Iraq's second city of Mosul, also known as the city or mother of two springs, is one that has witnessed a great deal of war and destruction in recent years. Following the US invasion, it suffered an even darker period after it was occupied by ISIS from 2014 to 2017.
Yet, the city has always remained a source of resilience, persevering through hardship and emerging stronger. Every catastrophe it has faced has resulted in a new hope; an indomitable force that is embodied by Barkah Bazaar, a not-for-profit initiative that gives the city's artisans a space to sell handmade crafts and other objects at a weekly market in the old town. The National caught up with its founder, Ahmed Al Habeeb, to find out more about the social project.
After his neighbourhood was liberated from ISIS, Al Habeeb felt the urge to “get out of the atmosphere of battles and terror and the lack of freedom during the dark era of ISIS".
As he waited for the rest of the city to be freed, he went to Baghdad to find a temporary job. While there, Al Habeeb was inspired by an exhibition specialising in handicrafts and artworks to bring a similar concept to his hometown.
Born into a family with deep passion for art, music and culture, Al Habeeb's father was both an agricultural engineer and a professional oud player and music teacher. He was also part of a wide social circle of artists and creatives. Although he grew up surrounded by music, painting and literature, Al Habeeb says he never achieved his own "ambitions in the field". He explains: "So I wanted to help others in fulfilling their dreams".
Once the entire city of Mosul was freed from ISIS, he sought the help of a friend to bring his dream to life. The process was made easier by the gradual return of normalcy to the city, especially with the reopening of the University of Mosul. This was their starting point in establishing the initial bazaar; which was enhanced by the students both volunteering and making handicrafts to be sold.
Al Habeeb explains that his goal from the very start was “to support those with technical and artistic skills and handicrafts, help them market their work, provide the appropriate space and atmosphere for that and promote their work via social media, as well as the bazaar”.
They held many bazaars and exhibitions both at the University of Mosul and other public places, including at festivals and other social events. As the idea gained popularity, the team decided to expand, giving rise to the Barkah Bazaar initiative; a market held every Friday evening.
During that time, the International Organisation for Migration was quite active in Mosul and was involved in the reconstruction of residential areas that were partially destroyed by the ISIS liberation battles. IOM also offered livelihood support and infrastructure rehabilitation to the private sector.
Deepika Nath, head of public information at IOM, explains what makes the initiative stand out: “There is truly a lot of talent in the city, despite the instability and wars, which negatively affected the cultural sector". She says the group has incorporated cultural bazaars into its programming across Iraq.
When Al Habeeb floated the idea by the group, it offered him support, starting with a batch of 15 plastic tables and seats, and made him the bazaar's volunteer project manager and co-ordinator.
Al Habeeb already had a team of about 80 people experienced in handicrafts, but he wanted to open the opportunity for other participants with a passion for creating traditional wares, as well as attracting tourists to visit the area and learn about the city of Mosul.
Today, at the bazaar, visitors can find all manner of goods – including handmade accessories, textiles, sustainable reshaped candles, paintings, utensils, glass cups, ornamental plants, pottery, old coins, stamps and clay mounds adorned with the old Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform script.
Anyone wishing to showcase and sell their work can register and reserve a stall through Barkah Bazaar's Facebook or Instagram pages for a fee of 5,000 dinars ($3.50). All revenue is fed back into the bazaar, and any profits generated go to the participants.
Al Habeeb says the project has received overwhelming support and co-operation from local people, and one resident even donated an entire warehouse for storing the stalls and chairs. Running every Friday from 4pm to 9pm, up to 300 people visit the bazaar every week and volunteers work tirelessly to clean up afterwards.
One of those volunteers is Hana Zakria, an accountant who came across the bazaar on Facebook. She says the market has helped to restore the "spirit and life" of the old city.
She explains: “It's located in Al-Shaarain market near the Prophet Zarzis Street, at the heart of the historic old part of Mosul, which was subjected to great destruction after the liberation of the city, but now it has been reconstructed and life has returned to it. The bazaar is specifically in an old market, for the purpose of encouraging people to visit these places.”
Zakria also has her own stall, where she showcases and sells her own traditional canvas paintings. She says participating at the bazaar is “one of the most beautiful things I have ever done, because it is a service to my city and a way to represent my city in the best way".
She adds: "No matter how difficult the circumstances, Mosul has risen again with its people and will continue to be proud as long as there are people who love it and work to present it in the best way.”