Hosay Trinidad Review
American Anthropologist Volume 103, Number 1 March 2001 Visual Anthropology, Page 191-192
Dallas Brennan Big Mouth Productions, Inc.
Hosay Trinidad explores the way Hosay, a 1300-year-old Islamic holiday, is currently observed and "ritualized" in the most southerly Caribbean island of Trinidad. The Hosay processions are carried out annually to honor the martyrdom of Husein, son of Fatima, daughter of Mohammed the Prophet. Husein, or Hosayn, tried to reclaim the caliphate, or headship of the Muslim Empire, after the death of his brother, Hasan, who had been forced to abdicate as caliph. In A.D. 680, on his march to Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate, Husein was killed by his rivals. The day of his defeat, the 10th of Muharrarn, became the great holy day of the Shiites, who uphold the legitimacy of Fatima's descendants as divinely ordained caliphs (i.e., successors of the Prophet) or imams (leaders).
Celebrated every year during Muharram, the first month of the
Islamic lunar calendar, the Shiite festival commemorates the
death of Husein as a sacred martyr at Kerbela. Hosay includes
a prescribed ten-day fast and prayer period ending with three
nights of festivities. This film covers the preparations and
ceremonies undertaken by Shiite Muslims in Trinidad. Through
detailed coverage of the music, craft, design, food, and other
rituals observed in Trinidad's Hosay, the film demonstrates the
way East Indian immigrants have held on to specific traditions
that they now identify with their ancestral Indian culture. While
only about 15% of Indo-Trinidadians are Muslim (the majority
of whom are Sunnites, the other great sect in Islam), the Shiite
celebration of Hosay has been re-interpreted as an event meaningful
to the broader Indo-Trinidadian and Caribbean Muslim population.
The film makes brief references to the contemporary religious practice of Hosay in Iran, where observance involves a parade of self-flagellating believers partaking in a spiritually significant and demonstrative form of fasting and street theater. The film also briefly considers the contrast between the "original" practices in Iran, where most Muslims are Shiite, with the current interpretation and enactments that define Hosay among the Muslim East Indians in Trinidad. In this way, Hosay is situated as part of a continuum of geographically specific cultural interpretations of fixed historical or religious doctrines.
In the Caribbean, Hosay has taken on the celebratory, almost frolicsome feel of street theater and grand showmanship. Onlookers, many of whom are nonobservant or non-Muslims, dance, drink rum, and enjoy the feast. The filmmakers examine Hosay not as a religious festival (there is little coverage of the prayer sessions and recitations, only minimal historical detail describing the origins of the festival, and little detail on the tenets of the Shiism) but as an ethnic pageant. In Trinidad, Hosay represents a chance for Muslim (and some non-Muslim) East Indians to take to the streets with their skills and handiwork prominently displayed. Though the event involves only a small minority of the population, the practice and presence of Hosay serve to remind Trinidadians and tourists alike that East Indians and Muslims form a vital part of Trinidad's cultural fabric.
The film opens with historical narration making reference to the waves of immigration that have created modern Trinidad. (Originally inhabited by Arawak and Carib tribespeople and first sighted by Columbus in 1498, the island was later colonized by Europeans, who imported African slaves until 1834, followed by indentured servants brought from China and India.) Though the theme is only hinted, this opening sequence lays the groundwork for explaining Trinidad as a multicultural nation whose single defining characteristic is the fact that its residents have evolving and complicated relationships with their assorted pasts. Trinidad is an island of relocated peoples, and each group must retain its cultural pageantry to hold its public place in this complex. Hosay Trinidad begins with the premise that the Hosay is an important cultural indicator for Muslims and East Indians in Trinidad, an homage to a distant cultural origin that has undergone several relocations and re-interpretations. In Trinidad, the Hosay is reinvested with New World meaning and flair, serving less to commemorate Husein's sacred martyrdom and more to invoke ethnic pride and encourage solidarity between Muslims and East Indians in Trinidad.
The filmmakers document the details that define Trinidad's Hosay, using interviews, cinema verit6, and narration. The film opens with the voice of an outsider, a foreigner observing both practice and place. The narrator describes the public ritual as a "bewildering procession," one that mixes piety with street theater and cultural history. Following a brief historical contextualization of the martyrdom of Husein, the spread of Islam through Asia to the Caribbean, and Trinidadian immigration, the film launches into a descriptive examination of the features that define Trinidad's Hosay. Specifically, the film depicts: the construction of the tadjahs (reed and cardboard floats representing the sacred tomb of Hussein); the four tadjah construction compounds or "yards" in the capital city neighborhood of St. James; the individuals responsible for constructing the tadjahs; the tassa drumming and drum-making that accompanies the activities; the highly specific food preparations undertaken by the women who are barred from the construction yards; and then the three nights of street processions (Flag Night, Little Hosay Night, and Big Hosay Night). Hosay Trinidad offers a focused cultural examination of these elements organized chronologically-beginning with selected scenes from the month-long planning and building of the tadjahs within the sanctified sheds (imarnbaras), followed by footage from each successive night's procession (first flags, then little tadjahs). Next it shows the larger festooned tadjahs, finally culminating in the destruction of the tadjahs in the sea (shown evocatively under the film's ending credits).
The film goes a long way in cataloging one region's particular version of an ancient religio-cultural ritual, but does not venture into the realm of cross-cultural comparison or transnationalism (for more details, see Kevin Yelvington's "Trinidad Ethnicily" [University of Tennessee Press, 19931). For instance, the viewer is not shown what Hosay is like in India. Also, we are not sure why Hosay in Trinidad is different from Hosay in Iran, and we are not told if any other country has a Hosay procession quite like Trinidad's. The filmmakers also do not invoke comparisons to Trinidad's most notorious cultural festival, Carnival. Though many similarities exist (drumming processionals, preparation "yards," annual "themes," highly decorated armatures, three nights of street activities, bright frivolity, street parties, etc.), the viewer is not invited to see Hosay as derivative of this larger, more popular Roman Catholic celebration marking the beginning of Lent and, hence, the countdown to Christ's crucifixion and martyrdom. The film also avoids mention of the unofficial aspects of the Hosay celebrations-the drinking of alcohol and dancing that goes on (albeit against tenets of Muslim beheo. Nor does it engage in dialogue about any cultural tension or conflicts that may emerge from this ethnic celebration, such as: How do the Afro-Trinidadians (an ethnic majority on the island) respond to Hosay? What role(s) do Hindu and Christian Indo-Trinidadians (the majority of the Indo-Trinidadians) play? How do the government and other official institutions on the island support Hosay? Certainly, the pride that comes with such flamboyant cultural displays by a minority group also creates a tension that contributes to the island's complex cultural identity. Most of the film's quotes and voice-overs attest to Trinidad's cosmopolitan culture and the harmony of the population's ethnic diversity. By not including interviews with Hindu Indians or Sunni Muslims in Trinidad who may look unfavorably on the Hosay spectacle and by making no mention of the Hosay Massacre of 1884, the film conveys a simplified notion of ethnic harmony through the cultural display and crafty pageantry. The film offers a non-polemical look at a highly ritualized tradition that has evolved into its own unique event.
The film succeeds in offering a careful taxonomy of the cultural and social elements that define Hosay in Trinidad. Because this film provides a platform for basic factual understanding of Hosay rituals in Trinidad, Hosay Trinidad serves as a good starting point for a more in-depth examination of this- evocative religio-cultural event.