Time of masks, time of truth

This is my favorite time of the year — Halloween and All Saints’ Day. It’s been my favorite since childhood. I remember being fascinated by the costumes, roaming around in the dark, going from house to house with friends, the way in which the world seemed to change, for just a moment, to let in something beyond itself, indeed, to become that something, in jest or in seriousness. I remember my mother explaining the famous sequence in Fantasia, the terror and fascination I felt for the dreaded creature on the mountain and the invasion of skeletal spectres, and the odd sense of eternity that came with the solemn, meditative march of lights in the fog in the denouement.

As I grew up, Halloween took on more mystical and pleasant signification for me, as it was the time that I could spend with my oldest friends, Kav and Khaalid, in the former’s large and somewhat labyrinthine house in Yonkers. Eventually, it took on great personal significance, as it also became the day when I first encountered the Bab in Haifa. Increasingly for me, this time of masks has come to mean a time of truth.

Last night was the latest such incident in this process. I had just met Arnout, an architect who also doubles as an artist, part of a pair who specialize in using pre-constructed material space as a mean for creative expression. He was taking photographs of their latest exhibit in Sint-Michiels in Leuven, a remarkable fusion of strict, elegant formalism and Baroque context (pictured above).

We got to talking about the cultural and intellectual situation in Flanders, particularly how inert it has felt to me, as if this country were not only small geographically but mentally, as well. This conversation soon evolved into a morphing group of friends from several faculties — communications, literature, philosophy, sociology — as well as the local Baha’i and expatriate communities, in which we explored all the many distorted values, cultural-political disjunctions, and hyped fears that pervade Flemish life and society and have been leading to Belgium’s gradual disintegration.

There was an energy and openness to the group, and a mixture of ideas, from WikiLeaks to Samuel Beckett to the experience of communism in Hungary and the Czech Republic. Of course, given the current political crisis, the discussion happened within the context of a lot of criticism, as well — how inward-looking Belgium could be, how its peculiar history has somehow led it into a state of suspended division.

There was a large crowd around us, but I could tell many of them were eavesdropping, quite curiously. Most of all, one of the discussants was a cute, bright-eyed Flemish girl sitting next to me. The shine in her eyes was at least partially directed toward me — that feeling of feminine attention that, for better or for worse, I always long for.

We all walked away feeling energized, my Flemish friends about their nation, my Baha’i friends about their faith, and myself about my own life choices. A veil was lifted just a little bit, the suffocating masks of the everyday slipped for just a moment, to see more.

That was last night. Today is All Saints’ Day, when Flemish families go to cemeteries to commemorate their lost loved ones and ancestors. The sky is grey, the trees red and gold, crows are in the air, and everywhere is a gentle fog. It’s as if I’m standing in that denouement scene from Fantasia — such a perfect autumnal moment, a harvest perhaps finally come.

One of my favorite words in Dutch is heilige, which means “holy”, and whence comes the word for “saint” as well. I don’t know what will come of our idea from last night, but right now, I am grateful to this mystic cool breeze wafting through my window and the harvest it is promising.

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5 thoughts on “Time of masks, time of truth

  1. Yes, there is life outside of Belgium!

    Unfortunately, the majority of the Flemish (not me) have voted for the nationalistic party N-VA and its “charismatic” leader Bart De Wever.

    The political agenda of N-VA is this:

    Identity = language (no kidding!), therefore Belgium has no right to exist and should evaporate by all means possible. Nevermind federal Brussels and all practical problems that would arise, Flanders should become independant! Because identity is language…

    The current political deadlock in Belgium could make me very sad, but I’m enduring it with Stoicism.

    • Hi Sen, I believe Steven was simply indicating the absurdity of the debate in Belgium at the moment. And as you’re indicating, hitching identity so closely to language is also absurd (should Americans be considered English?), or more precisely, it has become absurd now that the Flemish have been able to re-achieve their autonomy after so many years of oppression within their own country. At least that’s the opinion of my Flemish friends and colleagues, one I share as a foreigner to their country.

    • The Flemish nationalists claim that the federation with Walloon Belgium (French-speaking) is impossible because of alleged cultural differences (i.e. language and allegedly also mentality).

      Some of them are actually talking about ‘Flemish’ as a language – which would be a bastardized version of Dutch. Which is worrying, as our common language with the Netherlands is important for keeping up linguistic standards.

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