The unlikely building that's become the headquarters of Baghdad’s protesters

The facade of the 'Turkish Restaurant', photographed from Tahrir Square in Baghdad. Photo shared on Twitter.
The facade of the 'Turkish Restaurant', photographed from Tahrir Square in Baghdad. Photo shared on Twitter.

Striking photos offering an aerial view of protesters gathering in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square started circulating online after a new wave of demonstrations in Iraq November 17. These photos were taken from a building overlooking the square known as the “Turkish Restaurant”, which has become the unlikely but strategic headquarters for protesters.

“This is Mount Uhud!” proclaimed Baghdad’s protesters, thus baptising the building that has become their fortress. The façade of the building is draped with banners detailing the protester’s demands.

The tweet above translates as: "The symbol of the revolution on October 25, the Turkish restaurant, displays important banners."

The name Mount Uhud refers to a battle carried out by the first Muslims in 625 AD. Heba Assem, a 26-year-old protester who knows the site well, explained why the protesters chose that name:

The Muslims actually lost this battle because, instead of holding their position on Mount Uhud, they disobeyed orders and went to loot the battlefield. But the lesson that we take from this story is that we need to hold our position at the “Turkish Restaurant” and refuse to give it up for any reason.

The protesters once again protested in Tahrir square on Sunday, November 17, in Baghdad. This video was filmed from the Turkish Restaurant.

'The protesters took over the building to keep snipers from moving in'

This “mountain” is a six-story building located in a strategic location between Tahrir Square, the gathering point for the protesters, and the Al-Jumhuriya Bridge, which leads to the Green Zone, where Iraqi government buildings and the US embassy are located. Its height makes it possible to film everything that happens on the square, including police repression.

The building has become such a symbol for the protest that people all across the country have started using the hashtag “Turkish Restaurant” to show their support.

Heba continued:

“The building got its nickname because there used to be a Turkish restaurant on the top floor. The building had been empty for years when the protesters decided to make it their headquarters at the very beginning of the uprising [Editor’s note: early October 2019]. They needed a spot to gather but it was also a strategic choice to keep snipers from moving in.

Before the protesters moved in, the building had been completely abandoned and was in a state of utter disrepair. Volunteers did an amazing job fixing it up. They cleaned the parking lot and repainted its columns in the colours of the Iraqi flag. Engineers from the union even managed to hook up the electricity and get the elevator working!”

Photos of the parking lot of the "Turkish Restaurant" before and after the protesters renovated it.

Photos showing the volunteer engineers after they repaired the building's elevator.

'These young people impress me!'

Wissam, a 44-year-old construction worker, often stops by the Turkish restaurant because he enjoys the sense of solidarity and conviviality:

Having a shelter nearby means that the protesters only have to go home occasionally to change, eat and rest before coming back to the square to keep protesting. It also allows them to regain their breath after a tear gas attack.

It’s also become a place to come together and share moments of joy and conviviality. The protesters aren’t just from Baghdad. Some of them come from towns in the south of the country and they can only go home for the weekend. During the week, they live in the Turkish restaurant. I’ve met a few people who are doing that."

The young people in this building impress me! They spared no effort in transforming the place. Just imagine, they even set up a library where you can sit and read for free! But they remain vigilant to ensure the safety of those inside. Before entering the building, you have to first agree to be searched.

Photo of the "library of the Tahrir martyrs".

Even though the "Turkish restaurant" remains a place where protesters can get some much-needed rest and relaxation, it is not always safe from threat. On October 26, security forces attacked the building and momentarily dispersed the protesters who were inside. Shortly thereafter, however, the protesters returned and were able to set up again within the building. Many protesters believe that the security forces wanted control of the "Turkish restaurant" so that they could station snipers there, which would make it easier for them to break up protests.

While Sunday's general strike drew large crowds, protesters and security forces continued to clash in the “Battle of the Bridges” over control of the bridges that link the eastern part of the capital with the west. After having taken back three bridges occupied by protesters, the security forces had to pull back from Sinak Bridge, which runs parallel to the Al-Jumhuriya Bridge.

Notably, there were no reports of security forces firing bullets on Sunday. This could signal a change in strategy for the Iraqi government that, until this point, has employed violent tactics towards the protesters. To date, more than 300 protesters have been killed and thousands have been wounded.

This article was written by Sarra Grira.