It was in Mosul that I got a taste of what life as a celebrity would be like. People kept coming at me from every direction – boys and men of all ages, polite but persistent, seeking a selfie with the red-headed foreigner.
More than 25,000 people had gathered at the Mosul’s university stadium for the city’s first-ever peace festival – with live music, dancing and street art displays. On the campus next door were the shattered remains of several large buildings that I.S. fighters had used as a base – they were targeted by coalition airstrikes last year.
The liberation of Mosul from I.S. was complete in July this year, leaving large parts of the city in ruins and many of its residents in refugee camps. But peace is always fragile in Iraq. Two months later at the peace festival, amid fears that I.S. sleeper cells may be poised to strike, the university stadium’s entrance was guarded by dozens of police and soldiers with armoured vehicles.
Inside, families who had survived the city’s darkest days paraded in their most colourful clothes. What had recently been considered serious crimes, such as smoking, were now just pleasurable vices. Otherwise conservatively dressed women flaunted their bare hands and faces in the 45-degree heat – an offence that would have earned them a flogging a few months ago. Everybody at the festival had friends and neighbours who’d been jailed, beaten, mutilated and even killed for tiny infringements of the tyrannical rules administered by I.S., but the atmosphere was joyful and jubilant.
No one had seen a crowd like this in many years. There were no festivals or football matches, no concerts or even cafes under I.S.. Just prayers, and public executions – which were cunningly stage-managed to appear as if they were well attended.
For many, the real novelty at Mosul’s peace festival wasn’t the crowd – it was the Australian cameraman. Most of my fans just wanted to snap a selfie with me, although a few started live streaming as though I was a breaking news story. Others were just curious and wanted to converse.
There’s something you should know about Mosul; something that’s not apparent from I.S. propaganda videos, or the pictures you’ve seen of desperate civilians fleeing the fighting.
Long before it became a byword for terror and destruction, Iraq’s second-largest city was famous for its learning and its culture. It was one of the historic centres of the Assyrians, and its medieval artists and metal workers were envied and emulated throughout the Islamic world. The University of Mosul used to be one of the largest educational and research centres in the Middle East. I made friends who were equally at home chatting about the latest series of Game of Thrones as they were reciting poetry and playing the oud – a lute-like instrument popular in the Middle East.
So I wasn’t surprised by the number of people who wanted to speak to me in English, and even in French – photographers, engineers, poets and scholars. But what I was struck by was their hunger for contact with the outside world. Mosul had been cut off for so long, and they were eager to re-join society.
Compounding the isolation that came with being ruled by I.S. was a self-imposed isolation – a retreat from the danger, madness and brutality that lurked in the streets. It was safer to stay at home. That’s what the deputy dean of the university’s English department told me he did, despite threats of what would happen if he didn’t return to teach the I.S. curriculum.
I spoke to a woman who hadn’t left her house for 944 days. In that time she’d taught herself to speak English, French, Russian, Spanish and Turkish! She refused to meet me, though – she said her mental state was still too fragile for interviews.
I was at the peace festival to film a brilliant group of young musicians who’d taught themselves to play music in a city where music was banned. They were brave (or perhaps foolish) enough to take risks, much to the horror of their parents. They would carry their guitars, violin and oud to secret rehearsals in black plastic garbage bags, stuffed with clothes to mask the instrument’s shape.
But while guitarist Hakam Zarari was defying I.S., his younger sister had been homebound since being threatened for going out without wearing gloves. His father, a lawyer, also retreated behind the domestic front – devoting himself to his spectacular garden, which flourished even as his city withered.
My fans at the peace festival were still thrilled by their newfound freedom, but their curiosity about me suggested that maybe liberation wasn’t enough. I met many well-educated, cultured Mosulis who were desperate to travel, but who knew that most foreign doors don’t open for an Iraqi passport.
Inside Mosul, there’s freedom of movement and freedom of speech. But outside the city, there’s nowhere to go. It’s encircled with checkpoints manned by the federal police, the Iraqi army, Shi’a militia and the Kurdish army. The nearest airport is at Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is effectively another country and out of reach to most.
Mosul’s problems predate I.S.; in fact, the jihadists were just a symptom of problems going back to the invasion of Iraq. Despite a military victory against I.S., and the longing of my new friends to engage with the world, it’s very hard to imagine Iraq becoming a normal country any time soon.
I wasn’t even able to stay and watch Hakam and his friends perform at the peace festival. Mosul still isn’t considered safe enough for me to spend the night – so I had to leave for my hotel in Erbil before the checkpoints closed.
As I walked back to our car, fireworks lit up the sky over the stadium. Half an hour later, waiting to cross a militia checkpoint, I flinched as a trigger-happy soldier fired his gun into the sky.