Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Journey through South Iraq: Being the change you want to see in the world

Notes from the Field: From Nasriya to Diwaniya, South Iraq, June 29th, 2013

Be the change you want to see in the world. M. Ghandi

On the three hour journey from Nasriya to Diwaniya part of the drive was one way only, meaning that the road was one way each side. This makes the travel more dangerous because the driver has to cross to the opposite lane if he/she wants to pass; and they always want to pass. Driving here can be dangerous, this road was nicknamed the “Death Road” because of so many accidents. To make things worst, Iraqis do not wear the seatbelt, so accidents are fatal. But my colleague told me not to worry, as he had experience driving inside and outside Iraq. In practical terms, he drove Iraqi style, but wearing the seatbelt. Nice combination!

One of the Mawkebs in the road to Diwaniya, South Iraq. Photo by Johanna. L. Rivera 
This road is the road that leads to Kerbala, one of the holiest cities for Shia Muslims after Mecca and Medina. It is home to the Imam Hussein Shrine. Karbala is famous as the site of the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali (Imam Hussein), and commemorations are held by millions of Shias annually to remember it. People walk from different Iraqi provinces to reach Kerbala. The road is full of mawkebs. These are resting places that receive Shia pilgrims. Mawkebs welcome in pilgrims to sleep, eat or rest while on their pilgrimage; a kind of Camino de Santiago in Spain for Christians. The mawkebs are free and are financed by the town’s people. They believe that by such acts of hospitality, Allah will grant them blessings. 

A pair of young Iraqis hosted us for lunch in Nasriya. One of them helped us with translation during the seminar. One of them is an actor and the other one is a producer. We were invited to their home and when we arrived, of course, there was no electricity. It soon kicked in, and the AC started, but only for 2 hours. We were watching the Egyptian comedian that is famous for making fun of Morsi. Our pair was telling us about how is it to live in Iraq, especially Nasriya. They had been trying to organise a protest about the lack of electricity. As protests are forbidden, they were just pretending to be hanging out on the street, suddenly taking out signs that read: “Where is the electricity?” I already mentioned the issues related to electricity on my previous post, no wonder the youth is trying to organize protests to demand their government to provide basic services. They said they were dismissed with the promise that there will be electricity for 16 hours. “Not really true, they are lying”, they said.

Recently, there was a big explosion in a café in Baghdad where around 40 people died, many of them youth. This sparked a big campaign all over Iraq; No to sectarianism. I saw this phrase written in a couple of places, one of them a checkpoint. Our friends in Nasriya showed me a jacket with the same slogan written. They told me they had been in Baghdad for a rally. I am humbled by the creativity and energy of Iraqi youth that are continuously challenged by an environment of violence but that refuse to give up and come with creative ways to express their opposition to violence and sectarianism.

Over dinner, we were already in Diwaniya. We were discussing about our work and Nawres was saying that she is often challenged because of her volunteer work. She is a blogger and a journalist and she is working from inside to change her society. Her motivation to work against all these challenges is that she wants to leave a print, a mark on the world. She wants to become immortal through her activism; to leave something so when she dies people remember her. She tells us that at her workplace, she is the only woman, yet she has gained the respect of her colleagues by building up her department infrastructure and systems. Another friend, who works in the Ministry of Environment, said that is not allowed to work with civil society and at the same time to be a government employee. He said that he works "low- profile".

For the last 4 days, I had the opportunity to meet Iraqi youth from Basra, Amara, Nasriya and Diwaniya provinces. These youth was not passive; they showed to be a great example of empowerment, of how to work against sectarianism. For example, like the work of a group of youth in Amara, called Team Ana Missan. They visited a hospital to deliver flowers, organized different activities like cleaning drives. In Nasriya, this group of young people have in turn organised and are demanding action from their government to solve the electricity problem that exhausts the lives of many, many Iraqis.

Some of the youth in Amara in one of the seminars about the water issues in Iraq
In Diwaniya, the youth mobilized to convince the dean of the College of Law about the importance to have a seminar to discuss the water problems and the impacts of hydropower/irrigation projects upstream. They convinced the dean by explaining that the problem was not only in the Tigris River but that everything is connected. They clarified that these dams will have big socio-economic impacts on agriculture, fishing and that the people depending on the Tigris could look into the Euphrates for a source of water, therefore affecting the way water is used in the Euphrates-Tigris basin. So, if you are overwhelmed like me from media propaganda victimizing Iraqis who live in constant violence, let these lines serve to show how the Iraqi youth is actively working to end sectarianism and violence in Iraq.

Youth in Diwaniya also self-organized a seminar in the Collegue of Law in Diwaniya

They are a living example of working to “Be the Change that you want to see in the World”