A Couple of Hours in Baghdad
A Kurdish activist walks us through the 2019 protests in Baghdad that led to the Iraqi prime minister's resignation.
"The revolutionary spirit had been captured and was being remade and enacted here."
Lawk Ebubekir, a Kurdish activist, stands next to a tuk-tuk during the protests in Baghdad, Iraq, in November of 2019. Nasb al-Hurriyah (Monument of Freedom), a Jawad Salim sculpture that dates from 1959-1961, can be seen behind him.
The Kurdish activist Lawk Ebubekir wrote the report that follows about a trip to Baghdad he took on November 29th, 2019, with the activist group “Being Free.” Being Free traveled from Sulaimani, a city in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, to Baghdad, where widespread anti-government protests had broken out. The protests began on October 1st, 2019, when demonstrators rose up to contest a high unemployment rate, a declining quality of life, and rampant corruption within the Iraqi government. The protestors didn't want just a new leader, they wanted a completely different system of government. However, their actions did secure a pledge to resign from the Prime Minister of Iraq Adel Abdul-Mahdi. Ebubekir shared this report, written on December 4th, 2019, to tell the true story of the protests that he felt the media was hiding from the public. Ebubekir's piece is not just a first-person report of political unrest; as a Kurd, Ebubekir is writing about the possibility of revolution in an Iraq that has for decades oppressed his own people. But in the revolutionary moment he documents, the ethnic divisions between the many peoples that call Iraq home seem to melt away in favor of a new world. Ebubekir’s piece circulated widely in Kurdish media on sites such as BoPeshawa, Galawej, Ghazalnus, Nawaxt, and NRT. This report was translated from Kurdish into English by the Kurdish literary translator Savan Abdulrahman Ahmed. It has been edited for clarity by Mask Contributing Editor James Payne. Ebubekir provided the photographs for publication.
This is the first appearance of this text in English.
“Even in hard times / They don’t abandon their land . . . "
Our car enters an unfamiliar place as we pass through Kirkuk station [148 miles north of Baghdad]. The desert is plain and the sky is filled with smoke. The colors are unusual. I breathe in the road’s dirty air. From the car window, I see people from different districts; they have sad faces and tired bodies that reflect their tragic lives. The buildings I see here are destroyed or stained. The checkpoints we pass through are bizarre. They’re run by different sects: Shia, Sistani, and Sadr. Most of the time we see black flags, or an image of Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the paramilitary group the Badr Brigade, adorning the checkpoints. All of the stations we pass through have barrier walls with gun embrasures from which to shoot. Some of the checkpoints are no longer occupied. Broken tanks and hammered cars lay upside down everywhere. The officers who remain at the checkpoints clearly belong to some other army. One officer coldly says to us: “Pass.” They make no eye contact. Some of the checkpoints have been turned into mini shops, or serve as alleys where the officers’ kids play. The two sides of the street no longer require signals to regulate traffic, thanks to the debris on the ground that makes for a tough, slow drive. There’s so much trash, I’m convinced the bottles, bags, and detritus of the entire world are here. The refuse makes the road unsuitable even for animals to walk on. The street we’re driving on slowly turns into a road without a passing lane. Our driver overtakes the truck in front of him while another truck comes straight toward us, then our driver makes a last-second lurch back into his lane. This happens to us dozens of times. I complain to the driver that he’s being reckless. He points to a big hole in the pavement and says, “That dates back to 2003. It belongs to the American bombs.”
Date Trees Line the Street, I Gaze Sadly at Them
Through the dust and haze, I see a wide checkpoint. On the other side is Baghdad. My heart beats faster with each obstacle I face. I imagine things will get better from here, that they’ll be more organized and operate more honorably. We open the car windows for an officer. His bad smell is shocking. Only one of his uniform’s shoulders retains its star. His wrinkled shirt is half-tucked into his trousers. His gun leans against the wall behind him. He has tanks too. He looks at our IDs, gazes at our faces, and lets us pass.
Two protestors lean on a tuk-tuk, a small taxi vehicle that became a symbol of the protests. The tuk-tuk’s sign reads: The Courageous Tuk-Tuk. Abbas is the Driver. Help Us Please.
This is Baghdad; the Capital of Arabian Nights
Baghdad, the capital, is a tired city filled with bottles and ruined boxes. Paper flies in its sky instead of birds and trash covers its streets. There are no trash cans. But at the entrance to the city, things look normal. There are checkpoint police. Life has kept going. There are few cars and few buildings without flags—which are clean unlike everything else. Occasionally, my eyes set on a building, a road, or something else sticking out in the ruins and I’d point and say, “There you go! There is something beautiful!” And they would tell me with a bitter smile, “It belongs to Saddam’s era.”
An army barrier to stop protestors. Protestors painted it like the Iraqi flag and wrote across it: We Are the Future Generation.
Someone Once Said “Baghdad is Garbage”
There are more and more tuk-tuks as we go deeper into the city. The riders hoot and pass us in a rush. An army wall appears, colored the same as the flag. We Are the Future Generation is written across it. I’m shocked as I pass through the entrance to the city’s center. An old comrade in our group shouts to all of us: “We are visitors. We need to be ready in case they oppose us, and then we need to stay calm.” I walk carefully and wonder why he’d say such a thing. Tents line both sides of the street. There are civil society tents, artist tents, unemployed unionist tents, discussion tents, emergency ambulance tents, tents representing other cities, tents for protestors to rest in, and a hundred more tents, each representing a different group or purpose.
One of the hundreds of the protestors’ pop-up tents. This tent provides a place to rest and books to read. Its sign says: Rest Time.
In a rest tent for protestors, a couple of young Iraqi men and women sat reading books. It was clear they spent their rest time with poetry. They pointed to the Kurdish Jamana around my neck and whispered between themselves. [A Kurdish Jamana is a traditional scarf men tie around their head or waist. The color of my Jamana belongs to the Kurds in Rojava. The Kurdish fighters in the People’s Protection Units (YPG) wear them.] I thought my comrade’s advice might be true and we’d be sent back before we even arrived. Some of the protestors came toward me, touched my Jamana, and asked me in Arabic, “From Northern Syria?” I replied, “Yes, Rojava.” He kissed my Jamana and said with a sweet smile and accent, “Rujava.” Then they showed me the Salim Barakat’s books they were reading and we took photos together with their camera. Only then did I take a deep breath, telling myself to remember “They’re not enemies of yours.” We kept walking and the further we went, the less I could believe it: the tents were never-ending. The protestors welcomed us with delight while knowing from where we came. They put their hands over their heads for us in excitement.
The demonstrators in these tents were normal, everyday people. The camp was organized and civil. The protestors had books in front of them and colorful walls behind them, on which young women had drawn graffiti and were still drawing more. We finally reached the crowd and saw the wall covered in Jawad Salim’s artwork. We had made it to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. [“Tahrir” means “Liberation.”]
One of the walls protestors painted murals on. The woman has an Iraqi flag on her cheek and carries a sign that says: We Will Win.
In the Heart of the Freest Place in the World
A handsome young man’s portrait is hung on a wall. The Martyrs Are Our Pride, Depending on Your Blood, We Will Succeed! is written across the same wall. He was the first martyr. Then follows an agora of portraits and documents commemorating other martyrs. A huge tent is dedicated for the materials these martyrs have left behind: hats, Jamanas, T-shirts, trousers, flags—even the bullets from their chests—and all of these remembrances are covered in blood. In a corner where one of the young men was martyred, four tall metal rods called “prods” are stuck in the ground. Red ribbon surrounds them. His blood still covers the earth. In one of the pictures of him, he looks on with an elegant smile.
Young people surround us in public, but their elders rarely do. Each of them welcomes us in their own way:
“You are our crown!"
“Kurdistan is with us!”
Kurdistan! Most of us only say we come from “the region.” I was happy and surprised to hear them call it “Kurdistan.” They made us write down Kurdish slogans and translate them into Arabic so we could shout them together. We sat and talked. We drank Arabic coffee, and they tasted a Sulaimani sweet called gazo. I wanted to take a photo with one of them, so I stepped forward and said, “Your Jamana is Arabic and mine is Kurdish.” He replied with a smile, “We’re both human.” This relieved my doubts and I thought about how they’re not the foxes waiting in ambush for us as we used to think. They’ve declared their fight is for the living, they’re not standing against a specific nation. The new minority in Iraq are the chauvinists. From our discussions I understood how our own politicians in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq are most concerned with their own contracts and pensions. They use the illusion of nationalist chauvinism to sow discord between Arab Iraqis and us Kurdish citizens just to secure their own positions.
While I gazed at Jawad Salim’s art, some strong, but wounded young people came toward us carrying shields and emergency materials. They are “Tahrir’s Shields.” They greeted us and shook our hands even though they were exhausted. But where did they come from? I realized they came from "The Turkish Restaurant." This time, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square was not the main location for the revolutionaries in the protests. Now the revolutionaries had chosen The Turkish Restaurant as their headquarters. The Turkish Restaurant building is the tallest structure around; it sits high in the clouds and in the slogans of the revolutionaries. Protestors control the building and have named the rooms inside of it after the martyred. The protestors gather in the building to discuss and reevaluate themselves, their actions, and their situation. They receive news from the ground, and then we hear it in their loud slogans from the top. This shows the movement has a tough, grounded self-governance!
A mass of protestors amid the encampments on Baghadad’s Tahrir Square.
Tents Are Regions, Elders Are Leaders, Youth Are Protectors: This is Tahrir’s Self-Governance
While walking through this scene with a puzzled smile, I suddenly came upon a burned-out tuk-tuk in the middle of the street. The tuk-tuk’s young driver sat next to it on the ground. I could see that his body and half of his face was burned. On his tuk-tuk was written: This is Abbas’s Tuk-Tuk, the One Who Transferred the Wounded and the Martyred Bodies at the Beginning of the Revolution. He Needs Help. In front of him some money sat in a pot.
This protest’s participants and their form of solidarity seemed new and different. In the tents one could find beautiful, elegant young people watching over their wounded friends. Some of them cooked, some transferred materials for the basic needs of others, some rested, and some engaged in other activities. The manner of the protestors’ self-governance was uncanny. Even though I saw posters of Che Guevara, Rosa Luxemburg, and Karl Marx every few feet I walked through the tents, this protest did not remind me of their times. This was now. However, I could feel the influence of those figures and their revolutionary traditions. The revolutionary spirit had been captured and was being remade and enacted here. Images of these famous revolutionary figures and their most famous quotes could be seen on not one tent, tuk-tuk, or wall, but on many thousand tents, tuk-tuks, and walls. As it has been said, “Revolutions are the duplication of history.”
Two tuk-tuks—small taxis which became a symbol of the protests—on a crowded street as Che Guevara looks on.
Wherever There’s Revolution, the Specter of Past Revolutionaries Exists
Revolution has broken out in four places: Liberation Street, Jumhuriya Bridge, Ahrar Bridge, and Al-Sink Bridge. Protestors control Tahrir Square and the entrance to Jumhuriya, which links them to the Green Zone. The heavy fighting is happening at Ahrar Bridge and Al-Sink Bridge. As the protestors say, “The government’s abandoned Tahrir Square for good.” The government knows they can no longer control Tahrir Square without having to resort to murdering the demonstrators.
After breaking through each controlled district, protestors built their own checkpoints. Two young people stop us at one checkpoint just to show us we are entering an organized district. But we couldn’t have been more confident in our safety. They cleaned up the end of Jumhuriya Bridge, which had yesterday’s trash on it from the revolution. There was a small room constructed out of plastic—they said it’s like a “surgery room” for emergency first aid. If we’d went a bit further, we would have seen the government forces. The protestors said they were not sure whether the government forces were army officers, or the Shi’ite paramilitary group Hashid, or another militia. The protestors can’t hope to make out which faction these forces are actually from—some of the officers don’t even wear formal uniforms. There was concern that they might be from Iran, or that each group of officers had been sent by a different party leader—an all-hands-on-deck situation needed to prevent protestors from reaching the Green Zone and the Iranian consulate.
Life here seems like it’s in less danger. But the lives of the young people on the Jumhuriya Bridge and the Tigris River are still in danger. A tent there is dedicated to selling improvisational equipment for urgent, ad hoc fighting, like halmat, darlastik, taqamani, and talqatanwra [marbles, slingshots, and fireworks]. And the price is cheap. A group of youths stand in front of one of the private banks, which has had its lock broken, yet the inside of the bank is not touched. They yell slogans to mock the officers in the building. And what do the officers do in response? Shoot at them or spray pepper gas. One young man, as he was doing his mocking stand-up comedy routine at the officers, warmly welcomed us and told us about the pepper gas they had fired at him, which had missed. He brought the errant canister out of his pocket and put the pepper gas on his palms: it was much spicier than a pepper! We were shocked. He smiled and sniffed it like a drug: “We are used to it!” I was recording him when his eyes met the camera and looked at me like I shouldn’t be recording. I apologized. He held my arm with a heavy smile and pointed high up on the hill to the government’s armies and flags: “No, that’s not what I meant. I cross them every day at those heights. I meant record me there. It’s a shame for me to be recorded down here instead.”
An Arab Iraqi protestor (left) joins hands with a Kurdish activist from Ebubekir’s “Being Free” group (right) in Tahrir Square.
I didn’t want to go back home to Kurdistan because I felt like I should be there in Baghdad during that revolutionary moment. But I had to return home. I left on the same path I had used to enter the capital, dreaming of a revolutionary life. I saw everything I have described here once more, plus a new slogan scrawled across a young man’s tuk-tuk:
I Remain as Mathematics; the One Who Doesn’t Understand Me, Doesn’t Love Me.
—Lawk Ebubekir, as translated by Savan Abdalrahman Ahmed and edited by James Payne