Before the war, it was strange to see smoke in the sky.
Fahad Sabah looked out on the city from the roof of his home with a bad feeling in his stomach. He saw black, thick, heavy smoke rising over the river that bisects the city. He went down to the basement and pulled out a flat box about seventy-five centimeters wide. It contained his most prized possessions—a satellite dish, and a stack of books.
If anyone saw him, he’d likely have been executed in the public square.
Firing up the satellite in the stairwell leading to up to the roof, he managed to get a signal: a scratchy evening news report. A short line with the name of his alma mater scrolling at the bottom of the screen caught his attention. The words brought him to sudden, surprised tears.
The smoke he saw earlier that day was from the library at Mosul University. The men who had taken over his city, and made reading books into a crime, had burned down the library. In a day, thousands of volumes were lost. With them went a thread that had bound the city together for generations.
It was February 3, 2015—the 219th day of the caliphate.
Long before the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, proclaimed its empire, Fahad spent years in the University of Mosul, and knew its library like the back of his hand. Each of its sections, stacks, and bookshelves are like a photograph in his mind. He and his wife had their first date in the library’s engineering section. When she noticed poems scribbled in the margins of his notebooks and asked about their author, Fahad replied that the poems were his. “Wow! They’re so good!” she said. Fahad smiles as he recalls the moment.
When Fahad finally proposed to her, it was through a poem. “At the end of the poem, I told her I would be so happy if you would agree to complete our lives together,” recalled Fahad, smiling even wider.
Books weave their way through many of the defining moments of Fahad’s life. To watch so many of them disappear was unimaginable. The library was more than a physical space and its antiquities to him. “A library makes a difference,” said Fahad, “because libraries have books, books have ideas, and ideas make change.”
Fahad couldn’t stop the library burning, but he dreamed that once the war ended, he could do something to bring books back to his city. Through them, he dreamed of creating a place where people could discover and share ideas that would change Mosul’s future.
Today, that dream has become a reality. Down the road from Mosul University on Majmou’a Street, in a busy East Mosul shopping district, is the Book Forum. Part library, part café, it is a space where people can sit and share coffee and conversation at communal tables, or curl up alone with a book. Fahad and his wife pooled their savings, including the last of the gold gifted at their wedding, to open it. Hundreds of once-contraband volumes line Book Forum’s walls. On a center shelf sits an Arabic translation of George Orwell’s 1984, alongside romantic novels, recent and ancient history texts, magazines, and books for children.
Many of Book Forum’s regulars are young, cultured Moslawis (as the 600,000 or so inhabitants of this city 250 miles north of Baghdad are known). They come as much to socialize as they do to read. At one table sits Omar Ta’ay, penciling in a detail in his latest illustration. Colorful paintings adorn the walls, some inspired by memories of the city’s experience under ISIS occupation; others showing a completely different palette of color and emotion—painted after the group was driven out in a nearly year-long battle to retake the city that ended in July 2017.
One of his artworks, occupying a prominent spot atop a shelf, is a striking portrait of Khalid Waleed, a twenty-nine-year-old music teacher. At another table, Khalid is leading a band on the oud (a lute-like stringed instrument), while Mustafa Hamdani recites a poem he finished recently, titled “Enough Blood.” Mohammed Adwany, also in his twenties, brings his violin and mile-wide smile, as Fahad fills the space with lilting songs, while his patrons alternate between listening and joining in.
Crowded with ashtrays and dozens of empty tea glasses, the table between these friends is like dozens of others that they’ve sat around over the years. These days, the best available therapy for painful memories is a coffee with friends at the Book Forum. It’s a place where they can read, think, and be normal—and begin the process of rediscovering their public identities, something that was impossible just a year ago.
Mosul’s foundations lie amid the ruins of the ancient cities of Nineveh and Nimrud, capitals of two of the world’s first great civilizations. Down the centuries, empires have governed, occupied, and gone to war over Mosul. But through each iteration of its identity, the city has held on to its renown as a center of knowledge and learning.
Important for its location on the banks of the Tigris, the city was a major stop on the Silk Road. The word muslin is derived from Mosul, which was known for producing rich and lush fabrics. Copernicus drew on the Moslawi astronomers and mathematicians when he concluded that the earth revolved around the sun. Mosul philosophers such as the tenth-century Al-Maslawi and the twelfth-century Ibn al-Athir wrote works that are studied to this day.
Wandering the oldest parts of Mosul feels like walking among myths. Known as the “city of prophets,” Iraq’s second city is rich with temples, tombs, and ancient shrines. An image of the city’s 850-year-old Al-Nuri Mosque adorns the Iraqi 10,000 dinar note; according to local folklore, its famous leaning minaret was bowing to God. The biblical prophet Jonah, who was consumed by a whale for refusing God’s commands, is said to be buried in Mosul. The site of his tomb is a monument to the complex historical and social fabric embedded into Mosul’s history—on a hill marked by a 600BC Assyrian temple, a twelfth-century mosque, and sites holy to both Jews and Christians, who were neighbors in the city, along with the majority Sunni Muslims, for more than a millennium.
Today, both Al-Nuri Mosque and the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah lie in rubble. The ground is littered with fragments of stone with Arabic calligraphy inscribed in long, elegant lines. After ISIS arrived, landmark after landmark was detonated: thousands of years of history were wiped out in less than three.
“They were burning books, destroying all culture, and destroying people’s minds,” said Fahad. “They wanted to erase our memory [of the past].” For ISIS, erasing culture and cutting off access to knowledge was crucial to controlling people. The occupiers destroyed somewhere between 8,000 and 100,000 books; it’s hard to know the true scope of the loss because the group didn’t just destroy the books, but also stole them. Locals say that ISIS fighters would stuff valuable, antique manuscripts into old flour sacks, load them into the back of their trucks, and disappear with them. Many of the books found their way onto the black market.
Today, ISIS has been expelled from Mosul, at a great cost.
In October 2016, Baghdad finally moved to re-establish sovereignty over the Iraqi territory ISIS had seized—by then, over a third of the country. The war to recapture Mosul would last ten months, finally freeing thousands of civilians from a nightmare. But it would also level nearly half of the ancient city, and claim the lives of thousands of inhabitants in a non-stop bombardment from the air and from the ground. At the last tally, more than 10,000 bodies have been counted in city morgues, of which about a third have been identified as belonging to civilians. The count won’t be final until the mountains of rubble have been cleared, a process that could take years.
The Tigris River divides Mosul into two distinct sides, each with its own topography of class and culture. The right bank, on the city’s western side, used to be the bustling center filled with markets and close-knit neighborhoods. It includes the Old City, where ISIS dug in, often occupying civilian homes to take up firing positions aimed at Coalition forces across the river, today a ghost town in ruins. Without electricity or water, most people have been displaced to the less densely populated neighborhoods of the Left Bank, which now forms the new city center. The right bank lies empty, and there is little prospect that its residents can return.
Most people now living in Mosul refer to the period when ISIS ruled their city as “the occupation.” Though the conquerors arrived with a rhetoric of championing a long-oppressed Sunni community, few were Mosul natives. Many were either transplants from Syria or elsewhere, or came from rural areas around Mosul—and seethed with resentment at the urban Moslawis they then held power over.
After taking over the city, ISIS closed down places of independent learning, set up its own schools and propaganda programs, and cut off access to the outside world. Books became a public enemy, ideas were contraband.
“Mosul has been giving studies for a thousand years without closing or without stopping graduation or studies for the young people,” said Mohamed Hussein Hamdani, the dean of law at Mosul University. “When Daesh entered, the first thing it did was to close the law school.” (The term “Daesh” comes from the Arabic acronym for ISIS, and has a derisive connotation that roughly translates as “those who trample underfoot.”)
“They thought the school was blasphemous,” explained Hamdani. To enforce their divinely-inspired laws (as they saw it), ISIS established a force of morality police. They drove around in rebranded police vehicles handing out punishments for minor infractions long common in Mosul, but now deemed un-Islamic, such as smoking cigarettes in the cafés or women wearing anything but the prescribed abayas.
Even facial hair could be a police matter. Today sitting and smoking a cigarette in Book Forum, Khalid Waleed sports a well-trimmed goatee. “But when ISIS came and told us we have to grow our beards,” he said, “then all we wanted to do was shave.”
For those who couldn’t leave Mosul, many aspects of daily life under occupation were a bizarre balance of the tolerable and the intolerable. As long as people kept up an outward appearance of following the rules, they could escape punishment. Friends still met to play cards, but Fahad no longer felt comfortable meeting his friends in public at cafés. A brief word of complaint to the man sitting next to you could be acknowledged with a nod of solidarity, or it could get you turned in. The majority of people were simply trying to get by—neither acquiescing to the Islamic State’s rigid dictates, nor taking any action to resist them.
“The people in the middle are the ones who put down their heads— like me, like everyone here,” Khalid said, unabashed about the pragmatism that was necessary to survive. “You just close your mouth, go to work, back to home again,” said Waleed. “If you didn’t lower your head, you would lose it. It’s that simple.”
To keep his sanity, Khalid clung to his music in secret. Secluded in his room, he would close all the doors and windows and play his oud: “Just with my fingers, never using a pick— so that no one could hear but me.” All the same, he considers himself lucky no one informed on him. His friend Mohammed Adwany was not so lucky. In March 2015, armed men knocked at his door, asking for him by name. They accused him of being a musician, though without proof—his treasured violin was buried in the back yard.
They took him to a prison, and every other day, a jailer would come in and ask if he wanted to confess. The jailer would hold a gun to his head, demanding a confession. Five times, Adwany swore he hated music. Five times, the jailer pulled the trigger on an empty gun, and told him that the next time it would be loaded. After ten days of this torment, he was released.
When Waleed heard what happened, he wanted to meet Adwany. After they met, they played in secret, the sound masked by the loud motor of a gasoline generator. Everyone had something they couldn’t give up. For Fahad Sabah, it was reading. Every night, he took those books out of hiding and read. But even inside his own home, he never felt completely safe, and he kept his books hidden, and he kept his books hidden under a pile of dusty old tools in case ISIS came knocking. “I was reading the sciences, philosophy and about religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam—the problems of our history,” he said. As he read, he saw certain historical patterns repeating themselves.
You see that all these problems are not related to religion. It’s government, it’s judgment, it’s war, and it’s history… the people caused problems and we need to look at history and read that history to our sons and their sons, to understand.
Life is slowly returning to Mosul’s Old City. But it’s not easy.
The state is not there to rebuild; its only presence is in heavily armed soldiers at checkpoints. In the absence of government, neighborhoods are self-organizing, and local leaders called mokhtars often lead rebuilding efforts with whatever resources they can muster. Ahmed Mohamed Abdulrahman is one such. The lenses he wears to keep the dust out of his eyes as he works on repairs give him the air of a locomotive engineer on a break from stoking the boiler.
Abdulrahman stores two critical things: medical supplies and books. Both are free for everyone in the neighborhood, and he believes they’re equally important. Past a broken staircase and hanging wires is the stash he guarded through the last days of the occupation. His collection ranges from a 1950s Egyptian history of Arabic literature to a copy of Maxim Magazine with Jennifer Love Hewitt on the cover. Like Fahad, he hid his books during the occupation. Now he hopes they will become the seed for a library in the neighborhood. Standing amid the gray, chalky dust of a home without running water or electricity, Abdulrahman is cheerful.
“Books are the food that can heal all these problems,” he said, taking another book from a shelf. “These books are worth billions for me.” For him, they are a physical manifestation of learning and critical thinking. “Why do you think Daesh burned the books?” asks Abdulrahman. “Because they wanted to rob us of knowledge.”
It is a delicate moment in Mosul. In the vacuum left by ISIS and the Iraqi government, people are painfully aware that no one is coming to rescue them. It is hard to find a family that has not been marked in some way by at least one war. Despite that, there is a sense of fragile hope that colors people’s efforts to rebuild their city with their own hands. Efforts like the Book Forum’s are important not only to restoring a semblance of what life was like before ISIS, but also to nurturing a culture of knowledge that will counteract the cycle of problems that has befallen their generation.
Over at the university, librarians are working hard to restore the library shelf by shelf. Even though it remains one of the most prestigious in Iraq, the university is not a government priority for reconstruction. Dean Hamdani donated hundreds of his own books to facilitate the university’s reopening. “Daesh thought the law college was the first school that must be closed,” he said, “so I thought it must be the first one permanently opened in the University of Mosul. As a response.”
Over on the battered West Side, Abdulrahman echoed this sentiment. Asked what the neighborhood needed most, his first answer was water. His second, classrooms. “Education must be supported to make people trust in themselves. Daesh removed people’s trust in each other,” he said. “Do you see this garden? People didn’t have confidence in themselves… that’s why it’s full of bombs instead of flowers.”