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Iraqi protesters are transforming a Baghdad tunnel with breathtaking anti-government murals

Havovi Cooper , Business Insider US
 Dec 12, 2019, 09:32 AM
Sofia Nitti
  • Iraqis are using art to protest against government corruption and a lack of basic facilities.
  • Artists are painting murals in Baghdad's Saadoun Tunnel to voice their political concerns.
  • Women are at the forefront of the latest protests across Iraq, defying gender roles.
  • Also in Baghdad, the "Wall of Wishes" showcases the hopes and dreams of Iraq's younger generation.
  • For more stories go to

    BAGHDAD, IRAQ - The streets of Iraq are a battleground once again - but in an underpass beneath the anti-government protests, the weapon of choice is a paintbrush.

    Artists are painting murals in Baghdad's Saadoun Tunnel that are loaded with political messages and reflect the complaints demonstrators have been shouting for months.

    With a gentle stroke of his brush, Haider Salman is trying to change the face of Saadoun Tunnel and his homeland, Iraq.

    Salman, a painter, said the demonstrations were initially peaceful, but after seeing people die, he decided to paint his first drawing, "The Revolution of the Youth."

    "Every revolution should have its graffiti," Salman told Business Insider. "I wanted to make Baghdad more beautiful, and I wanted to express my voice through art."

    Some paintings in the tunnel call for peace and an end to sectarianism. Others mock Iraqi politicians and praise the protesters.

    Salman, who's been painting there since the end of October, aims to honor ordinary Iraqis.

    Many of the protesters are educated, live in cities, and are angry about corruption within the government and Iran's influence over Iraqi politics. Others Business Insider spoke with complained about a lack of basic services like electricity and education, as well as a soaring unemployment rate of 11%.

    Iraqi artists are struggling amidst the country's anti-government protests.
    Sofia Nitti

    Artists like Salman are hurting.

    "Most of the people who come and paint here have no future. Some leave the country, and others do odd jobs to survive," Salman said.

    Although violent on the surface, the recent protests have also unified a divided nation. Shias and Sunnis - two sects of Islam usually at odds - are now fighting and painting for the same basic rights.

    And women across Iraq stand shoulder to shoulder with men during protests across the country, defying traditional gender roles.

    Shahed Al Khalil traveled 1,400 miles to be a part of what protesters are calling "the revolution." She said the protesters want to "live in a country that values its people's dignity."

    "We want to be able to find jobs," she said. "I want to be able to express my personality as a woman and a journalist in my country."

    Iraqi women defy gender roles as they paint in protest of the government.
    Sofia Nitti

    One notable painting in the tunnel, a giant mural of the famous American icon Rosie the Riveter, pays tribute to Iraqi women. Meanwhile, painter Dawood Salman is using symbols closer to home. Salman painted himself wearing traditional garb with painted text asking, "When will I take my rights?"

    Salman said when the revolution started, he viewed himself as an "oppressed, disabled old man." To express his rights, he turned to art.

    Not far from Saadoun Tunnel is another colorful exhibit - the Wall of Wishes, which stands inside a bombed and abandoned building in Tahrir Square. The wall is covered in multicolored notes bearing people's hopes, comments, and prayers about Iraq's future.

    While the papers are colorful, some of the messages are not, like one that asks, "When will the bloodshed stop in my country?"

    So far, 400 people have been killed in the protests, and artists are painting murals in their memory.

    Despite the violence, many say there is a sense of optimism for the first time since 2003, when dictator Saddam Hussein was captured following the American invasion of Iraq.

    Now all eyes are on Iraq once again. After more than two months of deadly protests, Iraqis are seeing some results. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi officially resigned on December 1, although his government will stay on in a caretaker capacity until the parliament forms a new government.

    Journalist Shahed Al-Khalil said she hopes for Iraq to "get rid of all parties, end corruption, and to have a truly independent and secular government that believes in the freedom of every citizen."

    Meanwhile, Al-Khalil said Saadoun Tunnel gives her hope that the change Iraqis want is on the way.

    "This just shows that life is back despite the killing and the ugliness that the protesters saw in Tahrir Square," Al-Khalil said. "This is the best indication that we are a people who love life, a people with a spirit, a nation that when given a chance to lead, they can do beautiful things in this country."

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