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)

Shatila refugees on Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinians in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp talk to Al Jazeera about the Palestinian Authority president’s visit:

(Matthew Cassel)

“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.”

Palestinian refugees’ fight for freedom

The body of a Palestinian refugee from the Ein al-Helwe refugee camp, is carried uphill after he was killed by an Israeli soldier from across the border fence. (Image: Matthew Cassel)

Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon risked their lives protesting at the border with Israel in south Lebanon on Sunday, ten were killed and hundreds were injured. They were calling for the right to returns that they were forced to flee 63 years ago. Sadly, this is one of the only English language articles you’ll read about it by someone who was there:

Palestinians in Lebanon, at the lonely end of the Arab uprisings
Matthew Cassel, Guardian’s Comment is Free

Climbing up the mountain to reach the Palestinian right-of-return protest in Maroun al-Ras in south Lebanon on Sunday felt a bit like being back in Tahrir Square.

The thousands of mostly Palestinian refugees were smiling as they joked about the strenuous climb, and helped each other up the mountain to reach the site where they were going to stage their demonstration. Some knew it could even be dangerous, but that didn’t matter as much as the rare opportunity to join together and call for their rights.

The small elevated Lebanese village just overlooking the border with Israel became a massive parking lot as buses carrying Palestinian refugees and Lebanese from across Lebanon converged for a protest commemorating what Israeli historian Ilan Pappé calls the “ethnic cleansing” by Zionist militias of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their lands and homes in 1948 – what Palestinians refer to as the “Nakba”, or catastrophe. [continued on the Guardian’s site]


Here is a gallery of my images from the protest that day:

Refugees march to return – 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 (

A Sudanese refugee’s hunger strike in Beirut

It’s about time. Thanks to the courage and steadfastness of one 53-year-old Sudanese refugee, the issue of foreign workers in Lebanon is starting to make headlines.

Dr. Abdel Meneem Ibrahim has been on hunger strike for 12 days now to protest the arbitrary detention of at least 17 Sudanese men who, despite completing their sentences, remain behind bars. (Foreign workers have few rights in Lebanon and are subject to often subject to exploitation and abuse, for more on this see my project Unseen Lives.)

Not only has Dr. Ibrahim’s (or simply “Dr.” as some of his supporters call him) protest brought out local and foreign media, but young Lebanese activists have also waged an energetic campaign in solidarity with the hunger striker. Activists have spent day and night at the Dr.’s side to show their support and prevent authorities from taking action to forcefully end the protest.

Tomorrow, 7 October, activists are calling for a “Demonstration against racism and arbitrary detention in Lebanon!” outside the Ministry of Interior.

For a more comprehensive report on the Dr.’s protest read Meris Lutz’s article in the Los Angeles Times.

I took the below images over the past few days of the Dr.’s protest outside the Sudanese Cultural Club in Beirut’s Hamra district. I’ll be updating this post with more images after the protest tomorrow.

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Images from the protest outside the Ministry of Interior in Beirut on 7 October:

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Lebanese Interior Minisiter Ziad Baroud met protesters in the steet (image: matthew cassel)

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Protection by any means necessary

A version of this article was originally published in the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

(image: matthew cassel)

This month, Palestinians in Lebanon commemorated the 28th anniversary of a crime whose perpetrators remain unpunished and whose victims still wait for justice. In September 1982, the Israeli army surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. For nearly three days, Israeli forces allowed their allies in the right-wing Lebanese Christian Phalange militia to enter the camps and massacre more than a thousand Palestinian refugees and Lebanese citizens. All of the victims — men, women and children — were unarmed civilians.

The massacre was the culmination of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and more than two months of siege of West Beirut which eventually forced the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to withdraw from the country. PLO fighters relinquished their heavy weapons to the Lebanese army and in a symbolic act of resistance, left Beirut with their small arms still at their sides. However, the majority of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, exiled since 1948 when Israel was established on top of their homes, remained behind. Dispersed throughout the country’s dozen or so refugee camps, Palestinians were left virtually unprotected.

The PLO withdrew from Beirut only after agreeing to a US-mediated ceasefire with Israel. They were given reassurances by Washington that Israel would not harm Palestinian civilians remaining in the camps. However, these reassurances proved to be shallow, and after waging an invasion of Lebanon that killed nearly 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians and devastated much of the country, Israel invaded and occupied the practically defenseless Lebanese capital.

Prior to this somber anniversary, a writer argued in the Guardian’s Comment is Free site that Palestinian weapons were the key issue preventing Palestinian refugees from obtaining basic civil rights in Lebanon, which the state has denied them for 62 years. He described the camps as “heavily armed” and the refugees living there as gripped by an “illusion of martial security.”

As someone who has lived in Lebanon for several years, I was struck by these assertions. Anyone familiar with Lebanese politics recognizes them as the typical refrain of the right-wing, whose adherents object not only to providing Palestinian refugees with basic rights but their very presence on Lebanese soil. Nor do these characterizations come close to accurately describing the camps or the Palestinians in Lebanon I know. The camps today are far from being heavily armed, especially when compared to the various Lebanese militias or the Lebanese army.

I thought I would visit the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, which today are essentially one camp resembling a slum, and speak with Palestinian refugees about the issue of trading in their weapons for rights.

Inside a small call center in the camp, frequented by mostly Palestinians without credit on their mobile phones and foreign workers calling home, I spoke to a young man named Osama. He told me: “The issue of our arms and our civil rights are unrelated. Lebanese should give us rights as Arabs, as human beings living among them like Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Syria.”

“Our weapons don’t necessarily make me feel safer,” he added, “especially with the internal problems that we have in the camps here like in Palestine. But if we were to give them up, we’d have no protection. At least with our weapons if we die, we die standing and not like in Sabra and Shatila when we were massacred without even one weapon to resist. If the Lebanese army was able to protect us from Israel, then there would be no need for Palestinians to have weapons.”

At the headquarters of the Najdeh Association just outside the camp, I spoke with executive director Laila al-Ali. Founded in the 1970s, Najdeh is an nongovernmental organization that runs social programs in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps and is the leading organization behind the “Right to Work Campaign” for Palestinian refugees. Al-Ali, a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Shatila, explained, “It’s not the Lebanese who are looking for assurances or guarantees from the Palestinians, it’s the Palestinians who need this guarantee from the Lebanese. Palestinians don’t feel safe.”

Al-Ali said that only a few groups and individuals have weapons in the camps. She added that the argument claiming these small arms are a prerequisite to granting Palestinians rights is merely “Lebanese [rhetoric] trying to deny Palestinians their human and civil rights.”

I asked her about a recent law passed by the Lebanese parliament that made minor changes to the restrictions on the ability of Palestinian refugees to work in the country. Al-Ali stated bluntly: “It gives them nothing. The Lebanese mentality needs to be changed, they cannot continue dealing with Palestinians from the security perspective [alone].”

Back in Shatila, others shared her sentiments. I walked into a barbershop owned by Ahmed, who explained while snipping away at a man’s hair that “We keep weapons for protection. Even between the Lebanese there is no stability. Today they are together and tomorrow they’re not. In the past we only had our weapons to protect ourselves. Like during the [1985-88] war of the camps, our weapons protected us from the [Lebanese Shia] Amal movement.”

I turned to a young man named Omar who was finishing a deep pore cleansing. Bearing a pistol on his hip, Omar is a member of one of the camp’s security branches. “The weapons are not the reason for denying us rights, this is a pretext for the Lebanese to take our weapons,” he said. “If we lose our weapons, we lose the right to go back to Palestine. I carry my weapon because it’s not worth throwing away. The weapons are the peoples’ property.”

Unprompted, a taxi driver named Mahmoud with a freshly trimmed mustache jumped in. “Once we lose the weapons we’ll be slapped from all directions,” he said. “I will never accept to give up our weapons. The Lebanese will never be able to protect our cause. It’s not their cause, and nobody can protect it but ourselves.”

After speaking with dozens of individuals in the camp, all of whom refused to give up their right to bear arms, I asked a friend to take me to someone in the camp who he thought would disagree. He brought me to his 66-year-old grandmother, Miyasar, a refugee who has been forced to flee her home at least five times since 1948 and now lives in Shatila.

Before I could even finish asking her the first question about trading rights for arms, Miyasar closed her eyes, shook her head and said: “The Lebanese cannot give us rights, they can’t even give themselves rights. Each group is by itself with its own weapons — Hizballah has guns, Amal has guns, the Future [movement] has guns. The Lebanese are the ones who need help, not the Palestinians.”

She added, “When the Israelis came they said, give up our guns. We did and look what happened! Even a donkey that falls in one spot learns not to fall in that same spot again. We have no faith in Lebanese to give us rights. We will keep our weapons until we go back to Palestine.”

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:

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