Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Some Things Just Don’t Translate

Three sets of eyes looked at me with disbelief, mixed with horror. I was explaining to my three students that I was having a group of American university students at my house for Halloween. We would all welcome the Hallowe’en trick-or-treaters as they came around in our compound. We expected hundreds – children from far and wide throughout the city came to trick-or-treat where the westerners lived. Even if the children didn’t “get” Halloween, they liked the costumes and the candy.


It wasn’t the trick-or-treating my students didn’t get. It was that I had said we would all be dressed as pirates. We would have patches and capes and bandannas, some would have hooks, others would have swords. We would say things like “Ay matey!” and “Aaargh” and “Pieces of eight.”

They didn’t know what pirates were. They had never seen Peter Pan with Captain Hook, they hadn’t seen Johnny Depp in his fey performance as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. I started off with enthusiasm.

“Oh, pirates lived a long time ago. Hmmm, no actually, there are still pirates today. They sail old ships, and then they stop and capture ships on the high seas and like hold people for ransom. They sing songs and drink grog and some of them have peg legs, or hooks for hands . . .” even I could see that this was not going well.


“No no!” one cried. “Why would you want to be a pirate?”

“hmmm, well you’re right, REAL pirates weren’t very nice, I guess. They raped and stole from others, but for some reason we just dress up and PRETEND to be pirates. . .”

Now, it’s even starting to sound lame to me.

“There were some good pirates, too. . .”

“What did they do, khalti?”

(I am totally blank. I have an image of a deer in the headlights; the deer is me with no where to run.)

I don’t know. Were there any good pirates? Why do we think pirates are so much fun? Is it the costumes? As kids we would make each other walk the plank, and swashbuckle around, it was a good break from cowboys and Indians. Seeing it through my students’ eyes, though, it just wasn’t working.

Some things just don’t translate.

October 21, 2006 - Posted by | Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Halloween, Middle East


  1. Ok explain this to me, are you an expat or not?

    Comment by Purgatory | October 22, 2006 | Reply

  2. Uh . . . pretty much my entire life. Lots of different countries. BTW, I like your blog. You think outside the box.

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 22, 2006 | Reply

  3. Well said!

    Some things must not translate also. Just let them be if you don’t want to spoil the fun some more.

    Comment by Upstairs | October 22, 2006 | Reply

  4. then explain khalti!

    Comment by Purgatory | October 22, 2006 | Reply

  5. Upstairs . . . ulp! Pretty much the reason for this blog is exploring cultural differences and similarities, and that includes uncomfortable moments that lead to learning. But you are right, sometimes it spoils the fun to over-explain.

    Purg – I am sister-of-my-mother in two ways – one, to my genuine bint ukhti. She is adiamondinsunlight, and a light in my life. She speaks Arabic fluently, lives in Paris, Beirut, Damascus, New York . . .wherever she happens to be doing research or work. She calls me khalti. Is there a word for daughter-of-my-sister other than bint ukhti?

    Second, the students I write about the most often are the daughters of a very good friend, a friend who called me ukhti, as she has no sister. They are a very religious family, and her husband asked her if the daughters could hang around with me to learn more about the world while remaining in a protected environment. Because they were very honest with me, I learn as much from them as they learn from me. It is a relationship I treasure, and I am honored that they would call me “aunt.”

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 23, 2006 | Reply

  6. […] Seeing the Halloween issue brought to life in Little Mosque reminded me of my aunt’s post on the difficulties she has faced in explaining the holiday to friends in the Gulf: some things just don’t translate. […]

    Pingback by Little Mosque on the Prairie: Pools & Pirates « A Diamond’s Eye View of the World | February 15, 2007 | Reply

  7. […] comment of one of the pirate actors, though, reminded me of my aunt’s post on Halloween pirate costumes from last fall, which I also mentioned […]

    Pingback by as if Lebanon didn't have enough troubles these days ... « A Diamond’s Eye View of the World | May 27, 2007 | Reply

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