“How long have you lived in Mosul?” I ask him.
“My whole life.”
“So, you were there for … everything?”
Ali Yousif al-Baroodi’s photographs tell a story that destruction tried to erase. They faithfully capture life in his hometown of Mosul, the northern Iraqi city seized by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Da’esh) in 2014 and liberated three years later. They restore history and preserve it.
Al-Baroodi calls his work “Mosulography”—an attempt to document the ravages of recent events, but also the splendor and timelessness of a region known as the cradle of civilization. Mosul’s famous gypsum alabaster; elegant arches that have withstood missiles even as charred buildings, skeletons exposed, crumble around them; the jade dome of the nearly demolished Al-Nuri mosque where ISIS proclaimed its caliphate four years earlier; children on bicycles on the Old Bridge; a concert in front of the very building from which ISIS would hurl its condemned; a literary festival—these are the signs of life and endurance that are among his subjects.
“Ali has a third eye—the lens of his camera,” says Ameen Al-Jaleeli, Al-Baroodi’s colleague and fellow lecturer at the University of Mosul. “He sees what others do not.”
Unlike the war photographers who come and go in the Middle East, usually appearing only for moments of intense conflict, al-Baroodi is a citizen photographer, entirely self-taught and with deep stakes in his place of birth. His first encounters with photography proved propitious.
“I remember walking by Saddam’s palace compound back in 1999 and reading a ‘No Photography’ sign,” he says. “Many years later, after the [U.S.] invasion, I met a photographer and asked him if I could look through the viewfinder of his camera. When I acquired my first camera, those memories came rushing back to me.”
Photography under ISIS was also strictly forbidden, though the group itself was notorious for rendering its atrocities in high-definition, Hollywood fashion.
“It was dangerous to even carry a camera, let alone use it,” says Al-Jaleeli. “Many people lost their lives for doing so.”
Al-Baroodi has few pictures from this time. One in particular stands out. It is a photo of him and his young nephew, recently shared but dated January 7, 2017, approximately six months before the liberation of Mosul. Al-Baroodi is unshaven, a stark visual reminder of the extent to which ISIS micromanaged the lives of those under its domain. Other, similar posts detail his life in retrospect under the terrorist group. He recounts harrowing near-death experiences, escorting his injured brother to a hospital, running under gunfire, days where clean water and food were uncertainties. But his posts punctuate a timeline that otherwise radiates hope.
Al-Jaleeli describes the phases in his colleague’s work, from the symbolism present in his photography under ISIS to al-Baroodi’s current phase in street photography and documentation.
Scenes of Life in Mosul
In al-Baroodi’s earlier work, says al-Jaleeli, “he took photos of migrating birds as a symbol for the Christians’ exodus from Mosul. Black crows symoblised ISIS, and falling leaves or dead trees represented the death of the city.”
While nostalgia can often cast history in unrealistic, rosy shades, al-Baroodi insists that Mosul’s past was a model example of coexistence, and its past serves as inspiration for the future. The city was famously diverse, he explains—a mosaic of faiths and ethnicities, differences that were later exploited and exacerbated by dictatorship, regime change, and the various opportunistic groups that rose to fill the vacuum.
“The Old City was a melting pot,” says al-Baroodi. “Sunni and Shi’i intermarried. Churches, synagogues, and mosques stood side by side.”
Other than a couple of brief visits overseas in the United States and the United Kingdom, al-Baroodi has lived his whole life in Mosul. He lives with his family and teaches English and translation at the University of Mosul, after receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in translation. His master’s thesis was about the role of televised debates in the Arab world.
Al-Baroodi’s family name derives from the gunpowder trade of his ancestors. He speaks with fondness about the Old City, west of the River Tigris, which was hit hardest during the battle to liberate the city, in what is said to be the most intense urban fighting since World War II. I ask him if he has ever considered moving. He answers indirectly at separate intervals throughout our conversation, listing both reasons for moving and reasons for staying. He has received threats from possible sympathizers with ISIS, who have accused him of working for the U.S. government.
“I take it as a moral responsibility to show my city to the world through my photography, but they accuse me of serving the coalition’s interests!” says al-Baroodi.
In screenshots he shares with me, an anonymous Twitter user insults al-Baroodi, calling him a slave to foreign powers and using degrading language and a register of Arabic characteristic to ISIS. He says, nevertheless, that he refuses to live in fear.
“Under ISIS, we died one thousand times a day,” he says. “We cannot be buried.”
Indeed, even before the arrival of ISIS, al-Baroodi was never one to be controlled, not even by Saddam Hussein’s dictates. When, at the end of the school day, teachers and students alike donned military uniforms and trained as part of Saddam’s al Quds army, al-Baroodi would jump the school wall and evade the routine.
Al-Baroodi tells me that the television at the house where he grew up only received two channels—both state-run. On days when their antennas captured neighboring Syrian broadcasts, he watched old American movies. On days when there was news of atrocities perpetrated by Saddam’s regime, only propagandistic distortions filtered through to viewers. If the Iraqi army decimated the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988 in the infamous chemical weapons attack that killed thousands of civilians, it was because the city hosted Iranian soldiers. If, in the 1990s, the regime drained the southern marshes to force Shia Muslims to leave, the move was part of agricultural reform.
Al-Baroodi tells me that he only later became aware of the true genocidal motives behind events like those. Having seen such tragedies cloaked in the propaganda of a dictator, Mosul’s activists are motivated all the more to document their city’s dark recent history in stark detail, whether in writing or photographs. Doing so, however, still poses risks. In January, the governor of Nineveh Province issued an order to ban photography and video in Mosul’s Old City. Journalists have been arrested for violating that order, including a crew that was reporting about the reopening of shops in the Old City. (Local journalists have protested the order.)
Towards the end of our conversation, al-Baroodi returns to my earlier question: Have you considered moving? He confesses to me that life in Mosul is nearly unbearable. The city is still covered in rubble, which children pick at to try to salvage materials they can sell. Thousands of people are still missing. Ahead, the road to recovery is long and fraught with difficulties. I think of Germany and Japan, examples of post-war reconstruction ambitions not only met, but exceeded. Al-Baroodi remains optimistic—a display of courage and resilience, all things considered.
Sarah Mills is a freelance writer and editor who contributes to a variety of publications, including the Culture Project, a Kurdish-language magazine with an English version. Gilgamesh Nabeel, an Iraqi journalist and translator, also contributed to this article.