Translated from Arabic by Miriam Nackasha
Editor’s note: We first met Sally when she was reporting back through social media from the front lines of the Revolution in Tahrir square. We asked her about her impressions of love during those days, and this is what she had to say.
The beats of my heart pound with a deafening precision that chimes in time with the anxiety crawling through my chest.
It is just a bus; a bus that will take me from Karrada to Tahrir Square. But, today, as its old creaking doors open onto Saadoun Street, I step into a reality I could never have imagined; rising stacks of smoke and the inescapable smell of tear gas burning my eyes.
Memories of that very first day will stay with me forever. I was greeted by three strangers handing me a series of items: the first gave me a mask, the second a bottle of water and the third, a life hack that promised to kill the effects of tear gas should you pour it in your eyes - a can of Pepsi. It was immediately apparent that these items were fierce acts of love, and this set the tone for all my days in Tahrir Square that month.
Chanting crowds crescendoed as my feet inched closer. My heart swelled with more love than I knew possible. Supporting the student strike that was sweeping through the country gave me a sense of purpose that made me feel unstoppable, even when, down the line, it would usher in threats of getting me expelled. I was inspired to carry on by my love for the country, continuing to fight under the banner, “Tahrir is our University,” in which all students of that idyllic place took classes on how to build a different Iraq.
Our weeks were on a repetitive loop: I would drive to the same coffee shop, wait for my friend in Karrada and then take the bus to Tahrir. And then we would be at the Square, proudly supporting the front lines of the revolution; first with encouragement and then with first aid to the dozens of young people that were injured by police and armed thugs. But it was during those October days, awed by everyone's strength, that I witnessed a delicate love story poke through, like a shrub emerging from a concrete pavement.
It was on the shores of the Tigris River where the story of Sara and Abdo would unfold. The waterside hideout where they met would act as a refuge for anyone wanting to escape the sting of tear gas; and for Abdo, it was a respite from his daily duty of fending off the chemical canisters, to protect the protestors from their agony.
The first time Sara and Abdo crossed paths was under the Jumhuriya Bridge, which connects the two sides of the city split by the Tigris River. Sara was carrying a box filled with bags of IV fluid that she was hurriedly carrying to the front lines, where more and more protestors were falling victim to the brutal repression of the state that wanted to break the revolutionary spirit of the millions that took to the streets.
Under the bridge, Abdo spotted an anxious Sara weighed down by a box; he slipped off his mask and approached her offering a hand. But the dust and smoke would lead them to the river bank, where Abdo would will Sara to protect herself from the front lines. She never did take that advice; and after finding someone to carry the box of aid in her place, Sara and Abdo would spend the rest of the evening together speaking fiercely about the protests and lost in each other’s words on the love they have for their country. It was as if she was the one who whisked him to safety, and not the other way around.
As the sun rose in Baghdad the very next morning, Abdo picked Sara up on his motorcycle to head straight to Tahrir Square; something they would do every day, joining those across the country demanding a better life. And a long day of protesting together would always end with the disheveled pair climbing onto the motorcycle and leaving the streets, where they would go their separate ways for the evening. Sara would wrap herself in a big jacket and wrap the traditional scarf around her head to look like a man, so she would avoid the scornful eyes of onlookers who were still not used to public displays of love, even if it was just a couple riding a motorbike to avoid walking in the cold.
It was on these motorbike rides that Sara’s hand landed on Abdo’s only for him to reply with, “I love you too”. And from that day on, they were inseparable. Dressed in casual clothes, hair tied up messily and often speckled with the blood of protestors that they would spend hours every day providing with first aid; together they were a force of revolutionary love that filled Tahrir Square with hope whenever they graced it. Everyone was touched by their energy, mostly invigorated by the way Abdo looked at Sara, as if she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
The sight of lovers like Sara and Abdo made Tahrir Square even more beautiful than it was. For weeks, the Square became a microcosm for an Iraq that we all wanted to see, one where taboos were swept under the feet of activists that were sacrificing their lives for a country where love would not be forbidden. Despite the death and carnage that rained down on protestors from security forces, the Square became the safest place for a woman to be.
Sara and I were just two of the women who played some of the most dominant roles in the October Revolution; whether we were in the Square as protestors, or nurses, or artists meant that there was virtually no harassment, and men were forced to reimagine the way they perceived the contribution of women in society. For many women, it was the first time that they felt as truly integrated members of a society that has otherwise marginalised them and diminished their role.
In Tahrir Square, everything changed. Friends became family, and lovers no longer hid in secrecy. The revolution became a nation where everyone belonged. And that was entirely made possible through love.
About the Writer
Sally Mars, 24, is an activist and musician that lives in Baghdad.