“Out of crisis, brilliant art will come out” – reviving creative expressions in Mosul

Basma El Husseiny has seen people and places traumatized by conflicts. The cultural manager with thirty years of experience formed Action for Hope in 2013 to empower vulnerable population through culture, and the organization has worked in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. A member of UNESCO’s expert facility for the implementation of the 2005 Convention on the Promotion and Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, she is in the Iraqi city of Mosul, reeling from a series of conflicts, to implement a project funded by the UNESCO Heritage Emergency Fund to conduct a needs assessment in the city and support the renewal of creative sectors.

“There is no theater, no cinema, nothing. Everything is needed.” Years of war that ravaged Mosul did not spare its cultural infrastructures. The extensiveness of Mosul’s destruction is beyond what Action for Hope has witnessed – “The damage is similar to Aleppo,” she estimates. There is also an overall lack of modern technology: “None of the officials in Mosul were using emails. We found out that none of the hotels had a bank account. All reservation had to be made with cash in advance. This makes arranging workshops difficult.” The absence of cultural experts, a result of mass exodus of talents over the years, was also noticeable. “There is no civil society organization in culture. None to act as our partner.”  El Husseiny, however, is not shocked: “What we need to understand is that Mosul was at war not only for a few years under the ISIS occupation, but since 2003.”

Nearly two years after the liberation, this ancient city has a long road of recovery ahead. As of March 2019, roughly 305,000 people from Mosul were still internally displaced. An ongoing return of the population has been almost exclusively to the eastern part of the city, while the west, which suffered a far greater decimation with some areas reporting over 50 percent residential destruction, remains largely vacant. When thousands lack a roof over their heads, why should cultural revival be a priority? “It is important to restore the sense of normalcy when people are still living in the post-ISIS shock. Psychologically, restoring regular behaviors in public space is very important. Going out to a concert in the evening can make them to feel normal and safe.” Culture can also mend the divided city. “Cultural work in the West is especially crucial because people need to reconnect to this part of the city. Right now, it’s a ghost town. It is deserted and scary,” recounts El Husseiny. Cultural programmes have the potential to empower women and girls as well: “I am hoping to use young women as part of our team to attract more women to cultural work. It is a challenge as women are not often in leadership positions.” Her belief in culture as a cornerstone of peacebuilding echoes that of the UNESCO Heritage Emergency Fund, a multi-donor fund created due to the increase of direct and deliberate attacks against culture during conflicts including in Iraq.

Among rubbles, Basma has also witnessed hope. “Out of crisis, brilliant art will come out. I am sure of it. Young people are starting to create. There are now two cultural cafes in town. I met singers making music, and young people learning maqam from their elders, guardians of this musical heritage.” The organization has also been working with a “brilliant young woman” whom El Husseiny hopes will be the torchbearer of the city’s renewed cultural sector. Her mission is “to build capacity using Iraqis, but also other experts from the Arab region. They have suffered from similar crisis, although not as long or as violent as Mosul.” The collaboration with the Iraqi Independent Film Center is an example of this expertise sharing; the Center will be streaming a filmmaking workshop over 8 days to train future visual storytellers in Mosul. “Culture is a catalyst to connect people. The first step is training people in cultural project management,” says Basma El Husseiny with determination in her voice.