A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Send in the clowns

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 6, 2008

No parade would be complete with clowns, and the Fourth of July parade we attended had several:

But these aren’t professional clowns – they’re volunteers. And they have a very interesting tie to the Middle East. Here’s where these clowns hail from:

That’s right: these clowns are all Halabi – they hail from Aleppo. They are all Shriners – an American offshoot of Freemasonry.

I know, I know: some of you are puffing yourselves up right now, getting ready to launch a long comment about how the Freemasons are a global conspiracy to take over the world. Or about how the Freemasons already have taken over the world. And, oh, by the way, they’re all secretly Jewish.

Maybe. I’ve looked into the conspiracy theories without finding any hard evidence, but since its nearly impossible to disprove to believers’ satisfaction, we may simply have to agree to disagree.

And in any case, in between their efforts to establish and/or sustain world domination, America’s Shriners put a great deal of time and effort into their Hospitals for Children, which provide no-cost care for children with burns, spinal issues and other serious medical conditions. Local chapters hold fundraisers for the Hospitals, and they also organize many patient events – hence the clowning.

If you look closely at Shriner clowns, you will notice that most have wrinkled faces. That’s because in order to be a Shriner, a man must first be a fairly advanced Freemason – a Master Mason (its just a title – don’t call these men if you need a new stone fence laid). So most Masons don’t become Shriners until they are, er, enjoying the fruits of maturity.

The Shriners incorporate a surprising amount of Arabic into their organization, starting with their official greeting: salam w `aleikum. The gathering of local chapters is called a divan (well, that’s Ottoman Turkish, but when the Shriners were founded in the 1870s, the lines between Ottoman and Arab were more blurred).

The local chapters themselves are named after Arabic men’s names, like the Abu Bakr chapter of Sioux City. Some of them are a bit more stereotypical, like the Aladdin Shriners chapter, and some are just odd, like the Mocha Shriners chapter of London, Ontario. And some are just laugh-out-loud funny, like the Wahabi Shriners of Jackson, Mississippi. Try to imagine how the average Saudi cleric would feel about a chapter named Wahabi 🙂 .

(I had great fun looking at the Shriner chapter names, although I noticed that there is no “Beirut” chapter, and not even a “Lebanon” chapter. You can have fun, too: here’s the listing.)

The Shriner clowns were a big hit at Friday’s parade – and for me, a nice link between the parts of the world I love.


6 Responses to “Send in the clowns”

  1. kpeterson said

    This reminds me of the time a few years ago during my ESL teaching days when a student from Qatar, Abduhlraman, and I ran across the fairly elaborate Shriners’ parade going down Boylston St. over the July 4 holiday here in Boston–his astonishment at the grand spectacle was clear, and then he registered the least critique he could muster: “No one would never wear those kinds of swords with those pants,” he said.

  2. Lofter said

    As a former – and I emphasize former – master mason, I can vouch for the fact that the Shriner’s Childrens Hospitals do indeed treat many, many children each year… mostly kids who wouldn’t have had a chance (primarily due to financial reasons) on their own. Most definitely an honorable work, even if I can’t hold with the organization as a whole.
    Well done!

  3. intlxpatr said

    I don’t know why, most of the time I find clowns creepy, and scary, and distinctly unfunny, but the Shriners clowns are always the exception. They have such a good time! I had no idea about the background – thanks for interesting info.

  4. Moose said

    I don’t know a lot about free-masonry, they are soooooooo secretive. A good friend of mine who was a grand master, always said the Shriners were the jubilant side of the FMs. He also claimed that he could look at the photo of some big shot in the USA or elsewhere and be able to tell whether or not the person was FM. Some secret sign I suppose. He would also say that the US dollar bill was reeking with FM secret signs like the eye and the pyramid. “There was a time,” he would say,”that a simple FM handshake guaranteed you a high ranking job in an organization!” I remember the catholic priest in our parish refusing to perform the marriage ceremony for my sister who had rented the FM’s hall for the wedding dance. Hmmmm…scary, eh kids?

  5. kpeterson said

    p.s. see the video clip on this website, which mentions the Aleppo MA chapter…

  6. K, I’ve read your comment several times now, and each time it makes me laugh out loud. I bet Abdulrahman was hugely amused – and I hope that he took pictures to show at home. Its a nice reminder of how funny one culture’s interpretations of another culture can be. In Lebanon and Syria, I always get a huge kick out of it when pizza is served with ketchup. One very iconic American (well, Americanized) food and one very iconic condiment … but not usually served together in the states!

    Lofter, thank you for your comment. The Shriners do some very good work, taking care of children and their families. I’m sure that (like many volunteer organizations) it has its ups and downs, and probably some internal politics – but I’m also sure that you helped a number of children while you were a mason. Thank you!

    Intlxpatr, I agree with you – clowns always made me sad, especially the ones with the painted-on smiles. I think that knowing that the Shriners are volunteers makes it easier for me to enjoy them – I feel that they are in the parade because they truly want to be there. With paid clowns I find myself worrying whether they aren’t secretly worried about paying bills or tired or whatever, and still having to make people laugh. I get a bit neurotic about it, I know.

    Moose, the signs on the dollar bill are Freemason signs, or at least Freemason-inspired, but I don’t think that makes them secret or particularly dangerous. Many 18th century intellectuals were Freemasons – the organization connected well with Enlightenment ideas about rationality, tolerance, and a detached God. Freemasons also tended to be somewhat anti-clerical, as well as anti-denominational (and sometimes more anti-Catholic than other denominations, I think), so I’m not surprised that your local priest was less than thrilled with your sister’s choice of venue :).

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