A barber shop at work in Tahrir Square. (photo: Murtadha Sudani / Anadolu / Getty)
It feels strange entering Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square in the state it is currently in. For around ten days now, Iraqis have been flocking to this area, with its iconic monument created by the sculptor, Jawad Saleem, in the 1960s. In about a five kilometre radius around the sculpture and the square, thousands of Iraqis are living out what feels like a dream of freedom.
There’s muffled chaos on the two streets around the square. There are boxes of bottled water piled up, fruit and soft drinks. Women cook using large pots and others make huge quantities of bread. All of the food is being given to the demonstrators free of charge and it’s also offered to casual visitors.
There’s a man reading the Koran out and right next to him, wearing a cross on a chain around his neck, another reading the Bible.
According to one of the women working on a food stand, the food is brought to the square by anonymous donors. The donors are businesspeople and shop keepers, otherwise ordinary citizens, who cannot join the demonstrations because they are working - but who passionately want to support the protesters. Every morning, cars and vans arrive with the donated food, she told NIQASH.
In between the boxes of water and food and cooking pots, are mattresses and blankets that the protesters rest on. Hundreds have refused to leave the square for days. “It is now our land,” a 19 year old local, Maher Jassem, told NIQASH. “If we withdraw, we may lose it forever. So we will not leave until we have realized our dreams of change.”
In fact, some of the protesters are fighting to defend “their” territory. At the end of Tahrir Square is a long traffic bridge, Jumhuriya bridge, that links the plaza with the high security Green Zone. The latter is where various foreign embassies and Iraqi government ministries are located, as well as the residences of high-ranking Iraqi officials. There’s been a battle going on here for days. Dozens of protesters keep trying to cross the bridge but at the other end, around 80 meters away, are security forces, behind concrete blast walls. They fire teargas cannisters into the approaching demonstrators to prevent them from getting too close.
As the to-and-fro goes on, some of the protesters have been hurt and some have been shot in the head with the dangerous tear gas cannisters. When one of them falls, they are swiftly carried away to small make-shift clinics in the middle of Tahrir Square.
These are made of tents containing camp beds. Here you might see young women wearing white coats, some of them stained with blood. They run into the tents to help three young men who have just arrived suffering shortness of breath due to the tear gas that is continuously being fired.
“We want to cross the bridge because those who oppress us are on the other side,” one of the young protesters, Laith al-Taie, explained, as he was being treated for the effects of tear gas. “If we can’t cross it then we will protect the square [by blocking the bridge], so that it remains a safe place for protesters. We know that if we withdraw from the bridge, the security forces might advance into the square.”
To the right side of the bridge is a long abandoned 14 storey building nicknamed the “Turkish restaurant” because at one stage it had a large eatery on the top floor. This building has become a symbol of resistance for the protesters, many of whom are now sleeping inside, and keeping an eye on what security forces are doing below.
In the centre of the square, you start to really hear the protesters, many of whom are singing or chanting. Some have said that these demonstrations are similar to earlier ones that took place in this same square. But they are not. This is a different generation, one raised with social media, online gaming and digital windows to the rest of the world. They are a newly fearless generation, while the Iraqi authorities seem old-fashioned and inept, unable to make the changes required.
For any Iraqi, who has grown up through various conflicts - sectarian, political, economic - the scene here is stunning. You start to feel as though all of these thousands of people here are somehow united, despite their different backgrounds and the different things they are doing for the demonstration.
Please Mr. Prime Minister, promise not to respond to our demands, we are happy in this place.
In one part of the square, you can hear nationalistic anthems. In another, you listen to religious songs. There’s a man reading the Koran out in a loud voice and right next to him, wearing a cross on a chain around his neck, another reading the Bible. Still further on, you hear pop music, both Arabic and western.
There are no cars at all in the square. The only transportation here is provided by the tuk-tuk three wheelers. These are usually used by less wealthy Iraqis because the price of travel is far cheaper than in a taxi. The tuk-tuks are mostly driven by drivers under the age of 18 and they’ve become one of the icons of these demonstrations. The drivers volunteer to carry injured people away, taking them to either a camp hospital or to a general hospital nearby. They also bring protesters to the square.
The walls around Tahrir Square have become large works of art. Dozens of young Iraqis have drawn and painted their messages about freedom and a good life on the walls. This includes graffiti about the strength of Iraqi women and their roles in local culture. On the ground, are what may best be described as small, informal libraries with hundreds of books. The literature is not being sold here though – it’s loaned to anyone who wants to read.
Some of the inhabitants here have even published their own small four-page newspaper. They have called the leaflet, Tuk Tuk, after the three-wheelers, and the pages hold sobering details about what the protesters want to see happening in the future.
Everyone who is here seems to feel like Tahrir Square has become something outside of real life in Baghdad. Nobody wants to leave this utopian wonderland they feel they have created for themselves. A young man walks around carrying a sign that says: Please Mr. Prime Minister, promise not to respond to our demands, we are happy in this place.
“Anyone who doesn’t visit this place [Tahrir Square] has wasted their life”, is a popular slogan being circulated by the protesters in real life and online.
On Monday, this week the head of the army in Baghdad wanted to take that advice. He came to visit the square, saying he wanted only to protect the protesters and he wouldn’t go any further until he had received permission from the demonstrators. The military man then took some pictures with the protesters, and immediately left again.