Iraqis have been protesting since early October against the dysfunctional and corrupt political system installed by the United States after the 2003 occupation. Unlike previous waves of protests that began in 2011, this protest was spontaneous and not organized by any party.
The most common and passionate slogan throughout these protests has been, “We want a homeland.” It reflected the anger and alienation Iraqis felt toward a political class beholden to external influence (Iran and the United States) and oblivious to its people’s demands.
The regime’s brutal suppression and killing of peaceful protesters fueled Iraqis’ anger, widening and intensifying the protests and strikes across Iraq. It also radicalized the tone and demands of protesters who have been calling for an overhaul of the entire system, rather than cosmetic change. The resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi on Nov. 29 did nothing to quiet the protesters. And the regime’s violence continues unabated.
More than 500 protesters have been killed. I try to find out their names and catch a glimpse of their faces. I can’t keep up. Death seizes them in a flash and delivers their bodies to the darkness of the grave. But it also illuminates their names, faces and life stories, making them ever more familiar to those of us who are viscerally connected to Iraq, whether we live there or in a distant country.
I did know Safa al-Sarray, a 26-year-old aspiring poet and amateur artist, very well. He wrote to me nine years ago on social media about one of my novels. We kept corresponding. I loved his wit and sense of humor, and his insightful posts about life and politics in Iraq.
Safa was a precocious, passionate young man and a voracious reader, particularly of poetry. He grew up in a large working-class family in Baghdad. His father had died when he was quite young. He worked hard — three days a week as a construction worker and porter while studying at the University of Technology in Baghdad — to make ends meet and to support his family.
In 2011, a wave of protests against the corruption and sectarianism of the Iraqi regime swept through the country. Safa, who was 18 at the time, joined his compatriots seeking change. He was at the forefront of every single wave of protests in the years that followed. Despite being harassed and detained several times, he would be back on the street for the next protest.
I worried about him and would check on him every time protests broke out to make sure he was safe. “We are staying here in Tahrir,” he would write, referring to Tahrir Square in central Baghdad, where the protesters have been gathering. He knew the dangers he faced. He once wrote to me wondering when he might meet “the gratuitous death waiting for me in my homeland.” He loved Iraq and would go to sleep at night thinking of what he could do to change it.
I met Safa for the first time in February at the Baghdad Book Fair. He came to my book signing and was as charming and charismatic in person. We met again for breakfast on my last day in Baghdad. Safa had an undergraduate degree in computer networking, but like hundreds of thousands of young Iraqis, he couldn’t find employment in his field.
Over breakfast he told me that he’d recently started working as an “ardhahalchi,” or a scribe, writing letters and filling out forms for citizens going before courts. He would set up his chair and table every morning outside a courthouse in Baghdad. “Were there any interesting stories that you came across?” I asked. “It is just a traffic court,” he said with a smile. The letters he had to write were quite prosaic, mostly about mundane accidents or transfer of ownership.
Safa was 26, but he was using a cane and grimaced with pain when he moved. He spoke of the pain killers he was taking and the costly physical therapy. During the protests in the summer of 2018 he had received messages on social media from regime thugs warning him to stay away. He ignored them at first. A few days later plainclothes security personnel detained him and tortured him to extract information on other protesters. He said that the memory of his mother, Thanwa, and her strength helped him withstand the pain and remain steadfast in moments of weakness.
He was very close to Thanwa, who died of cancer in 2017, and wrote about her suffering and resilience. He called himself “Thanwa’s Son.” Shifting the emphasis away from the patrilineal to the matrilineal was an act of poetic resistance against social norms.
Safa was fiercely independent and critical of the intellectual elite and the media personalities who had betrayed the protesters, hijacked previous protests and made back-room deals with political parties.
He was an aspiring poet, an artist. He donated the money from his art to an orphanage. His heart was a garden for all. I have been thinking of some verses he wrote: “People’s sadness is my sadness/Their feasts are mine/Let the wellspring of my life flow onto their deserts/These flowers in my soul are gardens of people.”
When the Iraqi uprising began in October, Safa was at the forefront once again. He recited poetry and urged protesters to remain peaceful but never give up.
On Oct. 28 I messaged Safa: “I heard you were injured. Let me know you’re O.K.” There was no response. A tear-gas canister fired intentionally and directly at the crowds by the riot police had pierced his head while he was protesting peacefully in Tahrir Square. He was taken to the hospital. He died a few hours later. I cried when I saw the footage of his coffin circling the square, surrounded by fellow protesters bidding farewell to a hero.
Some years ago, I wrote a poem about those who die for freedom and justice. I never thought that I was writing it prematurely for my friend.
Martyrs do not go to paradise
They leaf through the heavenly book
each in their own way
as a bird
or a cloud
They appear to us every day
we, who are still
in this hell they tried to extinguish
with their blood.
A few weeks ago, I saw a photograph of a white dove perched on the coffin of one of those murdered by the regime near Tahrir Square. Was that you, Safa?
I will visit your grave when I go to Iraq, but I know that you are not only there. Your face is on so many walls, banners, T-shirts, and your spirit is everywhere. Your brothers and sisters, Thanwa’s children, are still fighting for the new Iraq you dreamed of and loved.
Sinan Antoon is the author, most recently, of the novel The Book of Collateral Damage.