At the 2019 Paris Peace Forum, I had an encounter with Noura Al Kaabi, the UAE Minister of Culture and Youth. The Iraqi city of Mosul, where I am from, was not well represented at the event, and it had been playing on my mind. But when I met Ms Al Kaabi, I knew that those concerns were unnecessary. She was at the forum, she told me, to speak about Mosul.
I expressed to Ms Al Kaabi my gratitude for the Emirates’ remarkable efforts to restore the city’s cultural heritage.
“There’s one man who felt it was an easy decision to make for such a crucial cause,” Ms Al Kaabi replied. “We owe it to him.” As she spoke, she was pointing to a photograph of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
The UAE’s decision to help rebuild Mosul’s famed Al Nuri Mosque was not only crucial in its cause, but in its timing, too. I can still recall my sorrow when it was destroyed three years ago, but also my concern about what would happen to its ruins.
According to UN figures, an area of Old Mosul approximately equal to 18 football pitches has been destroyed. After the city’s liberation from ISIS in 2017, dozens of historic sites were at risk of vanishing forever, including Al Nuri Mosque and Al Sa’a and Al Tahira Churches.
The destruction was not only physical. ISIS’s destruction of cultural heritage was part of an organised effort to deconstruct Mosul’s history. The group’s leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, chose Al Nuri Mosque as the location of one of his most famous speeches, tarnishing its reputation and attempting to convert it into a symboil of terror. Mosul’s heritage was being weaponised. The city’s very identity was at stake.
Under ISIS occupation, Mosul was filled with scenes of violence and oppression. The group expelled Christians, enslaved Yazidis and killed both Shias and Sunnis. They demolished the city’s ancient Assyrian relics and systematically destroyed archaeological sites, museums, libraries and artefacts.
The life that was previously familiar to Mosul’s inhabitants had ground to a halt. There was no more music. Cultural activities were banned. Residents did not dare ask questions – even to themselves. Everything became black, just like the ISIS flag. Colour, beauty, local dress and the arts all disappeared as residents were forced into submitting to ISIS’s codes for dress and behaviour.
ISIS’s goal was to tear up the ancient bonds of coexistence between Mosul’s communities, just as it smashed the cities ancient statues. After liberation the question then became how to undo the legacy of ISIS, and to rehumanise the city’s cultural heritage.
One answer came when news emerged in the city that the UAE had launched a project to rebuild Al Nuri Mosque. The project was titled “Revive the Spirit of Mosul”: a title that spoke directly to the city’s hopes, heard the muffled voices of its citizens and reached out to their hearts.
The project has also enabled Mosul to present its cultural heritage on the global stage. The UAE’s efforts are setting a new model for how to revitalise heritage and to enable communities with diverse populations to flourish and coexist.
Many important goals have already been achieved in the mosque’s reconstruction, and Emirati diplomacy has been instrumental in that. The mosque’s role as a place of peace and love has been revived. Its historical symbolism has been restored. The city as a whole has become evidence of the ability to resist violence and division, and to heal from them. It has revealed that the only way to live together is by accepting diversity as a mosaic in which each piece is integral to the whole picture. Any missing element robs all the inhabitants of their shared destiny.
Now, despite all of the destruction – of people and buildings – there are many green shoots in Mosul’s soil. There is hope among the youth, who are in many cases exploring their city’s history and heritage for the first time. They are seeing places they never knew about or thought to visit until now. This newfound interest needs concrete support in order to thrive, and the city’s youth need tangible actions that will help improve their lives and safeguard their futures. “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” is doing that by rising to the challenge and showing young people what co-operation for the sake of their city looks like.
In fact, the youth are an important element in the project. On June 27, Ms Al Kaabi organised a discussion titled "Mosul Heritage: A New Era Built by Youth". Several young people from the city attended. The event was also moderated by Mina Al-Oraibi, The National's editor-in-chief, and was scheduled to mark the three-year anniversary of Al Nuri Mosque by ISIS.
In some ways, I see the “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” initiative as a kind of second liberation of Mosul. It is a liberation of the city’s heritage and a renewal of the mission to preserve it by giving it a place on the global stage. For that, residents of the city will be forever grateful to the UAE.
The UAE’s cultural heritage diplomacy is crucial in creating a space for peace and a sense of responsibility among humanity for a better future. ISIS had launched a brutal war against the Mosul, its people and its history. But thanks in part to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed and the support of the Emirates, the city, its people and its history are all able to heal.
Omar Mohammed is an historian from Mosul who teaches cultural heritage diplomacy at Sciences Po in Paris