A 16-year-old from Mosul recently caused a commotion when he launched a rocket early one morning. But it was a commotion of a different kind, with more consequences than some neighbours awake before they wanted to be.
The security forces, posted in a city where bomb blasts are still common, ignored the rocket. But the teenager’s father found out about it and punished his son, grounding him for four days.
But it was not because the local boy, Marwan, disturbed anyone’s sleep at around 7.20am that the launch of the rocket that he built with the help of his uncle and two friends, caused such a fuss.
It was because the teenager, Marwan, was one of many in Mosul who wanted to recreate an ancient tradition that had fallen by the wayside in the city.
“I am partially responsible for this little adventure,” Marwan’s father explains to NIQASH. “I always used to talk about the Iftar cannon that was at the entrance of the city, by a bridge. And during Ramadan, I kept on telling my family about this famous cannon and how the people of Mosul used to gather to eat after its mighty blast. But,” he noted, “the rocket could have got my son] into a lot of trouble, especially in light of current terrorism laws affecting the city.”
One of the traditions of Ramadan – the month long Muslim commemoration during which the religious abstain from eating, drinking and other activities like sex, during the day – is the firing of a cannon.
A single cannon shot used to announce the beginning of fasting at dawn and then the end of fasting, also known as Iftar, in the early evening. At Iftar, friends and relatives gather to break their fast together; this goes on for a whole month and culminates in the festival of Eid, at the end of the 29 or 30 days of abstinence.
But after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the cannon stopped being used during Ramadan. And today, because the city remains one of the most dangerous in Iraq - due to its disputed status and the diverse sectarian and ethnic makeup of its inhabitants - the use of munitions, like the Ramadan cannon – continue to be restricted.
Since 2011 though, some of the people of Mosul have been trying to get the canon tradition reinstated.
“Many people want to revive the old traditions of Ramadan,” a local historian, Abdul-Jabbar al-Jirjis, tells NIQASH. “They believe that reinstating this [canon] tradition will help to make the city more normal again – they’ve been living under these security conditions for nine years now.”
“The people of Mosul have a lot of passion for their city’s history and since the withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq, they’ve become more focused on reviving this,” al-Jirjis adds. “Reinstating this tradition cannot bring any harm to the city,” he concludes.
In fact, a board comprised of university staff, historians and representatives of the local authorities entrusted with the restoration of historic buildings in Mosul, believe it’s not enough simply to maintain the older parts of the city; they think that old traditions – like the canon – should also be reinstated and that this would give the city a new life.
Unfortunately for them, not everyone agrees. The movement to reinstate the canon-firing tradition began during Ramadan in 2011 and was led by local clerics and those interested in preserving the city’s traditions. However local security forces, deployed around the city, think that the canon might be misused by extremist groups.
The two groups negotiated the issue behind closed doors right up until the end of Ramadan last year but they couldn’t come to an agreement.
This year the same questions about the cannon were raised again. It was suggested that the military take responsibility for the old cannon, and even that the cannon be situated inside a military base. It was also suggested that a concrete barrier be built around the original cannon, made in the early 1900s, if it was to remain in its original position.
Pro-cannon groups also suggested that one cannon would not be enough for the whole of Mosul and that several should be situated around the city in different residential areas.
However one army officer that NIQASH spoke with said that local security forces wouldn’t be able to accept any of these ideas. Additionally, he wondered why locals would want to hear the blast of a cannon after suffering through years of car bombs and improvised explosive devices that have caused the death of so many. Especially, he adds, as there are more than 200 mosques in the city, many of them with loudspeakers, regularly calling out the times for prayer – including the sunset prayer, which also signals the end of fasting during Ramadan.
Local journalist, Younis Said, has another point to make about reviving the cannon-firing tradition. Said says that the cannon is really just an echo of the war and violence that much of the region has suffered through. He points out that when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein used to fire a 21 gun salute, the same cannons were used.
“Instead of reviving one of the symbols of war, instead of spending time to revive these useless and hostile traditions, the people of Mosul should be creating a new and more peaceful culture,” Said tells NIQASH. “They should come up with new traditions for Ramadan and other religious occasions based upon tolerance, peace and patriotism rather than guns and cannons.”