Reclaiming Mosul’s vibrant culture after ISIL

After three years of strict ISIL rule, Mosul residents are working to revive the city’s cultural traditions.

Residents shop in preparation for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha in Mosul
After ISIL took over, 'they renounced anything that had to do with beauty and the arts' [Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters]

Three months after ISIL was pushed out of its Mosul stronghold, the northern Iraqi city is striving to reclaim its once-vibrant cultural scene.

Local university professor and photographer Ali al-Baroodi said the recovery thus far has been “quick and lively”, with residents eager to reject the “ideology of oppression” imposed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) armed group.

Mosul is known for its tolerance and open-mindedness,” Baroodi told Al Jazeera.

“It is the city that gathers the spectrum of Iraqi society in one place,” he added, referring to the 2.5 million residents, comprising Sunni, Shia, Christian, Shabak, Turkmen and Kurds.

During ISIL’s three-year rule in Mosul, however, the city’s quintessential culture was severely damaged.

Book burnings

Shakir Mustafa, a professor who grew up in Mosul and now teaches at Northeastern University in the United States, said the burning of libraries, cinemas, theatres and bookstores by ISIL was wielded as a deliberate weapon of wanton destruction.


“They burned libraries in mosques, regardless of the population’s protests, and even when imams and other prominent members of the community informed them about precious manuscripts, including Quranic manuscripts,” Mustafa said.

“Equally horrifying is the manner in which ISIL terrorised the city in banning all cultural activities, like poetry recitations, music, dancing and singing,” he said. “Individuals and groups were summarily executed for what ISIL deemed offences, like exchanging film videos, music CDs, or for just listening to songs or watching television.”

Tahseen Haddad, the head of the Artists’ Syndicate in Mosul, said that before the arrival of the “ISIL gangs”, the city hosted many cultural events, including exhibitions, performances and cinema screenings.

“After the extremists and takfiris took over the city, they renounced anything that had to do with beauty and the arts,” Haddad said, noting that most artists fled the city. Haddad himself only recently moved back to Mosul after living in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, for the past three years.

Spiritual traditions

Mosul was built on solid cultural traditions and institutions dating back to the Middle Ages, Mustafa said.

“Prominent houses were known for being salons for the elite and the public to gather together and celebrate writers, artists and intellectuals, whether locals or visitors from abroad,” he said.

Among the most famous spots in Mosul was a book market on Najafi Street, comprising people’s own personal libraries.

Mosul has also traditionally been known for its pious character. The shrines, or “maqams”, of Mosul and Nineveh are more famous than many in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Diyala, Haddad said. Spiritual sessions used to be held every Thursday night, with music, prayers and chants. 


Under ISIL, Mustafa said, public gatherings were prohibited and were considered offences punishable by death. But that did not stop people from getting together to continue celebrating literature and the arts secretly.

Mosul University under ISIL

When ISIL overran the city in the summer of 2014, one of the group’s first acts was to shut down Mosul University, an institution that was established a half-century ago and regarded as a top-ranking educational institution in Iraq.

“When the university was first established, it was the biggest academic institution in the Middle East at the time,” Baroodi said.

“It had provided its services not just to researchers at the university, but to international and Arab students, such as those from Jordan, Palestine, Yemen and Sudan, who used to visit the university from the 1980s up until 2003.”

The University of Mosul's library was destroyed during the battle against ISIL [Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters]
The University of Mosul’s library was destroyed during the battle against ISIL [Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters]

ISIL eventually reopened the medical, pharmacy, dental and nursing schools because it needed their resources, especially in wartime. The group also began accepting students into two out of the 11 arts and humanities majors: Arabic language and history.

But student enrollment was so low – a mere handful in some cases – that ISIL was forced to shut the departments again. 


Abi al-Diwah Ji, the dean of Mosul University, told Al Jazeera that the central library “used to be Iraq’s best library in contemporary times”.

“It was home to books, blueprints, resources, scientific magazines collected over decades. It is without a doubt the biggest loss Mosul University has suffered,” he said.

In March 2016, the library was targeted by US-led coalition air raids.

“From the outside, the library looked like it was completely destroyed,” Baroodi said. “But inside we found an unexploded rocket, and two floors were undamaged.”

Then, in January 2017, a few months after Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi announced the Iraqi army and US-supported operation to retake Mosul, ISIL set fire to the library.

It was part of a tactic to use smoke to visually impede the group’s enemies, Baroodi said, noting that ISIL also burned libraries belonging to other colleges on campus. The libraries contained more than one million books.

‘Grand centre of learning’

“Using Mosul Eye, we launched a campaign to save what was left of the books in May,” Baroodi said. “We managed to save 36,000 books, the significance of which cannot be underestimated. However, the size of the loss was more than we expected.”

An international campaign to collect donated books garnered support from the European Union, the Smithsonian, and universities in Europe, the US, Australia and New Zealand.

“I’m particularly attached to that library, because I taught for 11 years at MU and I witnessed its rise into a grand centre of learning,” Mustafa said.

Before being pushed out, ISIL booby-trapped the university’s three campuses. The main one was completely destroyed, while the other two were restored with the help of volunteer groups.

University of Mosul students walk outside the campus in Mosul in July [Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters]
University of Mosul students walk outside the campus in Mosul in July [Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters]

Hasanain Abdulkareem, a 25-year-old translation student, has been back at school for almost four months.

“My first and ongoing impression was being simply shocked that the University of Mosul, a beacon of knowledge and hope for many, was in a dire state, while little is being [done] by the authorities to rebuild it,” he said.

Diwah Ji estimated that between 70 and 75 percent of the university has been damaged. He lamented the loss of its printing press, established in 1969 – one of the finest in Iraq.

Cultural resurgence

Despite the years of violence, death and destruction, residents have been taking active steps to restore Mosul’s cultural character.

The Artists’ Syndicate hosted its first conference on July 15, Haddad said, and a separate meeting was held to reunite artists after their three-year absence.

“We discussed the role of the artist in fighting ISIL’s ideology through artworks and other creative endeavours,” he said. “Artists have been hosting a lot of events in places like the university’s stadium, schools and even in the streets, such as fine art exhibitions and musical performances.”


In August, Mosul held an international youth festival, followed by a children’s festival in early September. On September 9, a reading festival was held outside the central library.

“It was the first inclusive venue to be held after liberation,” said Abdelkareem, who attended the reading festival. “The organisers tried their best to show how the city was still alive, and to show that [Mosul residents] refuse to give up.”

Still, despite such positive developments, the devastation wrought by ISIL runs deep, he added.

“No matter how much we try to keep our pride, we are all hurt on the inside, really broken for what happened here, and for the fact that nobody seems to care about it,” Abdelkareem said.

According to Baroodi, literature will have a role to play in the healing process.

“Literature is a reflection of society from its traditions, practices and events,” he said. “Authors from Mosul, such as Nozat Shamdin [who wrote about the plight of the Yazidis] and Ghada Rasoul reproduced life under ISIL in their novels.

“I am confident that the Mosul literature will flourish even more and give birth to poets and writers that will express their reflection on what happened to their city.”

Source: Al Jazeera