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Iraq’s Mosul revives shattered cultural scene with traditional music festival

MOSUL, Iraq: Five years since the battle to dislodge Daesh from Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, a four-day festival of traditional music has taken place with the aim of salvaging the region’s shattered arts scene and promoting cultural coexistence.

The festival, which ran from March 24 to 27 with the support of UNESCO, featured musicians from Mosul and the surrounding province of Nineveh, together with several visiting performers from Europe and further afield.

“It was a dream to have a festival like this,” Khalid Alrawi, an oud player from Mosul, told Arab News. “I hope this kind of festival continues in future. We look forward to it becoming an annual festival, expanded with more activities.”

Besides seeking to revive the city’s once flourishing music scene, ruined by war and the flight of artists abroad, organizers wanted to reflect the region’s true cultural vibrancy and diversity, unbowed by Daesh extremism.

“A new culture of music is here,” Harth Yasin, the festival’s coordinator, told Arab News. “This event will open the door to tourists and let others know more about the city of Mosul, and it will create opportunities for our young talented musicians and artists.”

Seventeen acts took part in the festival, together reflecting the region’s broad ethnic and religious makeup, including Arabs, Kurds, Turkman, Assyrians, and others. The festival also featured performances by musicians from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Nepal.

“We hope there are more events like this with more support in the future in the places that represent the culture and history of Mosul,” Yasin said.

Daesh seized control of Mosul and large swathes of Nineveh in June 2014, imposing its extreme interpretation of Islam on the population, which stamped out cultural activities that did not fall in line with the group’s rigid ideology.

In July 2017, after nine months of ferocious urban warfare, the government in Baghdad formally declared Mosul had been liberated, depriving Daesh of its last major stronghold in Iraq.

Victory, however, came at a great cost to the city’s infrastructure and proud identity. Since then, governments and aid agencies have funded projects to help rebuild the precious architecture of the historic old city and its surrounding districts.

Recovering from this period of darkness will take many years, as displaced communities try to salvage their homes and restart the local economy. But, thanks to festivals like this one, color is slowly returning to daily life.

“Mosul was closed to the world. No one knew anything about it. Now, they will know it better,” Talal Al-Shimali, president of the Musical Association’s Nineveh branch, told Arab News.

“It is a very important event here in Mosul. It will strengthen the music scene, and encourage musicians and artists in Mosul to develop and engage with other cultures and music. It is a good initiative, it will benefit the city and its people. The festival represents all voices and the music of all ethnicities and minorities in Mosul.

“My message to all is to support music in Mosul. Mosul city is tired and needs more support. We ask all international organizations to support and help Mosul. Music in Mosul has been dying day by day over the last couple of years. We can still save it with the help of international and local organizations in Mosul.”

For those trying to salvage Mosul’s artistic scene, the festival marked an important milestone in the city’s healing process.

“Art is the substance of community, economic development, and the backbone of society,” Basma Al-Hussiani, founder of the Iraqi Al-Amal Association, told Arab News.

“Art is fundamental for everything here. That is why I tell everyone who is working toward rebuilding Mosul — let art be a big part of it.”

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