BAGHDAD – On Friday mornings, Yasser Kian and his friends leave behind the pressures of work and school and the dangers of life in Baghdad to come to a small square that has become an oasis of free expression.
On a recent Friday, Kian, dressed in a suit jacket, bowtie and retro sunglasses, pretends to pose for selfies with a group of friends from his Talbiya neighborhood near Sadr City.
His friend Murtadha Sabah, has glued an empty cigarette packet onto a stick in an imitation of a smartphone. The friends, all in their 20s, crowd together and beam into the pretend camera.
“We don’t have the money for a camera,” says Murtadha, who works as a laborer while trying to finish junior high.
While that may be true, posing for pretend selfies from a pretend camera is a kind a performance art – eliciting laughter from many of the Iraqis strolling in al-Qushla square.
The square and its landmark clock tower date back to the 1850s when the Ottoman government used it as a military base and barracks. Iraq’s first king, Faisal I, was crowned in the courtyard in 1921.
Close to historic al-Mutanabi street, and its Friday book market, the clock tower was renovated and the square reopened last year. Enclosed largely by brick walls, it has become a relatively safe place to gather and one of the few places where authorities allow demonstrations.
The protests range from demonstrations against corruption to demands for jobs.
“They are stealing our dreams,” chants a protest leader, referring to what he says are corrupt politicians who spend much of their time travelling; “One day in Amman, another in Tehran.”
For many Iraqis toppling the old regime failed to bring in the security and prosperity they were promised. When a small and diverse protest movement grew around Tahrir Square, demanding more freedom as well as jobs and electricity, the government crushed the protests.
“We must reach Tahrir Square,” he chants. But they are not likely to reach the square in central Baghdad which has been off limits to protestors for more than a year.
As the Arab Spring swept through the region four years ago with demonstrators demanding freedom to determine their future, Iraq was largely untouched.
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had already been toppled through the US-led invasion in 2003 and executed by the new Iraqi government three years later.
For many Iraqis, toppling the old regime failed to bring in the security and prosperity they were promised.
When a small and diverse protest movement grew around Tahrir Square, demanding more freedom as well as jobs and electricity, the government crushed the protests.
In 2011, plain-clothed security forces stabbed and beat protestors while a radio talk show host, critical of the government, was shot dead in his home. Authorities banned most demonstrations.
When al-Qushla square re-opened to the public last year, protestors were allowed to gather within its walls.
Apart from the demonstrations, one of the biggest draws here is the poetry. Crowds gather around wooden gazebos where young men take turns reciting their own poems – all in colloquial Arabic rather than the less accessible formal version of the language used in classical poetry.
“Grey hair” intones Thul Fukhar al-Tamimi, a college student. “I look in the mirror and I see the shattered image of who I used to be.” He finishes his poem and extends an invitation to another poet, who starts his verse with the last syllable of Tamimi’s poem.
“We are sleepwalking,” recited another poet brought into the mix. “We used to have one demon, now we have hundreds of demons … Now we have devils and demons with institutions and schools graduating other devils and demons.”
At a clever turn of phrase or a provocative thought, the audience applauds.
In another corner of the square where soldiers once gathered, retired sculptor Jassim Abu Dua’ sketches portraits without charge.
“I’d like to put a smile on the face of every Iraqi in the country,” he says, drawing a young man in charcoal while a recording of classical music plays in the background.
While Baghdad is a mostly conservative city, in the square the young men and women feel free to dress the way they choose – from bright red trousers to feathers and sequins. If there are Iraqi hipsters, they are here in the square.
Here, there is also occasionally a clash of cultures and generations. While Kian and his friends play around with their pretend camera, Maher Abed Jouda, dressed in the suit and tie of Iraqis of an older generation and a certain class, breaks in to tell them they should be more serious. He says when he was their age in the 1980s he was fighting in the Iran-Iraq war.
“Of course you can have fun, you can amuse yourselves, whatever you want to do. But make use of your time because time is precious,” Jouda tells the young men.
“When we were younger than you, we were reading books. Because I was reading books, I am able to speak eloquently.”
“Books? What are you talking about?” Kian asks him. “When I leave my house I say the Shahada (the Muslim prayer of affirmation) in case I die.”
Kian and Sabah, like many young Iraqis, lost years of school due to the violence and hardship of life in Baghdad. Both dropped out of school to work to support their families and are now trying to make up classes while holding down jobs.
Kian, though, thanks the older man for his advice.
“Maybe next Friday we will come carrying books,” he says.