In Iraq, The Revolt Of Generation 2018

Young people with little memory of the Saddam Hussein era are fed up with unemployment, public sector corruption and unfulfilled government promises.

Tensions in Iraq are bubbling over amid government dissatisfaction
Hélène Sallon

BASRA — In one photo, Makki Achour stares at the lens, his eyes bright, his hair — like many Iraqis his age — in little tufts. In another, the frail young man appears in a military uniform, smiling proudly. The photo was taken in the field, where, as a member of the Popular Mobilization Front, a state-sponsored paramilitary organization established in 2014, Achour fought the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

These snapshots, along with those of other young faces, are brandished by demonstrators in Basra, a large city in southern Iraq, and shared on social networks as a sign of solidarity. Achour has become an icon since he died what demonstrators call a martyr's death on Sept. 3. He was 26. The young man was shot and killed during a demonstration in front of the governor's seat in Basra. His death rekindled a dispute that has shaken the Shiite south since July and cost at least 27 people their lives.

This past hot summer exacerbated tensions in these provinces, where farmland is shrinking as a result of desertification and the population does not always see the benefits from oil — the primary source of local wealth. Fed up with regular power cuts, unemployment and a lack of potable water, thousands of men — among them, day workers, college graduates without jobs, older activists, and bloggers — invaded the streets to protest what they see as decadence and widespread corruption in the public sector.

Despite government promises and increased security measures, their anger does not appear to be going away. Most of them are young, and their generation has inspired a series of anti-establishment protests in Iraq since 2011.


Strife in Iraq is widespread among the political and military tensions — Photo: David Stanley

Generation 2018, as they are known in Iraq, distinguishes itself from previous generations by its emancipation from political or religious ideologies, according to Muhammad Atwat, who teaches political science at the University of Basra.

"This generation has neither the memory of the nationalist dictator Saddam Hussein nor that of the Shia Islamism supported by Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and the Khomeinist revolution in Iran," Atwat explains. "It is the product of post-2003, of the internet and social networks, of global and open society, of multiculturalism. It's a breaking away."

Demanding "radical change"

From Basra to Najaf, and Al Diwaniya or Baghdad, people let their frustrations be known this past summer. Unlike the reform movement of 2015, it is no longer only a question of jobs and infrastructure, of corruption and the "big whales' who fatten themselves at the expense of everyday people. There is also a violent rejection of the Shia religious parties and the denominational system that has ruled the nation since 2005. Only Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the highest Shia religious authority in Iraq, commands their respect for his support of reforms.

The political parties are seen as a disease.

"Many Shia icons, such as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Moqtada Al-Sadr or Ammar Al-Hakim, whom people used to venerate in Basra, are now jeered," says Taïf Khoudeir, 38, an activist blogger and petroleum engineer who has taken part in all of the city's demonstrations since 2011.

Fueling this break is the heavy toll paid by the south in the war against ISIS — thousands of volunteers fought in this campaign — and the unfulfilled reform promises made after the protest movement of 2015-2016. "There is an escalation of claims," says Hossam Kaabe, a 39-year-old journalist and activist who lives in the holy Shia city of Najaf, where the uprising was violent this summer. "The demonstrators no longer accept half-measures. They want a radical change. The political parties are seen as a disease."

This rejection worries the Shia political class all the more because it stems from its electoral base and confirms a disaffection that was already clear during legislative elections in May. Abstention in that vote stood at 57.5% nationwide. It was probably even higher in the Southern provinces. Since then, the winning parties have been jostling to form a government coalition government, and the demonstrators feel as if the politicians are only concerned with their own interests.

What good is all this blood if it was only to enrich the militias and defend the interests of Iran?

Protestors also blame Iraq's powerful neighbor, Iran, which they accuse of interfering with national affairs by supporting political parties that have powerful and heavily-armed militias that have increased their hold on the large cities of the south as a result of the war against ISIS.

"These militias disturb the peace," says Hossam Kaabe. "Since we've been demonstrating, they even come out into the road with their weapons. They have our names, and we expect to be plucked from our homes at any moment. We often receive threats, but we don't care!"

On Sept. 7, the insurgents of Basra challenged these organizations by burning down their headquarters.

Just a few years ago, Shia volunteers from Iraq were volunteering to join militias and fight against ISIS in Iraq, or even go to Syria to support forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Many of them died in battle, and many survivors feel abandoned. That now seems like the distant past.

"What good was all this blood if it was only to enrich the militias and defend the interests of Iran?" asks Ali Qassem, 27, a demonstrator in Basra.

Anger, but no agenda

This same sense of betrayal surfaces in the face of electoral compromises made by various leaders of the Popular Mobilization Forces who are ready to make a deal with Sunni leaders formerly accused of ambivalence toward ISIS.

"They have stirred up hatred against the Sunni provinces by depicting them as accomplices to the Islamic State and contemptuous of Iran and Shiites," says Khoudeir. "And today they extend their hands to the Sunnis responsible for having supported the Islamic State! It's a betrayal of the martyrs who followed them into this war."

While they agree on the roots of Iraq's current woes, there is little consensus within Generation 2018 on how to fix the country. They all talk about revolution. Some call for the establishment of a presidential regime. Others, nostalgic for a time they didn't even know, call for the return of a strong man like Saddam Hussein. Many of them believe that violence is a legitimate course of action.

"These are angry protestors, not activists as they were in the pro-reform demonstrations of 2015, who represented the elite from all faiths and sectors of society," says Hamid Jaajah, 47, a secular activist who is the principal of a school in Baghdad.

The radicalism of this generation causes friction with veteran protestors. Long-time activists view the newcomers with suspicion. These activists are supporters of the alliance between communists and Shiites of the Sadr branch, which formed during the movement of 2015-2016 and won the legislative elections in May.

Seeking a middle way

"We shouldn't reject all of the parties," says Intisar Al-Mayali, a prominent communist activist who is also known as a defender of women's rights. "Only those people within them who are bad. The protestors don't understand what parties are for or what Parliament is for."

Many in this new generation of protestors have developed different perspectives through international exchange programs, which have become common over the past three years. These protestors are often more educated and worldly. While some aspire to pursue their studies or a career overseas, others, such as Taïf Khoudeir in Basra, believe that private entrepreneurship in Iraq can change society from the bottom up.

The protestors don't understand what parties are for or what Parliament is for.

In Baghdad, these different generations meet in a café called Coffee and Books. It has become the headquarters of one of the familiar faces of the protests, Akram Adhab, who is in his 30s and has helped give unity and direction to the new movement. Dressed in khaki from head to toe, he stands out among the students, intellectuals, and artists.

The brusque tone in which he calls out to the waiter betrays his humble origins. He was a day laborer in the working-class district of Sadr City and has just returned to secondary school, which he never finished. Prior to the legislative elections, he created a lobby group called Chabab Baghdad, which now has around 50 members and is growing in the south.

"The Iraqi institutions don't have a vision for the country," he explains. "We reject all Shia parties and their militias, the corrupt, and those who promote a foreign agenda, but in a democratic and non-violent way."

Adhab understands the anger of the young demonstrators but deplores their violence and their flurry of demands, which he believes are a burden on the movement. He doesn't believe in a military coup d"état, an emergency government or a strong man like Saddam Hussein. He hopes to arouse passion in the young people of his generation.

"The problem is not in the elections or in the type of government, but in the laws and the existing political class," Adhab says. "The corruption. The demonstrators don't understand the reality of the Iraqi system. What we need is a federal system. It will take years for our plans to bear fruit."

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Pomp And Pirouettes: When Ballet Stars Bid Farewell

On June 11, the prima ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato bid farewell to the Paris Opera, under the gold roof of the historic Palais Garnier. It's an obligatory passage for Parisian ballet dancers of a certain age, a moment that is often happy, always dreaded and sometimes salutary.

Ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato performing at her adieux
Eleonora Abbagnato Official Instagram Account
Cecilia Delporte

PARIS — With one last look at Chagall's enchanting fresco, at the teachers who watched her grow up, at the stage that saw her blossom, Eleonora Abbagnato took her final bow. Never has a star ballerina's farewell been so dramatic, as her big exit was postponed by three cancellations due to a strike, and then the pandemic.

"I'm always positive, I think that destiny does things well," she says in her dressing room a few days before her "adieu." "I knew this evening would eventually take place!" This artist, who wanted to model her last dance on Le Parc by Angelin Preljocaj, ended up dazzling the crowd in a tribute to Roland Petit, which nicely echoed her career.

"He is someone I knew at the age of 10, so it was important to me to perform a ballet by this choreographer. The last time I danced Young Man was for Nicolas Le Riche's farewell, I was four months pregnant! It all began with Roland, and it all ends with him." The ballerina has lost none of her taste for the stage, but there are traditions that forge an institution: At the age of 42, each Opera dancer must leave the premises with a final au revoir to the public and the company.

"It's probably less painful than in other foreign companies, especially Anglo-Saxon ones, where there is no age limit but you are summoned to be told that you are no longer in the shape you were when you started out," says the former star Agnès Letestu. But how will this particular evening be remembered, as a rite of passage or the beginning of a new life? "The farewell is both a moment of extraordinary love with the hall, the orchestra pit, the backstage area ... and at the same time the turning of a page in the history of this institution. Even if the phoenix always rises from its ashes through the appointment of a new star," says Brigitte Lefèvre, the Paris Opera's dance director from 1995 to 2014.

No faux pas when choosing the last dance

This uniquely talented artist deserves the same exceptional ceremony created for the departure of Elisabeth Platel in 1999 and Carole Arbo two years later, which was televised for the very first time. For these kinds of events, the star's personal life comes into play — family members are present in the room, children occasionally come on stage. A perfectly choreographed protocol is followed to a tee, mixing various speeches with the arrival of the Minister of Culture; sometimes a special distinction from the Order of Arts and Letters is awarded. Moments of grace are sprinkled throughout the evening, such as the improvised dance between Aurélie Dupont — the director of dance at the time — and the departing star Marie-Agnès Gillot. The festivities continue into the night, charged with excitement and emotion.

These farewells are planned two or three years in advance when the time comes for the dance director to curate the future program. Aurélie Dupont, like Brigitte Lefèvre before her, likes to ask the star which ballet they prefer as their parting performance and which partners should accompany them.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning.

"There are some dancers who don't want to say goodbye because they don't like it, because the program doesn't suit them or because they don't feel fit enough," says Agnès Letestu. "I wanted to leave the Paris Opera with La Dame aux Camélias. I had talked to Brigitte Lefèvre about it. Except my farewell was scheduled before the ballet was programmed, so I had to find another one, but I did not agree. So I proposed to her to come back and dance it one month after I left the company, which was quite unusual."

Among the most requested works are the legendary ballets Giselle and L'Histoire de Manon. "The stars like to start with love stories that end badly. Everyone wants a ballet with real drama, in two or three acts, rather than a little pas de deux," says Aurélie Dupont. Dupont's first choice, La Dame aux Camélias, had already been scheduled two years earlier for the farewell of Agnès Letestu, so she settled on Manon. This work, heavy with meaning, was Dupont's big return to the stage after a serious knee injury in 1998, when she feared she could no longer dance.

Eleonora Abbagnato performing her final "adieux" at the Paris Opera

Like going to the guillotine

As for the brilliant Karl Paquette, it was with Cinderella — a ballet dear to his heart — that he retired at the Opéra Bastille, Paris' second opera house while many dancers prefer the old charm of the more famous Palais Garnier. "The story is funny, the ballet very narrative — one of the most beautiful successes of Nureyev. I loved the golden costume, the scenic effects, the finale of the grand pas de deux. The strongest moment was my entrance on stage in Act II to great applause, even as the musicians continued to play," he recalls.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning, like when Marie-Agnès Gillot cried heavily before her final step onto the stage. On that fateful day, Agnès Letestu says she felt a very special sensation, strengthening her senses, from her vision to her hearing. "Everything was multiplied tenfold," says Letestu who, a few months earlier, had the feeling of going to the guillotine. "I was very stressed four months before, I was afraid of hurting myself and not being able to dance, of not being up to it, of not enjoying every moment, of crying," says Aurélie Dupont, whose farewell was finally a calming moment. "I especially remember the applause, people were shouting, standing — it lasted more than 20 minutes. And this love is only for you."

I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion!

Nicolas Le Riche, now director of the Royal Ballet of Stockholm, evokes a "very strong feeling of corporation, of belonging to an institution that we celebrate at the same time." He was the only artist to bid farewell not to a ballet, but to a "special evening" of total freedom, mixing pieces like L'Après-midi d'un faune by Nijinsky and Béjart's Le Boléro. On stage, tributes were paid in his honor by prestigious guests such as singer Matthieu Chedid and actor Guillaume Gallienne.

"I found this repertoire, which transcended the ages, very moving. I received a magnificent note from Nijinsky's daughter. It's an evening where everyone is allowed to be moved and to live these emotions, except the person who is leaving. I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion, otherwise, I would have taken a step on stage and collapsed!" he recalls. How long did it take him to prepare such a spectacle? "I feel like answering in the manner of Coco Chanel, who made her hat in two scissor strokes. 'But it only took you two minutes?" says a disappointed customer. 'No, Madam, it took me a whole life," she replies. The same way I drew on all that I lived through," says the dancer.

Group photo of Paris Opera dancers in white tutus dancing in front of the Palais Garnier, with placards in protest of the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age

Paris Opera dancers perform in front of the Palais Garnier to protest the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age — Photo: Maxppp/ ZUMA

To each their own swan song

While Laëtitia Pujol hesitated a long time before making her farewell, hoping to leave discreetly, others end up with departure full of pomp and circumstance, sometimes to their surprise. "It's a moment you think about all the time without really thinking about it. I certainly wasn't looking forward to it and wanted something intimate. This was the opposite," says Karl Paquette. "The director of the Paris Opera at the time, Stéphane Lissner, wanted to leave on the symbolic day of December 31. "I was doubly pressured because the farewell was broadcast in the cinema, and each of my movements was immortalized. On the last day, you are in a particular state of conditioning because you are saying goodbye to 25 years of career and nearly 42 years of life. You have to protect yourself."

When the farewell came, it was a relief.

Only Benjamin Pech experienced his farewell, an evening in February 2016, as a liberation. And for good reason: "I had a hip injury in 2014. I was diagnosed with rapid degenerative arthritis. To remedy it, I needed a hip replacement. My farewell was scheduled for 2016, so I decided not to have the surgery and continue until then. For two years, I held on by dancing practically on one leg and had to turn to a repertoire that was no longer athletic but theatrical, with compositional roles that opened up other perspectives. Isn't a dancer above all someone who comes to deeply impact the spectator? When the farewell came, it was a relief," he says.

The star had chosen to dance alongside Sylviane, an 84-year-old spectator and one of his lifelong fans, who was present during rehearsals, but unfortunately became ill on the day of the performance. Pech took his leave on a program that included Le Parc by Preljocaj, the very piece that gave way to his injury: "I have come full circle."

Bidding farewell to the word "adieu"

Shortly after his or her performance, the future retiree must pass on their dressing room to another star, a moment that is "both very sophisticated and archaic. There are the great speeches, which say that this house will always be yours, but in reality, it becomes otherwise," says Brigitte Lefèvre. "You close the door, you leave and it's over," says Eleonora Abbagnato. But how do these artists project themselves into the future? "What is traumatic is that we are heavily drilled since we entered the dance school at 8 years old, with a professional outline where everything is already decided. How can you exist professionally when you have garnered such admiration, even fascination until now? At 42, most people are in the middle of their career, ours is coming to an end," says Benjamin Pech, who has become ballet master at the Opera of Rome, directed by Eleonora Abbagnato.

It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens.

While many stars go on to create or run a company, many experience a profound period of confusion. "I was secretly hoping that someone would call me for a position, that I could be of some value, but it didn't happen that way," explains Nicolas Le Riche. "I had already enrolled at Sciences Po for schooling [in management and leadership]. I had to create my own opportunities."

To remedy this uncertainty, Aurélie Dupont now offers support for company members, offering them a skills assessment and training beyond dance. In the future, Nicolas Le Riche would like the word "adieu" to be replaced by the idea of celebration. "It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens." Because under the gold of the Palais Garnier, the stars are eternal.

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