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Hometown Heroes:
The Unexpected Icons Of Iraq’s Demonstrations

Ibrahim Saleh
Residents of a supposedly criminal neighbourhood, a beggar and humble tuk-tuk drivers are being feted by Iraqis for their unexpected role in anti-government protests.
17.10.2019  |  Baghdad

Thousands of young Iraqi men took part in anti-government protests over the past few weeks. But just a handful of Iraqis have gained lasting notoriety because of them.   

The tissue seller


A woman selling tissues in Baghdad’s Bab al-Sharqi area, a commercial centre in the city, was caught on camera frantically passing out her wares to protesters for free, so they could wipe their eyes when security forces fired tear gas at them. She seemed genuinely concerned about their welfare. The video can be seen here.

The short film, posted online by protesters, was a hit on social media, and the woman, whose name is Dunia, became something of an icon of the demonstrations. Just a few hours later, local artist Saad al-Tayeb, drew a picture of Dunia, depicting her as a statue surrounded by a sea of demonstrators. Instead of tissues though, she was distributing white doves.

Many of the young protestors then made this picture their Facebook page identity. But many locals also expressed guilt about how they used to think of Dunia – many had thought she was handicapped, just another annoying beggar in Baghdad. There was an online discussion about how the tissue seller had shown more humanity and grace than many other residents of the city, having given away her tissues without thinking of the personal financial loss that would entail.  

The tuk-tuk drivers


For many residents of Baghdad, the small three wheelers that work the streets of Baghdad, particularly in the lower-income neighbourhood of Sadr City, are a nuisance. Delivering people or goods short distances, they crowd the streets and are thought of as a bit of a noisy nuisance. The young men who usually drive the tuk-tuks – known as “satuta” in Iraq – are used to hearing passers-by shout insults and complaints.  

However during the demonstrations, the young drivers took on a different, more heroic role, ferrying demonstrators to areas where the protests were starting and then later, when there was violence, transporting injured demonstrators to hospitals, often at no cost.   

The people of Batawin


The Batawin neighbourhood in Baghdad is very close to the central Tahrir Square, where a lot of the recent anti-government protests started out. But it’s certainly not one of Baghdad’s more upmarket districts and is perhaps best known as a mixed neighbourhood with something of an unsavoury reputation.

Residents will tell you that Batawin is one of the city’s most dangerous neighbourhoods, not least because they believe that criminal gangs control the streets here and run drug-dealing and prostitution rings.  

However over the past few weeks, that attitude has softened. As the demonstrators were pushed backwards by increasingly violent tactics from the Iraqi security forces,  the supposedly criminal residents of Batawin became known for sheltering the demonstrators inside their homes, keeping them there until they could safely leave again.