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)

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