Revolution today

Years from now we’ll study about what’s happening right now in Egypt. It’s pretty surreal to make a blog post with images from a revolution happening today.

Egyptian protesters arrive at Tahrir Square (matthew cassel)

A young girl leads chants at Tahrir Square (matthew cassel)

(matthew cassel)

“We are not your slaves”

Students gather outside the University of London Union in central London before marching to parliament. (image: matthew cassel)

While I was at the protests in London yesterday posting updates on twitter, a friend wrote me and asked why I care so much about students in Britain. Here is my response: I care first and foremost about human rights, of which the right to education is definitely included. It’s pretty basic that any nation claiming to be built on democracy and the respect for the rights of all its people must offer equal access to health care and education. Yesterday, the Cameron-led government further ripped away the right to education from much of Britain, yet somehow it’s the few young people who threw things at police in full riot gear and sprayed graffiti on walls who some are trying to portray as the “violent” ones. It was not the state under attack yesterday, it was the state attacking the rights of students.

I care about the students here because one country does not exist in isolation from the rest of the world, and the UK raising tuition fees by 300% will affect all of us. Granted the education system was far from ideal before yesterday as many British friends have told me, but no longer can most people in theory study and go on to become a politician, academic, artist, writer, journalist, teacher, lawyer, doctor, etc. Like in the US, those positions will be almost entirely reserved for the increasingly exclusive upper classes who can pay exorbitant fees to obtain an education. Most people who can’t pay will either forgo their studies or remain forever in a pit of debt from which escape is close to impossible — trust me, I can tell you all about that.

As a journalist working in the English-language media, I greatly appreciate the relative openness that exists in media based outside the US (I am able to write things for a mainstream British publication that I could never write in a comparable US outlet). It’s by no coincidence that many of these English-language countries offer either free or affordable health care and education, two rights long extinct in the US. When education becomes a privilege and not a right, we instantly lose diversity in the voices discussing the world and what’s happening in it. Not that such diversity flourishes today in the corporate-dominated media, but it is a struggle that many of us working in independent media are engaged in. And it’s a struggle that time might show took a major setback yesterday.

However, it’s truly inspiring to see tens of thousands of students now leading the way. And it’s not only in the UK, but elsewhere across Europe where equal access to education and health care are at threat. Hopefully the students will carry on their fight and other countries will join in this battle for democracy and human rights before their governments — backed by armed riot police — continue forcing their shallow definition of these concepts not only on their own populations, but also on the rest of the world in the form of bombs, coup d’etats, support for dictatorships, etc.

FULL GALLERY HERE

On the way to parliament (image: matthew cassel)
Shouting against the government for taking away their right to education (image: matthew cassel)
My first time seeing Big Ben, and big Harry, big John, big Thomas, etc. (image: matthew cassel)
Nope, yesterday you most certainly were not (image: matthew cassel)
Trying to break through police barriers to reach parliament where politicians sad "aye" and took away their right to education (image: matthew cassel)
"Your job is next!" some protestors shouted to police. Although judging by anger around Britain at the government, I think if there is one job that will be protected it will be the police. (image: matthew cassel)
Dance party, bonfire, etc. (image: matthew cassel)
(image: matthew cassel)
Even Santa came and told the cops to "fuck off" (image: matthew cassel)

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

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.

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

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)

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)

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

UPDATE 15 NOVEMBER 2010:

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

View archive gallery

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