Living off the Wall: A Day with the Protest-Mural Painters of Nasiriyah

By Haider Yacoubi, Nasiriyah

Local man Ali Kazem begins his day on a central bridge in the city of Nasiriyah by sharpening his pencil. The 22-year-old is one of the artists who has been drawing murals during this province’s anti-government protests and he is planning a new artwork today.
The mural he plans will depict the Iraqi soccer team’s recent victory over Iran during qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup and in his painting, he will include a portrait of team member Safaa Hadi wearing a mask, the same way the anti-government protesters do. The player has been seen as sympathetic to the young, mostly male protesters and this is a way of thanking him for that, Kazem explained.
Kazem starts drawing, then moves away a little, to better see his work at a distance. Like most of the other mural artists here, he is unemployed. The demand for jobs was one of the main reasons anti-government protests in Iraq started. Kazem looks at the wall and then back at his phone, where he has the original image he is copying from.

A few meters to his left, another painter who wanted to be known only as Ahmed puts the finishing touches to his work. He squats down and puts his brush into a water bottle. “I’m done,” he explains, sighing.
Ahmed takes off the gloves he was wearing to paint; he has just turned 18 and is now eligible to vote in Iraq. “This wall has exhausted me,” he says, sitting on the curb, hands on his knees, legs extended. “I had to whitewash it several times before painting because I couldn’t get the dirt off it, after tires were burned nearby.”
For this mural, Ahmed says he was inspired by a now-famous video in which an elderly man at the protests was being beaten by the police. Despite the blows, the man seemed determined to keep holding his Iraqi flag aloft.
“I was shivering as I watched it,” Ahmed explains. “He was in pain but he refused to let the flag touch the ground.”
Ahmed eventually hopes to finish high school and then do a fine arts degree. “I hope nobody burns any tires near my work,” he adds.
Next to him, Kazem has finished applying the green of the football player’s shirt to his artwork. He is now mixing some new colours on a wooden palette next to him on the ground.
On the other side of the bridge, we meet Dirar Haider, who is working on his fourth painting, using only black and white.
“No problems,” Haider shouts to the painter who is working above him and who has accidentally spilled some drops of green onto the monotone artwork. “It’s fine, I’ll fix it,” he says, lighting his cigarette. “We all have one goal here: reform,” he adds, grinning.
Haider is 25 years old and he’s wearing a white lab coat to work in. This is no accident – when he is not here he works as a laboratory assistant at a local hospital. “I finish work and come here,” he says. “And the message of this painting is love and peace. I replaced the smoke bomb with a bouquet of flowers.”
Just then a taxi pulled up next to the painter and stopped. The driver rolled down the window. “May God give you strength” he said, before driving on.

“Some of the paintings are my own ideas,” Haider explains, “others are inspired by paintings from the Arab Spring, with a few alterations. The violence that has happened here in Nasiriyah leaves the world with a bad image of our city. We’re here to rectify that,” he says.
A young woman gets out of a car, together with her mother. Manar al-Zaidi walks towards a wall near where Haider is painting and the two exchange greetings. Most of the painters here today met on Instagram. “Thank goodness, nobody took my space,” al-Zaidi says, as she pulls out her tools to start work on a small area of wall that she had labelled “reserved”.
Meanwhile her mother is walking among the other painters, distributing sweets and bottles of water.
“The problems of this country have not killed our creativity,” al-Zaidi says. “We will fill these walls with colours, so that the world knows we are here and that we want to spread peace,” she proclaims.

Back at Kazem’s mural, the pencil is still tucked behind his ear. But now his fingers are so covered in paint and stains that he can hardly use the screen on his mobile phone, to compare his painting and the photograph of the football player.
He moves back a little more, assessing his work, a frown on his face, his eyebrows arched. His eyes go from the phone to the picture and back again. Then he smiles, just faintly. He is finished this painting he put so much effort into. He takes some varnish out to apply a final layer and laughs. “I swear, I am a great painter!,” he calls out to the other artists working here. Everyone laughs.

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