After several days of increasing violence, which saw arson attacks on government buildings and political party headquarters, things were much calmer in the southern province of Dhi Qar over the weekend.
Demonstrations are still taking place in the provincial capital’s Habboubi Square and, despite a curfew and road closures in Nasiriyah, an estimated 3,000 protesters are maintaining a presence there.
The square is no longer just a place to protest. It’s also a great place to meet new people. It is beautiful.
One of them is 18-year-old Mohammed – he also happens to play volleyball and he is organizing games among the demonstrators. “After protesting and calling for change, I decided to come here with my friends to practice our sport,” the young man, who didn’t want to give his full name for security reasons, told NIQASH. “Although,” he added, “the space is pretty tight and we don’t have the right facilities or nets, we want to show another side to these protests.” Mohammed and his friends have formed two teams and they will play several matches in the square. One team is made up of the more casual protesters and the other comes from a group who are holding an ongoing sit-in.
It’s not just about politics, the athlete said. It’s also about pointing out that funding for activities like sports in local schools and clubs has decreased and that these things are actually important for local culture. “We’re playing here as a way to call on the government to better support recreational activities here in Dhi Qar,” he noted.
Meanwhile other protesters were engaging in more cerebral contests. Nasser Majid, 19, told NIQASH that the young people in the square are trying to create a new space for local culture as well as make their political demands. He himself began to recite poetry in the square. Then another young man challenged him, also speaking lines from a similar poem. The contest was similar to the classic Arab tradition of battling poets in a marketplace – the contests held in Souq Ukaz in Saudi Arabia were some of the best known, Majid said. Both poets were trying their best to embellish rhymes while keeping the rhythm constant.
Majid says that through poetry he is trying to make his voice, and the voices of the other young people who are suffering in this province, heard. “Poetry has a big impact and motivates people here,” he argued. “We will continue to hold these sessions even after the demonstrations have finished. It’s going to help us improve our skills. We will create a new kind of club and we are calling it the Protest Poetry Forum.”
The young men also plan to collect the poems recited during the demonstrations with a view to eventually printing them, providing a cultural artefact of what they consider to be an important and historical event in their province.
Nearby another group of young men is playing dominoes. Nour, 20, is a university graduate – he wished to remain anonymous for security reasons too – and he expressed his happiness at meeting his three companions, all playing with him, here at the protests for the first time.
“We wanted to take a break,” he explained. “The square is no longer just a place to protest. It’s also a great place to meet new people and discuss political and social events. These are new places to exchange knowledge,” he noted.
Nour says that if the protests continue, he and his new friends plan to bring other games along, like chess. “This place is beautiful,” he says, “and this is a new and wonderful experience for me.”
At the other end of the square, a more sombre activity was taking place. Ali, 23, and several other students were lighting candles in memory of those who died in recent protests.
The group recited poems and sang sad songs. Ali told NIQASH he had lost a friend this month, a young man who’d been shot five times while at the demonstrations. The loud noises and the gunfire had not scared this friend, Ali recounted, and he had gone to the front lines of the protest.
“But he had no cover and he was shot dead, in the middle of the street,” Ali continued. “An ambulance came for him but he died on the way to hospital.”