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

Mohammad Othman

Mohammad Othaman's brother and father collect olives from one of the family's trees just a few meters away from the Israeli built fence/wall in Jayyous, 2004. (image: matthew cassel)
Mohammad Othaman's brother and father collect olives from one of the family's trees just a few meters away from the Israeli built fence/wall in Jayyous, 2004. (image: matthew cassel)

Last Tuesday a dear friend of mine was traveling back to his home in the occupied West Bank after a trip to Europe. He had been visiting Norway where he was meeting with senior officials in his capacity as an organizer with Stop the Wall, a Palestinian non-governmental organization that campaigns against Israel’s illegal wall in the West Bank. In order to travel abroad, Palestinians in the West Bank must go to Jordan and take flights from Amman. Even though Jordan shares a border with the West Bank, it is Israel that controls that border. Traveling through any checkpoint (and the West Bank is full of hundreds) let alone one on a border, is a frightening experience for any Palestinian who are all subject to detention, arrest or other mistreatment by the young M16-wielding Israeli soldiers. As he attempted to return to his occupied home he was stopped and detained, and later he would be arrested and taken to one of Israel’s many prisons where it holds around 11,000 Palestinians like Mohammad, including hundreds of children.

Mohammad Othman and I in Jayyous, 2004
Mohammad and I atop his home in Jayyous, 2004

Mohammad did not choose to get involved in politics, it chose him in 2003 when Israel built its wall that split his village in two, separating the residential area of the village from its farmland. Like many West Bank villages, the people in Jayyous’ livelihood depended on their olive trees. Mohammad’s family was no different. After the wall was constructed residents had to apply for permits, which were often denied to nearly all young men making it nearly impossible for families to collect all of their olives during the autumn harvest season. Israel also began uprooting and destroying olive trees to make way for a Jewish settlement that was to be built on the farmlands of Jayyous. Mohammad and his family suffered a great deal. I spent the harvest of 2004 with him and his family when only a few of them and I (of course my American passport gave me infinite more rights than those wishing to work on their lands) could make it to the trees, while the rest waited anxiously on the other side clearly disappointed by missing the harvest and ready to take the olives to get processed into oil. It was in that time that I learned about Palestinian fellah (peasants) and their generations of struggle to maintain their land, a struggle embodied in the olive trees hundreds of years older than any person living in Israel/Palestine.

Mohammad’s activism is his resistance, his way to protect himself, his family, his people, his land. He uses only words, but even words are a threat to the injustice of the oppressors. And that is why he sits in a cell now where his captors use every intimidation technique imaginable to break his spirit. But they will never silence Mohammad and those fighting on the side of what’s right.

Learn more about Mohammad’s case here: http://freemohammadothman.wordpress.com/.

Venezuela pics online

image: matthew cassel
image: matthew cassel

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Finally! After many months I’ve uploaded images I took in Venezuela back in April of this year. It was not an easy trip, I was only in the country for about a week and tried to do way too much. It usually takes me that long just to get a feel for a place before I feel comfortable walking around taking photographs, which was very hard to do on this trip. I brought only one fixed 35 mm lens so as to not stand out too much, and I also kept my camera in my bag most of the time since having uninsured gear in a tough city like Caracas is not fun — everywhere we went Venezuelans told me to be careful because I would get jumped for my gear.

Crime is high in Caracas, but I was really impressed meeting those organizing against it. In many communities in Venezuela, there is an energy similar to one I felt in Palestine earlier in the intifada, or even in Chicago in 2003 when tens of thousands were organizing against the war in Iraq. Another thing that impressed me was that just walking around we came across health clinic after health clinic that I could just enter and be treated for free by well-trained Cuban doctors. This made me feel constantly safe — the complete opposite to being in the states with no health coverage. Needless to say, I will be back in Venezuela soon.

Many thanks to my sister for her initial invitation to visit and her assistance with everything thereafter.

Beirut rains

The rains have begun in Beirut. Summer is over and in a matter of minutes the city has taken on a completely different feel. The air is fresher and the water is giving life to the dehydrated vegetation on my balcony and in the park below. I feel like this dude after a hot day in Caracas, Venezuela a few months ago:

23 de Enero barrio, Caracas. (image: matthew cassel)
23 de Enero barrio, Caracas. (image: matthew cassel)

"Why I threw the shoe"

Right after the famous shoe incident involving Iraqi journalist Muntadher al-Zaidi and then US President George Bush, I wrote an opinion piece speculating about the reasons behind the incident (and others involving shoes) titled “The weapon of the occupied“:

But why did Western media constantly explain that shoe throwing is considered offensive in Arab culture? Unlike the entire Western media, I’m not going to claim to know the answer to this great cultural phenomenon. Maybe it’s not a phenomenon at all. Maybe it is what any of us would do if someone as arrogant as Ariel Sharon or George W. Bush visited the place that they’ve brutalized for years. … Could it be that Iraqis and Palestinians aren’t as armed and violent as they’re portrayed, and that the shoe is just something that everyone is armed, or rather footed with, and can easily be thrown? … Forget the cultural differences when it comes to the meaning of shoes for a moment and focus on the real question: will an occupied people ever accept their occupiers? There is no more straightforward answer to this question than a shoe whizzing past the US president’s head.

After his release this week, al-Zaidi provided evidence for my speculation in a piece titled “Why I threw the shoe.” Al-Zaidi writes:

I am free. But my country is still a prisoner of war. There has been a lot of talk about the action and about the person who took it, and about the hero and the heroic act, and the symbol and the symbolic act. But, simply, I answer: what compelled me to act is the injustice that befell my people, and how the occupation wanted to humiliate my homeland by putting it under its boot. … When I threw the shoe in the face of the criminal, George Bush, I wanted to express my rejection of his lies, his occupation of my country, my rejection of his killing my people. … I didn’t do this so my name would enter history or for material gains. All I wanted was to defend my country.

Despite him stating otherwise, he is considered a hero by many who was brave enough to do what most of the world wanted to. Unfortunately, he’s had to leave Iraq at least temporarily to receive medical treatment after accusing authorities of torturing him during his nine months in prison. His family has also expressed concern for his safety if he remains in the country. He has become one of the most popular people in the Arab world, right alongside Hizballah head Hassan Nasrallah. These two men are proof that as long as war and occupation exist in the Middle East, resistance will always be supported by the masses.