Determination to overcome ISIS legacy marks Ramadan in Mosul, scars remain

Another Ramadan feature making a comeback in Mosul is the traditional Hakawati − storyteller.
Sunday 02/06/2019
Reviving tradition. Traditional storyteller Abdel Wahed Ismail (2nd L) entertains an audience in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, May 17. (AFP)
Reviving tradition. Traditional storyteller Abdel Wahed Ismail (2nd L) entertains an audience in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, May 17. (AFP)

MOSUL, Iraq - Psalms, prayers, feasts and games are again filling the long nights of Ramadan in Mosul but the scars left by the Islamic State’s occupation of Iraq’s largest city are yet to be healed two years after the jihadists were defeated.

“Life is good in Mosul. The situation is much better,” said Othman Mohamad, 25, who manages his father’s restaurant in Mosul. “I would be exaggerating to say it is better than the years before [the Islamic State] ISIS devastation; however, people have become more open and flexible, which is quite strange in a city known for being conservative.”

“Despite the painful incident of the ferry, which affected the whole city, people were determined to move on and celebrate Ramadan as they did before,” said Mohamad in his unmistakable Moslawi dialect.

Almost 100 people, mostly women and children, died when a ferry sank in the Tigris River in March.

“Under ISIS, Ramadan had lost its meaning as a special and celebrated occasion,” Mohamad said, adding that the newly acquired largesse in marking the holy month “is a reaction to the miseries and deprivations that the people suffered at the hands of the militants.”

ISIS banned all Ramadan manifestations and popular traditions, including street decorations, evening gatherings, public storytelling and gaming competitions.

“This year, restaurants are crowded during iftar and most families prefer to stay in parks and cafes until late at night,” Mohamad said.

As in other Muslim countries, the month of dawn-to-dusk fasting is a time for evening gatherings in restaurants, coffee shops or homes of family and friends across Iraq. While many spend the night in prayer at mosques between an evening feast and pre-dawn snacks, others take part in games that in Iraq are reserved for Ramadan.

Since the beginning of Ramadan, Yehya Tutunji, owner of a new coffee shop near the Tigris, has been busy catering to the large number of revellers packing the place every evening until late at night.

“Ramadan in Mosul this year is different from what it used to be before ISIS invasion,” he remarked. “It has become much more flexible. Young people from mixed gender as well as the elderly are spending long hours in the cafes and restaurants playing games and smoking water pipes.”

In addition to offering a large choice of special Ramadan treats, Tutunji organised “Ramadan Nights” in his cafe featuring choirs performing religious songs and poems.

“Such events are particular to Ramadan, which we are living this year with a lot of openness after getting rid of Daesh,” he said using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

In the largely devastated old centre of Mosul, war-displaced residents, such as retired teacher Zanoun Youssef, are slowly returning to homes they could repair.

Amid the destruction, Youssef’s daughter decorated the facade of the house with flickering lights and ornaments, a tradition that she never missed before ISIS domination.

“Everyone is keen on reviving the Ramadan spirit despite the overwhelming destruction,” Youssef said. “Charities are offering iftar meals for the residents of the old city who are living under big duress. It gives them some hope after having lost their homes and loved ones.”

However, Youssef noted with some kind of disapproval that “the unusual openness” displayed by young girls and boys in celebrating the holy month were not in conformity with Iraqi traditions and Islamic norms.

Hasan Ghulami, an activist with a humanitarian group, said donations have significantly increased to help impoverished families meet their needs during Ramadan.

“Despite prevailing sadness, the people are convinced that they have no alternative but to move on with their lives and try to leave the past behind. Especially young people are trying to spend enjoyable times together by exercising Ramadan customs and rituals,” Ghulami said.

“There is a strong determination to return to a normal life. Rich people are contributing to the reconstruction of the old city and helping the displaced return to their homes,” Ghulami added.

Another Ramadan feature making a comeback in Mosul is the traditional Hakawati — storyteller. Before the introduction of television and the array of dramas they offer, Ramadan nights were the preserve of the storytellers, captivating audiences with fables as well as local news and historical stories.

Traditional storyteller Abdel Wahed Ismail, a 70-year-old actor and local celebrity, is trying to revive the tradition. Each night he takes a seat on a platform in a busy Mosul area to tell tales such as “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” and the chivalrous epic “Antar and Abla.”

Mosul is showing signs of recovery two years after it was freed from ISIS, Mohamad said.