At Yarmouk, there was Aeham Ahmad’s piano; in Mosul, there’s Ameen Mukdad’s violin. The silence that fell over the Palestinian refugee camp in Syria when it was occupied by ISIS was the same echoed throughout the Iraqi city.
In mid-April, the young Iraqi violinist played in public. He hadn’t done so since June 2014, when the Islamic State took Mosul in 48 hours. He tells the Telegraph: “I will never forget June 10, 2014. It is the day music died.”
After three years, in April, he once again touched the strings of his violin in a symbolic place, the tomb of prophet Jonah, Younis in the Koran, the sacred site for both Muslims and Christians. There were about 20 people listening to him, on the hill of al-Tawbah (“repentance”) among the ruins of the Jonah mosque and church, partially destroyed by ISIS in 2014.
And the music is back in Mosul — at least in those sections that are liberated already. Since Oct. 17, government troops have launched a major operation to wrest the city from the Islamist yoke.
The eastern part, less residential, more industrial, was freed. To the west, beyond the Tigris River, where the old town rises with its narrow streets and spice markets, many districts have been cleared of militants, but a few remain entrenched in a handful of square kilometers.
Some of the two million displaced people are returning. And they bring everyday life back with them, including music: after all, Mosul is the birthplace of the most famous Iraqi musicians, like Munir Bashir (his oud is known throughout the Arab world) and his brother Jamil, a violinist.
The record stores are reopening. On the shelves, records by Turkish, Arab and Western artists are re-appearing. The radios are blasting in the street. Ameen plays in public. He told journalist Quentin Müller of the agency Middle East Eye: “The music thunders from cars and taxis whizzing in eastern Mosul, pedestrians sing and move their heads to the rhythms coming from iPods and mobile phones.”
Under ISIS’ rule, music was forbidden, just like it was forbidden to wear makeup, to smoke shisha and cigarettes, to use the internet and mobile phones, to play soccer. Even breeding birds was outlawed. They punished these so-called offenses with the pillory, corporal punishment in public squares.
To force the many Ameens of Mosul to stop playing, the “moral” police of the Islamic State confiscated instruments and forced the music stores to shut down.
But the music never disappeared from Mosul. People listened to the radio in secret. At home, instruments were played behind closed doors, in the cellar. For years, Ameen posted his private performance videos on YouTube. “I felt I had to do something to fight Daesh’s ideology.”
Even the taxi drivers challenged ISIS and its Manichean interpretation of Islam. Ameen told the Middle East Eye: “When you took a taxi, if you did not wear a long beard, long hair or a uniform, the taxi driver would turn the radio on to listen to forbidden music, forbidden stations.”
They would not listen to Daesh’s official radio station, al-Bayan, but one based in Erbil, Al-Ghad. This “pirate” station started operations in March 2015, to reach the homes in Mosul and provide them with news from outside but also to convey the voices of the residents of the occupied city, who called to tell about their life under siege.
Many in Mosul, however, fear their lives will never be knit again with that peculiar social fabric, a mix of ethnicities and religions produced by eight millennia, an uninterrupted clash of peoples and cultures: through Mosul, the Assyrians, Greeks, Persians, Mongols and Ottomans crossed the Tigris.
It had been home to Jews and Christians, Yazidis, Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds and Shabaks. Today, the city is physically stripped not only of its population, but also of its confidence to achieve a normal future.
“It was the destruction of the ancient social fabric of a city that for centuries has hosted people from different religions and different ethnic backgrounds, a melting pot of Muslims, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidis,” Iraqi analyst Salah al-Nasrawi told il manifesto. “It no longer exists and will be difficult to put back together.”
“It is like a window,” he continued. “If it breaks, it is impossible to pick up the pieces of glass. Minorities have lost confidence in the Muslim community that failed to protect them under ISIS’ rule. We need a new political system that safeguards minorities and make them return to Mosul.”
First, there was the initial reception of the Islamic State seen by the Sunnis as a tool of liberation from the Shiite government that, since the fall of Saddam in 2003, did not include the communities in the new political and economic life.
The U.S. has imposed a total restructuring of the institutions, purging them of Sunnis and causing violent rebellions immediately after the invasion. In subsequent years, al Qaeda grew rapidly. Then came its offshoot, ISIS, which attracted lay members of the Baath Party, former generals and soldiers who aimed to reinsert themselves in public life. “Many in Mosul have participated in national Sunni protests against abuses by the Shiite security forces, corruption and exclusion from government. At the beginning, this generated sympathy toward the Islamist militants,” al-Nasrawi said.
An atmosphere corrupted by marginalization allowed ISIS to take the city without any resistance. The consequences were immediately felt, and the Sunni community was split, at the expense of minorities harassed and abused by the “Caliphate.” They were forced to choose between conversion, escape or death.
Later, the Sunnis realized they were being exploited by ISIS and that others were suffering immensely. “Those who did not support Daesh no longer trust those who did,” al-Nasrawi said. “The Sunni community is divided, and attempts to will be an agonizing and much more dangerous internal conflict. A new Sunni uprising could emerge against Baghdad.”
“No one can predict what will happen in Mosul after ISIS,” al-Nasrawi said. “There are complicated issues: security, stabilization of the city’s political future. A new formula is needed, because Mosul is a small mirror of Iraq and its diversity. It should find a political solution for the inclusion of the communities and their political representatives, especially in the transition period to maintain peace and order. Otherwise, no Christian, Yazidi or Shiite will be able to return: They saw atrocities, they suffered them, on their bodies and their property. Rapes, killings, confiscation, and it is virtually impossible that these minorities will feel safe ever again.”
Al-Nasrawi’s conclusion is not uplifting: “The essence of Mosul was its cultural diversity. It vanished, and Mosul will never be Mosul again.”
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