Mosulʹs cultural comeback

Music is back in Mosul, as are books and paintings. With Islamic State gone, locals are enjoying their newfound freedom and embracing culture. Will it last? Judit Neurink reports from Mosul

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Judit Neurink

In the park in Mosul where the "Islamic State" (IS) once trained child soldiers, thousands have now gathered for a book festival with plays, music and tables full of books donated to the people of the city. Culture is back with a bang in Iraq's second city and the "I am Iraqi – I read" festival is just one of many cultural events. The slogan refers to the traditional Arab saying: "Egypt writes, Lebanon publishes and Iraq reads."

"You donʹt know what youʹve got till itʹs gone," says Ali al-Baroodi, an English teacher at Mosul University who has become the city's unofficial chronicler, cycling around his liberated hometown taking pictures of the damage and the rebuilding process. "Last year's liberation of eastern Mosul from Daesh was like a second birthday for me."

Arts and culture suffered badly under IS, otherwise known as Daesh. Statues of poets and writers were torn down, works of arts and musical instruments were also destroyed and the university library burned along with many valuable books. Books were banned, non-religious art was taboo, musicians and artists were killed.

And not just by IS. The repression began soon after the U.S. invasion in 2003, when radical Muslims began to gain more and more ground in the city. "IS is like a ghost – you don't see it, but it's there, secretly collecting data on us for when they return," said al-Baroodi. "They ruled in the shadows from 2005 and openly after 2014. It is not easy to end their existence. Under Daesh, I died 1,000 times a day. So the first thing Mosul needs to do is lose its fear."

And while his father keeps warning him to be more careful, the young photographer feels it's his mission to record developments in his city.

He compares the situation to the first years after 2003, when the Iraqis celebrated the change and the freedom they had longed for — until Muslim radicals appeared on the scene to fight the Americans, putting a rude end to the positive changes. But this time, many in Mosul feel that the change process must be allowed to continue.

"Better than before IS"

Marwan Tariq, who teaches at Mosul University's Arts Institute, agrees that progress has been made: "After Daesh, the situation is already better than before they arrived." Tariq was one of the first to enter the badly-bombed university campus after IS was chased out early last year. The damage to the Arts Institute was terrible. "Everything that had a connection to art was broken. Pianos, ouds, guitars, but also paintings and sculptures," he recalled.Together with his students he started to clean up the buildings that were still standing – without any support from the Iraqi government, which continues to treat anyone who stayed during the occupation with suspicion for having possibly collaborated with IS. At the same time, locals are still afraid of those IS members who went underground. "That's why you hardly see anything relating to the occupation in the arts now," Tariq said.

A mural of books in Mosul (photo: DW/E v. Wessel)
Rescued from a torching by IS: after the fire in the library, Ali al-Baroodi, an English lecturer at the University of Mosul, together with students and other volunteers, recovered some 6,000 books from the ashes. Historian Omar Mohammed, internationally known as the blogger "Mosul Eye", launched an appeal, whereupon thousands of books were sent from abroad to replace the lost ones

And the arts do not seem to be playing a role in helping people come to terms with what happened to them under IS, in contrast to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where, for instance, a Yazidi artist has created paintings about the fate of his people.

Artists in Mosul found other ways to celebrate their renewed freedom. In May 2017, when the battle was still raging across the river Tigris, which divides the city in two, both al-Baroodi and Tariq were involved in staging an art exhibition in eastern Mosul. There, pictures and paintings were exhibited against the blackened remains of a university building to the sounds of long-banned music.And then there was the action by students, teachers and volunteers to save the books that had survived the fire in the university library.

Salvaging Mosul's heritage

In the wake of the fire at the university's library, al-Baroodi, along with students and other volunteers, was there to document the salvaging of some 6,000 books from the ashes. Thousands of books would later arrive from abroad to replace those that were lost, thanks to an appeal by historian Omar Mohammed, who had garnered international attention for his work as the Mosul Eye blogger during the occupation.

Music has returned, too, with an oud player giving a concert at the art exhibition and a bass player performing at damaged heritage sites, like the Nouri Mosque with its famous Hadba minaret where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate and which IS destroyed when they were forced out of the city.

Two men in a Mosul cafe (photo: DW/E v. Wessel)
"You donʹt know what youʹve got till itʹs gone," says Ali al-Baroodi, an English teacher at Mosul University who has become an unofficial chronicler of the city, taking photographs of the damage and reconstruction. In June 2014, facing little resistance, the terrorist militia IS took Mosul. The militant Islamists then destroyed unique ancient cultural sites and sold artefacts on the black market to finance themselves or buy weapons. The battle for the recapture of Mosul lasted from mid-October 2016 to early July 2017. The urban destruction was exacerbated by prolonged fighting street for street

Music also features prominently at the book cafe, the first one ever opened recently in Mosul. There, Fahad Sabah and his business partner Harith Yassin offer a platform for concerts and weekly debates about literature and a quiet place for young and old, men and women, to read or work, enjoying a cup of coffee or tea. Sabah proudly announces that they are selling Shia books now, too – another taboo broken in the conservative Sunni city.

Just the beginning

In the cafe, where neatly stacked bookcases and portraits of writers, musicians and artists contribute to the atmosphere, Sabah agrees that culture has returned to Mosul. "Even before Daesh, debate was impossible for fear of the extremists and their threats. Now society is far more open. Our place is just one example. Look at what we do and who comes in here. We are running the first public space where both men and women feel at home," he said proudly.

He recounted how long segregation of the sexes had existed in the city. "Until the 1980s, the cinemas were still mixed. But then came the radicalisation of society and village culture went into a downward spiral."

Sabah wants to work hard to avoid the mistakes that were made after 2003 and build on the new openness – even though it's estimated that at least a fifth of Mosul's inhabitants agreed with IS ideology, if not the way it was applied. "That's why we have to understand our problems and our limits. That's the first step toward a solution. It won't be easy; we will have to work hard."

Judit Neurink

© Deutsche Welle 2018