WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
The Trinidad and Tobago premiere of Ten Days of Muharram: The Cedros Hosay at ttff/13 was met with much appreciation from the audience at the screening at MovieTowne last Saturday afternoon. The film focuses on the history of the Cedros Hosay, exploring the meaning of the various rituals performed during the month of Muharram. Ernest Che Rodriguez, a seasoned T&T actor and producer, directed the film; he previously directed the ttff/11 selection Call the Shots.
As a Trinidadian who has been to and enjoyed the Cedros Hosay a lot, I admit that I did not genuinely understand that its history was so rich, so tragic, so moving and so exuberant. This film helped me understand the Hosay profoundly.
Hosay is a Shia Muslim ritual venerating the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who died in Karbala on the banks of the Euphrates while trying to defend Islam. The word Hosay is a Trinidadian word born on the plantations with the indentured labourers. The term Ya Hosein was eventually transmuted to Hosay.
The commemoration is observed annually over a 10-day period in the first month of the Islamic calendar, the month of Muharram. According to Islamic teaching, Muhammad is the last of the prophets. His death marked a great schism in the Muslim world, as he had not decided upon a successor. Shia Muslims subscribed to the belief that leadership should stay within the prophet’s own family or pass to whomever the prophet appointed. However, according to Sunni beliefs, choosing someone with good qualities and who was capable was preferred a to divine or hereditary choice.
Even though the prophet’s death was a source of discord and disunion, the Cedros Hosay is quite the opposite. The most incredible thing about the commemoration is its inclusivity. It effaces barriers of ethnicity, gender and even religion. As one of the community members in the film says, “Everybody grow together and there is no discrimination with Hosay. Chinese, black, white…everybody mix together and come together to celebrate the Hosay.”
The delightfully shocking detail is that the members of the community who are responsible for organising and carrying out the 10-day ritual are, for the most part, not Muslim.
During the 10 days of Muharram, the men of the different Hosay camps – Bois Bourgh, Bonasse, Cedros, de Hole, Fullerton and Ste. Marie – build tadjahs or tombs for the funerary procession in their imambaras or religious houses. These tadjahs represent the funerary monument erected at Karbala. As these observers cannot travel to Karbala to pay homage there to Imam Hussein, they build their own and honour him.
The community also fasts during this time in solidarity with the men building the tadjahs and also to honour Imam Hussein, who was denied nourishment on the battlefield at Karbala. They refrain from eating meat, wearing leather belts, imbibing alcohol and “fresh and fresh” – bedroom duties.
Daily prayers and nightly rituals mark the 10 days ending in the drowning of the tadjahs. This particular aspect is very sacred and culturally exquisite as the drowning of gods, according to Imam Saifuddin Tejani, is a Hindu ritual. It is also symbolic of the water that Imam Hussein needed but was denied on the battlefield. In death, he becomes suffused with new water-giving life.
Rodriguez himself was quite moved by the experience.
“At the end of the night I used to go outside and cry,” he related during the question-and-answer period.
“I learned that I didn’t know everything. I learned that the more I learned is the less I know. I learned I also realised that we live in a wonderful country and there are wonderful people around. We have to open up and allow them to enter our lives.”
Rodriguez also thanked the people of Cedros, who were very kind to him during his stay.
The audience seemed quite moved as well. One member commented, “I think this film came at a time when we have a lot of separatism in the society, whether it be ethnic or religious, and the film showed us who we are as a people. We have come out of so many different backgrounds that we cannot really separate ourselves so I think this film did a marvelous job of reminding us as Trinidadians who we are.”
Ten Days of Muharram screens again at ttff/13 on Thursday 26 September at 3.30pm, MovieTowne.