The ancient Assyrians considered the Tigris River the division between East and West, and the city I come from in Iraq is called Mosul — connection point, in Arabic — because it connects these two sides. Nineveh, which lay on the eastern bank of the Tigris, was a capital of the great Assyrian empire. When Arabs arrived in the seventh century, they preferred to live at a distance from it, on the western bank, where the modern city of Mosul is today.
Growing up in Mosul, we were told that with the passage of time, the two peoples came to know one another, and exchanged words, languages, customs and rituals. Assyrians came to understand and speak Arabic, Arabs began to understand Assyrian, and in times of need they united. When enemies attacked the city, the Mosul story goes, Assyrians and Arabs joined together to fight off invaders.
These days Mosul is once again a site of combat — but it is far more divided. As I write from my home in Chicago, I have been watching the images on Al Jazeera and other Arabic-language networks: thick black smoke from the oil wells that the Islamic State has set alight clouding the sky over Mosul. Iraqi military forces are trying to reclaim my hometown from the jihadist group that took it over in June 2014. But the Iraqi military is working hand in hand with Iran-backed Shiite militias. Sectarianism is rife; tens of thousands of Sunnis flee their homes in fear. The Mosul I once knew is long gone.
Mosul is an extension of the Nineveh plains, and an early homeland of Christianity. Before the fall of Saddam Hussein, there were dozens of Christian villages thriving in the Nineveh plains. Christians had lived normal lives in Mosul, for the most part, and over time became prominent scholars, doctors, lawyers and writers, and respected, active figures proportionate to their number in society. They made up a little less than a quarter of the city’s population, according to the oldest statistics available, from 1912. I recall that in the days after Iraq gained independence and before a 1958 coup brought Arab nationalists to power, Mosul was represented in Parliament by four Muslim representatives and one Christian.
A very small portion of the population was Jewish, but what the Jews lacked in numbers they made up for in important skills. When Faisal I was crowned king and the country’s first ministry was created, Sassoon Eskell, a Jew, was appointed minister of finance. He was a loyal, well-regarded expert with great love for his country, and is still remembered fondly today.
That was the Mosul of my childhood. But I left the city behind in the early 1960s. First I went to Baghdad, where I began my career as a novelist. My books got me into trouble with the government, though. Eventually, I fled Iraq.
I returned to Mosul for the last time in July 2011. I wandered through the city apprehensively, my heart filled with loss and longing. I walked slowly, beneath the shade of the ancient city walls to escape the sun, to reclaim the city that had not left my memory. I began at the rundown train station, once the most beautiful building in Iraq, made of brilliant white marble. It was dilapidated and in ruins. In front of the station stood a statue of Mullah Uthman al-Mosuli, the only thing gleaming, as if its newness mocked its surroundings.
Mullah Uthman al-Mosuli was a consummate singer, musician and reciter of the Quran, famed across the Arab world and emulated by singers to this day. In the 1970s, the statue of him was erected near the train station, as if remembering al-Mosuli’s constant travels: Istanbul, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, Mecca, Medina, Baghdad, the villages near Mosul and beyond.
But the statue faces the city, stretching toward the Tigris and then past it, toward Mosul’s most beautiful mosque, the shrine of Nabi Yunus, known in English as the Prophet Jonah. It stood on an archaeological tell, a mound-ruin of the palace that some believe once belonged to the Assyrian emperor Esarhaddon, as if the mosque were the guardian of his treasures below, which extend for miles. Here Assyrian emperors’ palaces once stood, surrounded by Nineveh’s fortified walls, which were destroyed by Babylonians and Medes, razed, and the kings’ treasures plundered.
The ruins remained, untouched by excavations thanks to the sturdy guard above: the mosque of Nabi Yunus. It was sacred; no one could destroy it or excavate beneath it until the Islamic State arrived in 2014, sowing evil and devastation.
They began by destroying the statue of Mullah Uthman al-Mosuli in the west, before destroying almost every precious artifact from there to the mosque of Nabi Yunus. Dozens of mosques with archaeological value, incredible statues in Mosul’s museum and everything that European explorers could not steal was destroyed. The Islamic State burned tens of thousands of precious books, including more than 8,000 rare books and manuscripts in the central library alone.
But when I visited in 2011, I couldn’t imagine how much destruction Mosul would see just three years later at the hands of its latest invaders. My heart blazed with a yearning to rediscover my city. Even though it was 112 degrees on that July day, I felt as if I were being reborn. I ran around like a child, and within five minutes was swimming in sweat.
I arrived at the neighborhood of Bab al-Jadid and could almost hear the cannons of Nader Shah, the 18th-century Persian ruler who tried to take over Mosul. I imagined the cannons blasting a hole in the city’s wall, soldiers’ shouts, voices of women encouraging Mosul’s defenders. The bombing stopped; the battle had ended more than two and a half centuries ago. The wall was ultimately destroyed, but through stories it lived on, and people called the hole just a “crack.” Nader Shah’s army would have poured through it and decimated the city, were it not for a few young men who darted in and barred the gap with their bodies and steeds.
I walked through narrow alleys, as shadows of the past streamed through my head. I gazed up to where the high walls ended. When I was a child, we slept on the roof in the summer because of the heat, and in the mornings what annoyed us most was the bright sun and the assault of hungry flies.
Mahmoud Saeed is the author of Saddam City, among other works of fiction. This essay was translated by Elisabeth Jaquette from the Arabic.