Maija Liuhto | Longreads | September 2017 | 10 minutes (2875 words)
In the Old City of Kabul, there is an area known as Ka Forushi, the bird market. Visiting this old, roofed bazaar with its tiny lanes, spice sellers, and dancing boys is like walking into a scene out of “One Thousand and One Nights.”
It is here, among the clucking chickens, crowing roosters, and cooing doves, that Kabul’s oldest restaurant, Bacha Broot, has been serving delicious chainaki — traditional lamb stew — for over 70 years. Bacha Broot, named after the original owner who had peculiar facial hair, is from the Dari, meaning “boy with a mustache.”
While wars have raged on the restaurant’s doorstep, very little has changed inside. The claustrophobic stairs, the sparse interior, the tiny door easily missed in the maze-like bazaar; all in their original state. While modern fast food joints lure Afghanistan’s younger generations with pizza and burgers, Bacha Broot stays loyal to its recipe for success. The famous chainaki — lamb on the bone, split peas, and onions cooked for four hours in tiny teapots — has drawn customers for decades, during war and peace, good times and bad.
I could smell the acrid soot a block away. The library at the University of Mosul, among the finest in the Middle East, once had a million books, historic maps, and old manuscripts. Some dated back centuries, even a millennium, Mohammed Jasim, the library’s director, told me. Among its prize acquisitions was a Quran from the ninth century, although the library also housed thousands of twenty-first-century volumes on science, philosophy, law, world history, literature, and the arts. Six hundred thousand books were in Arabic; many of the rest were in English. During the thirty-two months that the Islamic State ruled the city, the university campus, on tree-lined grounds near the Tigris River, was gradually closed down and then torched. Quite intentionally, the library was hardest hit. ISIS sought to kill the ideas within its walls—or at least the access to them.
“My life’s work,” Jasim said, when we spoke by telephone two weeks ago. “I’d rather my house be destroyed, not the library. All my memories, all the people we helped there—we helped develop the city and the country. Whenever I speak about the library, it’s as if I’m putting my hand on an open wound.”
Then, there’s the problem of books. On May 25th, students organized a book drive outside the gutted library, even as battles between the Iraqi Army and isis militants echoed from across the river. Four young musicians performed in front of the library steps. Three students pinned their photographs of people and places and life in Mosul on a long clothesline and recounted the stories behind them. Four painters displayed their work, propped on easels. The event was the brainchild of Mosul Eye, a pseudonymous historian and blogger who chronicled life under ISIS rule until he fled Iraq, last year. (He spoke on the condition of anonymity, since he still has family in Mosul.) Before the ISIS invasion, in 2014, he spent long hours in the library each week doing research, he told me. From abroad, he’s now trying to coördinate a cultural rebirth in Mosul, beginning with its university.
Being a woman was helpful. I say that with caution, because some of the most revealing and sensitive stories on rape have been done by my male colleagues: Jeffrey Gettleman on male rape in eastern Congo and Adam Nossiter on the rapes inside of a soccer stadium in Guinea, for example. Both stories put important issues on the map. But I could get these girls to open up by telling them, Somebody very close to me, in my own family, was gang-raped as a teenager. I was raised with her story. I’d tell them they should not suffer any shame for what happened to them. It was not their fault. I tried to make it clear to them that what they’re about to describe is something quite personal to me, given my family’s history, and I do not come at this with some morose curiosity.
Callimachi also discusses her process as a writer.
I tend to fight. I think I’ve been a pain in the butt for some editors. Because writing is so hard for me, when I find a formulation that I love — moments of inspiration usually happen when I’m going on a run; I’ll have an ah ha! moment — it’s painful when editors cut that very thing. I know that the editing is obviously a very important step in what we do. It’s why The New York Times is what it is. So I am trying my best to push less and to be less attached to the specific phrasing.
I don’t editorialize. Sometimes people ask why I don’t condemn ISIS. Why don’t I say this is terrible? I’m like, Are you kidding me? Why would I need to say that, when it is so transparently terrible, right? It’s so obviously horrible and what do I, Rukmini, this writer from America, have to add by saying, This is awful? I think that gets in the way of the narrative.
Jawad’s body was put in a bag and placed on the patio, by Thamer’s feet. Thamer looked as if he wanted to move away from it but was too tired to get up. More swat-team members had arrived. I spotted Bashar, the policeman who’d saved the video of his brother Salem’s beheading. Blood stained his ammo vest. When Thamer told him that the body bag contained Jawad, Bashar wept silently. A policeman unzipped the bag and removed a silver bracelet from Jawad’s wrist. He handed the bracelet to Bashar, who fastened it on his own wrist.
Another Humvee arrived, and a second dead swat-team member was carried out. The corpse, set down beside Jawad, was coated in gray dust. I recognized him as a young man with whom I’d stayed up talking in the abandoned house the previous night. He’d scrolled through his phone, showing me pictures of his father and brother, both of whom were in an isis prison in Mosul. He feared for his mother, he’d told me, now that she was alone.
Bashar sat down and covered his eyes with his scarf. No one spoke. Mortars, tank cannons, air strikes, small arms, and high-calibre machine guns continued sounding up the road. After a few minutes, Bashar said, “We need to go back.”
Discourse is a battleground, and we have to perceive it as such. It’s not simply a representation of what is happening; it’s a battleground. This is why it’s important to push for the revolutionary grassroots narrative that has been completely isolated, silenced, marginalized, and, for many, unthinkable. This is why, I think, we should highlight that struggle and make sure that people hear about it.
– In an in-depth interview in Jacobin, Yusaf Khalil talks with Syrian scholar Yasser Munif about the roots of the Syrian civil war, the role of on-the-ground activists, and the narrative disconnect between Syria and the West.
The interview reveals the very human aspects of a reporter who is dedicated to revealing the very human aspects of terrorists—including her husband’s request that she not check her phone in bed so that he doesn’t find himself inadvertently glimpsing beheading videos.
One of the most surprising revelations she shares is how close she sometimes has to become with jihadists in high places, such as Oumar Ould Hamaha, who had been a commander in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb:
For about eight months, he had a cellphone. I still have it programmed in my phone. You could actually call him and speak to him on the phone. At first I was speaking to him every week or every few days. It got to the point where he was calling me three times a day.
We were having these long drawn-out conversations that often involved him trying to convert me to Islam and him laughing when he didn’t succeed. I don’t want to make too much of it, but I suddenly felt like I had a human interlocutor in this crazy group. I could call him. I could start texting with him. We would call him whenever there was breaking news, like when they announced they were going to destroy this next mausoleum or when they announced they stoned to death a couple for adultery. But on some of the other stuff he told me, I just never felt comfortable quoting him because I didn’t know if he was telling me the truth.
His central point, however, is incontestable. ISIS is taking root in Gaza among its disillusioned youth; he might not be able to persuade his own students “to maintain peaceful methods,” Omar Hams said. “We are dealing with individual souls. Anyone oppressed can do anything. That is why I issue a warning: to end the suffering of Palestinians, so that…we can influence our people. Otherwise there is no 100 percent guarantee of anything.”
Indeed, for a city that only last summer feared it would be overrun by jihadis, Baghdad feels uncannily lacking in trauma. Perhaps Iraqis have learned how to live with their fears, but ISIS feels more threatening in European capitals than it does in Baghdad. Too complacently, Iraqis talk about ISIS in the past tense, as if its defeat was a foregone conclusion. Young men drive through the streets, playing a pop song mocking ISIS’s “feminine” fighters at full volume on their car stereos. Cafés spill onto sidewalks, their tables filled with families late into the night. Hip eateries have opened around Baghdad University where dressed-up girls go to smoke water pipes. Closed by Saddam Hussein’s faith campaign in the early 1990s, the bars that tentatively reopened in 2010 are now jammed. Bartenders cheer the greater margin of freedom they have gained since Sunni and Shia militias turned their guns on each other instead of on their customers.
–In the New York Review of Books, Nicolas Pelham examines two very different worlds—while ISIS destroys antiquities in northern Iraq, Baghdad sees signs of reconstruction in the south.