Ethiopians mourn in Beirut

Hany Gebre who was killed in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight on 25 January. (image: matthew cassel)

I went with a friend and journalist today to cover a service at an Ethiopian church outside Beirut to remember one its members, Hany Gebre, along with 89 other people, mostly Lebanese and Ethiopians, killed on an Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed into the Mediterranean Sea shortly after takeoff last Monday. Hany was employed as a domestic worker in Lebanon and was on the way to visit her family for the first time since she came to Lebanon three years ago when the plane went down. The community of Ethiopian women at the church is tightly knit, and most women said they knew Hany well. We entered to a roomful of sobbing women listening to the animated preacher singing prayers in Amharic.

It was an awkward experience for me to again take pictures of a room full of people letting their tears flow, and like I told my friend in the church, I hate taking pictures in these situations but I know that I should so others can see. As he sat there with his notebook I thought of a quote by Lewis Wickes Hine, one of my favorite photographers who once said, “If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.” Even though my Canon isn’t quite as obtrusive as the cameras were in Hine’s day, the act itself will always be obtrusive in a situation like this and make me wish that I could remain unseen in a corner capturing the scene by jotting down notes in a small notebook.

At one point I had to leave the emotional scene in the church and get some “fresh air” by smoking a cigarette across the street. Outside, I sat staring at the Lebanese passersby. I wondered what a society that many have increasingly called “racist” thinks of the hundreds of black women who gather in their neighborhood each Sunday.

I noticed an older Lebanese woman walk past with her Ethiopian “helper.” In the standard contract that all employers must sign, migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are allowed to take at least one day off per week (usually Sunday), but many employers prevent them from doing so. I assume this was an example of that. The Ethiopian worker, arm-in-arm with her employer, glanced inside the church as they walked past and immediately started crying on the street. The Lebanese woman seemed not to notice (or not to care) as she asked the worker for help while she rummaged through her oversized handbag.

Since the death of Theresa Seda across the street from my home, I’ve been increasingly involved in the plight of foreign workers in Lebanon. Previously, I hadn’t focused on this issue because my reason for being in the Middle East is to combat a highly inaccurate image of this region and its people being portrayed in much of the Western media. If I was going to cover the exploitation of workers, I wouldn’t need to travel half the globe to do so. And I distrust many Western journalists who come here critical of everything Arab while ignoring their own government’s role in shaping this war-torn and unstable part of the world. But the abuse of workers in this country is unavoidable. Every time I leave the house I see a foreign woman carrying a bratty child, picking up dog shit or staring out the window of her “madame’s” car in envy at those of us walking around with relatively few cares in the world. There is a common expression shared by oppressed peoples. Its one that screams of a yearning to spend time with family, swim in the sea, relax on a nice chair, meet friends, have money to purchase goods, travel, be free. And as someone concerned with social justice, it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to the abuse in Lebanon that is happening all around me.

Now, the big question: are Lebanese racists? Some Western journalists feel they’re in a position to say yes, but not this one. Surely there are many racist Lebanese, and it is a serious problem affecting the whole of society — nearly everyone refers to migrant domestic workers as “Sirlankiin” (Sri Lankans) regardless of what country they actually come from. But, for example, is the Ethiopian worker and her Lebanese employer an example of this racism? It’s hard to say. Before making generalizations and pointing the finger solely at Lebanese, I would take a step back and look at the question on a global scale — how many societies existing today don’t contain elements of racism? If these Ethiopian and other workers were to travel elsewhere (or stay in Ethiopia), would that solve the problem?

I thought about all of this before I heard the music sounding (seen in the video below) through the church doors and out into the street. I quickly put out my cigarette and ran back inside lugging my camera along to help me tell a story we don’t often hear.

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

Glimpses of Gaza

image: matthew cassel

SLIDESHOW: Glimpses of Gaza
by Matthew Cassel

Twenty-two days of non-stop Israeli bombardment left the Gaza Strip devastated. Armed with F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters, battleships, unmanned aerial drones, tanks and ground troops, beginning in late December 2008 Israel destroyed homes, mosques, medical facilities, elementary schools, universities, farms, factories and businesses in Gaza.

Plane crashes off Beirut coast

An Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed into the Mediterranean Sea just minutes after taking off in Beirut early this morning. Ninety people (including seven crew) were aboard the flight bound for Addis Ababa that included 54 Lebanese and 22 Ethiopians as well as passengers of other nationalities. Early reports indicate that most of the Lebanese passengers were probably either traveling to Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa where many Lebanese citizens work and live. The Ethiopians passengers were most likely migrant domestic workers returning from their jobs in Lebanon back to their homes. It’s also been reported that the wife of the French Ambassador in Lebanon was a passenger on the flight. As of now, a couple dozen bodies have been recovered from the sea and there is little hope of finding any survivors.

Samira Hossein mourns the loss of her sister, Mikia, who was a passenger on the Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed off the coast of Beirut this morning. The two sisters came to Lebanon to be employed as domestic workers for Lebanese families. (image: matthew cassel)

A Lebanese flag flies at half mast outside Beirut's airport. (image: matthew cassel)

Protesting Egypt

Popular outrage at the Egyptian government continues across the Arab World. As Palestinians in Gaza continue to suffer under the Israeli-imposed siege of their territory, Egypt is widely seen as complicit for its closure of the Rafah Crossing, Gaza’s only border crossing that isn’t controlled by Israel. During the Israeli attacks on Gaza last winter, hundreds of thousands took to the streets across the Middle East to protest outside Egyptian embassies. Recently, anger against the Egyptian government reignited when it announced it will build an underground steel wall to halt the tunnel trade between the Sinai and Gaza Strip. That tunnel trade is often referred to as a “lifeline” since it provides Palestinians in Gaza with basic goods denied by the siege.

On Saturday 23 January, Leftist Lebanese and Palestinian groups organized a protest outside the Egyptian embassy in Beirut. Some of these activists have also initiated a campaign targeting the Egyptian company that is believed to be building the wall. During the protest, clashes briefly broke out between the protesters and the security forces surrounding the embassy.

image: matthew cassel
A woman holds her shoe to the Egyptian embassy. A poster in the background reads: 'The high one built the high dam, the low one built the low dam.' It refers to former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (the high one) who built the Aswan Dam in 1970 and current Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak building the underground wall in the Sinai to stop the tunnel trade with Gaza. (image: matthew cassel)

Protesters carry a large Palestinian flag near the Egyptian embassy in Beirut. (image: matthew cassel)

image: matthew cassel

Speaking to children

image: emory douglas

On his visit to Beirut this past week, Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture and artist for the Black Panther Party, repeated a quote to me that he was once told in the early days of the Panthers: “speak in a language that a child can understand.” He told me that he tried to model his art after this idea, and it shows. The message is not hard to find when viewing his work. That isn’t to say it’s overly simplistic, of course not. Emory’s work has been widely celebrated, and since appearing on the front pages of the Panthers’ newspaper it has been exhibited in some of the most prestigious galleries and museums around the globe.

Today, it seems that we artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers, etc. generally make our message more complicated than it needs to be. Of course, art changes over time as does society, and the world is a much different place now than it was in the 1960s. Emory was producing his work for the Black Panther Party newspaper. It wasn’t an academic journal, and it certainly wasn’t a publication concerned with presenting itself as “objective” in the way that most media do today. The Panthers had a clear political message that they wanted to share with the world, and that message could not have been more clear than through Emory’s work.

Maybe that’s the problem today: what is our message? And this gets at my bigger problem with most contemporary journalism. It has no message other than to “inform.” It takes no side, or at least it claims not to. But can one really not take a side on any given issue? If anything, by wrapping itself in a cloak of “objectivity” it fails to challenge the status quo, and in that way it has chosen a side.

I think we journalists should mostly strive to be objective in our work, but at the same time not pretend that we’re ever going to reach that phony enlightened state of total objectivity that many Western media often like to award themselves. Why can’t we take a clear position on war, healthcare, education, and other issues? Are we not human beings? When we see any situation, especially one as extreme as war, do we not feel for those who suffer from its results? Why are we allowed to show sympathy for Haitians brutalized by Mother Nature but not for Palestinians in Gaza brutalized by Israel? It seems a contradiction in journalism today, that when an issue is “political” we have to remain on the fence. But let’s face it, everything is political, and it’s impossible to say that the recent earthquake in Haiti is a catastrophe caused merely by nature.

As one commentator writes in the Guardian:

What is already all too clear, however, is the fact that this impact [of the earthquake] will be the result of an even longer-term history of deliberate impoverishment and disempowerment. Haiti is routinely described as the “poorest country in the western hemisphere”. This poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression.

While Haitians slept on the streets, tried to unearth survivors, find places to bury the dead and waited for aid to be delivered by thousands of armed American soldiers, I walked with Emory around Beirut. “Is the situation today much different than it was in back then?” I asked. “Oh no,” he replied. “It’s the same stuff.” So, I wondered, where is the outrage today like there was around the world in the 1960s? Perhaps we artists and journalist concerned with social justice need to revisit that idea of speaking in a language that a child can understand.

images: emory douglas

Emory Douglas was invited to Beirut by the Beirut Art Center. A gallery of his work is available on the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles’ website.

Suicide in Lebanon

Theresa Seda worked in a home on the 7th floor of the building. Her body lies on the street below. (image: matthew cassel)

While working at my house in the Sanayeh neighborhood of Beirut I noticed some commotion in the street below. I saw a bunch of people and police gathered pointing up at the building. I knew already what had happened. Suicide by domestic workers in this country is not a rare occurrence.

As I went down I stopped the first two people I saw, they were drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. I asked them what happened. One of the men replied, “A Sri Lankan woman (“Sirlankia” in Arabic) died.”

Of course, she was not Sri Lankan, but this is the general term used to describe domestic workers in Lebanon. As I spoke with people at the scene I found a man and woman from the Filipino Embassy in Beirut who told me that she was 28-year-old Theresa Seda of the Philipines. Like many women from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, she had come to Beirut to be employed as a domestic worker in a family’s home. Most middle and upper class families in Beirut and elsewhere around Lebanon have domestic workers who they pay a small salary to live with them and take care of all the household chores.

There have been countless stories of abuse over recent years. In 2006, it was widely known that as families escaped the indiscriminate Israeli bombing of Beirut and went to the mountains, they locked the workers inside their homes preventing them from also fleeing the attacks. I was surprised to hear that during the war an animal rights groups in Lebanon went around rescuing household pets who were abandoned in similar circumstances, yet no group bothered to do the same for the human workers. Now, only the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar regularly reports on deaths and abuse of domestic workers, but the abuse is known to be widespread and I hear stories of suicide nearly every other week.

Theresa’s body has laid on the street for over an hour. In the same building where she jumped from I could see other foreign workers continue with their duties washing windows as they paused every few moments to see what was happening below on the street. As I write this now Theresa’s body is still below, cars and people pass just inches away, few stop to inquire as to what happened. Business as usual. I heard from the police that she cut herself on the balcony with a knife before jumping to her death, there is no question about it: this was a suicide.

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel


I regret the certainty in which I originally wrote that Theresa’s death was in fact a suicide. After months of investigating this case and meeting her sister in Holland recently, it is impossible to deduce how Theresa died exactly. The only ones capable of conducting a proper investigation into her death, the Lebanese authorities, did not do so. There is however sufficient evidence to show that Theresa faced abuse and exploitation at the hands of her employers, and we will release all of this information in the coming months as part of a project telling the story of Theresa’s life.

Hizballah’s Ashura

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27 December 2009 marked the 10th day of Muharram (the first month on the Islamic calendar) known as Ashura. The day marks the killing of Mohammed’s grandson, Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Hussein is considered a martyr by Shia Muslims who mourn his death each year with a retelling of the battle. Today, some Shias in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria take part in violent flagellation and bloodletting to mourn Hussein’s death, but this practice has been banned in Iran and by Hizballah in Lebanon and elsewhere. On Ashura in Lebanon, Shia Muslims gathered at the Hassanein mosque in the Dahiyeh southern suburbs of Beirut to hear the story of the Battle of Karbala retold before hundreds of thousands of mostly Hizballah supporters marched as many beat their chests as a sign of devotion to Hussein. The march ended at a rally where Hizballah head Hassan Nasrallah addressed the crowd.

image: matthew cassel

Have you ever seen a grown man cry? Yes, in fact I’ve seen a thousand grown men cry all at once.

It was a surreal experience at the Hassanein mosque in Dahiyeh. I was the only journalist, either Lebanese or foreign, seemingly interested in covering the event. I’ll admit, I thought there would be some chest beating or group chanting inside, which didn’t really happen. Instead, it was the retelling of the Battle of Karbala by a Sheikh to at least 1,000 men (women were out of sight upstairs) who sat listening and hundreds of others gathered in the street outside after the mosque after it reached full capacity.

The Sheikh began and a man walked around passing out tissues to each person seated on the ground. As he reached out to hand me a few tissues I felt a bit embarrassed and smiled trying to let him know that I wouldn’t need them. He gave them to me anyway. I sat near the front of the mosque a bit uncomfortable as my big cameras drew the attention of the mourners perhaps wondering why I would want to photograph them at such an event.

The Sheikh chanted a few verses (it seemed he was reciting them mostly from memory, although I couldn’t tell for sure) and immediately some put their heads down into their hands. After a few minutes he suddenly lifted his voice into a harmonic melody that sent a chill around the entire mosque, at that point nearly half of the men were in tears. As the Sheikh continued for 45 minutes or more, often changing the tone of his voice and pausing as he too broke down, he neared the climax when Hussein is killed and nearly every single person was audibly sobbing. It was an unusual thing for me to witness, and I couldn’t prevent a few tears of my own from trickling down my face. I hadn’t even been able to understand most of the story because it was told in classical Arabic, but surrounded by so many weeping men while listening to the sound of the Sheikh’s musical voice it was impossible not to get emotional.

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

After visiting Iran I’ve been trying to avoid making generalizations about Shia Islam vs Sunni Islam, and I’ve entered many discussions with friends on the issue. I admit that I’m in no position to really address the roots of these two main branches of Islam nor articulate their fundamental differences. As I’ve always understood it, their differences are not that great, and only in recent decades have they really been exaggerated as the Islamic world has been divided and conquered by foreign invaders. But there are similarities that I’ve noticed among pious Shia Muslims in both Lebanon (mostly among Hizballah supporters) and Iran who are very active in the practice of their religion. I can’t imagine another religion drawing out the crowds that were seen yesterday in Dahiyeh all marching and chanting their praise for a man (a martyr in their eyes) who died more than 1300 years ago. And Nasrallah addressed this in his speech yesterday when he spoke to Israel saying something along the lines of: do you think you could ever defeat the followers of Hussein?

It is the spirit of Hussein’s own martyrdom that still lives today in the masses who take to the street to commemorate his death. As the story goes, rather than surrender he chose to battle an army of tens of thousands while he himself had only a few dozen supporters at his side. This idea of David vs Goliath is applied by many Shias (who have always been a minority in the Islamic world) today in their battle against larger forces, namely the US and Israel.

Written on his head band: Lubayk ya Hussein -- we are here for you Hussein. (image: matthew cassel)

image: matthew cassel