A Sudanese refugee’s hunger strike in Beirut

It’s about time. Thanks to the courage and steadfastness of one 53-year-old Sudanese refugee, the issue of foreign workers in Lebanon is starting to make headlines.

Dr. Abdel Meneem Ibrahim has been on hunger strike for 12 days now to protest the arbitrary detention of at least 17 Sudanese men who, despite completing their sentences, remain behind bars. (Foreign workers have few rights in Lebanon and are subject to often subject to exploitation and abuse, for more on this see my project Unseen Lives.)

Not only has Dr. Ibrahim’s (or simply “Dr.” as some of his supporters call him) protest brought out local and foreign media, but young Lebanese activists have also waged an energetic campaign in solidarity with the hunger striker. Activists have spent day and night at the Dr.’s side to show their support and prevent authorities from taking action to forcefully end the protest.

Tomorrow, 7 October, activists are calling for a “Demonstration against racism and arbitrary detention in Lebanon!” outside the Ministry of Interior.

For a more comprehensive report on the Dr.’s protest read Meris Lutz’s article in the Los Angeles Times.

I took the below images over the past few days of the Dr.’s protest outside the Sudanese Cultural Club in Beirut’s Hamra district. I’ll be updating this post with more images after the protest tomorrow.

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Images from the protest outside the Ministry of Interior in Beirut on 7 October:

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Lebanese Interior Minisiter Ziad Baroud met protesters in the steet (image: matthew cassel)

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Protection by any means necessary

A version of this article was originally published in the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

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This month, Palestinians in Lebanon commemorated the 28th anniversary of a crime whose perpetrators remain unpunished and whose victims still wait for justice. In September 1982, the Israeli army surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. For nearly three days, Israeli forces allowed their allies in the right-wing Lebanese Christian Phalange militia to enter the camps and massacre more than a thousand Palestinian refugees and Lebanese citizens. All of the victims — men, women and children — were unarmed civilians.

The massacre was the culmination of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and more than two months of siege of West Beirut which eventually forced the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to withdraw from the country. PLO fighters relinquished their heavy weapons to the Lebanese army and in a symbolic act of resistance, left Beirut with their small arms still at their sides. However, the majority of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, exiled since 1948 when Israel was established on top of their homes, remained behind. Dispersed throughout the country’s dozen or so refugee camps, Palestinians were left virtually unprotected.

The PLO withdrew from Beirut only after agreeing to a US-mediated ceasefire with Israel. They were given reassurances by Washington that Israel would not harm Palestinian civilians remaining in the camps. However, these reassurances proved to be shallow, and after waging an invasion of Lebanon that killed nearly 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians and devastated much of the country, Israel invaded and occupied the practically defenseless Lebanese capital.

Prior to this somber anniversary, a writer argued in the Guardian’s Comment is Free site that Palestinian weapons were the key issue preventing Palestinian refugees from obtaining basic civil rights in Lebanon, which the state has denied them for 62 years. He described the camps as “heavily armed” and the refugees living there as gripped by an “illusion of martial security.”

As someone who has lived in Lebanon for several years, I was struck by these assertions. Anyone familiar with Lebanese politics recognizes them as the typical refrain of the right-wing, whose adherents object not only to providing Palestinian refugees with basic rights but their very presence on Lebanese soil. Nor do these characterizations come close to accurately describing the camps or the Palestinians in Lebanon I know. The camps today are far from being heavily armed, especially when compared to the various Lebanese militias or the Lebanese army.

I thought I would visit the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, which today are essentially one camp resembling a slum, and speak with Palestinian refugees about the issue of trading in their weapons for rights.

Inside a small call center in the camp, frequented by mostly Palestinians without credit on their mobile phones and foreign workers calling home, I spoke to a young man named Osama. He told me: “The issue of our arms and our civil rights are unrelated. Lebanese should give us rights as Arabs, as human beings living among them like Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Syria.”

“Our weapons don’t necessarily make me feel safer,” he added, “especially with the internal problems that we have in the camps here like in Palestine. But if we were to give them up, we’d have no protection. At least with our weapons if we die, we die standing and not like in Sabra and Shatila when we were massacred without even one weapon to resist. If the Lebanese army was able to protect us from Israel, then there would be no need for Palestinians to have weapons.”

At the headquarters of the Najdeh Association just outside the camp, I spoke with executive director Laila al-Ali. Founded in the 1970s, Najdeh is an nongovernmental organization that runs social programs in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps and is the leading organization behind the “Right to Work Campaign” for Palestinian refugees. Al-Ali, a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Shatila, explained, “It’s not the Lebanese who are looking for assurances or guarantees from the Palestinians, it’s the Palestinians who need this guarantee from the Lebanese. Palestinians don’t feel safe.”

Al-Ali said that only a few groups and individuals have weapons in the camps. She added that the argument claiming these small arms are a prerequisite to granting Palestinians rights is merely “Lebanese [rhetoric] trying to deny Palestinians their human and civil rights.”

I asked her about a recent law passed by the Lebanese parliament that made minor changes to the restrictions on the ability of Palestinian refugees to work in the country. Al-Ali stated bluntly: “It gives them nothing. The Lebanese mentality needs to be changed, they cannot continue dealing with Palestinians from the security perspective [alone].”

Back in Shatila, others shared her sentiments. I walked into a barbershop owned by Ahmed, who explained while snipping away at a man’s hair that “We keep weapons for protection. Even between the Lebanese there is no stability. Today they are together and tomorrow they’re not. In the past we only had our weapons to protect ourselves. Like during the [1985-88] war of the camps, our weapons protected us from the [Lebanese Shia] Amal movement.”

I turned to a young man named Omar who was finishing a deep pore cleansing. Bearing a pistol on his hip, Omar is a member of one of the camp’s security branches. “The weapons are not the reason for denying us rights, this is a pretext for the Lebanese to take our weapons,” he said. “If we lose our weapons, we lose the right to go back to Palestine. I carry my weapon because it’s not worth throwing away. The weapons are the peoples’ property.”

Unprompted, a taxi driver named Mahmoud with a freshly trimmed mustache jumped in. “Once we lose the weapons we’ll be slapped from all directions,” he said. “I will never accept to give up our weapons. The Lebanese will never be able to protect our cause. It’s not their cause, and nobody can protect it but ourselves.”

After speaking with dozens of individuals in the camp, all of whom refused to give up their right to bear arms, I asked a friend to take me to someone in the camp who he thought would disagree. He brought me to his 66-year-old grandmother, Miyasar, a refugee who has been forced to flee her home at least five times since 1948 and now lives in Shatila.

Before I could even finish asking her the first question about trading rights for arms, Miyasar closed her eyes, shook her head and said: “The Lebanese cannot give us rights, they can’t even give themselves rights. Each group is by itself with its own weapons — Hizballah has guns, Amal has guns, the Future [movement] has guns. The Lebanese are the ones who need help, not the Palestinians.”

She added, “When the Israelis came they said, give up our guns. We did and look what happened! Even a donkey that falls in one spot learns not to fall in that same spot again. We have no faith in Lebanese to give us rights. We will keep our weapons until we go back to Palestine.”

Kids of the camp (pt 2)

pt 1

More images of Palestinian children growing up in refugee camps throughout the Middle East.

Children living in a UN school in the Bedawwi refugee camp after they were forced to flee the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, Lebanon 2007. (image: matthew cassel)
Kids practice singing at a community center in the Bekaa refugee camp, Jordan 2007. (image: matthew cassel)
A young girl in the Balata refugee camp shows a picture of her 17-year-old cousin who was served two years in an Israeli prison, occupied Palestine 2006. (image: matthew cassel

Paying respect to Lebanon’s Ayatollah

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From The Electronic Intifada:

There is a lot to say about Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the Lebanese Shia Muslim cleric who passed away on 4 July 2010 at the age of 75. Unfortunately, much of what there is to say is being left unsaid for more of the same sensationalist reporting on this region and its people.

Fadlallah was a progressive Shia cleric, known for his defense of armed resistance and women’s rights. He was outspoken against Israel’s 22 year occupation of south Lebanon and cheered attacks against it. In 1985 the CIA is thought to have been behind a massive car bomb that attempted to take his life — it missed the Ayatollah killing 80 other Lebanese civilians and injured hundreds more. However, his support for resistance didn’t end with the Israeli invaders; Ayatollah Fadlallah also said that women have the right to use violence to resist domestic abuse.

The day after his death, Nasawiya, a feminist collective in Lebanon, wrote a post on Facebook telling Fadlallah: “Your feminist voice will be missed.” The post linked to an obituary by journalist Zeinab Yaghi writing in Arabic for the Lebanese daily As-Safir where she wrote of Fadlallah: “Women used to see him as a father” and that he “encouraged women to work.”

He was a leader for many Shia Muslims in Lebanon and elsewhere around the world. In Lebanon, a country divided along strict sectarian lines, he was a truly unique religious figure for the respect that he garnered from people of other faiths and the secular alike.

Most headlines in English-language media outlets have wrongly linked Fadlallah to Hizballah, the Shia Islamic resistance and political group in Lebanon. It is said that Fadlallah influenced some of Hizballah’s founders along with numerous other young Shias in the years leading up to and during Hizballah’s formation in the early 1980s. But in Lebanon it is widely known that, despite their mutual respect for each other, Fadlallah and Hizballah did not work together and even disagreed on many issues. Some of these fundamental differences stem from Hizballah’s close relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, whereas Fadlallah had long opposed the Ayatollah Khomeini-inspired clerical leadership of the country after its 1979 revolution.

This intentional mistake of linking Fadlallah to Hizballah should come as little surprise from a media that too often chooses sensationalism over accuracy when covering Lebanon and the region. As a journalist and photographer working in Lebanon, I know that European and US media are rarely interested in political or religious topics when the focus is not Hizballah. Ayatollah Fadlallah’s importance had little to do with Hizballah, and that was clear on 6 July 2010 when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to mourn his death.

Breaking from this sensationalist coverage was a blog post on the British government’s website by Frances Guy, the British ambassador in Lebanon (whose positions I’ve criticized in the past), which contained the following:

“The world needs more men like [Fadlallah] willing to reach out across faiths, acknowledging the reality of the modern world and daring to confront old constraints. May he rest in peace. ”

It was a very kind tribute to a religious leader based on Guy’s experience learning about Fadlallah and meeting him in Beirut. She even succeeded in not mentioning “Hizballah” once. I would happily link to the post had it not been removed “after mature consideration” by the UK Foreign Office who thought that Guy was being a bit too laudatory of a person who died under the “Hizballah leader” headlines. (Fortunately, what goes on the web stays on the web and you can find her post cached here.) Guy later wrote a new post expressing regret for ever writing the tribute:

“I have no truck with terrorism wherever it is committed in whoever’s name. The British Government has been clear that it condemns terrorist activity carried out by Hizballah. I share that view.”

Similar to Guy, Octavia Nasr, CNN’s senior editor of Mideast affairs, also offered her admiration for Fadlallah after his death over the social networking site Twitter:

“Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hizballah’s giants I respect a lot.”

Nasr, a Lebanese-American journalist who has worked with CNN for 20 years, later wrote an article regretting her tweet which was then removed; in her article she was sure to remind us which side she is on, using the words “terror” or terrorist” five times. I’ve followed her work with CNN and know that her reporting would hardly upset anyone in any recent US administration. Yet the one time she does, she loses her job as a result.

These blatant acts of censorship by western governments and media prove that showing an accurate or nuanced picture of the Middle East is not high on their agendas. After all, an accurate picture would show that western-waged and backed wars in this region are far from just, and therefore it’s easy to understand how resistance to them is widely supported. Not only did Fadlallah support resistance, but he also challenged the stereotype many have in the west of Islam as a religion intolerant of women’s rights.

Fadlallah was a leader that anyone even slightly familiar with this region could easily respect. The censored coverage of his passing in the west proves the complicity of our media with our government’s deadly and oppressive policies in the Middle East.

More pictures from Fadlallah’s funeral:

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Unseen Lives: Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon

Theresa Seda (on the right in sleeveless shirt) with two of her sisters at their family's home in the Philippines two years before she came to work in Lebanon. (Photo courtesy of the Seda family)

For anyone in Lebanon, witnessing the mistreatment of foreign domestic workers is unavoidable. With more than 200,000 foreign women working in the country, many Lebanese families hire live-in maids to take care of household duties. These women, excluded from Lebanon’s labor law, are often overworked, their wages withheld, and are subject to sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

Despite this, and after more than two years in Beirut covering the consequences of war and politics in the region, I was not involved in the issue. However, after 4 January 2010, the choice to remain silent was no longer an option.

On that day, as I worked from my home in Beirut, a crowd gathered in the street below around the body of a Filipino woman who had fallen from the seventh floor balcony of her employer’s home. Theresa Seda was 28 years old and had lived in Lebanon for only two months after leaving the Philippines in search of work so that she could provide her three young children with an education. As her body lay in the street for hours before medical workers arrived, I described the scene on my website and posted pictures. Later that day I was contacted by her sister living in Europe. Theresa’s sister provided text messages sent by her sister before her death that showed Theresa faced both physical and psychological abuse by her employers and was denied even the slightest break away from her work.

It was Theresa’s death that made me first pick up my camera to highlight the abuse of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon — I have not put it down since.

Titled “Unseen Lives,” this body of photographs shows a glimpse into the lives of Ethiopian, Sri Lankan, Filipino, Madagascan, Nigerian, Nepalese, and women of other nationalities employed as domestic workers in Lebanon. However, this work is in no way an accurate representation of the general situation in which most migrant domestic workers are living. With many workers literally locked away inside their employers’ homes, photographing them is impossible. These photographs document the lives and culture of many foreign women working in Lebanon to show their strength in overcoming the many hardships they’re forced to contend with.

This project was done in partnership with the Lebanese nongovernmental organization KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation.

A slideshow of the exhibit:

Unseen Lives: Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon – Images by Matthew Cassel

Beirut protests Israel’s attack on Gaza aid convoy

I went to bed Sunday night telling coworkers that I would be up early to check in on any news of the Freedom Flotilla aid convoy that was due to reach Gaza at some point the next day. Like most, I had strong doubts that the Flotilla would actually be able to reach Gaza. Israel had been threatening it for weeks and even set up prison tents days earlier where they would hold the hundreds of civilian activists aboard the Flotilla’s six ships. However, I was slightly optimistic knowing the determination of the activists and the difficulties that Israel would have in trying to stop and take over these massive ships. Along with the activists, the Freedom Flotilla contained over 10,000 tons of badly needed goods bound for the people of Gaza who have been under a brutal and inhumane Israeli-led siege for the past three years.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to see what I did when I opened my computer at 8:00 am on Monday.

The video was chilling. Masked and armed Israeli soldiers — or “commandos” as they’re described to perhaps conjure up images of G.I. Joe action figures — descended from helicopters one by one on board the Mavi Marmara and Israeli warships flanked the vessel on all sides as it sailed in international waters. As anyone would expect, the startled activists resisted the attack with sticks and whatever else they could find on deck. The Israeli soldiers opened fire and dozens of activists were killed and injured. More than two days later, Israel has yet to release the names or even the total number of dead leaving those of us with friends and loved ones who were on board the ship in a constant state of worry.

Protests have been held around the world against Israel’s attacks and in support of Palestinians under siege and occupation in Gaza. In Beirut on Tuesday, dozens of different organizations and political parties took part in one of the most diverse protests I’ve witnessed in three years of living here. Because of the role Turkish organizations played in organizing the Flotilla combined with Prime Minister Tayyip Erodogan’s strong words against Israel’s attacks on the ships and its siege on Gaza, support for Turkey is incredibly high across the Arab world. Many in Beirut carried Turkish flags and signs in support of the Erodogan government.

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Fore more:

International solidarity and the Freedom Flotilla massacre (The Electronic Intifada)
Glenn Greenwald talks about Israel with Eliot Spitzer on MSNBC (Salon)
Cartoonist Steve Bell on Israel’s attack (Guardian)

Miss Ethiopia in Lebanon

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There was a beauty pageant on Sunday, in fact there was more than one. But those of you reading this post probably only heard about one. In Las Vegas, 51 women competed for the Miss USA award. In the end, Rima Fakih, a Lebanese woman who immigrated to the US as a child took home the prize.

I’ve never paid much attention to such awards which I feel promote sexist ideas about women and a shallow definition of “beauty.” Had this year’s Miss USA not been a Lebanese-American, I probably wouldn’t have even heard about the award on Monday morning when I opened my computer in Beirut. I had known about a completely different beauty pageant that took place on Sunday.

As part of my ongoing photo project documenting the lives of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon, I attended my first ever beauty pageant. However, this one was not in Las Vegas, but in the working class Ouzai district of Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs. There 11 Ethiopian women, all who came to Lebanon in past years in search of work, held their own beauty pageant that closely resembled the Donald Trump owned Miss USA pageant.

The contestants had been preparing for months. Coming together each Sunday (their only day off), they practiced everything from walking in high heels to smiling for the cameras. On Sunday they wore a number of different outfits including traditional Ethiopian clothes, swimsuits and evening gowns, as they strutted up and down the catwalk in front of four Lebanese judges and dozens of cheering spectators, mostly other Ethiopian women working in Lebanon.

One of the event’s emcees, a Nigerian man working in Lebanon, made it clear that the competition was not merely to celebrate the most “beautiful” Ethiopian woman in Lebanon, but to present a different image of Ethiopian women in a country where they face daily discrimination.

After almost four hours of intense competition and a brief Q&A session where contestants were asked about Ethiopian and Lebanese culture, one woman* who works at a health club in Beirut was crowned Miss Ethiopia in Lebanon.

*To protect their identities all women are kept anonymous.

Getting ready backstage (image: matthew cassel)

Getting ready backstage (image: matthew cassel)

Preparing Ethiopian coffee (image: matthew cassel)

Round 1: Contestants dress in the same outfit which resembles the Ethiopian flag (image: matthew cassel)

Round 2: Traditional wear (image: matthew cassel)

In between rounds, a woman performs traditional Ethiopian dance (image: matthew cassel)

Preparing for round 3 (image: matthew cassel)

Round 3: The swimsuit competition (image: matthew cassel)l

Putting on the finishing touches for the final round (image: matthew cassel)

Round 4: The evening gown (image: matthew cassel)

The Q&A session (image: matthew cassel)

Miss Ethiopia poses for with the other 10 contestants (image: matthew cassel)

An American not in Tehran

Tehran, where Danny Postel is not writing from (image: matthew cassel)

After publishing my article “An American in Tehran” in In These Times, one commentator named Danny Postel wrote a critical response from Chicago and brought in a bunch of his friends to support his positions. One of his friends even dismisses my article as “propaganda” and a “sham.”

In a strange move for most publications, the popular Tehran Bureau website, which calls itself “an independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora” and has a partnership with the American Public Broadcasting Service, republished Postel’s already published response to an article on a completely different site. Postel’s response, which Tehran Bureau editors cleverly titled “Pretzel Logic on the American Left,” is a few hundred words longer than my original piece. One would think it only fair that Tehran Bureau then give me the space to respond, however, after an initial email exchange weeks ago where I asked to be given the chance to defend myself I’m still waiting to hear back. Unfortunately, it seems that few outside Iran are willing to take part in a discussion around the diverse “Green Movement” if it means portraying individual activists as anything other than “Gandhiesque.”

I’m pasting the text of my response which you can also find published below Postel’s response in In These Times here.

Contrary to Danny Postel’s claims, I did not intend to portray the Basij or Ahmadinejad government in a sympathetic light. Rather, my aim was to lend nuance to a complex reality in Iran that has been oversimplified by nearly all media outlets in the United States, from Fox News to commentators like Postel.

Unlike Postel, I do not attempt to make sweeping generalizations about the ideology of a diverse opposition movement that includes Iranians from all walks of life. Nor would I ever attempt to make such generalizations from the other side of the globe. I traveled to Iran to gain a better understanding of what was happening there.

Perhaps from my hometown Chicago, where Postel writes from and which I left years ago — knowing that I couldn’t accurately cover the Middle East without actually being here — I might share his naive assessment of the situation. But the fact is, on the ground in Tehran, I found a reality that doesn’t coincide with Postel’s illusions.

The majority of the opposition activists with whom I spoke seemed to not be as concerned with this idea of “nonviolence” as Postel and his friend from Columbia University. To impose this label upon them is absurd and offensive to those activists who don’t necessarily agree that the only justifiable form of resistance is one of “nonviolence.” Most activists I met were angry and ready to fight. One woman even expressed how she wishes Hezbollah (which she wholeheartedly supports) didn’t have such a close relationship with her government so that she could return to Lebanon with me and be trained in guerrilla warfare to use against the state.

Another activist, who expressed sympathies for the former Shah, told me a story about how her and her friends had to dive on top of a friend from South America during the June 2009 protests to protect him from dozens of raging opposition protesters who attacked him chanting “Basiji” just because of — as she explained it — his darker skin and beard. Such events prove the tremendous diversity in political and tactical strategy among the protesters.

To pretend that there is one ideology that unites the opposition couldn’t be further from the truth. This, along with the massive pro-government rallies since the elections that I pointed out and which Postel conveniently omits in his critique, are exactly why I conclude that what’s happening in Iran is not necessarily the makings of a new revolution.

Last year’s controversial elections have, however, sparked a new wave of political activity in Iran, and because of the sensitivity of the situation my sources all asked to remain anonymous. My article in no way apologizes for the Iranian government’s brutal repression of opposition activists. Postel, on the other hand, apologizing for Mousavi’s role as prime minister in the 1980s, shows the utter hypocrisy of many on the “left” who are no less guilty than the right for trying to prevent a more realistic portrayal of what’s happening in Iran from reaching people in the United States.