An image five years in the making

Anniversary of the end to Israel’s 22-year occupation of Lebanon, anniversary of the 2006 victory against Israel, Ashura, Samir Quntar’s release, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit, are just some of the occasions when tens of thousands of Hizballah supporters gather in Dahiyeh. I’ve photographed them all.

For almost five years from when I moved to Lebanon I’ve gone to what must be almost a dozen Hizballah rallies in Dahiyeh, the south suburbs of Beirut. I remember going to the earlier ones thinking, “wow, I’ll get to photograph Hassan Nasrallah himself.” I’d arrange permission with Hizballah’s media office like all journalists have to, go through the check-in process and then wait for hours as the crowds arrived to the blaring music of the muqawama (resistance) and leave unsatisfied with pics of Nasrallah on a massive TV screen and not in person. It became routine.

Yesterday, two things were different. First, I was photographed by one of the media team while picking up my credentials. And second, after walking down a side street on the way from the mosque to the march I saw a man chilling on a street corner with a Kalashnikov. Might not sound surprising to some who are used to reading Dahiyeh described as the [cue scary horror music] “HIZBALLAH STRONGHOLD,” but for me it was. Not even when I was detained for taking pics without permission by eight or so Hizballah agents in Dahiyeh and taken to an empty apartment for interrogation in 2007 (this was less than one year after Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon and soon after an Israeli journalist reported undercover from Beirut) did I see any of them carrying so much as a handgun.

Still I never thought he’d show up yesterday, I gave up that expectation a long time ago. And after waking up at 5am and intense hours of photographing people mourning and then chasing around a massive march through the streets I didn’t very much feel like sitting through the post-march-after-rally caged in a journalist pigpen for hours. But I wanted to produce a photo story on the day, so I need to get a few shots of the rally to complete it.

I pushed my way through the masses until I reached a belly-high steel barrier marking the boundary of the event. I had to plead with a number of men who all had cords coming out of their ears, some also carried walkie talkies, to let me past. It took some negotiating while a framed picture of Ayatollah Khomeini kept getting jabbed uncomfortably into my lower back. After about 20 minutes I finally made it to the fenced-in area where journalists usually stand and take pictures and by doing so block the vision of many rows of spectators (outside the VIP section in the very front) who came hours ago thinking their super-early arrival would secure them the best seats in the house. I always feel sorry for the first rows behind the press area.

I took only a couple snaps before I was approached by another man with a cord coming out of his ear. He grabbed my press pass for the march (not the rally) pinned to my jacket and said in Arabic, “you can’t take pictures here.” I protested when he tried to usher me out of the area when he called over his superior, also with a cord coming out of his ear. I told him in Arabic that I was being sent in every direction by other people with cords coming out of the ears (I think I actually referred to them as “other guys from the party”) and that I couldn’t be bothered to run around for another 30 minutes. He nodded like he understood and I felt relief that I’d be able to stay.

Then he turned away and motioned for the man who stopped me to take me to get the necessary permission.

There’s something that you come to learn after years in Lebanon, and that is oftentimes when someone in a position of authority says something it doesn’t mean it’s written in stone. Ya’ni, there is always room to maneuver. But that doesn’t really work with the organization that defeated one of the world’s most powerful armies, twice.

And so I went – this time without protest – escorted by a new guy also with a cord coming out of his ear. He was nice despite initial efforts to make me think the contrary. “Can we stop and get a mana’oushe [baked pizza-like snack popular in Lebanon] at this place,” I asked pointing to bakery as we walked along in silence. He shook his head. As we continued for another minute or two through the scattered crowds we passed another bakery and I asked, “what about this place, can we stop and get a mana’oushe at this one?” He smiled, even laughed, but again shook his head.

We reached the press check-in at a school I think it was. My bag and cameras were X-rayed in a white van like normal and returned with a smile. The few of us stragglers still getting our credentials were well behind the other journalists who were already trapped in the cage by then. I wasn’t really stressing over being late, and why should I? The rows of people who are not only unable to see anything because of us, but who we also photograph non-stop since they’re so close, weren’t going anywhere. We walked back in a group and right when we reached the entrance to football field (just on the side of the stage) the pandemonium began.

I wondered what it was. I heard someone say “al-Sayyed!” But no way, I thought. Can’t be. I had only seen Nasrallah in person once before, but then all of us journalists were trapped in our cage some 40 meters away from the stage and unable to escape for a close-up. But this time, if he was in fact there, I was free. As the professional Ashura marchers in the VIP section (who must’ve been given privileged seating for their commitment to the holiday) started to move in, so did the security. I ran as fast as I could in the direction of the stage before being shoved back by a line of ear cords frantically trying to maintain order.

More pushing ensued from the men with ear cords, who faced stiff resistance by the Ashura marchers and a few of us journalists. Muqawama meets muqawama. This went on for 5-10 minutes until I spotted the black turban that signifies a direct relation to the Prophet Mohammed. It was him (watch YouTube video of the dramatic entrance). By this point I was being swallowed by a sea of young Ashura marchers who would give their lives to see Nasrallah, a feeling I may have also shared at that point. My bag strap was strangling my neck, one of my cameras was falling off my shoulder. With the one free hand I lifted the long telephoto lens on top of the heads in front of me which I simultaneously tried to push down with my lens in order to get my shot.

I could barely see through my viewfinder. Minutes earlier when I thought it might be him approaching and I had some more room to move I made sure my camera was manually set for the light on the stage. I thought about switching to manual focus and also setting that ahead of time, but I knew that the focus ring would change when getting knocked around by the crowd. So I just shot, one click after another praying (I had always heard Nasrallah can have this effect) that he would end up in the frame and in focus in at least a few of the shots.

Two minutes later it ended. I left as quickly as I could. Once I got outside the football field and the security area, I waved down a young teen on a scooter for a ride. “I have pictures of the Sayyed,” I shouted! He was not nearly as excited as I expected him to be, but still he gladly took me to the main road where I caught a cab driven by a man who spent more time looking at the pics on my camera’s little screen than he did the road in front of him.

I got home and went through the pics, more than 50 in total. A lot of blurred shots of the bottom of the stage, back of a bunch of heads, the screen above Nasrallah and then finally a perfect in-focus portrait of the Sayyed himself standing next to an intense bodyguard with a hand tucked away inside his jacket. Gotcha!

(See my full photo story of yesterday’s events on Al Jazeera English: “In Pictures: Nasrallah addresses Ashoura rally“)

Hassan Nasrallah addresses Ashura rally in Dahiyeh, 6 December 2011 (image: Matthew Cassel)

Al-Assad in Hamra

The chants of “with our souls, with our blood, we will redeem you oh Bashar,” have become as regular as the ringing of the bells at St. Francis church on the main strip in the Hamra area of Beirut. Every Sunday the upscale neighborhood where Lebanese and foreign tourists can be seen sipping coffee in one of the many sidewalk cafes is transformed into a rally in support of Bashar al-Assad and his embattled regime.

The mood was different today. The hundreds of protesters, both Syrian and Lebanese, were angry and more defiant than normal. Yesterday, the Arab League suspended Syria and called on the regime to stop the violent crackdown against ongoing anti-government protests that began in March. Many protesters in Syria have called for action and solidarity from foreign governments, while the government and its supporters claim the eight months of demonstrations are a “conspiracy” by Western powers.

The weekly protests, that I’ve written about before, happen while Syrian activists seeking refuge in Lebanon say they’re under attack and don’t feel safe. (For more read this report on AJE: Syrian activists’ dangerous haven in Lebanon)

Lebanon: al-Assad in Hamra – Images by Matthew Cassel

Beirut Solidarity with Syria

A pro-Bashar protester carries a Syrian flag outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut. (image: Matthew Cassel)

In Beirut, showing solidarity with Syria is easy as long as it’s with the regime and not the people protesting in the streets.

Today, a call went out by activists in Beirut for a 5:00PM demonstration in solidarity with protesters in Syria. I arrived right on time thinking there would be a small group of solidarity protesters gathered. As usual, there were plenty of plenty of uniformed Lebanese security forces, along with plainclothes officers, Lebanese and also Syrians from the embassy. I heard a demonstration coming from around the corner and thought maybe it was the solidarity demonstration that had been called for. But as the demonstration neared I heard, “God, Syria and Bashar [al-Assad] only!” A group of around 75 Syrians, mostly workers in Lebanon, came carrying pictures of their president and marched to the front of their embassy like they’ve been doing regularly over the past few weeks.

Wondering where the solidarity protesters were, I looked around and found a dozen or so activists who I recognized off to the side. Some told me that people in civilian clothes were calling them “agents” (meaning Israeli agents) when a few of them tried to gather outside the embassy minutes earlier. As I stood with them, three men carrying cameras and wearing civilian clothes walked up to us. Two took still pictures and a third shot video. The activists were clearly offended, some walked away covering their faces and others shouted at the men to stop taking their picture. After one of the men persisted, a female activist went up to him and demanded that he delete her picture.

The man walked away into the crowd and the woman chased after him, at one point even kicking him in his ass, literally, as he tried to get away. He eventually tried to make his way into the embassy when she grabbed him. She called for the police to intervene, but none of them did. Finally, she made a big enough scene that a high-ranking officer came over and took them both off to the side where she made the man delete the images he had taken of her.

At one point three activists (see below) were brave enough to pull out signs and were immediately shouted against by the pro-Bashar crowd. After ten minutes or so they left, and so had the others who had come out for the solidarity demonstration. Walking away one of the protesters told me, “that’s the last time we’ll try to demonstrate outside the Syrian embassy.”

Pro-Bashar Syrians chant against three people demonstrating in solidarity with protesters in Syria. (image: Matthew Cassel)

Two of the demonstrators in solidarity with demonstrators in Syria. Sign on left reads, 'No to violence, No to repression, No to extremism.' (image: Matthew Cassel)

Lebanese demand the fall of their [sectarian] regime

“The people demand the fall of the regime,” has been a popular Arabic slogan for the masses across the Arab World who have taken to the streets recently in protest against their oppressive autocracies. Lebanon, however, is unique from other Arab countries in that it does not have one central figure governing the country. Instead, Lebanon has a number of political leaders who all represent one religious sect or another in a complex sectarian political system that the French colonialists helped established in 1943 (Wikipedia entry on the politics of Lebanon).

Today, Lebanese activists called for their own march to topple the regime. The march was held under the slogan, “the people demand the fall of the sectarian regime,” and brought out hundreds of protesters despite heavy rains that flooded the streets. While Lebanon is certainly not Egypt, it was an impressive display of angry Lebanese fed up with the sectarian government which they see as the major impediment to unity and stability in their war-torn country.

The protest started near the site where the 1975-1990 civil war began in the Ain al-Rammaneh neighborhood, and marched down the former “Green Line” in Beirut that separated Muslim West from Christian East.

(image: matthew cassel)

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The protest moves in front of a building still bearing scars from the civil war (image: matthew cassel)

'the people demand the fall of the sectarian regime' (image: matthew cassel)

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Lebanese protest against sectarian political system (Reuters)
The long march for secularism (

Paying respect to Lebanon’s Ayatollah

image: matthew cassel

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:

image: matthew cassel

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image: 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

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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

image: matthew cassel

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)

The long march for secularism

Images from yesterday’s march for secularism in Beirut. This is a good opinion piece in the Guardian on Lebanon’s struggle for secularism, and an article on the march in the LA Times. The impression that I got from most Lebanese friends when I asked what they thought of the march was something like, “it was a nice event, but it was one step in a million mile journey.”

By far my favorite chant from yesterday was, “shoo taiftak? ma khasak!” (“What’s your sect? None of your business!”)

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

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image: matthew cassel