Reportage / 6 February 2020

“You have to walk in the path of life and in the path of death at the same time. I walked both paths and I survived”

On the recent uprising in Iraq

Even our bodies became used to it, our body structures changed in the protests, they can now handle tear gas and smoke, we can now breathe in the smoke, it became something normal our bodies could deal with and carry on standing and progressing towards the upper floors of the building.” Abbas said, describing the day protesters took control of a tall abandoned building commonly called the “Turkish Restaurant” facing Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the prominent site of the Iraqi uprising. Protesters renamed the building “Uhud Mountain” in reference to the prophetic battle of Uhud between the early Muslims and their Qurayshi Meccan enemies and turned it into their rear base. Since the very first civil society protests in Iraq in 2009, Iraqi security forces’ snipers shot at protesters from the upper floors of this building. Taking it thus carries strong meaning as winning a battle in a long war against the Iraqi political establishment. 

Turkish Restaurant/Uhud Mountain, facing Tahrir Square central Baghdad

Tahrir square is now occupied by protesters, freed from state control. Young demonstrators established a miniature ideal society under hundreds of tents in and around the square including three major bridges of the capital, facing the barricaded Green Zone, where the Iraqi government resides. I met Abbas at the end of December while I was conducting fieldwork in Baghdad’s Tahrir square, interviewing the youth who are launching the most inclusive revolutionary movement the country ever experienced. 

Abbas was born in a small and empoverished village in Wasit, south-east Iraq, where he spent his childhood until he left on his own for Baghdad wishing for a better future. At the age of 13 years old he arrived alone in a burning capital amid the sectarian war, found a daily-paid job carrying goods on his back and pushing a wooden cart in the big Shorjah market. “I left for Baghdad because of the poverty of the place I am from and the traditions and customs that dominate everything. I wanted a radical change in my life so I left for Baghdad.” For several years, Abbas was one of the child workers navigating the city, carrying goods and pushing carts, witnessing explosions and armed violence on a daily basis. He described these years in Baghdad: “I came all the way from where I am from with nothing and I needed money to live for me and my family to secure a better life for them, a life of dignity. You have to walk on the path of life and on the path of death at the same time. I walked both paths and I survived.” Iraqis have been through decades of wars, starting with the eight years of bloody war with Iran in the 1980s, followed by the destructive 1991 Gulf war, the US invasion and occupation in 2003 that Abbas witnessed as a child, the sectarian war in 2006-2007 and the invasion of IS and the war against IS. The consequences of these cycles of armed violence and militarisation are incommensurable. Iraqi bodies, psyche and collective memories are shaped by these traumatic experiences.

Abbas sitting in front of a tent, the sign above his head says in a rhyme “Tent of Wasit province, the door of the tent is open, you can take whatever you like and go”

After five years of working daily jobs, he found employment in the tourist sector that led him to live in Turkey for a few years. The years he spent there changed him radically as he experienced a different place with functioning state infrastructures and services, away from war, daily explosions and armed violence — a life he had been deprived of: “There hasn’t been a time when we could forget about the past traumas and move on to a better life. It’s worse after worse after worse, no progress, no positive evolution from the former regime to this one. It’s like all the regimes repress and kill us not matter who they are. We just want to live a life in dignity. Living in Turkey was a life-changing experience, it changed my personality, my mentality, myself. I feel that I should have known this different life before. This new personality, I got it too late, I should have known about all that way before, I was deprived of that during the beginnings of my life.”

After coming back to Baghdad in his early twenties working for a private company, he became involved in the initiatives organised by civil society activists and participated in the 2015 protest movement. Abbas insists on building a society based on al-madaniyya that means for him based on equality, freedom and freed from war and militia violence. Abbas dreams of a country with strong infrastructures that provide essential services such as water and electricity, healthcare, affordable housing, good education, job opportunities and a government that does not kill its own people. He is against all the parties in power, for him the whole political elite is self-serving, corrupt, sectarian, violent and does not care about the ordinary citizens. 

Abbas joined the October uprising from day one. The remarkable scale of millions of Iraqis rising up in largely peaceful protest across the country has been matched by remarkably violent repression, government and paramilitary groups using live ammunition, machine guns, stun grenades, anti-riot tanks and military-grade tear gas. Many protesters have been threatened, intimidated, arrested, beaten up, kidnapped and even assassinated by security forces and the militias associated with the Iraqi political establishment. Abbas carried the bodies of his friends who were shot at, some killed in a gruesome death with a tear gas canister perforating their heads and flesh, others severely injured. He talks about the uprising as a revolutionary battle for which he is willing to injure his whole body, give up his own life, carrying the Iraqi flag as his only weapon.

Despite the bloody repression, protesters like Abbas have remained committed to non-violent civil disobedience. The protests are led by the youth and the disenfranchised, including many women — aided by the tuk-tuk taxi drivers from lower-class neighbourhoods — but its ranks have also been joined by Iraqis from all backgrounds and regions across the country. Unions, syndicates and students of all levels have been on strike and many are calling for civil disobedience. The unprecedented size and socio-economic diversity of the uprising is remarkable. The protesters proclaim Iraq’s unity and sovereignty, and are calling for a functioning, transparent and democratically-elected government with strong state institutions that deliver services equally to all citizens. Through their main slogan, “We want a country,” protesters are denouncing political corruption, sectarianism and nepotism, as well as the rule of militias and armed groups tied to the political elite that have been attacking journalists, civil society activists and protesters. 

The uprising also challenges dominant conservative societal norms and through collective action and organising, it is developing new codes of conduct and a new sense of belonging and inclusive community-building. They are not only demanding, but actually making a country providing free food, free medical care, various education and cultural services. The protesters are, in effect, establishing new state forms by organising public services such as street cleaning and re-painting, as well as the restoration of public monuments and the beautification of public spaces through original art and design. 

Abbas has now been living under the tents since over three months, losing his job and salary for the sake of the revolution. He talks about the ideal society he is building in Tahrir square where he found all that he had been wishing for: “Leaving my job is not a big challenge for me, I have seen corruption, I have experienced poverty. And I am here for a bigger goal, not for a job and losing my job is worth the bigger goal that I am fighting for here. I am here for a watan (country), the revolution will give me a watan (country). Everything is provided for us here, people with money donate to us, even bosses of companies. People give us clothes, food, cigarettes, everything we need to live here in Tahrir. People are cooking all the time, you see many kitchens under the tents. We obtained things and a life-style in Tahrir that we didn’t have in our life before the revolution. Before, we had no money, it was expensive to buy clothes, to circulate from an area to another. Here, we have access to everything, like clothes, food, cigarettes, anything you need, we can go anywhere in the square freely.” 

Tahrir square and similar squares all over the country are developing original ways to express an inclusive sense of belonging and proposing creative modes of sociability that transgress social and political hierarchies. Protesters like Abbas refuse any form of recuperation and, as a result, refuse to designate a leadership. Tahrir square is organised in the shape of direct democracy, wherein any decision is made by consulting all the tents in the square, and then made public by hanging the agreed initiative or statement on the walls of the “Uhud Mountain” and posting it on social media.

However, the uprising is still facing violence from the Iraqi establishment. Abbas just spent his 24th birthday in a hospital after receiving a bullet in his neck during a peaceful protest on Muhammad al-Qasim highway road that was repressed by the Iraqi security forces. That same day of January 20th, several unarmed peaceful activists were shot dead, joining the macabre list of over 650, mostly very young and male Iraqis, who have been killed since the beginning of the uprising that started in Iraq last October. Abbas is one of the 25 000 unarmed protesters who have been injured since the beginning of the uprising that started on October 1 — over half of them are left wounded for life. From his hospital room, where he has been lying for ten days unable to speak, he sent a message to the thousands of people who inquired about him through a picture of him making the peace sign.


Zahra Ali

Zahra Ali is a sociologist and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, her research explores dynamics of women and gender, social and political movements in relation to Islam(s) and the Middle East and contexts of war and conflicts with a focus on contemporary Iraq. Her book Women and Gender in Iraq: between Nation-building and Fragmentation, published by Cambridge University Press in 2018, is a sociology of Iraqi women’s social, political activism and feminisms based on an in-depth ethnography of Iraqi women’s rights organisations and a history of Iraqi women’s social, economic and political experiences since the formation of the Iraqi state. You can follow her @ZahraSociology