I work for Kashkul, a research and arts collaborative at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). There, with regional and international scholars and artists, I participate in Mosul Lives, a project that gathers stories of daily life in Mosul. In April 2017, as the last Islamic State (Daesh) fighters dug into Mosul’s Right Bank, we traveled to the newly liberated areas, as well as to camps for the recent waves of internally displaced people, mostly lifelong residents of Mosul.
The stories we collected depict Mosul before the Islamic State, before the 2003 American presence, when citizens lived “in one hand,” when the city was “a mosaic,” not “simple tile.” We worried that people would be angry we weren’t asking about the recent violence; instead, they were delighted. Men laughed as they remembered how they snuck love letters over garden walls to their future wives. Women laughed and argued as they demonstrated the proper way to milk a goat. I complimented a man’s tie, something he’d rushed to put on for us when we asked to photograph him, and he beamed. He had gone back to the rubble of his home to find his ties still hanging, perfectly clean, in the closet. Whether they were in their homes or UNHCR tents, people wanted to remember the Mosul they loved and carried in their minds. They wanted the world to remember their Mosul.
Originally, we called the project Mosul Remembered, considering our efforts a eulogy. But on our first day there we saw: the city isn’t dead. Mosul lives. The people you will meet in these verbatim poems—Sheikh Abdul Razak, Haneen, Majid—are only a fraction of the people with whom we conducted interviews. All of them are their city. All are seeking a way forward: a pathway they must often build themselves with what little remains. Dr. Mus’ab, the man who oversees restoration and archaeology in the province, said in October 2017, “We must rebuild even the rebuilding process: for some sites, we have only a kilogram of the ruins left—ruins of ruins. The Islamic State destroyed our places. They forced us to watch. People no longer recognize their city, themselves. But this isn’t Mosul. This isn’t us.” These poems tell us what is. The interviews and the people behind them are reconstructing what reconstruction means.