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)

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

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

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

Hizballah's call for legitimacy

image: matthew cassel

Last week Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech over video link from an unknown location, as he frequently does. The leader of the Lebanese Shia Islamic resistance and political group Hizballah addressed the audience in Beirut to present the group’s new manifesto, their first since 1985 when the group unveiled its initial open letter.

The new political document, however, contained few surprises for some observers like independent Lebanese journalist Bilal el-Amine. “It’s not new for the people who have followed Hizballah over the past 20 years,” he said. “The new document only formalizes Hizballah’s process. [Unlike the 1985 letter] there is no call for an Islamic state which has been the de facto position for many years now; this shows their commitment to become an integral part of Lebanese society.”
Continue reading “Hizballah's call for legitimacy”

Is Hizballah upset today?

There are some different rumors going around about Hizballah and the elections. I think most would agree that they are indeed not happy with the results. Many are actually placing the blame on Hizballah head Hassan Nasrallah for the loss after he called the two-day conflict that began on 7 May 2008 a “glorious day.” It’s hard to tell many people above ground in Beirut and elsewhere that 7 and 8 May 2008 were in fact glorious days. I saw how it affected friends who until that point had supported Hizballah, but after those two days felt completely different about the group. “I can’t believe they would turn their guns on the Lebanese” is what many told me. It didn’t matter that in their opinion March 14 leaders and the US had provoked the conflict. Once they saw Hizballah fighters alongside fighters from what they consider more thuggish groups like the Amal Movement and the SSNP on the streets of West Beirut they were immediately reminded of the horrific 15 years of civil war that ended in 1990.

A small number of people have suggested that Hizballah is happy with its place in a minority coalition and does not want the responsibility of governing the country in a majority coalition. This theory makes sense, except now the March 14 groups have been strengthened to continue their demand that the only armed force in Lebanon should be the Lebanese Army. Hizballah argues that they too would like to see this happen in the future, but that the army is currently not capable of defending Lebanon against a future Israeli attack. This issue will surely become a priority for the new government in the coming months. It will be important if Hizballah gets veto power or not in the new government so that they can dismiss attempts to ban their right to bear arms.

Hizballah and the Lebanese elections

image: matthew cassel
image: matthew cassel

LEBANON: Hizbullah Punching Above Its Numbers
Analysis by Matthew Cassel

BEIRUT, Jun 6 (IPS) – Understanding Lebanon’s complex political system is no easy task. In a relatively small country of about four million, Lebanon has more than 18 religious communities and dozens of active political parties. The sectarian political system divides the 128 seats of parliament between 10 of those religious sects, leaving one for minorities.

Much has happened in Lebanon since the small Middle East country’s last general elections in 2005. Those elections happened in the wake of the February 2005 assassination of then prime minister Rafiq Hariri by a car bomb that shook Beirut’s seaside.

Just a month prior to the 2005 elections, Lebanese politicians including Rafiq Hariri’s son and current March 14 Future Movement leader Saad Hariri led demonstrations known as the “Cedar Revolution” which eventually led to the end of a near 30-year presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon.

Continue reading “Hizballah and the Lebanese elections”