Baghdad tunnel becomes street art museum during Iraq protests

Young Iraqi artists have covered Baghdad's Saadoun Tunnel in bright murals conveying protesters' messages of hope and defiance. 

Khalid Mohammed/AP
The Arabic in this underpass mural reads "those are our women" and is shown Nov. 18, 2019, near Baghdad’s landmark Tahrir Square. The tunnel's street art has become an ad hoc museum during Iraq's recent protests.

The images are both haunting and inspiring, transforming a once dreary, grim underpass into a vivid, colorful wall of art.

"We want a nation, not a prison," says one painting that depicts a man bursting free from behind bars. "Plant a revolution, and you will harvest a nation," reads another showing a hand flashing the victory sign over protesters heads.

Some of the messages are less sentimental. "Look at us, Americans, this is all your fault," declares one.

The Saadoun Tunnel has become an ad hoc museum for Iraq's massive anti-government protest movement. Along its walls, young artists draw murals, portraits, and graffiti that illustrate the country's tortured past and the Iraq they aspire to.

The tunnel passes under Baghdad's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests where thousands of people are camped out in a giant sit-in that has taken on the feel of a vibrant mini-city.

Almost daily, clashes erupt with security forces not far away firing tear gas, live rounds, and stun grenades to prevent protesters from crossing bridges over the Tigris River to the Green Zone, the seat of Iraq's government. Tuk tuks – three-wheeled motorcycle transports – often zip back and forth through the Saadoun Tunnel, rushing wounded protesters from the front lines to medical clinics.

Saadoun Tunnel, the tuk tuks, the square, and a nearby 14-story Saddam Hussein-era building on the Tigris that protesters took over have all become symbols of what has become the largest grassroots protest movement Iraq has seen. The protests erupted Oct. 1 over longstanding grievances at corruption, unemployment, and a lack of basic services and quickly escalated into calls to sweep aside Iraq's sectarian system imposed after the 2003 U.S. invasion and its entire political elite.

Young protesters, men and women, throng the tunnel – actually a long underpass, most of which is open to the air except for enclosed portions directly beneath Tahrir — and pass time there hanging out or taking selfies in front of the murals. Caricatures on the walls mock Iraqi politicians; other paintings praise the tuk tuks; a woman with an Iraqi flag on her cheek flexes her bicep, recreating the famed U.S. "We Can Do It" poster; faces in drawings shout in anger or pain.

Haydar Mohammed said he and a group of other medical students were partly responsible for the murals. They met in Tahrir and saw the tunnels walls were a perfect medium to send a message to those who are suspicious of the protesters, he said.

"We are life-makers not death-makers," he said. "We decided to draw simple paintings to support our protester brothers and to express our message, which is a peace message."

Many of the murals carry calls for anti-sectarianism, peace, and a free Iraq. In one painting, a little girl cries, declaring "They killed my dream," referring to the group of men behind her, some in religious clothes.

Another shows an Iraqi protester wearing a helmet against tear gas with the Arabic words: "In the heart is something that cannot be killed by guns, which is the nation." Nearby is scrawled, in English, "All What I want is life."

"Sitting in front of these portraits, people, and candles is better than being in any coffeeshop. Every time I look at them I am hopeful that the revolution will not end," said Yahya Mohammed, observing the scene.

"This tunnel gives me hope."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP journalist Ali Abdul-Hassan contributed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Baghdad tunnel becomes street art museum during Iraq protests
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today