There was a time when the streets of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul were bustling with pattern and colour and a wide variety of ethnic costumes and traditional clothing. The Iraqi Kurdish, Turkmen, Christians, Yazidis and Shabaks all wore different kinds of clothing. However today that seems to have changed. There only seems to be one place left in Mosul where these costumes can be seen and that’s the museum at the University of Mosul.
It is true that many younger Iraqis prefer to wear modern clothing rather than traditional costume. However during important national or family events or religious holidays, even these young people will often don the clothing styles their grandparents all wore. However in Mosul, even these kinds of occasions are not causing locals to get into costume anymore.
“Until 2004, traditional costumes used to fill Mosul’s streets,” a local researcher Hamid Ghanem explained to NIQASH. “But since then, the deterioration in the security situation here has made all people potential victims. There’s been a systematic campaign against Mosul’s minorities,” he explained.
This has included bombing churches and other places of worship as well as the targeting of anyone different – someone speaking other languages or wearing other clothes – by extremist violence.
“All this has caused a lot of minorities to leave the city,” Ghanem said. “Those who stay are afraid to wear anything that marks them out as different in case they too become targets.”
There used to be a lot of tailors in Mosul’s markets, says Nermin Abdul-Karim, who has been a seamstress for around 40 years. “And it was always easy to identify the different ethnic or religious groups by the costumes they wore,” Abdul-Karim told NIQASH. She ran through a list, speaking about the tunic, sash and turban usually worn by Kurdish men, the colourful loose dresses worn by Kurdish and Christian women, Yazidi males’ avoidance of collars and the colour blue and Yazidi women’s red and black scarves. Often the Christian men look a lot like Arabs though, she said, with many wearing a dishdasha or long white robe.
Local man Kameran Saeed, 53, still likes to wear traditional Kurdish garb when he can. However because his work often sees him travelling between Mosul and Dohuk, in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, he tends to leave those clothes at home.
“I wear pants and shirts – that is, normal clothes – when I go to Mosul,” Saeed says. “I don’t feel at ease but it is far safer to wear them then. I can speak Arabic fluently and terrorists wouldn’t know I wasn’t an Arab,” he explains.
“When I get to Dohuk, I can change back into my Kurdish clothes. But that never happened in the past. In the 1980s my family lived northeast of Mosul and my parents and brothers always wore Kurdish clothes in town, they had no fear about it all.”
Talking about the past reminded the old chap of happier times in Mosul. “Back in the day there were neighbourhoods where Kurdish, Arab, Christian, Turkmen and Shabak families all lived happily side by side,” Saeed said sadly. “Nobody ever even thought twice about which sect or which ethnicity the neighbours were.”