By Kit Roberts
THE FIRST thing I am told by Omar Mohammad, better known as Mosul Eye, is that Mosul is a city of balance.
For hundreds of years, a wide variety of communities coexisted. Christians, Muslims, Yazidis, and even Jews until the 1950s.
“It’s a city that cannot carry all the weight of only one side,” he says, “The city has to be with Christians, Muslims, Yazidis, unfortunately Jews have been deported over the 40s and 50s.
“So, the balance of the city was already damaged.”
Of all the stops on the Pope Francis’ tour of Iraq, the first pope to ever visit the country, Mosul stuck out. For many, its name is still stained by the memory of three years of occupation by Daesh, Islamic State, from 2014-2017.
With the city liberated from the caliphate, Omar now turns his attention to restoring its reputation. For many, both in the West and in Iraq, the name of Mosul immediately conjures up the association with Daesh. Omar contests this, saying: “This is one of the narratives that I have been trying to fight, that we shouldn’t look at Mosul only for those three years of Daesh. That moment of Daesh was a temporary one, it didn’t belong to the city.
“Even since the liberation of Mosul the people have been living feeling a guilt of something they didn’t commit.”
Omar himself is a living example of the resistance of Mosul to its occupiers. A historian by profession, during the occupation he secretly ran a blog documenting daily life under Daesh.
When Pope Francis visited Mosul however, it changed the narrative around the city. Now, it appears safer and more open. Images of Shia and Sunni clerics sitting together in a church could not be more far removed from the recent dark past.
Even within Iraq, there is the need to dispel the image around Mosul. Omar explains: “The national narrative of Iraq is that all the people of Mosul have been accused of supporting Daesh. So, what I noticed after the visit of the Pope that those people who have been living in this kind of mindset now they feel like as if they have this card holding in their hands when someone trying to accuse them of supporting Daesh.
“They say, ‘look, can you see this picture? You know who is in this picture? It’s the pope praying inside Mosul.’”
It really is difficult to understate the importance of Pope Francis’ visit to the people of Mosul. Omar described his reaction to seeing the image of Francis praying there, he said:
“I consider that this was the liberation of Mosul from the negative narrative against Mosul, the city has been liberated from this guilt of atrocities that the city didn’t commit.
“He’s not praying from Rome for the Christians who were deported, who were executed, those who suffered, those whose houses have been confiscated, no. He is praying at the heart of a destroyed church from inside Mosul.”
The possibility of Francis being able to visit at all is a demonstration of how much the situation has improved. Of course, the level of security surrounding Francis has been extremely high, but it is still a risk. Groups including Daesh are still active. It is as though Francis has almost paved the way, or perhaps delivered encouragement to others who still feel it is too dangerous.
Omar says: “There are diplomats already living in Iraq. I have been chasing them to make trips to Mosul they keep telling me the security’s not good. I keep chasing them who are working in Mosul, ‘why can’t you stay in Mosul?’ Yeah, but the security. An 84 year old man, who is briefed better than any intelligence community could brief, so he knows what’s happening there, he decided to go there.
“He knows that this is going to show the people their potential.”
And what of the future? Omar made it clear that the work to rebuild only began when Daesh was driven from the city in 2017. Now, the task is to both console its people that they are not the guilty, and to harness the sense of optimism and energy for change the visit has inspired.
It is a particular cruelty that the people who have witnessed most closely the horrors of Daesh have now also been tarred as its allies. Moving on from this is now crucial, and to regain some semblance of hope and optimism the citizens of Mosul must know their full self-worth.
Omar explains: “We cannot keep helping the people of Mosul by building houses, we need to show those people their potential, because they are capable. First, he declared it as a city of coexistence, he also declared it as a city with a great potential for the future.
“The pope has done his job, he has done already his part, perfectly. Now it’s how will the people take advantage, make good use of this special and historic moment. Now it’s in the hands of both the government and the people.
“With the people it is clear. I received requests from people who have never spoken out, people who have never made their voice loud, they were always afraid.
“Now they say we need to establish a ground for a long term interfaith dialogue in Mosul, and that we have to connect the dots.
“I have reached out to the Vatican, I am going to the Vatican very soon. I am in contact with the Shia clergy, so the people are reaching out and saying that we have to seize the moment, we have to make the perfect use of this moment to keep it alive.
“That’s on the community. They want to do it.”
But despite this surprising sense of optimism, Omar is not so convinced about the government. He says: “When you look at the government, I can hear myself like, oh my god, nothing’s going to be done. They didn’t understand the meaning. I don’t see an clear understanding of what it means.
“He was telling the government look, this is the road map you have a great potential, you have to take the opportunity, but when I speak about the government, I am not sure things will change. That’s our concern. That’s what puts more heavy weight on us the community.”
Unfortunately, it is not only through an unwillingness on the part of the government that this change will be a challenge.
He says: “Some people do have the will among the government, they do have the will to do this, but you need clear understanding of the meaning of the moment in order to make use of it.
“First thing you do when you buy a new device, you read the manual. The government doesn’t seem to have read the manual of the visit of the pope as a historic moment.”
Historically it is difficult to think of an act that bridges more cultural gaps than the pope visiting Iraq. It is perhaps a sign of beginning to restore the cultural pluralism that Omar describes as underpinning Mosul as a city throughout its long history.
With Omar you can’t help but hear the voice of someone who is finally daring to hope for the future of their city, despite everything. It is clear how deeply he feels this moment could work to benefit Mosul and its people, and to mentally liberate them after their physical liberation.
“It’s the only time when he do his press conference on the plane on the way back, the only time he speaks more about his visit.
“He says, this visit has tired me, but Iraq will be always with me.
“It’s a historic moment that’s never going to happen again.”
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