The year Palestine ‘played mas’ in Trinidad & Tobago

Photograph of the 2024 3Canal Carnival Show ‘Jammin” by Abigail Hadeed, used with permission.

Lent, the penitential season of the Christian liturgical year that marks the end of Trinidad and Tobago's Carnival celebrations and the lead-up to Easter, is a time of reflection. Many people who took part in the mid-February festivities, however, are still reflecting upon the highs and the lows of the Carnival experience.

One of the things that Trinidad and Tobago Carnival has always done well is deliver social commentary, which is hardly surprising given that the festival is firmly rooted in struggle and rebellion. From cutting calypsoes to punny placards displayed in “Ole Mas” portrayals, Carnival has a long, proud history of shining a spotlight on pressing social issues and presenting them through a different lens, thereby encouraging deeper conversations about them.

This year, one issue was strongly represented in both music and masquerade, even though it's happening over 10,000 kilometres away from Trinidad and Tobago: Israel's war on Gaza.

Soon after Israel declared war against Hamas (the military wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement which governs the Palestinian territory of Gaza) following its attack on Israeli settlements in October 2023, graffiti began appearing on walls in different parts of Trinidad saying “Free Gaza.”

This support for Palestine has been building ever since, despite the fact that Trinidad and Tobago does not officially recognise the Palestinian state.

The public's pro-Palestine sentiment has been fuelled by continued reports of attacks against Palestinian civilians — including children — and brutality against its women despite early calls from the international community for a ceasefire.

By the time Carnival season rolled around in January, the topic naturally took its place among the messages of the masquerade.

The theme of the band Vulgar Fraction's 2024 presentation was “Isabày: Bear With-Ness.” Designer Robert Young said that his inspiration for the concept came from a podcast about grief, featuring Yoruba activist Báyò Akómoláfé, Palestinian anthropologist Sa’ed Atshan and communications director at the Othering & Belonging Institute Cecilie Surasky.

Something struck him as Akómoláfé mentioned the Tagalog word “isabày,” which means “to go together, or walk alongside.” Young felt that the word went further than mere empathy, telling the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, “It’s the ability to learn how to be in somebody else’s shoes completely, to attempt to be in someone's experience […] how to understand somebody else’s perspective. […] People have a narrative and rationale for the most atrocious situations because they cannot truly see the other side.”

As a result, the Palestinian cause featured as part of the band's portrayal. The Instagram reels below show various Moko Jumbies, traditional Carnival characters with connections to West African tradition, dressed in the colours of the Palestinian flag, with phrases like “ceasefire” and “free Palestine” boldly written on their garments:


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A post shared by Vulgar Fraction (@vulgar_fraction)


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A post shared by #1000mokos (@1000mokos)

The following Instagram post shows more pro-Palestine masqueraders, many of them holding flags painted with slices of watermelon, a visual that became a poignant symbol of the Palestinian cause post-1967 when Israel prohibited the display of the Palestinian flag after the end of the Arab-Israeli War. Palestinians began displaying images of watermelons, which are the same colours as the flag, as a clever way to get their point across:


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A post shared by #1000mokos (@1000mokos)

In this post, the band is seen crossing the stage at the Queen's Park Savannah, the mecca of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, on Carnival Tuesday:

Another masquerade band, Cat in Bag Productions, brought out a portrayal called “Unequal Place,” which craftily used umbrellas in place of placards to highlight their messages of protest. At least one umbrella was also painted with a slice of watermelon:

Another umbrella message lamented the bombing of children:

Solidarity with Palestine was also apparent in other Carnival events. The rapso band 3Canal — seen in this article's feature photo — which stages an annual Carnival show at which their socially conscious music features along with dance numbers and theatrical elements, took to the stage for certain songs dressed in keffiyehs, the traditional headwear worn by Middle Eastern men. In the photograph, you can catch glimpses of red and green on their clothes.

Speaking with Global Voices by phone, Abigail Hadeed, one of the photographers who covered the show, explained that she deliberately used long exposure shots. “I wanted to interpret what I was feeling at the time,” she explained, “and I like movement and how it can convey a message of invisible, or ghosts, or in between worlds.” It is for that reason that she “didn't want to freeze the action,” saying, “It just didn't feel right, given the situation in Gaza.”

In this way, the ongoing assault on Gaza has not simply informed the way musicians and designers participated in the festival this year; it also affected the approach with which the curators of Carnival chronicled it, thereby creating further conversations between the art and the witnessing of it.

Soon after Carnival ended, perhaps in answer to the visible outpouring of support for Palestine during the festival, there was a pro-Israel demonstration in front of the Red House in Port of Spain, the seat of the country's parliament, where Cat in Bag's masqueraders had posed just a week before:

The march was organised by a small Christian sect, which prompted the popular Instagram account Vintage Caribbean to comment on “how colonized many of us remain in our thinking that we would support a colonizer project, how befuddled our acceptance of colonizer religions has made us, how churches and ‘prophets’ can so easily spring up among us to bamboozle us into supporting our oppressors.”

On February 29, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) issued a statement on the “deteriorating” situation in Gaza, reiterating its “strong condemnation” of the attacks by Hamas on October 7, 2023 “as well as of the Israeli actions that violate international humanitarian law and the human rights of the Palestinian people.”

Noting that “the incessant Israeli bombardment of Gaza has led to catastrophic loss of civilian lives, the destruction of critical infrastructure and the deprivation of basic necessities, food, water and medical care,” CARICOM called for “an immediate and unconditional ceasefire in Gaza, and safe and unimpeded access for the delivery of adequate and sustained humanitarian assistance.”

The most strongly worded aspect of the statement emphasised that “Israel’s continued and expanding occupation of territory in the occupied West Bank poses a serious and continuing threat to a peaceful, secure and stable world,” and advocated for a two-state solution to the crisis “in keeping with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 242, as the only viable path to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

It added that Israel's flouting of UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire, as well as the provisional measures ordered by the International Court of Justice, was untenable, and called upon the UN General Assembly to invoke its powers under Resolution 377A “Uniting for Peace” to hold an emergency session and issue appropriate recommendations for member states to “collectively impose measures designed to motivate Israel to adhere to its obligations under the said UN Resolution and under the ICJ Order.”

The stance was well received by Caribbean citizens, especially in light of some CARICOM members’ opting out of previous Gaza-related votes at the UN General Assembly. Vintage Caribbean also called on CARICOM member states “to divest from any and all relationships” with Israeli companies and follow Belize's lead in cutting diplomatic ties with the country: “[Israel] will not stop what it's doing unless it is made to feel righteous consequences. Statements are good. A lot more is needed.”

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