While Baghdad anti-regime protesters have clashed with riot police, their supporters in Mosul are using art to fight for change, with a new take on the resistance anthem “Bella Ciao”.
In a viral music video clip, the World War II-era Italian anti-fascist song has been tweaked to “Blaya Chara” — meaning “no way out” in Iraqi dialect.
It captures the fatalistic sentiment many young Iraqis hold towards their violence-torn homeland.
“I don’t have heating, not a cent to spend. Why would I even study if there’s no way out?” sings one gaunt performer, huddled under a blanket in a gutted building.
Others in the video, which has scored hundreds of thousands of hits despite frequent internet blackouts, hold up signs that read “Justice for our martyrs” and “I want my rights.”
Like activists elsewhere, they borrow from popular culture, donning the red jumpsuits and Dali masks of the Spanish Netflix hit series La Casa de Papel (Money Heist), which has revived the Italian classic.
Much of Iraq, especially Baghdad and the Shiite-majority south, has been gripped by a wave of street protests since October 1, decrying a lack of jobs, poor public services and endemic corruption.
But in Mosul, a mostly-Sunni city recaptured from the Islamic State jihadist group two years ago, social and political pressures have kept demonstrators from coming out in large numbers.
“The song is an artistic message of solidarity from Mosul to the protesters to say: our hearts are with you,” said 25-year-old Abdulrahman al-Rubaye, the clip’s director.
– Creative resistance –
The video opens with a despondent mechanic played by Mohammed Bakri, 26, who heads the team of 14 performers that produced the song.
“We bought costumes, painted our own masks and filmed in the streets or in our own homes,” said the father-of-two who founded the performance troupe in 2016.
He has dreamed of taking to the streets to demonstrate like his compatriots in Baghdad and the south, but told AFP that “our situation in Mosul is exceptional and we can’t protest”.
Sunni communities in the country’s north and west have indeed stayed clear of the protest movement, despite the desperate state of public services there after years of war and neglect.
IS swept through their hometowns in 2014 and the three-year battle to oust the jihadists left neighborhoods and public infrastructure in ruins.
But residents say any street protests would be met with accusations that they are sympathetic to IS, which could lead to a counter-terrorism charge punishable by death.
Or, they fear, they could be painted as fans of Saddam Hussein, the brutal ex-dictator deposed in the US-led invasion of 2003 which paved the way for the current political system.
Authorities in Baghdad have already cast the protests as a nefarious conspiracy seeking to bring “chaos” to Iraq.
Without the street as an option, Bakri turned to the screen.
“With art, we can support the movement our own way. I think that this way, we can speak in the name of all Iraqis,” he told AFP.
The team was able to produce the video in a mere 12 hours and upload it just before authorities cut off the internet.
– ‘Not afraid anymore’ –
For Jihan Mazouri, a 23-year-old student and actress, her role in the film was “the least she could do” to back peaceful protesters further south.
Her character, dressed in a black robe and veil covering half her face, desperately pulls handfuls of tissues as she sings about “a future with no way out”.
“People have died or gotten hurt in these peaceful protests, so whatever we do is incomparable to their huge national sacrifices,” she said.
After the success of the first video, Mazouri and the rest of the team decided to see the beating heart of Baghdad’s protests with their own eyes.
They travelled to the protest epicentre, the capital’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, where they performed a classic Arabic ballad by Lebanese diva Fayrouz.
But, in another creative twist, their version is an ode to the now-famous tuk-tuks, three-wheeled rickshaws that have ferried wounded protesters to field clinics or delivered food and water to those occupying Tahrir.
Well over 300 people have lost their lives to bullets and often lethal tear gas canisters, and activists say they are being threatened, kidnapped and assaulted.
In Mosul, Rubaye, the director, said Iraqis are becoming more brave.
“People have confidence in themselves and we are not silent about what happens to us,” he said.
“We are not afraid anymore.”
Image: AFP / Zaid AL-OBEIDI The viral music video has scored hundreds of thousands of hits despite frequent internet blackouts in Iraq