Nasiriyah local, Abbas Ali Hamza, is just 16 years old and because his father is ill and his sisters unemployed, he is the bread winner for his family of five. Up until recently he made money by selling packets of tissues on the city’s roads, roaming lines of traffic, hawking his goods to drivers on the go.
That’s why when anti-government protests began in his town, he decided to take part. He knows what it’s like to be poor, unemployed and hungry. At first he dodged bullets and inhaled tear gas like all the other young protesters in the city. But now he has found a way to make a new living in Habboubi Square, the central site where demonstrators have set up base. And he has been here since October 25, first as a protestor and now as an entrepreneur supporting the protests.
Every day, the old man buys a handful of Iraqi flags and gives themto the protesters, in order to support the young traders.
Despite the dangers in even being here, Hamza has started selling Iraqi flags and scarves and hats bearing the flag’s colours. He has settled his stock in one of the corners of the square although when things get dangerous, he takes all his goods and hides them in one of the shops adjoining the square. While in the square, he says he gets his meals free of charge as part of the donations other Iraqis are making to the protesters.
The protests have given him two things, Hamza told NIQASH – a sense of hope and a new way of supporting his family. And he is the not the only vendor who feels this way. Previously Iraqi flags were only sold on special occasions – now they are in demand continuously.
“These flags don’t cost a lot of money and I have noticed so many shops now have them all the time,” commented Maytham Jabbar, who was standing in front of Hamza’s stand with his two daughters. “Carrying an Iraqi flag is a rejection of sectarianism and a way to express your sense of belonging to the nation.”
There have been other business opportunities too. Some of the young people here have specialized in face painting and others have been taken to photography. Local printing presses have been kept busy producing posters, cartoons and printed T-shirts. That includes the large posters which memorialise the demonstrators who were killed while taking part in the protests.
The demonstrations have had the unexpected effect of allowing locals the opportunity to become more creative and enterprising, and in some cases, to make money out of that, explains Alaa al-Taei, a local economist. Besides the artworks, the young protesters have mobilized to do things like clean up the streets and renovate surrounding infrastructure, he added.
There has been a positive economic impact, he continued, pointing out that small businesses like Hamza’s have started just to cater to the demonstrators – these sell meals, cooking gas and printing supplies. On the other hand, there’s also been a negative impact on sectors that sell electrical and household appliances and real estate, al-Taei noted.
The latest statistics suggest that there are more than 150,000 unemployed people in the province and that Dhi Qar has one of the highest rates of poverty in the country.
Now, coming past Hamza’s flag stand is Yasmin, a 10-year-old girl. Her father is carrying her on his shoulders and she has an Iraqi flag drawn on her cheek. She wears a scarf in the Iraqi flag’s colours wrapped around her neck and proudly tells NIQASH that she bought the scarf herself, for IQD3,000 (around US$2.50) using pocket money she had saved.
On the other side of Hamza’s stand, is Yaqni Babi Ahmad, a local in his 60s. Every day, he says, he buys a handful of Iraqi flags and gives them free to the protesters. He says he likes to support Hamza and the other traders here.
As for Hamza, he dreams of perhaps expanding his business beyond the two meter corner he currently occupies. “I would like to sell the fireworks that people set off at night here,” he enthuses. “Also the masks that young people are using when they dance or when they put on small pieces of theatre to comment on the lack of state services and our poor situation here.”
The one thing Hamza doesn’t want to do is return to selling tissues on the street. He’s enjoying this newfound camaraderie and his entrepreneurial skills. Most of all, he is afraid that the demonstrations will end, without having achieved what he and his fellow protesters set out to do.