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Letter To My Hometown:
Will You Return To Mosul One Day, If Peace Prevails?

Nawzat Shamdeen
On what may well be the eve of his hometown’s darkest hour, Iraqi author Nawzat Shamdeen pens a wistful paen to the people of Mosul.
13.10.2016  |  Norway
A crowded market in Mosul in 1932. (photo: الموسوعة الحرة)
A crowded market in Mosul in 1932. (photo: الموسوعة الحرة)

Once upon a time there was a foolish voice inside my head that used to whisper to me that I could forgot about my hometown, that Mosul could be left behind just because I packed my bags and went. That foolish voice is gone now.

The third year of my displacement is about to end and I still travel the Mosul of my memories, visiting the alleyways, the schools and the houses that I knew for 40 years.

Mosul is nothing like the charmingly small Norwegian city I live in now with my family. Mosul, which was one of the best and most vibrant cities in all of Iraq for decades, has been through a succession of tragedies, from bizarre Baathist wars to cloying suffocation, as a result of cruel terrorist acts. Schools are closed now, the economy is failing, cinemas and theatres are shuttered and all of the city’s women are trapped inside tiny prisons made of cloth and their households. In Mosul, death is the penalty for even the smallest violation, just for thinking the wrong thought.

But still my homeland pulls at me. Invisible wires keep me in its orbit. Iraq is still the essence of my adult life. Everything else is just layers of reality piled, one on top of the other, thanks to circumstance. I wonder sometimes: Was it a mistake for us to allow this to happen to our city, and then just turn our backs and leave?

For a long time, I thought I might be one of the few people from Mosul suffering from the giddiness caused by the diaspora, one of the only ones who has found out that the umbilical cord that exists between a city and its sons and daughters can never be completely severed. 

I felt the distance again as I tried to separate my hopes for my home from reality. When one crisis ends in Iraq, another begins.

I only realized that this belief was mistaken when I attended a reading in Oslo by the Iraqi author, Mohammed al-Mufti, also originally from Mosul. The writer has been in Norway for 17 years. But it seemed to me as though he had just recently arrived from Mosul, carrying with him the smell of the Bab al-Saray a few minutes before the Iftar cannon.

From his hands, I saw forest pigeons fly and the butterflies that gather on the spring plains. In his eyes, were the tears of displaced families, living in camps filled with grief, and of those in prisons or taken hostage by the Islamic State. 

With all the enthusiasm of a revolutionary preaching, al-Mufti taught me that “home” is not just a word on a wall or in a book. It is stamped on our foreheads, hidden in our hearts and where ever we go, it goes with us.

Like a shy student speaking to a professor at his first lesson, I asked him: Will you return to Mosul one day, if peace prevails?

He thought a moment before answering, then said: Well, I would have to leave it first, before I could return to it.

I felt a little bit like I’d crossed a red line and that I was possibly asking too many personal questions. In Norway, one doesn’t ask strangers about their private lives. Conversations mostly focus on weather, holidays, food.

But al-Mufti ignored those conventions, when he said, “we must pay back our debt to Mosul”.

He saw the question mark on my face and explained further: “We should keep Mosul in Iraq. We must block the road to anyone who wants to separate the city, after it is liberated from the Islamic State. Politicians are holding press conferences and seminars and promoting this project in the media, but without consulting the people of the city itself, who are isolated in Mosul thanks to the absence of phones, the Internet and satellite TV.”   

But wouldn’t it prevent the kinds of things that have happened in Mosul in the last two years, from happening again? I asked. The kinds of things that had happened as a result of Baghdad’s negligence, when violence spread like a cancer. The city was a soft target.

 

Mosul river

The Tigris river in Mosul.

 

Al-Mufti interrupted me silently by putting his hand on my shoulder. “Transforming Ninawa into a number of smaller provinces, split along ethnic or sectarian lines, carries a future threat,” he said. “This is not a solution because all of those groups, the ones that would run these imagined provinces, have deep wounds that the Islamic State has caused – and that enmity will continue. Of course, some of them will prefer to merge with neighbours. For example, the cities of the Ninawa Plain and Sinjar may prefer to join Iraqi Kurdistan rather than entering into an uncertain administrative system, without protection and clear sources of funding. What if Baghdad refuses to endorse them or support them with a budget?”

I felt the distance again as I tried to separate my hopes for my home from reality. When one crisis ends in Iraq, another begins.

It all depends on what the people decide then, I argued. Paying the debt to our city requires us to stand with our neighbours as they make that decision for themselves, instead of letting others decide for them. We should only listen to their voices and we should make the whole world listen too, and support them.

Al-Mufti nodded as though he understood. I felt those invisible wires pull at me again.

The people of Ninawa must learn a hard lesson, I continued. They should search for the things that united them in the past, the things that made the church bells ring in Mosul, alongside the takbeer [prayer calls] coming from the mosques, the things that made Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidis and Shabak able to live alongside one another.

Al-Mufti smiled at me, looked me in the eyes and then asked: Will you return to Mosul one day, if peace prevails?

I smiled back at him: I would have to leave it first, before I could return to it, I said. 

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