Life is made of moments, the joyful, the bad, and the ordinary. The bad we must deal with. The ordinary we should strive to recognize for the good they can be. And the joyful?
What a privilege it was to share, in some small way, the joy of an Iraqi friend the very moment she heard her family, prisoners of ISIS in Mosul for almost three years, were safe and free.
We were in the Al Masgouf, an Iraqi restaurant in downtown Abu Dhabi in the UAE. It’s named after the type of fish dish they serve, Iraqi style, roasted on an open fire, served with usual 1001 Arabian plates of hummus, bread, taleb, etc.
The staff was Iraqi as were some of the clientele. You could always find Iraqis throughout the Middle East, but since the 2003 invasion and endless war, you see a lot more. The tragedy of enforced diaspora is played out in all the big Arab cities and towns as people rebuild shattered lives and keep in touch with their scattered families. It is the same now for the Syrians.
A photo of the late Iraqi King Faisal standing in a garden alongside Queen Elizabeth II hung on a wall, a reminder of a different time as we dug into a taste of home.
My friend’s phone beeped. ‘Excuse me’ she said taking out the phone. She’s a senior figure in the Middle East media scene and as such almost every lunch is a working lunch.
She stared at the text, and burst into tears. I knew instinctively — it was news from Mosul. But which news, the words she’d so longed to hear, or the words she’d so long feared hearing?
“Hamdillah! They’ve been liberated. They’re free, they’re safe Hamdillah!” she said through her tears. We embraced, and I pulled our other lunch partner into a three-way hug.
The Iraqi Army had fought their way into her family’s neighbourhood and the ISIS fighters had mostly retreated into the Old City. Now Special Forces attached to the Iraqi Golden Division were going house to house to flush out any who remained behind. The male members of the family were still nervous as the soldiers were also looking for men who had helped ISIS. However, they had many people who would vouch for them, and the news came through that they were not considered suspects.
The family had been living in West Mosul when ISIS swept into town in June 2014. The army fled, the police melted away, and ISIS knew they needed as many of the population of 2 million to stay as they could prevent from leaving. It swelled the population of their ‘caliphate’ and it gave them huge numbers of human shields.
We’d talked of their predicament in the past. I knew it was something she thought of every day. Snippets of news got out about how, for example, ISIS was enforcing sharia law with its usual brutality, the men had all been made to grow beards, and the women were forced to cover up.
Details were scarce because it was so dangerous to make phone calls. If ISIS caught anyone with an international number on their phone they assumed the owner to be a spy and that could easily be a death sentence. There were various ingenious, albeit still dangerous, ways around this. It was a risk, but many people would find ways to have text conversations with their loved ones in the outside world, and then take the phones apart and ensure they wiped all traces of the connections.
My friend’s family will have many more stories now to tell and no doubt some will involve tales of the horror of living under the worst barbarity seen this century.
But for now, there were phone calls to be made, texts to send, Facebook pages to check. She got through to the northern Iraqi city of Irbil to speak with cousins. Amid the happy Arabic chatter and more tears I recognized a few words – ‘Habibti!’ ‘Nour Hayati!’ ‘Hamdillah!’ — ‘My dear! Light of my life! Thanks be to God!’
I was only on the periphery, of the periphery, of this family’s three-year anguish, but to share one tiny part of the joy of liberation was something I won’t forget. It was also a reminder of how raw and real what we see on the news each day is for those living through it.
The lunch became a defacto celebration. Given the circumstances we settled for Iraqi style tea rather than champagne. It was overwhelmingly sweet, but the moment was even sweeter.