Mosul art rises from Daesh's dark age

On April 8 last year, music filled the restored Al-Rabea Theatre in Mosul again. The newly founded Watar orchestral ensemble performed at the iconic venue that had been abandoned since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and destroyed during the northern city's occupation by Daesh. 

The theatre was brought back to life with a public event held last spring, celebrating the return of art and culture. The orchestra offered an emotional performance celebrating Mosul’s history and commemorating those who lost their lives throughout the age of Daesh. 

The Watar Orchestra is composed of 36 young men and women between 8 and 32 years old. They come from the Nineveh province’s different religious groups including Muslims, Christians and Yazidis. Hakam Zarari, 32, who holds a master’s degree in physical chemistry, is one of the members of the Watar orchestra. 

“We wanted to show the world this is Mosul. We have been living in harmony for thousands of years. Three years of Daesh won’t change anything for us”, the ensemble player said firmly to TRT World. He taught himself to play guitar one year before the Daesh occupation. When Mosul fell into the hands of the self-proclaimed caliphate in June 2014, the city’s darkest days began for the residents. 

The radical fighters, whose violent methods and shock tactics are notorious, introduced a hard-line regime in accordance with their ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic law. Music and non-religious art were prohibited. Books were banned and women were asked to cover themselves from head to toe. Men were obliged to grow beards. 

"We had to do something" 

In such an oppressive environment, Zarari found in music an escape from reality. While playing music was dangerous, he still practiced with his instruments at home. With doors and windows closed, he kept the volume low. After practice, he would conceal his guitar in a secret ceiling. 

“If they found out I’m a musician, I may be killed. At the same time, music was giving me hope”, the self-taught guitarist said. “It was the only escape that was left for me”. 

Like for many Maslawis, the period of Daesh gave deep emotional scars to him. He was horrified by the daily scenes of violence, killing, and brutality. Historical and archaeological sites were demolished, statues of poets and writers were torn down, artifacts and musical instruments were looted or destroyed, books were burned, musicians and artists were executed. 

Following a months-long fierce battle to retake Mosul, the Iraqi army drove the terrorist group out. But the devastation endured left large parts of the city in ruins. 

Zarari formed with his friends the musical band “Awtar Nergal” (or Nergal Strings) after the western side of the city where they live was liberated from Daesh's forces in July 2017. It was the very first local band to be created following the takeover by US-backed Iraqi troops. 

Driven by a duty to spread peace and hope where the so-called Islamic caliphate used to seed fear and terror, the guitar player along with his group started to bring music to the streets to help brighten up the shattered lives of fellow residents. 

Back then, pockets of the northern town had not been freed yet, and the four guys were taking great risks by stepping out in those areas with their guitars, violin, and oud in the midst of snipers, RPGs, and airstrikes. 

“We chose to go to the places that were targeted by army coalition airstrikes or that Daesh used as execution sites to play music for our community”, the guitarist recalled, “We felt that though we were damaged inside, other people were more damaged than us, so we had to do something”. 

One month before Mosul’s liberation, Zarari and his fellow musicians took part in an action organized by students, teachers, and volunteers to salvage nearly 36,000 books that survived from fire in the university’s central library which had been razed to the ground at the hands of Daesh and further damaged by six missiles from Iraqi army coalition jets. By the end of the fighting, the library had been mostly burned along with many valuable books. 

Iraq’s second-largest city, long before becoming known for death and destruction, used to be a notorious center of learning and culture with the University of Mosul reputed as one of the finest in the Middle East. 

After getting involved in the book rescue initiative, which was entirely community-led, the youth band performed at the town’s first-ever peace festival which was held at Mosul's university stadium, and consisted of live music, dance shows, and street art displays. Until that day, all the locals had seen in public was just prayers and executions. 

In May 2018, Awtar Nergal made a tour in Belgium performing melodies and talking about the challenges faced by musicians in a city that was once ruled by Daesh. They also raised funds that helped to rebuild the Institute of Fine Arts at Mosul University. 

“After the fall of Daesh, expressing my artistic freedom and showing the real Mosul was a kind of revenge for me”, Zarari spoke out. 

In the basement 

From a very young age, 26-year-old muralist Taj al Din Milli had pursued art as a hobby until the arrival of the so-called caliphate shook his life. “It was after Daesh took over my city that I began to take art seriously and treat it as a form of struggle”, he told TRT World. 

Being part of a well-known family of artists in Mosul, Milli could not flee during Daesh's rule since they were all kept under close watch. He had to hide his collection of portrait paintings and art books in the attic of his house. 

“I knew I was facing a risk any time in case ISIS men came to our home to do an inspection”, he recounted, “I came up with an excuse to give for keeping the artwork stored. I would say I was stacking firewood and was ready to set my art on fire”. 

During that period, he helped his father who was translating a book on the history of drawing -from English into classical Arabic- through editing and illustrating the text with photos. 

Once the Iraqi troops freed the area he and his family live in, the wall painter found cold, grim streets. “That’s when I realised we artists needed to step in and put colour back into town”, the young man said. “At that point we were desperate to go back to art, to life!”, he voiced his old distress. 

In late 2017, Milli founded “7Arts”, a collective of young street artists in Mosul who teamed up to help revive their hometown after the trauma of Daesh's reign. The group of painters and art students which now counts 12 members -seven of whom are women- has been beautifying walls of damaged buildings, which previously carried slogans of hatred and division, with large murals that convey messages of peaceful coexistence and religious, ethnic diversity. Other murals depict some of the key figures assassinated by Daesh. 

One very large-scale mural, painted on the occasion of International Women’s Day, shows faces of inspiring women such as the late Iraq-born British architect, Zaha Hadid, and Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. They were all portrayed without veils in an attempt to change attitudes toward women. 

The graffiti artists have participated in several art events and hosted painting events and cultural exhibitions. Their next project will be painting in Mosul’s (still) largely ruined Old City with the aim to draw the world’s attention to a city that needs all possible help to rebuild itself. 

The talented local artist Omar Qais, 35, has pursued his love for sculpture since the age of 9. He is inspired by his father who’s a sculptor artist himself. During the dark days of Daesh, he secretly worked in the basement of his home. He built statues and made clay studies. The danger was high back then as Daesh extremists would punish artists with death. 

“I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. I was using clay a lot so to avoid making noise not to be caught up by people walking by”, Qais told TRT World. “I told my family to smash the clay if Daesh militants entered the house while he was out. It would have been easy to model clay material again afterward”. 

He kept some artifacts hidden in the workshop, buried others in the garden, modelled some more into the shape of rubble, and stashed them in the midst of wood and rubbish on the rooftop. At the time of the battle for Mosul, he and his family used the same basement as a shelter for more than a month. 

When the Mosul Museum was ransacked by Daesh fighters shortly after the city was seized, and priceless antiquities were smashed to pieces, the artist was furious. That motivated him all along to continue his artistic production which he would show to the public once Daesh was pushed out. “The challenge was to stay alive with my artwork”, he exclaimed. Since the caliphate was defeated, his sculptures have filled public squares and art galleries. 

“I was so happy I could say loudly that I’m an artist, and that I wasn’t afraid to do art in the days of Daesh,” the sculptor said joyfully/ “It was my way to resist a terrorist organisation”. 

One sculpture, 7-metres-high, which is named “The Beautiful Lady”, was the very first one he made, in cooperation with Mosul municipality, after the liberation of the city as he was eager to contribute to rebuilding his town. 

The statue consists of a woman standing above a Tsunami-like abstract shape which symbolises Mosul standing on its feet again despite all the odds. Another one, he sculpted during the reign of Daesh, represents a pregnant woman wearing a niqab and a long baggy gown. She holds a baby in her left arm and begs with her right hand. He also made a medallion displaying the city's demolished monuments. 

The city’s museum reopened last year after Mosul was recaptured from Daesh and restored over the course of three years, hosting a sculpture exhibition by Qais. Years after Daesh's departure, the Maslawi art scene is thriving again. 

Native artists have embarked on a cultural comeback after living through much damage and suffering. Art projects, exhibitions, musical and theatrical performances have sprung up across the town. “We’re all working on giving a better image of Mosul. We don’t welcome terrorists or life haters”, Qais insisted. “We are people who love art, culture and life”. 

by Alessandra Bajec

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