Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Under Tahrir, young Iraqi artists paint revolutionary road



Under Tahrir, young Iraqi artists paint revolutionary road

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
An Iraqi man smokes a water pipe under a feminist mural painting with the Arabic slogan ‘This is what our women are like!’ in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on November 21. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP

Under Tahrir, young Iraqi artists paint revolutionary road

Taking vibrant spray paint to Baghdad’s grimy concrete walls, Iraqi artists protesting against the government – many of them young and female – are sketching out their vision for a brighter future.

In plastic gloves covered in paint smudges, 20-year-old Fatima Hussam commands a team of artists-cum-activists producing today’s fresco.

Their murals have transformed a monochrome tunnel leading into the main protest camp in Tahrir (Liberation) Square into a revolutionary art gallery.

“We have plenty of artists in this country but nowhere they can express their art, so we decided to use Tahrir for an art revolution in addition to a national revolution,” says Hussam, her white veil covered in pink flowers.

Among her works is a version of World War II-era feminist icon “Rosie the Riveter”, now with an Iraqi flag painted on her cheek and announcing in speech bubble: “This is what our women are like!”

Iraq, where around 60 per cent of its 40 million people are below 25, remains a largely conservative country.

Baghdad is more open-minded than the tribal south, where it is rare to see women interact with men who are not their relatives or spouses.

But protests in the capital and Shiite-majority southern provinces have seen women break the taboo, joining thousands of demonstrators en masse to demand regime change.

Hussam has joined them this week, with her older brother cautiously but proudly looking on as she paints.

Her latest is an ode to fellow women taking part: a veiled woman holding a sign bearing one of the popular uprising’s many slogans: “I want my country.”

‘Joy and colours’

Such slogans are 23-year-old Mohammad Abdelwahab’s inspiration. The young artist takes a brush daubed in white paint to a large black background in the tunnel, inscribing popular protest chants into the shape of a map of Iraq.

“We are the generation of change – change for the better!” says Abdelwahab.

Dozens of other young artists are working on their own pieces. One mural shows the three-wheeled rickshaw known as a tuk-tuk, now a beloved symbol of the protest movement for its role in ferrying wounded demonstrators to safety.

Another displays the word “LOVE” spelled out by bloodstained hands – a testimony, the artist says, to those who have died facing off against security forces.

Iraq has only recently emerged from decades of back-to-back conflict, including a 1980s war with Iran, the US-led invasion in 2003 and a battle against the Islamic State group that ended in late 2017.

Abdelwahab says the protest movement is about the next phase of Iraq’s future.

“We’re not here to attack the state. We want to bring it joy and colours,” he insists.

Mission accomplished, says 38-year-old Mohammad Abbas.

“In 16 years, I’ve never seen this place so beautiful. Our country really needed this,” marvels Abbas, who has driven down the same tunnel to get to work for years.

“Usually, the walls are dirty and black,” he says.

Baghdad, a sprawling city of nearly 10 million inhabitants, is usually choked off by traffic, smog and checkpoints.

“Young people were able to achieve what the state hasn’t been able to do while spending billions on Baghdad,” says Abbas, on his way to more swelling protests above ground.

Oil-rich Iraq is Opec’s second-biggest producer, but one in five people live in poverty and youth unemployment stands at 25 per cent, according to the World Bank.

Public services including electricity, water provision and street maintenance are poor, and the country is ranked the 12th most corrupt worldwide by Transparency International.

But the art developing underneath Tahrir is not just visual.

Every afternoon, musicians bring their clarinets and flutes for impromptu concerts, as woodworkers sell key chains and other statuettes immortalising the tuk-tuk.

“With few means, these artists send a peaceful message to the world,” says Ibrahim, 39, a bypasser.

Through them, he says, “we’re telling the world that the Iraqi people are alive and well.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Kingdom's Covid cluster cases jump to 194

    The Ministry of Health on February 25 confirmed 65 new cases of Covid-19, with 58 linked to the February 20 community transmission. The latest cluster cases include nine Vietnamese nationals, five Cambodians, one each from Korea, Singapore and Japan, with the rest being Chinese. This brings the total number

  • Locations shut, dozens more Covid-19 positive

    The Ministry of Health has closed 23 locations in connection with the February 20 community transmission of Covid-19 and summoned for testing anyone who had direct contact with affected people and places. The number of discovered related infections has risen to 76, including 39 women. In a press release,

  • Preah Sihanouk hit with travel ban

    Preah Sihanouk Provincial Administration has announced a temporary travel ban to and from the province, except for ambulances and trucks transporting goods. The announcement came after prime minister Hun Sen called on people in the province to travel only if necessary, and that people not

  • Cambodia's Covid cluster cases rise to 137

    The Ministry of Health on February 24 recorded 40 more cases of Covid-19, with 38 linked to the February 20 community transmission. Of the 40, two are imported cases involving Chinese passengers. The 38 include two Vietnamese nationals and one Cambodian, with the rest being Chinese. This brings the total cases

  • Covid cluster raises alarm, health bodies urge vigilance

    The Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia have expressed great concern over the February 20 cluster transmission of Covid-19 in the community. Both entities appealed for vigilance and cooperation in curbing further spread of the virus. Ministry spokeswoman Or Vandine said

  • AstraZeneca jabs touch down in Phnom Penh airport

    The first shipment of 324,000 doses of the AstraZeneca/SII vaccine which was provided through the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility was delivered to Phnom Penh International Airport on March 2. The rest of the COVAX provided vaccines will arrive in Cambodia at a later date.