Analysis

Armed With Cameras, Iraqi Protesters Are Shaping a Nation's Memory

From the modest part it had in the 2011 uprising, social media now sets the rules

Anti-government protesters gather at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, December 22, 2019.
AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed

In a small tent made of colorful fabrics whose floor is covered with cheap carpets, a small group of Iraqi nationals sits while listening to covers sung by a group of amateur actors. The songs have been written especially for the theater in the tent at Tahrir Square in central Baghdad, and they tell the stories of martyrs who fell in the street battles that have taken place and are still ongoing in the Iraqi capital and other cities since October.

Outside the tent theater large speakers have been set up to allow the audience to hear the songs and join in. In the evening, the tent becomes a “movie theater” where documentary films are shown; depicting the battles and incidents that have taken place since the protests broke out, causing the viewers to tear up. 

In one area of the square young people have opened a small library where passersby can borrow books and return ones they no longer need. Another innovation in Tahrir Square is the establishment of the Martyrs’ Museum, whose items are collected as clashes are still ongoing - bloody shirts taken off people being chased by the authorities, and objects brought from the homes of those killed to serve as tokens of memory for the killings in the square.

The museum’s organizers hope to move the exhibits into a permanent building after the clashes end. Until then, they are asking the victims’ families to pass on possessions, books and photos of their loved ones to the museum.

Iraqi demonstrators react as they look at a makeshift memorial with personal belongings of those who were killed at an anti-government protests at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, November 27, 2019.
REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

You can’t get to know this creative activity in Tahrir Square without the videos documenting it. Some of them have even been translated into English to raise international public awareness. In one of these videos, young men are seen fleeing bullets fired by Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite militias, with familiar slogans heard in the background. “For 16 years we’ve been ruled by these clerics,” an old man raises his cane high and calls out “today or tomorrow we’ll all be dead,” “once we had one dictator, now a thousand;” “people are dying here of hunger and the government is killing us;” “who do they think they’re killing, we are Iraqi citizens;” “God willing in a few days you’ll see the RPG on our shoulders and we’ll fight them the way they’re fighting us.”

The photographer and film’s editor explains in the background that he can’t give his name because “in three days they will kill us.” He only asks the international community to intervene to prevent the killing of the Iraqi people.

This video library is growing. Many of them have already gone viral on YouTube and social media, with thousands of new views every day. The government’s efforts to stop the spread of the videos by disrupting the internet have not really helped. Nine years ago, during the Arab Spring, social media's part in the uprisings was modest, and most of the information and calls for enlistment in the struggle were transmitted by demonstrators via old-generation cellphones. Now social media is the main arena of the revolt.

The satellite networks that were the heroes of the protest movement in the past can’t include all the incidents happening in the street; they have neither the time nor the precision and physical proximity to the events that the protesters themselves have. The latter, as they flee the authorities, continue to film and share the documentation.

The huge gap between the media coverage of the protests, rebellion and fighting a decade ago, or even five years ago, and protests today can be seen in the film industry. For decades no feature films were made about the civil war in Lebanon out of fear such films would reopen unhealed ethnic wounds. Only in recent years have a few films been made that dealt with various aspects of ethnic hostilities in Lebanon, including the film “The Insult,” directed by Ziad Doueiri, which was nominated for an Oscar last year.

In Iraq only this year did the first feature film come out about the terrible events in Baghdad in 2006. Director Mohanad Hayal’s “Haifa Street,” depicts life on one of the main and busiest streets in Baghdad before the war, which became a bloody battlefield in the years following the American occupation, especially in 2006–2007.

The storyline focuses on a young Iraqi man named Salam, who became a deadly sniper. From his perch he murders an Iraqi who was on his way to ask his beloved to marry him. How did Salam become a sniper-assassin? How do the neighbors try to help the victim, who dies of his injuries, and what is the relationship among the neighbors, some of whom are Shi’ite while others are Sunnis or Palestinians? The director tries to deal with all of these issues from a later perspective, but one that relies on his own memories.

“Was this a civil war or an ethnic war?” the director, Hayal, wondered in an interview with the Al Arabiya news site. “What is our identity as Iraqis? What is the identity of the state?” Hayal concedes that he doesn’t have the answers, but he is trying at least to spur viewers to think about them. “We need many more films to analyze the character of Iraqi society,” Hayal says.

The years after the events on Haifa Street, Baghdad has once more caught up in the maze of its identities in Tahrir Square. But as opposed to the film industry, which moves slowly, social media has no patience to wait. It is social media that frames the events and anchors them in memory. As such, it does not only provide the documentary with raw material, but also sets the rules by which Iraqi art can look at Iraqi society.