Hussein quickened his steps as the cold winter air hugged his body closer, causing him to shiver. Already the sweat from building sets for the school play dried white onto his black skin. He always joked that winter was not meant for his kind, yet here he was in Bethlehem, Connecticut, walking back to his family’s apartment complex on the outskirts of the quite white town.

When he got home, his parents would be pissed when they learned that he lost his turbah in the midst of pre-productions of the Christmas play of all things. Hussein laughed at the thought of his Baba cursing and saying God was lashing out at him for being involved with such blasphemous things.

Hussein’s family was Shia Muslim, and the turbah was necessary for the five obligatory daily prayers to rest his forehead on. At least it was not the sacred family turbah from Karbala where Hussein’s namesake was martyred. That would have been the end for Hussein, a Karbala part two, he joked to himself.

Almost blindly, Hussein crossed the street without looking to see the police car moving. When was the last time he got a haircut? Aden would clown him once again for his scruffy hair. He really needed to visit the barber. It was about time.

Lights and the sound of screeching tires interrupted his thoughts. Instinctively, Hussein sprinted the last couple of feet across the crosswalk with the police car barely scraping him.

“Hey! What are you doing out here? What is wrong with you?” Hussein turned around to face an angry police office yelled at Hussein.

“Walking home, sir.” Hussein gave a curt, polite response, knowing all too well that this policeman could do whatever he wanted to a black teenager in a dark street with no observers.

“Do you live around here?”

“Yes.”

The police officer stared at Hussein, glaring as if he did not believe him.

“Fine then. Get moving. It’s dangerous out at night.”

Hussein nodded quickly and walked. He did not realize he stopped breathing during the whole interaction until he found himself gasping for air. Why was it fair that one person could make him feel such anxiety?

The dunya was nothing but injustice. How could he expect anything less from a world that let the tragedy of Karbala take place? No, he would not forget, could not forget the harsh realities of life, although occasional joy may temporarily distract him.  And Hussein continued home.

****

Sadeq Humayuni presents a thorough analysis of the avant-garde religious theatre of Iran, and specifically its focus on Hussein’s emotions in the book Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. The taziyah is a distinctly Persian form of religious art. It is a form of theatre. It recounts the events of Karbala and the story of the battle between evil and good. The taziyah serves to remind Muslims of the injustice and tragedy of Karbala where not even a baby. I was inspired by this archetype for evil, and wanted to apply it to a modern setting, specifically with over-policing of Black people in America. This story follows the story of a Muslim boy who is Black walking home, and he has a negative interaction with the police. Although nothing happens, the fear that the interaction invokes is jarring. The emotion and trauma of dealing with the fragility of your life day in and day out is exerting. Thus, our lead character leans on the story of martyr Hussein to cope and as a reminder not to put too much hope in the dunya, or temporary world.

I was also inspired by a poet who compared the the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to the tragedy of Karbala. Although it is a specifically Islamic event, the idea of injustice is applicable in many situations. I imagine then that the taziyah maintains its relevance in this way- it is a timeless story. The emotions transcend time.


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