January 2020. It turned out that my Iraqi friends were wrong. That was my first thought when I got back to Baghdad after a few weeks away. For years, they had only had one way of talking about the future: “There is no future here, no hope, and no prospect of things ever changing.” But the current situation now seems to be proving them wrong. In October 2019, a popular uprising by civil society emerged in protest against the government; as the protesters say it is the thawra, the revolution. It is quite extraordinary for this to have occurred at a time when society seemed numbed by years or rather decades of violence: dictatorship, invasion, civil war, terrorist attacks, kidnappings, lies, corruption, and oppression, all in the name of the State or religion. The movement had been going on for nearly a hundred days, and it was not just a matter of protesting against a government, a Prime Minister or a situation at a specific point in time, but rather an attempt to bring down a dysfunctional and corrupt system, rotten from within, attacked by the gangrene of interference by foreign powers.
The protesters were, of course, up against a system that had no intention of yielding. The crackdown was relentless, day after day, with men in uniform, some wielding tear gas canisters used as grenades that pierced the skulls of protesters. According to Amnesty International, by January 2020, the crackdown had left more than 600 dead across the country. Most of the victims were young men, very young men, from poor backgrounds, for it was the poor who were rebelling. This is the generation that grew up with tales of the American invasion in 2003, followed by the civil war, and then ISIS. They had no prospects, just a society at a standstill, with no properly functioning public services and endemic unemployment, a society stricken with fear, divided between different communities, with crass nepotism prevailing. They say they have nothing more to lose, stating, with apparent sincerity, that they are willing to die. Alas, they have sometimes been proven right. Their “revolution” seems dreadfully ingenuous. There on the banks of the Tigris, the T walls epitomizing the fear of terrorist attacks have been painted in every color of the rainbow. On Tahrir Square, rebels have set aside their Molotov cocktails to feed stray dogs. Some have no delusions about the future of the movement: “Just look at the revolutions in Egypt or Syria, and the way they turned out,” said one young man. But these past months, weeks or days of freedom are still steps forward. Hours spent painting the T walls pink offered a glimmer of hope, the prospect of a different society, a different future. But can prospects alone bring about change? I think of a twenty-year-old friend named Abbas who turned to me and said, coldly, bluntly: “Iraq is the land of death. There is no prospect of any future.” Today, for the first time since I came to know Iraq, I have the impression that grim resignation and acceptance of death have faded and been replaced by rage, and hope. I hope that Abbas, too, can be proven wrong.