Culture

Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Unusual Perspectives on Mosul

This week’s column looks at different takes on Mosul that go beyond dry facts and humanise the city’s embattled residents and the soldiers fighting for them.

Name-Place-Animal-Thing is The Wire’s culture newsletter.  If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, please consider subscribing here

This crowded marketplace in Mosul, 1932 is a distant, nearly fictional reality to its current residents. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This crowded marketplace in Mosul, 1932 is a distant, nearly fictional reality to its current residents. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, pictures go where words can’t 

It’s a simple scene. A man dressed in fatigues stands, eyes closed, barefoot, hands raised in prayer towards Mecca. His socks and shoes are next to him on the little patch of green grass in an otherwise monochromatic landscape where the Humvees match the pale yellow colour of the earth. The photograph by Yuri Kozyrev is titled, “An Iraqi soldier prays south of Mosul, May 18, 2016. The Iraqi military is preparing for a major offensive to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS control.”

There’s another one, a group of men, all in battle fatigues, sitting on a sofa, staring intently at something just outside the frame, to the right of the photographer. The somewhat dilapidated sofa is sitting outdoors completely devoid of a surrounding structure; again, its dull brown colour matches that of the soil and rocks around it.

Kozyrev’s pictures tell the story of the front lines of the battle against ISIS. It’s not like there has been a shortage of news about the Iraqi forces’ advance on Mosul but most coverage comes in systematic, almost sterile language that gives you facts and figures, and then concludes abruptly by raising questions about the future. But Kozyrev’s pictures, or perhaps the medium of photography, go beyond that.

For instance, in the first picture, the praying man is an Iraqi soldier. That in itself complicates ISIS’s narrative of fighting a battle based on Islam. The competing narratives of what constitutes Islamic behaviour are on display here, through the actions of a Muslim man who is taking some time to pray before he continues fighting a battle against those who claim to stand for the ‘correct’ form of his religion.

The second picture depicts Kurdish fighters. To an unfamiliar eye like mine, they are indistinguishable from the official soldier. This in itself brings home the complexity of the situation in Iraq, one that has been written about extensively but a picture conveys so much better. Militias are at par with the Iraqi government’s forces, something that is bound to create trouble for the state after the war against ISIS concludes. Currently, these diverse groups are bound together by the common goal of defeating ISIS, this political and military unity is likely to collapse after that is achieved.

In a way, Kozyrev’s work is confirming that tired old saying about pictures being worth a thousand words. But apart from that, there is also a novelty to these photographs. There hasn’t been much photographic coverage of the frontlines. His work presents a stiller side of warfare, what soldiers’ lives look like in the moments they’re not using weapons or driving heavily armoured vehicles. And how strange it is that these moments of peace – like smoking from a hookah while browsing through your phone – are framed by the evidence of violence all around them, present in their uniforms and the omniscient pale yellow rubble.

§

An insider’s perspective

“Over the past few days I have been trying to write you somethings, but I feel I’m not capable of writing anything. Lots of pain, fear, sadness, and thinking has been haunting me lately to the point all of it is blocking from writing to you, but I decided to write never the less, about incidents happened in the past few days, family conversations, and others with people from Mosul’s old market “Bab Assarai”, a few first-hand accounts, and some news about ISIL.”

Mosul Eye appeared on the internet around the same time as it was taken over by ISIS in 2014. According to the description of the blog, “This blog was set up to communicate what’s happening in Mosul to the rest of the world, minute by minute by an independent historian.”

The excerpt above is from the latest post, dated November 26. Although the entry starts off emotionally, it quickly settles down to the brusque business of conveying important information. Through 13 long-ish bullet points, the reader finds out about the latest number of executions, war-related casualties, the “very critical and dire” medical situation, the fact that none of the bridges connecting the city to the rest of the country is functional, that many ISIS families want to flee but have no means to, how the behaviour of Iraqi soldiers is comforting Mosul’s residents.

And then just as suddenly, the reporting gives way to something perversely similar to daily chit-chat – “I was very surprised yesterday to learn that there is French goods in the market (Fresh vegetables), specifically Turnips and Potatoes!” A weird fact is made weirder by the fact that the embattled city has barely any connection to the outside world since roadways closed a while ago.
The author also provides updates on the price of alcohol and cigarettes in the city, despite both being forbidden by its ISIS rulers.
“The price of a Whiskey bottle has decreased a little bit. Red Label used to be sold for 300 thousand Iraqi Dinars and now it is sold for 250 thousand although it is very scarce.”

And he is surprised by the fact that his friend “managed to buy a “Jack Denials” for 500 thousand Dinars!” The friend is saving it and has “promised himself to drink some of it the moment Mosul Liberation is declared and will save the rest as a historic record!” It’s kind of marvellous that acts of celebration remain the same even as the circumstances that warrant celebrating differ so drastically.

And just as matter of factly, the blog veers towards a discussion of how the penalty for alcohol consumption used to be flogging and a fine, but has now escalated to beheadings.

Journalists who do somehow make it anywhere near the city and then live to tell the tale, don’t have the luxury to narrate life in Mosul the way it is presented here. The intermingling of bone-chilling facts (an earlier post mentions children playing with corpses, not realising they’re not playthings) with the small wonders of everyday life like new groceries in the market make the entire situation appear even harsher than what the facts and figures already convey.

Like what you’ve read so far? Please consider subscribing here if you’d like to receive regular updates from this column.

§

A convoy of Iraqi security forces advances on the outskirts of Mosul, to fight against Islamic State militants, in Kirkuk, Iraq, October 12, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Ako Rasheed

A convoy of Iraqi security forces advances on the outskirts of Mosul, to fight against Islamic State militants, in Kirkuk, Iraq, October 12, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Ako Rasheed

Facts can only go so far

As the battle for Mosul heats up, the BBC and Time magazine, and a number of other publications, are summing up the “story so far.” A recent piece from the BBC did a round-up of everything factual about the offensive by systematically addressing the situation with maps marking out the different territories under ISIS control, in Iraq and particularly Mosul; the oil fields near the city that are releasing thick black smoke into the horizon and the “humanitarian crisis” that is sure to worsen as people continue to flee the war. According to the report, “More than 70,000 people have now fled their homes in and around Mosul and UN officials are warning this figure is likely to rise as the Iraqi-led forces press further into the city.”

While the report has a graph to show the rise in the number of people fleeing Mosul (the line which charts the period between October 18 and November 23 creeps up at a nearly 45 degree angle) the dry facts really only sunk in when I tied them to the photographs taken by Kozyrev and the words that Mosul Eye has been effortfully typing out for two years now.

It’s not that conventional journalism has failed in this particular instance, but that it is rare now for places to be as inaccessible as the ISIS-controlled territory has proven to be. Particularly in Mosul’s case, where getting into the city is nearly impossible and making it out alive even more unlikely if you’re a journalist. In Kozyrev’s case, his pictures show soldiers being human at a time when brutality is required of them and expressing emotions verbally to a journalist is probably a luxury they can’t afford right now, and so photographs go where words cannot. And maybe that’s also what makes Mosul Eye’s posts so remarkable, because of the unique perspective they provide and the sheer improbability of the blog existing at all.

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at [email protected]
If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, please consider subscribing to Name-Place-Animal-Thing.