Mosul, in the wake of war, embraces its cultural heritage

After suffering under an Islamic State regime where no music and little culture was tolerated, Mosul, Iraq, is slowly regaining its artistic roots after its liberation by Iraqi-US forces in 2017. Today, a community of artists and activists is breathing life into the city's cultural exchange.

Ari Jalal/Reuters
Karim Wasfi, conductor of the Peace Through Arts Farabi Orchestra, leads musicians in rehearsal in Mosul, Iraq, on Oct. 26, 2018. Mosul was long celebrated as a center of Iraqi culture and is only beginning to rediscover its cultural heritage after suppression under the Islamic State.

The first thing musician Fadhel al-Badri did when Mosul was liberated from Islamic State last year was breathe a sigh of relief.

The militants who seized the city in 2014 had targeted artists like himself so when neighbors said they were hunting for him, he left home, called his wife to say he was likely to die and took to sleeping in a different place each night.

The next thing he did was recover his beloved violin and his oud, similar to a lute, from where he had hidden them in the frame of his bed.

He said he hugged and kissed them "like they were my own children," and played amid the ruins "a song ... for Mosul."

On Saturday, Mr. Badri and other musicians and activists attended the first orchestral concert in the northern Iraqi city since the militants were defeated more than a year ago by Iraqi and Kurdish forces and a coalition led by the United States.

Thousands died in that battle or fled the city, large parts of which was reduced to rubble.

The musicians played in a park where the militants once trained child soldiers and the music, a mixture of Western and Iraqi classical, wafted along the banks of the Tigris River.

"Music is my life. It's amazing to hear it in Mosul again," he said. The concert was conceived by Karim Wasfi, former director of the Baghdad Orchestra, whose visiting Peace Through Arts Farabi Orchestra played alongside local musicians.

Mosul was long celebrated as a center of Iraqi culture but that life was suppressed even before Islamic State declared its caliphate in 2014. Al Qaeda targeted musicians in the wake of a US-led invasion in 2003 and no one could remember when they last heard live music in Mosul.

Islamic State continued that crackdown, blowing up statues and monuments, said Ali al-Baroodi, a Mosul University professor and photographer.

"We continued to consume culture in secret: we would listen to music, trade books, films, music. That never stopped even though it was dangerous," he said.

Mr. Baroodi and Badri belong to a community of artists and activists who have defied fears of fresh attacks to hold weekly book markets and photography exhibitions. In a bold move, that community has also painted murals around the city in a bid to reclaim public spaces.

Last year, he helped launch an international book drive to replenish the million books that Islamic State torched at the university library, one of the most important in the region.

"Mosul lost its identity, lost its features, lost thousands of its people with many more still under the rubble," he said. "These efforts aren't going to fix everything overnight but it gives us hope."

One new cultural center is the vibrant Qantara cultural cafe. It opened in east Mosul in March, welcomes men and women, boasts a well-stocked bookshop and hosts readings and workshops. In addition, musicians including Badri have performed there.

Its walls show paintings and photographs of Mosul's rich history and its recent devastation. One wall depicts the crimes of ISIS, displaying a yellow jumpsuit worn by detainees as well as handcuffs.

Not every cultural institution in Mosul is seeing rebirth.

The central public library, a research center that housed rare manuscripts including government records dating back to the Ottoman era, was the only one to survive Islamic State intact, even though it was used as a base.

Librarians hid the most precious texts but 20,000 books were dumped in the basement. After East Mosul was liberated, librarians salvaged what they could and stacked books on makeshift shelves.

But with no windows and holes in its ceiling, the library remains closed. Its halls, once filled with student researchers, are now caked in dust.

Library head Jamal Ahmed said funds had been set aside to repair the library, but government repair efforts had stalled.

"This library is an important cultural home," said a library employee. "We can't just rebuild bridges and roads, we have to rebuild minds."

This story was reported by Reuters. Additional reporting by Salih Elias. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

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 Mosul, in the wake of war, embraces its cultural heritage
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today