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Life After the Islamic State

As Mosul rebuilds, restaurants are restoring a sense of normalcy, one dish at a time

It had been four months since the Battle of Mosul began in October 2016, and life was finally starting to feel normal again for Hajj Nasser. The Iraq Army had taken the eastern half of the city from the Islamic State’s control, and Nasser’s restaurant, Sayidaty Al-Jamila, known to Westerners as “My Fair Lady,” was thriving for the first time since the militant group seized the city in 2014. A steady stream of Iraqi soldiers, international journalists, and old regulars were rotating through for kebabs, offal, and pizza, even as coalition forces continued their push over the Tigris River into western Mosul.

On February 10, shortly after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared East Mosul officially liberated from the Islamic State, a suicide bomber detonated himself in the entryway of Sayidaty Al-Jamila. The explosion tore through the restaurant’s cavernous entrance, destroying its family room and cooking stations, along with vehicles parked outside; four people died, including Nasser and two of his nephews.

A security checkpoint outside of Sayidaty Al-Jamila
The lunch crowd at Sayidaty Al-Jamila

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, one of Nasser’s nephews, Mohammed Badr, thought that Sayidaty Al-Jamila would never reopen. But by this summer, the restaurant was back, and so were the crowds, with regulars once again arriving as early as 5 a.m. for pacha, a traditional Iraqi dish made with sheep’s brain, stomach, and hooves. Many of the employees who survived the attack returned, too, driven by a sense that a new future is just over the horizon after years of occupation by the Islamic State — commonly called Daesh, an Arabic acronym for the group — and months of intense fighting that had demolished much of the city. “When Daesh was here, we had an unknown future. We didn’t know which day we were going to die,” Abu Mustafa, who has been a manager at Sayidaty Al-Jamila for seven years, told me. “But now life is coming back. It’ll be just like it was before.”

The war against the Islamic State is officially over in Iraq. Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, located some 250 miles north of Baghdad and bisected by the Tigris River, was the crown jewel of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, and its last major stronghold in the country. The battle to retake the city lasted around nine months — victory was officially declared in July, although fighting continued into August — displacing hundreds of thousands of people, killing thousands, and destroying or damaging tens of thousands of buildings.

Crews replacing water mains damaged by air strikes during the Battle of Mosul

When I arrived in Mosul in August, shortly after major combat operations concluded, the herculean task of rebuilding the shattered city was, in many ways, only just beginning. In East Mosul, though a sense of normalcy already hung in the air, Mosul's largely deserted west side remained an ocean of debris.

In East Mosul, it was difficult to tell that a battle had occurred at all. Most of its streets were bustling, and its main corridors were snarled with traffic. Dozens of shops were open on every street, joined by vendors with wooden carts hawking everything from fruits and vegetables to scrap metal. By far the most overt sign of Mosul’s recent history was a sweeping, highly visible security apparatus: Two members of the Iraqi federal police, dressed in blue camouflage and armed with AK-47s, guarded the entrance to Sayidaty Al-Jamila, while 50 feet away, in a traffic circle where the Islamic State once regularly beheaded traitors, a third Iraqi soldier sat atop a Humvee, perched behind a turret with a machine gun.

A bustling marketplace in East Mosul, eight months after being liberated

A short walk from the Nabi Yunis market, where thousands of residents buy groceries and trade their wares daily, is Mosul’s first liquor store, one of the city’s few legal purveyors of alcohol. There’s no sign marking the shop’s exterior, and its heavy metal blast doors open just wide enough for one person to fit through at a time. According to the owner, more than a thousand people squeeze through every day to purchase name brands like Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Corona, and Heineken. Inside, thick metal bars separate the customers from the shopkeeper. When I visited, the shop was largely empty; in a dark corner, a customer poured a recently purchased flask of Gordon’s London Dry Gin into an empty water bottle, while the manager nervously chain-smoked as he kept an eye on the shop’s nine surveillance cameras.

After a round of press in May brought threats to the store’s owner, he declined to be interviewed or allow any part of the store to be photographed. But over a couple of Heineken tall boys in the makeshift bar in the back of the shop, the manager agreed to speak to me as long as I didn’t use his name, fearful of being attacked. Under the Islamic State, he said, a black market for alcohol and cigarettes flourished as the city’s few bars and clubs were shuttered. “Daesh didn’t completely stick to strict Muslim laws,” the manager told me. “On the black market, you could get an Efes beer for up to $100. That same beer will now cost you $2. Cigarettes that cost $30 are now 50 cents.”

A member of Mosul’s Civil Defense Force inspects the interior of Khalid Abu al-Gass’s original location in West Mosul

When I toured the neighborhood of Al Muthanna, it was hard to miss Khalid Abu al-Gass. Recently constructed, with fresh, glossy tiling and gleaming appliances, the restaurant occupies the ground floor of a two-story building whose second floor was an open-air mangle of twisted metal and rubble.

For 35 years, brothers Zaydun and Haldun Khalid operated in West Mosul, serving a single dish: tashreeb, a base of bread covered in stew and topped with slices of shawarma. When the Islamic State took control of the city, Haldun fled to Turkey, but Zaydun remained and was forced by the regime to keep the restaurant open. “We were only getting a few Daesh customers,” Zaydun Khalid said. “We’re only open for breakfast from 5 to 9, and Daesh was still sleeping at that time.”

The building that houses Khalid Abu al-Gass in the neighborhood of Al Muthanna
Tashreeb being served at Khalid Abu al-Gass

In February, when coalition forces began shelling the west side, Khalid finally closed the restaurant. Haldun returned that spring, and the brothers secured a lease on the bombed-out building on the east side. The rent is high, despite the lack of a roof, according to the brothers — the wholesale displacement of western Mosul has created a severe housing shortage in the city’s intact neighborhoods — but they’re taking it in stride. “Business is coming back again,” Khalid said. “I can see a good future here.”

A few days after arriving in Mosul, I ventured across the Tigris River to the west side, which was largely reduced to rubble by six months of intense, block-by-block urban combat — the most significant since World War II — and where mere glimmers of the institutions that sustain the most basic human needs had returned: Pipes for a new water-purification plant were being installed where there had been airstrike craters, while food supplies from the Iraqi cities of Erbil, Kirkuk, and Baghdad, as well as Turkey, Iran, and beyond, had just started to flow into the area.

Luae Amir Zakir walks through his restaurant Abu Laila, which was damaged by airstrikes

Driving down Baghdad Street, the main artery that runs all the way to the Iraqi capital, intersections were pocked with craters several meters across, strategically placed by air strikes to prevent suicide bomber vehicles — “vehicle-­borne improvised explosive devices,” to use the term of art — from accelerating toward coalition front lines.

“There is no water here. No electricity. The government also needs to pay salaries again,” Luae Amir Zakir, one of the owners of Abu Laila restaurant, told me. “Once those things are back, people will come back and rebuild.” The inside of Zakir’s restaurant was still riddled with shrapnel from a nearby airstrike; the resulting crater was being used as a makeshift traffic circle.

In West Mosul, the restaurant Al-Safeer runs late into the night on generator power

Further down Baghdad Street, the restaurant Al-Safeer was one of the few that had managed to reopen already. Relying on tankers of water and gasoline-fueled generators, it operated into the night, or at least until the 10 p.m. curfew imposed that day by the Iraqi federal police. As the sun set, the restaurant became the street’s sole beacon of light, and it drew a ramshackle crowd: mercenaries and militia members armed with AK-47s; hardened young men who have been tasked with rebuilding in a city littered with improvised explosive devices and unexploded ordnance; and old men who knew the population well enough to identify the bodies pulled from the rubble. The menu was surprisingly varied, considering the conditions: kebabs, roasted chickens, falafel, salads of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and onion — even tea and ice cream.

The night crowd at Al-Safeer
A late dinner at Al-Safeer in West Mosul

The next morning, I made my way into Mosul’s Old City, where the stench of bodies left to rot in the 115-degree summer heat still wafted through the air. Unexploded ordnance from coalition airstrikes littered the neighborhood, while large sections of the surrounding areas had yet to be cleared of militants — or IEDs, making it difficult for families to safely return to assess and rebuild. Almost half a million residents of the west side were still living in camps administered by various NGOs and the United Nations Refugee Agency, waiting to return home.

A guard outside of Mosul’s Old City

But on the outskirts of the Old City, Zyad Thabit was already holding court at his tea shop, not two months after it was site of the coalition’s front line; it remained as far as one could go without being stopped by the federal police, whose checkpoints were so densely clustered in this area that you could see three from one spot.

The neighborhood was disconcertingly still, the silence disturbed only by the occasional passing army truck kicking up a cloud of dust, microscopic fragments of what was once someone’s home. Thabit’s own home, just down the street, completely collapsed, but he had just one complaint: The federal police harassed one of his regular customers over an ID card. “The reason why Daesh was successful here in the first place was because of this — cutting off roads, and bad treatment of locals,” Thabit said. “It doesn’t mean that you are safe. All of the safe places in the world don’t have this.”

Zyad Thabit holding court at his tea shop on the outskirts of Mosul’s Old City

One of the nearby officers called out to the shop from across what was once a traffic circle. Thabit’s 9-year-old son Zakarya, dressed in jean shorts and a T-shirt, put two teas on a tray and walked over, crossing a completely exposed plaza. “My father owned this shop and I’ve now owned this shop for 20 years,” Thabit said. “Once I’m done, Zakarya will take over. We cannot live anywhere else. It’s not about roads. It’s about memories.” At the same time, he added, “We don’t want to go back to the old way of life in Mosul. The past gave us this situation. We want to go forward.”

Gary He is a photojournalist living in New York City.
Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter
Thanks to Sangar Khaleel, Cengiz Yar, Luke Mogelson, and Lucas Jackson

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