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Book Festival That Drew Thousands Of People To Downtown Mosul Is Far From Ordinary


Now, book festivals are common in many places around the world but not in the Iraqi city of Mosul - ISIS controlled it for three years and banned books, art, music - which makes a recent book festival that drew thousands to downtown Mosul far from ordinary. NPR's Jane Arraf reports.


JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: It's evening in a park near the river where ISIS used to train teenage boys as fighters, the kind of fighters who would have killed people for doing what people are doing in this park. Thousands of Mosul residents - the organizers say as many as 9,000 - have come here in the first major cultural festival after ISIS. They've come to get books, to listen to music, to look at art, to watch a play, to breathe.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

ARRAF: So all these people are walking around, and there's music in one corner, traditional music. There's a guy playing harmonica over there. There's theater on another stage with, like, 2,000 people who are on the grass watching it. And everywhere, people are walking around with books.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

ARRAF: Farhad Sabah is one of the organizers. The city has been liberated for just over a year. He says they're trying to dispel the darkness.

FARHAD SABAH: To delete all the blacked panorama from our memories and the memories from our people. This is the main of our goals.

ARRAF: The festival is part of a national campaign called I Am Iraqi, I Read. That campaign started in 2012, organized as a peaceful event in response to attacks on Baghdad's famous bookseller street. This is the first time the festival has been held in Mosul. There are long folding tables covered in books and magazines free for people to take home. Some of them are new, but a lot are so old no one is interested in them. I make my way along the tables with Dilal Hilal. She graduated last year with a degree in Arabic, and she's still looking for a job. We browse the titles.

What is that?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: "The Miserable Of Poor People."

ARRAF: "The Misery Of Poor People."


ARRAF: Hilal is disappointed. She was looking for Charles Dickens or something a little more fun.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Stories, novels, something interesting, something to escape from the reality.

ARRAF: What does she want to escape from?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: From everything, the bad circumstance, the bad people also around me.

ARRAF: Life is still tough here. Thousands of civilians were killed, either by ISIS or in the fighting that liberated the city. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed. There are hardly any jobs. But there are a lot of dreams. Aboud Abdul Aziz spent the ISIS years teaching himself English at home. He's a medical student and just 21, but he's intent on building a cancer hospital.

ABOUD ABDUL AZIZ: Your pain will be the best power to you when you use it to achieve your dream. I have many friends. We are right now just studying. But I told them that we end our college, we have to do something new to our city. We have to build the hospital.

ARRAF: And then there's Safwan al-Madany, an engineer who volunteers his time to help rebuild the old city. When Mosul turned into a prison under ISIS, Madany, like a lot of people, stayed home and secretly read. He loves this event.

SAFWAN AL-MADANY: Here you see your friends. You see the books. You see the songs and music. You see everything related to life. It’s the opposite of ISIS, opposite of death, opposite of anything that’s bad.

ARRAF: The opposite of ISIS and maybe the beginning of a reborn city. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Mosul, Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.