Death in Chicago

Excerpted from an email to friends back home (video below):

When people in the Middle East ask where I’m from there are usually two things they associate with Chicago: Michael Jordan and violence. I’m always happy to hear the former and hope one day they’ll be just as familiar with Derrick Rose when he returns. And when I hear the latter reference I usually respond with something like, “yeah, but nothing like in this region.” But recently I’ve started to think that’s not really true.

I remember living in Chicago and not being affected by reports of violence that happened in parts of the city far from where I lived. It might sound odd, but now that I live on the other side of the planet, that violence feels much closer to home with every “Chicago” headline I read in various media.

While visiting home recently I wanted to tell the story of Darius McGraw, a young man gunned down last November in Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood. The multiple headlines of reports on his death mostly read something like, “4 dead, 19 injured in weekend violence,” none mentioned, for example, that he had a two-year-old daughter. I didn’t know Darius well, but I knew the area where he lived on the Southwest Side and the organizers at the now-closed Southwest Youth Collaborative who dedicated their lives to that community. Darius spent almost half of his brief 22 years at the center where he practiced break dance and other activities to organize young people.

My report isn’t much, and it can’t do anything to repair the insufferable tragedy the McGraw family and SWYC community have had to endure. It’s merely an attempt to give a face and name to one of more than 500 people killed in Chicago last year.

Watch our video report below, which can also be found on Al Jazeera’s site.

Egypt elect’s a president

It was an historic moment in Egypt. More one year after the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak, many Egyptians took part in free elections to choose their next president. Below is a sampling of my coverage for Al Jazeera English just before, during and after the elections.

In pictures: Egypt’s colourful campaign:

image: Matthew Cassel

In pictures: Aboul Fotouh rallies support:

image: Matthew Cassel

In pictures: Brotherhood mobilises for Morsi:

image: Matthew Cassel

In pictures: Sabahi tours Cairo:

image: Matthew Cassel

The faces of Egypt’s voters:

image: Matthew Cassel

In Pictures: Voting in the Nile Delta

image: Matthew Cassel

Egypt election results spark angry protests:

image: Matthew Cassel



War on Iran?

Iranians welcome their president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Beirut in October 2010. (Matthew Cassel)

History was repeating itself. At least that’s what I was beginning to think a few months ago. The US media, like in 2003, was using all its strength to bang the drums of war, although this time in Iran. It was non-stop, every morning I’d wake up to find an article about why Israel and the west had to take action to stop Iran.

Unlike during the lead up to the war with Iraq, this time I was a journalist and not a student activist. I had been planning to go to Iran last month to cover the elections, the effects of sanctions and to gauge feelings about a potential western strike and, of course, to take pictures in that beautiful country. But alas, I was never granted a visa and any visit to the IRI was put on hold.

The below are a couple piece I was able to do from outside Iran. In the first piece I look at a very small yet telling sample of English-language media and how it’s been covering Iran. Fortunately, it seems cooler heads are prevailing and the calls for war, while still very much ongoing, have quieted down somewhat:

Media roundup: An imminent strike on Iran?

In the article I quote Colin Kahl, who responded to claims that Israel’s 1981 of Saddam Hussein’s alleged nuclear sites actually stopped Iran from developing the bomb. Kahl wrote:

“By demonstrating Iraq’s vulnerability, the attack on Osirak actually increased Hussein’s determination to develop a nuclear deterrent and provided Iraq’s scientists an opportunity to better organise the programme. The Iraqi leader devoted significantly more resources toward pursuing nuclear weapons after the Israeli assault.”

In the second piece I had the honor of speaking to Hooman Majd, one of my favorite contemporary writers on Iranian affairs. Majd has written two books on Iran in recent years, both of which I’ve read and highly recommend (one and two).

I remember reading his first one which was published just a year before the contested 2009 elections and subsequent protest movement. Majd captures a certain level of nuance that I previously thought all English-language media had been somehow allergic to.

Here is a quote taken from the interview, Hooman Majd on Iran and sanctions:

“(For) the average Iranian it’s hard to see what comes next if you have these crippling sanctions, if you try everything to destroy the Iranian economy, which is what basically America is set out to do. And President Obama said himself that (Iranians) are going to hurt, and that’s the idea to continue trying to do that. But to what end? To try to get Iran to capitulate on its nuclear programme? Well, like I said before that’s not going to happen.”

It is my own personal feeling that a strike on Iran, a country already sandwiched between two US-occupations, by Israel or the west would immediately spiral into something much bigger that would easily encompass the entire Middle East and other areas. And this region already has enough people dying from the wars and occupations at present, it doesn’t need any more.

No surprises in snowy Lebanon

The car stopped on the side of the road and out like children we jetted into the field of untouched snow. After five years in Lebanon it was my first time experiencing snow in the mountains here. We threw snowballs at each other and I made a friend, literally. On the road 50 meters away I noticed a couple minibuses stop and let out about 40 or so men who looked even more excited by the white stuff than I was.

When my friends and I finally overdosed on snowballs and snowmen we went up to the road where the men were still hanging out. The guys’ mood was celebratory and they stood next to snow with cigarettes, beers and coffee in hand. Inside the buses a few guys danced to Arabic music playing on full blast. As I walked past I noticed their accents didn’t sound Lebanese. Unlike most Lebanese dialects, they pronounced a hard “G”-sounding “qaaf” and a more guttural “ayn”. I’ve never been to Libya, but their accents sounded like some of the rebels who I remembered hearing in TV interviews over the summer. But it was too unlikely that I’d run into a group of Libyans in Faraya, and I told a friend that maybe they were from eastern Syria.

But that also didn’t seem right. With the uprising in full swing I couldn’t imagine a group of Syrians traveling, drinking and celebrating like these guys were. Khallas, I had to ask one of them, “excuse me, but where are you guys from?”

“We are from Libya!” he said proudly.

Wow. The first group of Libyans I’d met since the fall of Gaddafi. Before I asked anything else, I wondered what their relationship to the uprising was. Gaddafi supporters? Nah. Ordinary Libyan civilians who sat on the sidelines throughout the months of fighting? Maybe, but they didn’t come across as those kinds of guys.

When I asked what brought them to Lebanon, more smiling faces approached and one told me they were on vacation from Libya. With my camera at my side I couldn’t resist. I think I was only able utter the word “mumkin [is it possible ]…” before one of them reached his hand out for mine and shouted, “We are Libyan revolutionaries! Take our picture!” They all cheered fists in the air. I wanted to shoot the group in front of their bus, but the man dragged me and ten comrades surrounding him across the street and into the snow. They readied for the portrait and a guy in the back yelled, “Allahu Akbar,” while a kneeling man drinking a tall can of Efes (a Turkish beer) wobbled in front:

image: Matthew Cassel

Just in case you’re expecting some continuity to this post, don’t. The below picture has absolutely nothing to do with Libya. But like 40 joyous revolutionaries in the snow, the following was also a scene begging to be photographed: Some guy drove his BMW through slippery winding roads to reach the snowy mountains with a propane tank in the trunk just so he can heat the coals for his hookah. The hookah, which you can see next to the propane tank in the picture below, sits conveniently outside the car with its hose snaked through a crack in the door to be enjoyed in the comfort of German engineering:

image: Matthew Cassel



Interview with Ece Temelkuran

This article was first published under the headline, “Firing Turkey’s Ece Temelkuran: The Price of Speaking Out” on Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar English. Because a reader in Saudi Arabia informed me that Al-Akhbar’s website is blocked in that country I am reposting here in full:

Journalist Ece Temelkuran (image: Sedat Suna)

For the first time in her nearly two-decade-long career, journalist Ece Temelkuran is without a job. The feature reporter and columnist, currently in Tunisia, writes regularly about the plight of Turkey’s ethnic minorities. She was fired from her staff position at the Haberturk daily on Thursday after publishing articles critical of the Turkish government’s handling of the massacre of Kurds on December 28 at Iraq’s border.

Turkey has long been feted by mainstream Western media as a bastion of secular democracy in a wider and largely Muslim region ruled by despots. However, critics argue that this image is allowing the Justice and Development Party (AKP) headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to become increasingly authoritarian. In recent years, journalists who report on stories not fitting within the government narrative have been targeted.

Ninety-seven media professionals are currently in prison according to the Turkish Union of Journalists. In addition to this, The Economist magazine recently reported that 47 lawyers, more than 500 students and some 3,500 Kurdish activists are in prison. A recent survey by the Associated Press found that more than one-third of the world’s convicted “terrorists” are in Turkey.

Temelkuran has played a leading role on social media (she started the hashtag #freejournalists on Twitter) in defending 11 journalists who are currently on trial in Turkey for supporting illegal “terrorist” organizations.

After beginning her career as a correspondent in 1993, Temelkuran became a feature reporter in 2000 for Turkey’s Milliyet daily. In 2009, she left Milliyet to take a job at the nascent Haberturk, another major daily in Turkey. On Thursday Temelkuran received a phone call while in Tunisia that she had been dismissed from her job at the newspaper.

In addition to covering Turkish affairs at home, Temelkuran has reported extensively from the Middle East and Latin America.

I spoke to Ece Temelkuran on Thursday by phone about her career, her dismissal and the current state of journalism in Turkey.

Matthew Cassel: When you’re not reporting around the world what types of stories do you generally write about inside Turkey?

Ece Temelkuran: The Kurdish issue, Armenian issue, women rights, social issues…Not the most popular subjects, especially the Kurdish and Armenian issues.

MC: Why aren’t they popular issues in Turkey?

ET: Because since the establishment of Turkey [in 1923, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire] Kurds have been treated as second-class citizens and there has always been a lack of political and individual rights for them. There is deep and wide racism against Kurds in Turkey and there is the armed PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] movement and anything that goes under Kurdish issues is considered terrorism. So it’s not surprising Turkish media doesn’t cover the issue, and if they do they represent the government’s point of view.

Continue reading “Interview with Ece Temelkuran”

2011 in images

A selection of images that I took in parts of the Arab world over the last 12 months.


One week after Tunisians overthrew Ben Ali and on the same day of the first Egyptian protests, Lebanese supporters of the Sunni Future movement called for a “day of rage” across Lebanon to protest the parliament’s selection of Najib Miqati as the new prime minister. The day remained relatively uneventful as a few hundred took to the streets near Tariq al-Jadide in central Beirut burning tires and threw stones at army and police into the night. The day did highlight the tense political situation that continues in Lebanon between the country’s religious sects.

On May 15, Palestinian refugees inspired by the wave of Arab revolts called for their own revolution. They marched to the border with Israel in south Lebanon and demanded the right to return to the lands they and their descendants were forced to flee in 1948. At the border fence the unarmed demonstrators were met with Israeli sniper fire. Eleven were killed before the Lebanese army intervened by firing in the air and forcing demonstrators to flee the area. When activists tried to return and “occupy” the area they were stopped by Lebanese authorities in the weeks following. (My piece in the Guardian: Palestinians in Lebanon, at the lonely end of the Arab uprisings)

Unfortunately, it’s been nearly impossible for foreign journalists (especially Americans) to enter Syria and cover the uprising there because of the government clampdown. In neighboring Beirut, activists are also finding it difficult to show their solidarity with the protesters in Syria. At a protest outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut in April, solidarity activists were harassed by Syrian and Lebanese authorities and also by pro-Bashar al-Assad Lebanese and Syrians. A few brave activists (pictured here) managed to hold signs for around ten minutes before they left. Weeks later at a similar action outside the embassy, a number of solidarity activists were attacked and many were injured. The events highlight the close relationship between the two nations’ people, either with or against the uprising to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were vocal about the visit by PA president Mahmoud Abbas to Lebanon in August. “Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t represent me as a Palestinian, nor does he care about the struggle and the hardship of the people,” said novelist Mahmoud Hashem, 44, as he prepared fresh orange juice shortly before iftar, the fast-breaking meal during Ramadan. “His visit is pointless. It’s a visit for his [Fatah] party just so he can lift this flag on the embassy. Abbas doesn’t know about suffering and us being deprived of civil rights and the right to work, and Abbas doesn’t care about the living conditions of the people here.” (My photo story for AJE: Refugees in Lebanon react to Abbas visit)

Hizballah head Hassan Nasrallah made a surprise appearance at an Ashura rally in south Beirut in December. The public appearance on the Shia holiday was his first in years. Hizballah is a close ally of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Nasrallah offered support to the embattled regime. With the uprising continuing in Syria, in the coming year Hizballah and the governing coalition it’s a part of will face challenges from the Western-backed March 14 alliance, which includes the Future movement. (My photo story on Ashura in Lebanon for AJE: In pictures: Nasrallah attends Ashoura rally)


January 28 was a day I will never forget. After seeing the images from unprecedented protests of tens of thousands in Cairo three days earlier, I knew revolution would happen the following weekend. I arrived on Friday morning to a city cut off from the world. There was no mobile phone service, internet, only state TV and land line telephones were available. I went with Egyptian friends to the working-class Imbaba area of Cairo. None of us had any idea to expect. We waited near a major mosque for protests to begin after prayers. Nothing happened and worshippers walked away. Disappointed, we got in a taxi and left for another more central part of the city where protests were expected. Our taxi become stuck in traffic as we were leaving the area and I looked up ahead. “Let’s go, ” I said as we exited the taxi and joined a group of about 50 people chanting against Mubarak and for people to join them. That number would soon be tens of thousands, and that was only in one area of a city of 20 million.

In Imbaba on 28 January, police fired tear-gas at protesters who responded by throwing stones, some threw Molotov cocktails. The battle went on for hours until the protesters won and made their way to Tahrir Square. Before it ended I was detained by a group of plainclothes officers who demanded my cameras memory cards. Thanks to Egyptian activists who managed to sneak away the cards and fought back against the officers we managed to safely get out the images from this day in Imbaba where I was the only journalist present to document what happened.

A woman from Imbaba withstands tear-gas to document the protests on her mobile phone on 28 January.

This is the brave young activist Mina Daniel being treated for his wounds at a makeshift hospital on January 30. He was injured by police shotgun near Tahrir Square. In October, Daniel was killed by the army at a protest demanding rights for the country’s Christian minority. (See my blog post on Daniel here)

This picture was taken during the battle of Tahrir on February 3, when plainclothes officers and Mubarak supporters tried to attack the ongoing sit-in at Tahrir. Protesters fought back and the battle lasted for two days. Seconds after I took this picture I looked toward the frontline of the pro-Mubarak attackers when a small object appeared in the corner of my vision. The next thing I know I heard a ringing noise and a warm liquid began to cover my face. I was hit with a rock. I started walking away from the frontline before I was grabbed by four or five anti-Mubarak protesters who grabbed me, one shouted “Allahu Akbar!” as they carried me to a medical tent. I received treatment and a big white bandage over my forehead, which afforded me endless amounts of street credit in the revolutionary camp. I still have a scar from the incident on my forehead.

February 10, Mubarak has got to go. That’s what everyone in Tahrir thought, and we came on TV and announced he wouldn’t the crowd exploded with rage. Here a 21-year-old activist watches Mubarak’s speech next to a man in his 60s who was a former political prisoner for almost 20 years under Mubarak for belonging to an Islamist group.

Tahrir Square early in the morning on February 11. By day’s end, Mubarak would no longer rule Egypt.

A protester carries a sign near Tahrir Square minutes after Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt.

Khaled Said’s mother, (left) uncle and sister react to the news about Mubarak stepping down at an apartment next to Tahrir Square. Said was a young man from Alexandria beaten to death by police in 2010. Activists protested his death and police brutality in general on Police Day, which was a holiday created by the Mubarak regime that was to be first celebrated on January 25 when tens of thousands protested and called for Mubarak’s ouster.


I was fortunate enough to visit the country where it all started briefly in March, two months after Ben Ali fled Tunisia. This image was taken on the final day of a sit-in at al-Kasbah. The next day all the graffiti that covered the square was removed. I met wonderful people around the country, but the highlight of my trip had to be visiting the hometown of my friend Sami Ben Gharbia. Sami is a blogger/activist who had just returned to Tunisia for the first time since being exiled 13 years before that. (The graffiti in this picture says: “Tunisian people = Muslim + Christian + Jew,” See my post on revolutionary Tunisia)


From the moment the uprising in Bahrain started just days after Mubarak’s ouster, I wanted to visit the small Gulf country. I finally was given that opportunity this past fall and I spent more than one month over two visits reporting from Bahrain for Al Jazeera English and others.

Like in Syria now and other countries before that, funerals for people regularly killed by police in Bahrain become political protests with chants against the regime. This image was taken during my second trip in Bahrain in November during the funeral for Ali al-Baddah, a 16 year old who was run over by a police SUV during a protest early in the morning on November 19.

I went to a small pro-regime demonstration in November against the opposition and protesters. During the demonstration I searched desperately for someone who I could joke with about how people were rallying against foreign interference in Iran while many of them waved Saudi Arabian and Emirati flags like the woman pictured here.

One day after the release of a fact-finding commissions report, Bahrainis in A’ali village hold a funeral for a man killed in his car by a speeding police SUV on November 23. (My photo story for AJE: In pictures: Violence follows Bahrain funeral)

After funerals and protests police indiscriminately fire tear-gas in villages across Bahrain. Like in Egypt and other countries, the tear-gas is usually …

… made in the USA (See AJE photo story “Breathing in the dark” and report on “48 hours in Sanabis“)

After tear-gas, rubber bullets, sound bombs and oftentimes shot gun are all fired at demonstrations, protesters and locals take to rooftops to watch police and chant for the downfall of the al-Khalifa regime. January of 2012 will mark ten months of protests in Bahrain, one of the longest uprisings in the Arab world. Despite this, Bahrain is regularly excluded from lists of Arab countries that have seen uprisings in 2011. I blame this on the lack of coverage it’s received, especially in the Arab world, and discrimination by people outside the country who buy the government position that protesters are influenced by Iran without question and inaccurately describe protests for rights as part of a sectarian conflict. Every protester who I spoke to in Bahrain assured me it’s their own desire for freedom that is keeping them in the streets and not any foreign power. As protests continue on a daily basis, let’s see if Bahrain protests will finally get the attention they deserve in the new year.

Bahrain: Revolution on walls

There is a consistent theme to most villages around Bahrain: their walls are all covered in anti-regime graffiti. Every night activists take their spray cans and practice one of the most common forms of public art around the world.

Most of the graffiti criticizes the government or calls for the downfall of the king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and the entire al-Khalifa regime. Much of the graffiti also references Pearl roundabout in the capital Manama, which was the epicenter of the protest movement earlier this year. In March, the roundabout along with its tall white Pearl monument, were destroyed by the government. Since then, protesters have called for a “return” to what they’ve renamed “Martyrs’ square” in honor of the more than 40 people killed since the uprising began in February.

The graffiti is hardly permanent and often changes depending on the political climate at any given time. Most mornings, security forces (many of them non-Bahrainis or recently naturalized citizens, which is why activists refer to them as “mercenaries”) erase as much as they can until activists again paint their messages. It’s a never-ending cycle. As long as the political battle for democracy remains at an impasse, expect Bahrain’s walls to remained covered.

These images taken in recent months, show a selection of some of the graffiti — written in Arabic and English — on walls in villages all over Bahrain.

Bahrain: Revolution on walls – Images by Matthew Cassel