“We did not dream more than a life looks like life,” young Iraqi demonstrator Anas Haider, 19 years old, said, quoting the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as part of the reason that had led him to the current protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.
Conflict of interests as a young protester spends the night with his father the police officer
“We want to feel that we are alive – enough is enough,” he said, adding that he was the breadwinner for his mother and two sisters, his father having been killed in the sectarian war (2006-2008) that took place in Iraq when he was eight years old.
His uncle supported him to finish primary school. “We are a poor family. I mean, even my uncles are poor,” Haider said, adding that though he had had to leave school early to work on a tea cart and support his family, he had still continued to read, including the works of Darwish, his favourite poet.
Haider had brought his tea cart to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square from the Al-Hassan informal housing area in the Iraqi capital’s northeast, one of the poorest areas of the poverty belt that surrounds Baghdad.
“We know the government and the political blocs are betting that we will remain silent while the poor stay poor and corruption devours even our dreams,” Haider said, adding that he was going to prepare tea for the demonstrators and those who had been living in the square since 25 October.
“I have been serving tea for hundreds every day, and there are dozens of others also serving tea, food and fruit free of charge,” he said.
Mohamed, 31 years old, who has a MA in modern history and is a lecturer in a private university, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “tens of thousands of people in Baghdad and thousands in the other provinces have been on the streets since 25 October, protesting under the two slogans of “we want the homeland” and “I want my rights.”
He added that “we feel that corruption and foreign agendas have stolen Iraq and our right to live a life with dignity.”
Yunis, 20 years old and a student, lost his father who was a policeman, in 2010, and two brothers in the war against the Islamic State (IS) group, in 2016.
He said that he had spoken to a police officer on the Al-Jumhuriyah Bridge, one of the three bridges blocked to prevent demonstrators crossing to the other side and the government Green Zone area, telling him that he had lost three family members as martyrs.
The officer had told him that he too had had three family members killed, among them his young son. Yunis did not know the officer’s name, but they became friends. When tear-gas bombs were thrown, Yunis heard the officer’s voice asking him if he was alright.
Tuk-tuk drivers have become the icons of Tahrir Square, and they are ready to rescue wounded demonstrators, carrying them to waiting ambulances. All of them are volunteers, among them Abdullah Walid, 14, who lost his father in a terrorist attack.
As he was the eldest son of the family, his mother managed to buy a tuk-tuk for him to work in the nearby market. He had not told his mother that he had volunteered to rescue demonstrators in Tahrir. He was very active and always smiling, rescuing 30 wounded demonstrators before being killed himself in a tear-gas attack.
Iraqi women are very active in the square, volunteering as doctors, nurses, cooks, bread-makers and thousands participating in the protests.
Raya, 50 years old and an activist, has many tasks, including distributing masks to protect the demonstrators, giving awareness sessions to the young demonstrators, and bringing together activists from the middle classes, used to speaking foreign languages and hearing Western music, and young protesters from the poorest slums who have not finished their schooling and are more familiar with the latmiyat, poems mourning the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein.
“There are now no social differences among them: the activists have begun listening to the latmiyat, and the poor protesters have begun listening to pop songs. These demonstrations have made the square one family,” she said.
Raya, a non-violence trainer, said that “I am sure those who are attacking the security forces and the public institutions are not the real demonstrators. They are trying to utilise the demonstrations for their own agendas.”
Raya was an eyewitness when a policeman saw his son among the protesters and their photograph while hugging each other swept Facebook pages. “The policeman was astonished and asked his son why he was protesting. The son answered, ‘for Iraq and my Iraqi brothers.’ The son spent the night with his father on the Bridge,” she said.
Um Ali, whose son Ali was among the 245 martyrs of the demonstrations, had herself become one of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. She had a banner that read “Ali, your mother is in Tahrir Square instead of you.” There are dozens of the mothers of martyrs in Tahrir Square.
All Iraqis from different ethnic, religious and other backgrounds have joined the demonstrations, demanding a real future for their country and their rights. Those who wrote the banners are the new Iraqi generations who have created hope and forced the government to listen to them.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.