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Young Iraqis look beyond war: 'We have everything'

A new wave of young Iraqis is hoping to convey a more positive image of their country
Mustafa Nader is a young Iraqi photographer and cancer survivor (MEE/Lizzie Porter)

BAGHDAD - Mustafa Nader is sitting in his eclectically decorated bedroom in Baghdad, complete with an Arabic translation of George Orwell’s 1984, the pages of French novels pasted on his walls as wallpaper, and a jumble of camera boxes.

Baghdad and the Tigris by day (MEE/Mustafa Nader)
The young photographer is one of a new wave of young Iraqis hoping to convey a more positive image of their country – away from political whitewashing of Iraq's problems, but also removed from the pictures of war, massacres and invading troops.

“My work has shown peace in the middle of war. I search for positive things," Nader told Middle East Eye.

Everyday Iraq

He wanders the lanes of old Baghdad and while at the book market on al-Mutannabi street, he and a friend make a short film about their city. “Say something positive about Iraq,” they ask passers-by; the answers will form the thrust of his video story. Nader enters the neighbouring souk, selling stationery, fridge magnets and the odd sectarian flag, and creates an Instagram photo story. 

A view from above on al-Mutannabi street in old Baghdad (MEE/Mustafa Nader)
Al-Mutannabi is among Mustafa's favourite Baghdad haunts. But his wanderings are by no means limited to the street, which bustles on a Friday morning with groups of friends slurping juice, the odd foreign correspondent walking about and book sellers trying to make a day's wages. 

A replica of the gates of Babel in the city of Babel (MEE/Mustafa Nader)
Important historical sites are also on Nader's radar when he tries to capture Baghdad's essence. For example, he has taken photographs of Samarra, a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its spiralling, 54-metre-tall minaret. The ninth-century mosque, two hours north of Baghdad, is one of only a few examples of this type of architecture the world over. And for Nader, taking pictures of Baghdad's Armenian church demonstrates Iraq's unique character. "It shows the city's religious diversity," he said.

The Armenian church and grounds in Baghdad (MEE/Mustafa Nader)
His aim is to show the quotidian among the alarmist news alerts about Baghdad, which since the US invasion of 2003 has seen destruction as Saddam Hussein was ousted, and sectarian conflict that deepened under the leadership of Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister between 2006 and 2014.

Beyond the blasts

The city has been rocked by car bombs and sectarian strife, with the Islamic State (IS) group claiming attacks on the capital while taking other major cities - including Mosul - as it swept through Iraq and Syria in 2014, occupying one-third of Iraq's territory.

'My work has shown peace in the middle of war'

- Mustafa Nader, photographer

In late 2017, however, Baghdad's residents report far fewer incidents, with checkpoints relaxed and the atmosphere more pleasant. Ordinary Iraqis put that down to successful military operations against IS, which has been all but ousted from Iraq. 

Al-Kadhimiya shrine in a northern suburb of Baghdad, containing the tombs of the seventh Twelver Shia Imam Musa al-Kaẓim and the ninth Twelver Shia Imam Muhammad al-Jawad (MEE/Mustafa Nader)
Still, Mustafa sometimes has trouble winning over individuals who are unconvinced the city can ever reach beyond its blasted walls, rubble and rubbish.

“People [tell] me: ‘That’s fake, that’s editing, that’s filters.’ Some people are negative not about me, but about the city. They hate this place," he said.  

Positive thinking

Mustafa's positive attitude has a story behind it. In 2014, the young photographer and fine art student at Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts planned to embed with the Iraqi army on a reporting assignment. But blood tests required before he accompanied troops showed abnormal results and repeat examinations confirmed the concerns. On 18 October 2014, doctors told him he had cancer.

For two weeks, Mustafa did not follow up on the results.

Baghdad and the Tigris river at night (MEE/Mustafa Nader)
“I didn’t care for it. I went out. I went to festivals and I did my work,” he said, in his family home on a straight, Roman-like street of low-slung houses on the eastern bank of the Tigris.

'Some people are negative not about me, but about the city. They hate this place'

- Mustafa Nader, photographer

He eventually started a course of chemotherapy, which led to vomiting, dizziness, and hair loss.

“I felt that my body was telling me it would die. My body can’t do everything. I just wanted to sleep, sleep, sleep,” he added.

Baghdadi Museum, a local history museum located in the old city, opened in 1970 (MEE/Mustafa Nader)
But Mustafa prevailed and refused to let what he calls “negative energy” get the better of him. Though he continues to follow up with regular check-ups to ensure the cancer has not returned, he is expanding his “think positive” mindset beyond cancer survival, to his country itself.

Inspiring others

His ability to gather strength is remarkable. The 22-year-old has already succeeded in inspiring a generation of Iraqis, tired of years of illness, war and terrorism. 

The Armenian church of Gregory the Illuminator, on Baghdad's central Khufala Street (MEE/Mustafa Nader)
During his cancer recovery, he started posting photos of himself on social media that quickly gained traction in Iraq and then Saudi Arabia under the hashtag Muharab_Suratan (“cancer fighter”). He now has over 120,000 followers on Facebook and nearly 29,000 on Instagram – his preferred form of social media.

'I don’t know why we are dying every day'

- Mustafa Nader, photographer

“I got a lot of comments and likes,” he said, against the backdrop of nick-nacks, trinkets covered in Cyrillic text, and a red and blue chequered blanket. The comments are usually positive, such as "You made my day. You make me smile. You are my role model".

The old court house of Baghdad (MEE/Mustafa Nader)
Ravaged by years of dictatorship, invasion, sectarian conflict and terrorism, Iraq has had few reasons or means to think beyond its immediate problems.

He realises that there are still many problems to overcome, but he sees his voice as a balance to the stream of bad news.

“We have a lot of negative news [already]," he said. "I focus just on the positive in my country."

Not only war and death

He shows a short film he made after a fatal bomb attack on an ice-cream shop in Baghdad’s central Karrada district this May, which was claimed by IS. The film was made for the Peace News Network, a small news network run from New Zealand and Washington DC with the aim of bringing more positive stories from countries such as Iraq to a global audience. 

'I felt that my body was telling me it would die'

- Mustafa Nader, photographer

Baghdad After the Bombing shows how people return to al-Faqma ice-cream shop just days after the explosion, which left at least 21 people dead.

“My film talks about Baghdad. Everything’s available in my country. We do not just have war and death. We have everything,” he asserted.

Mustafa is not alone in his quest to show Iraq’s history, traditions and culture.

Looking up at the tower of Babel, in the ancient city of Babel (MEE/Mustafa Nader)
Abdullah al-Kaim, a 25-year-old Iraqi entrepreneur living in Amman, Jordan, has researched his country’s history and icons in depth. For him, Baghdad in the 60s and 70s was comparable to modern-day Dubai in its reputation for modernity and development.

'Iraq is not only the cradle of civilisations – it was also a very well-developed country in the last century'

- Mustafa Nader, photographer

“Iraq is not only the cradle of civilisations – it was also a very well-developed country in the last century,” he said.

“But with all the wars, refugees and immigration, and, of course, ISIS, it got a bad reputation and image, not only in the foreign world, but also in some parts of the Middle East," he added.

For Iraq

With a team of volunteers, he developed Lil-Iraq – For Iraq – an online platform showcasing the work of successful Iraqis past and present. 

The idea is to increase the amount of quality, accurate information in English and Arabic available about Iraq online. 

Cafe al-Shabandar on al-Mutanaabi street in Baghdad, a renowned meeting place for intellectuals (MEE/Mustafa Nader)
“Most current content focuses on problems and wars and Iraqis as refugees and immigrants, and not as a country and people with rich history and civilisations who produced and is producing amazing people everywhere,” the For Iraq team explained when they outlined the project in a statement to MEE. 

Figures featured include Ahmed Matar, one of Iraq’s greatest living poets, musician and teacher Mustafa Sabe’ and the late Zaha Hadid, the renowned architect.

Saraf bridge, Baghdad's first metal bridge, dating from the 1940s (MEE/Mustafa Nader)
The hope is to chip away at negative external perceptions of Iraq, while also improving young Iraqis’ view of their own country.

“As an Iraqi who knows about Iraq’s history, and meets brilliant and talented Iraqis all the time, I want to show the good positive part of Iraq and Iraqis,” al-Kaim said. 

The next stage of the project will be interactive and allow contact with contemporary successful Iraqis via the online platform.

"This will not only highlight talented and successful Iraqis, but it will also be used for crowdsourcing of these people’s expertise and to contact them directly,” al-Kaim explained.

Palm trees line a main street in Baghdad (MEE/Mustafa Nader)
Just as he overcame his cancer, Mustafa Nader is convinced his country can overcome its strife. When asked about what he wants in the future, his reply is immediate.

“I want peace. I just don’t want war. I don’t know why we are dying every day." 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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