,” they chorused, then went right back to speaking Russian.

It was interesting to watch what emerged from these group efforts and some very creative designs appeared. There were mishaps, of course, to both the pumpkins and the students, with several fingers getting nicked, and a couple of pumpkin faces having to be redesigned to accommodate knife slippage.

When the first pumpkin was finished, I demonstrated how to fix the candle inside and we lit it.

“Oh, how beautiful,” the students exclaimed, some in Russian, some in English.

I had never thought of jack-o’-lanterns as being beautiful—they were supposed to be scary—but then I realized these Uzbeks, seeing their first real jack-o’-lanterns, were right. From inside the pumpkin came a soft glow. Those thick, meaty pumpkins shone with a luminosity I hadn’t seen before. The whole pumpkin seemed to come alive and glow from inside like a giant jewel.

I moved from that group to another. They were still carving their jack-o’-lantern, and I helped them get the candle in. Now that they had seen what was in store for them, they were really anxious to have it finished. Finally, all the pumpkins had been carved and candles were inside, ready to be lighted. It was time for my story.

I went into the bathroom to wash the pumpkin goop off my hands and to think about the tale I planned to tell. When I came back into the room, though, the students had turned out all the lights and were gathered around their pumpkins. Each glowing jack-o’-lantern had a clump of people around it, taking turns telling stories, just as people all over the world have surely done for as long as we have had language and lanterns. And, although this was an English class and the stories were being told in Russian, I didn’t interfere this time. I sat down among the monsters and the ghouls, the rock singers and the media stars, and listened to stories I couldn’t understand, enjoying the magic of the moment. My story could wait until another time.

Ruby Long (Uzbekistan)

Ruby Long was an English teacher in a health program in Uzbekistan from 1999-2001. She joined the Peace Corps after her retirement from a staff position at the University of California, Berkeley. When she returned to Oakland she resumed volunteer work at a local elementary school and also served as a docent at the University of California Botanical Garden.

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