On my recent trip to Iraq, I made it a point to visit the misunderstood city of Mosul. I was scared! I was worried! I was nervous about how I’d make it there! After all, several years ago, this city was the centre of ISIS operations! But at this point, after landing in Baghdad, and after doing so much research and speaking to many people about this plan, I decided to get a GMC and take a 5-hour ride cross-country to Mosul!
After arriving in Mosul, I was immediately invited to attend a Tourism Hackathon which consisted of five groups of Mosul residents competing with one another. The idea was to come up with a concept that promotes tourism in Mosul. I know what you’re thinking! Tourism in Mosul? Seriously? If anything, this made me realise how resilient the city is and how eager they are to rebuild what’s been destroyed. Making it highly competitive, the five groups were given only two days to come up with a mind-blowing idea – hence it being called Tourism “Hackathon”.
The groups mainly consisted of students, graduates, young professionals, and academic staff from various Iraqi universities. I stayed and watched the various presentations and was blown away by the creativity and imagination of the residents of Mosul.
After the event, I met with a young lad who was in charge of the videography of the event. Only 18 years of age, Abdulazeez approached us and was quite eager to invite us over to his house. Just to give this some context; after being invited to the event, the CEO of Mosul Space announced to the tourists that I am here as a tourist with my wife and that if they had any questions whilst developing their concepts, they could get my advice. And let me tell you, I was approached! There I was with a certain preconceived notion in my mind of Mosul, but in front of me, I was seeing a different world! I honestly could not believe my eyes. What’s more, I was pretty lucky because no tourist to Mosul can say that they have been to an event like this where they’d get to meet the young and talented people of the city.
So Abdulazeez approached us and invited us to eat out and even tag along with him to his home. Along the way, we stopped for Lahmacun and he passionately shared many stories of his time here. Abdulazeez moved to Manchester with his father when he was only four years old and stayed there for six years whilst his father studied at the University of Manchester. When he was ten, he returned to Mosul. As he was sharing his stories, he mentioned that he found it a strange coincidence that he returned just before the arrival of ISIS and left for Manchester again soon after they left. In other words, he was here to witness the entire thing. We spent a total of 2-3 hours with Abdulazeez and in that time he shared so much with us.
One of the things we discussed was around the Netflix film called Mosul. I watched the film twice and it was capturing, to say the least. It was filmed in a way that felt more like POV footage, making it more immersive. After asking Abdulazeez about this film and what he thought about how Mosul is portrayed in it, he immediately told me that he stopped watching the film due to the many inaccuracies. This was shocking to hear but at the same time, quite relieving as well. Films do try their best to portray an unbiased and fair view of certain things but they can never get it quite right.
We also spoke about his father’s pharmacy which was located in the Old City of Mosul. Unfortunately, the Old City was the most affected part. Due to this, and the many explosions happening in this part of the city, their pharmacy windows would always shatter and often crack and break. Because of this, nearly every week, Abdulazeez’s father had to replace the windows of the pharmacy.
But some buildings had it even worse. For some buildings, it was not just about shattered or cracked windows. For some buildings, it was complete annihilation. From the rooftop of his house, Abdulazeez remembers gazing out as a young boy admiring the awesome view of a hotel located within the Old City. However, on one crazy night amidst ISIS attacks, he remembers the entire hotel being blown up and destroyed. What was once a nice horizon was now a site of smoke and ashes.
Things were not always at a view. You see ISIS were constantly on guard and would often monitor the behaviour of the locals. Anyone caught with a phone would be reprimanded, especially the kids. Abdulazeez had a phone. On one occasion an ISIS militant member saw young Abdulazeez with a phone and scolded him. The militant went off for a little while to liaise with a colleague about what to do next; should he confiscate the phone or leave him be. At that time, Abdulazeez took advantage and simply ran for his life. After all, it was not foreign for women and kids to be left for dead after being shot over stupid and petty things on the streets of Mosul. ISIS laid down some very strict guidelines and this included the prohibition of phones as well as TV sets at home.
Things have changed now and after sitting and conversing with his family in his house, I can tell that they are glad to be where they are. I can tell that they are proud of standing their ground and making it out alive. But there have been some pretty nasty side effects from ISIS being around that long. One of the main things I observed in Mosul and all over Iraq was the lack of practising Muslims, or shall I say, Muslims who have stopped practising. Due to the trauma experienced by witnessing ISIS and what they have done, many Muslims in Iraq have left the most mandatory and everyday basic practices of Islam. Praying five times Salah is viewed as extreme and having a beard is extremely disliked. When I entered Mosul and went through a checkpoint, I must have had at least five people comment on why I had a beard. The question I kept hearing was, ‘did you not know that ISIS had a beard’. Many Muslims in Iraq have even left the performing of the Jumuah prayers on Friday. It’s for this reason, whilst conversing with Abdulazeez, we both agreed that practising Islam openly is far easier and more common in the UK than in Iraq.
Nevertheless, the people of Mosul were a good bunch. Full of enthusiasm and hope, they look to a better future. Many of them have made extremely dramatic changes to their lifestyle once ISIS left as they saw this as a second chance to lead a more fulfilling life. It was inspiring being around Abdulazeez and his family and it taught me one thing; everyone has a story!