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In Iraq's Mosul, art springs up from ruins almost 5 years after the ouster of ISIS

A mural featuring portraits including many women in Mosul, Iraq, including celebrities like Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande. The artwork is on a wall where ISIS used to list its extremely strict rules, including that women's faces had to be covered, and the punishment for breaking them.
Jason Beaubien
/
NPR
A mural featuring portraits including many women in Mosul, Iraq, including celebrities like Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande. The artwork is on a wall where ISIS used to list its extremely strict rules, including that women's faces had to be covered, and the punishment for breaking them.

MOSUL, Iraq — After ISIS took over this northern Iraqi city in 2014, women weren't allowed to show their faces in public. They had to wear black veils with just slits for their eyes and long black robes. They could be whipped, and their husbands fined, if the women violated the dress code.

Now colorful murals are popping up all across Mosul on what had been bullet-strafed facades. And many of them are giant pictures of women's faces.

This vibrant street art is a sign of the spirited rebuilding going on in Mosul, nearly five years after ISIS rule in the city and the fierce battles to oust it.

Twenty-year-old Rusul Ahmed painted two of the murals.

"It's not something wrong when a woman shows her beauty," she says.

The university student is standing in front of a 15-foot-tall mural of a woman with jet-black hair and a dramatic swish of eye shadow. In the portrait, the woman's chin juts up slightly, exuding confidence, maybe even defiance.

"When ISIS came here, the women they had to cover her body, her face. That's wrong because the women should be able to live their life," Ahmed says.

Mosul couldn't imagine Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande murals under ISIS

The mural that Ahmed is standing in front of is on a long wall where ISIS used to post its strict morality rules and the punishments for breaking them. Now the wall is covered in bright portraits. Most are of women, including the celebrated Iraqi British architect Zaha Hadid, who died in 2016.

Under ISIS rule, people in Mosul weren't allowed to have satellite television or listen to Western music. Ahmed and her team from 7Arts certainly wouldn't have been permitted to paint a mural like this one featuring pop stars Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande.

"This is Ariana, Ariana Grande. The people here love her!" Ahmed says, pointing to a colorful face painted in bold blocks of color. "And I listen to her because I want to improve my language," she adds with a laugh. "She helped me a lot."

Excavations around the al-Nuri mosque in the Old Town of Mosul, in northern Iraq. As ISIS fighters fled in 2017, they blew up the minaret and prayer hall.
Zaid Al-Obeidi / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Excavations around the al-Nuri mosque in the Old Town of Mosul, in northern Iraq. As ISIS fighters fled in 2017, they blew up the minaret and prayer hall.

There's an effort to rebuild a destroyed mosque

Across the Tigris River from the Ariana Grande painting, much of the Old City of Mosul still is in ruins. ISIS fighters dug in in the ancient city and the area was pounded by a relentless Iraqi and U.S. bombing campaign to dislodge the militants in 2017.

As ISIS fighters fled, they blew up the iconic minaret and the prayer hall at Mosul's al-Nuri mosque. There's now an international effort to rebuild them.

While some parts of the Old City are coming back, the walls of many of its narrow alleyways are still pockmarked from shrapnel.

Munir Majed, with a group called Art Revolution, started painting murals here three years ago highlighting the city's heritage. The 21-year-old engineering student points to a painting of a woman looking out a window.

"The woman is looking at the symbols of Mosul," he says. "The statues, the gates, the things that were destroyed by ISIS. And if you see the wall in the background, the bullet holes. Most of these walls were exactly the same — they had bullet holes."

Asked if he could have painted something like this during ISIS' control of the city, Majed laughs nervously. He slashes a finger across his throat and says he would have been killed if he tried to do this under ISIS.

Colorful murals have sprung up in parts of Mosul since the ouster of ISIS.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
/
NPR
Colorful murals have sprung up in parts of Mosul since the ouster of ISIS.

Colorful murals counter dark times under ISIS

At a highway overpass in eastern Mosul, there's a graffiti-style mural that says "I HEART MOSUL" in orange letters and a red heart. And right next to it are more big colorful paintings of Iraqi women's faces.

"It's like a carnival of colors," says Ali Al-Baroodi, a lecturer in the media department at University of Mosul. "Like, could it be more symbolic?"

Born and raised in the city, Baroodi, who's 40 years old, refers to himself as a "Mosulgrapher" because he tries to document what's happening in his home city. He says the recent murals are a direct reaction to the dark period of ISIS occupation.

"So Mosulis, and Mosuli artists in particular, are responding with colors and with the freedom," he says. "You saw women veiled in black in that period. Now you can see free women on walls and off walls most importantly."

Throughout history, Baroodi says, Mosul has been a multicolored, multiethnic city.

And ISIS' dark vision for the place, he says, was never going to succeed.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.