MUSTAFA al-Tha’i worked in secret at night, using his brushes and pencils to record the violence he saw during the day under the Islamic State (IS) group’s brutal reign in Iraq.
The bloodied body of a man suspended by a foot, another lying in a pool of blood with his severed head on his back, a woman with her face burned by acid – these are just some of the scenes captured by Tha’i.
The 240 paintings and drawings – which Tha’i composed from the time IS seized his hometown of Hammam al-Alil, south of Mosul, in 2014 until Iraqi forces recaptured it in late 2016 – are an exhibition of horror. Tha’i said: ‘IS is the enemy of the arts, the enemy of life, so I told myself that whenever I saw one of their crimes or something they did, I would relate it.’
‘There were no journalists and they did not allow photographs, so I recorded the image in my head and at night at home, I painted,’ said the 58-year-old, an oven and boiler repairman by trade who has been ‘addicted’ to drawing since childhood.
‘The army is fighting against (IS) with weapons. Me, it’s with my brush, my colours, my drawings, my paintings,’ He said as he sat cross-legged in his living room, drawing board in his lap. At a time when art was banned by the jihadists – who view depictions of people as contrary to Islam – and drawing materials could not be found, Tha’i drew from his old stocks of paints, papers and pencils to ‘resist’.
The pieces are simple and colourful, and each one tells a story. ‘This child is a Christian,’ he explained, pointing to a portrait of a weeping girl. He said: ‘They took her when she was 12 years old. She was married to one of them, who left her to another, who married her’ – something that happened ‘four or five times’.
He continued: ‘I met her when I was in the hospital. She was crying. She had bruises on her face, wounds on the hands and body. I took a sheet of my medical record. I drew on it.’ Another sketch depicts a man tied to a pole handcuffed and blindfolded. Tha’i said the man was captured after firing at the jihadists. ‘They tied him to an electric pole and they executed him after torturing him.’
Tha’i did not keep his works at home, instead leaving them with a friend who hid them behind the back seat of his car. But he believes he was denounced to IS, especially when he made sketches at work during the day. IS came to my house several times, they found nothing,’ he said. The religious police came one night: ‘They told me they wanted my paintings and calligraphies. They took me away to the desert.’
The jihadists lashed him and tied his legs to a car and dragged him behind it. ”I was reciting the Koran in a loud voice, then, they tied my hands and my feet, brought me back and threw me in front of my house. I was found the next morning,’ he said.
Tha’i said he was detained for a total of 45 days because of his artworks, and twice sentenced to the lash. But each time, the grandfather of seven kept drawing. ‘I cannot give up drawing. It is my addiction, it calms me. I don’t smoke – I draw,’ Tha’i said.
During one stint in jail, he broke open a battery and used its contents to draw on a wall. A guard made him erase it by licking it off. Today, he keeps his artwork in boxes as testimony to what he saw, and paints, as he says ‘what I have in front of me, what I find beautiful.’
• ‘Let us read and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.’ The quote by French philosopher Voltaire is the motto of an Iraqi activist, who identifies himself as ‘Mosul Eye,’ in his quest to revive Mosul’s Central Library. It was destroyed by the Islamic State (IS) for harbouring blasphemous books.
‘The best answer to terrorism is to rebuild libraries and fill them back with books. This will also help reconnect Mosul, through culture and sciences, with the world around it, which we hope will contribute to the rebirth of its libraries,’ said the activist, who recently launched an online book donation campaign called ‘Let it be a Book, Rising from the Ashes.’
Mosul Eye said: ‘International participation in restoring libraries is a unique opportunity to arouse the world’s interest in rebuilding Mosul civilly but the most important thing is for residents to be aware that there is a book from every corner of the world inside their city, making it once again an example of the cultural pluralism that IS sought to destroy.’
He added that IS targeted Mosul’s libraries with a clear message: ‘Any type of knowledge and sciences and the idea of diversity of cultures are forbidden. ‘They tried to impose their unilateral culture by banning people from accessing books or practising any kind of cultural activities.’
The city’s libraries housed a treasure trove of UNESCO-registered rare books and precious manuscripts. In 2015, eight months after invading the city, IS ransacked the Central Library and burned more than 8,000 print copies and rare historical manuscripts for being blasphemous.
Mosul Eye’s initiative hopes to collect more than 200,000 books and all types of printed material — magazines, periodicals, newspapers, references, archives, and the like — in all disciplines and various languages.
He said: ‘The idea is to have writers donate one of their books to Mosul. It will be so beautiful to have works of authors from around the world sitting in Mosul, which resisted deadly terrorism. We want to open wide the doors of our city to the outside world and help Mosul return to the international fold through culture and science. Our message to all is that we are not the inventors of terrorism but terrorism was incidental and hung over our necks without mercy. I believe that IS was aware of the value of the documents and stole the most precious from the Central Library before the building was burned down.’
Among the documents that IS was believed to have stolen was Mussolini’s paper ‘Comments of the Year 1924 on “The Prince” of Machiavelli.’ Others, including archives of Iraqi newspapers dating to the early 20th century and books printed under the Ottoman rule, have been destroyed.
But Mosul Eye is adamant: ‘The best way to react to this carnage is by bringing back Shakespeare, Voltaire, Flaubert, Aristo, Plato, Descartes, Jane Austen and other writers and philosophers to Mosul.’
About 200 books have been donated but many more are expected after a French association in Marseille pledged to dispatch 20 tonnes of books to Iraq. Iraqi writer Abdel Amir al-Majar said the destruction of Mosul libraries was another tragedy added to the calamity of erasing Iraq’s ancient and archaeological sites.
‘It was bound to happen under IS’ obscurantist and radical approach which counters civilisation and modernism and seeks to eliminate the others by controlling their minds and lives,’ he said. Iraq has lost a lot as a result of this extremist thinking which rejects life itself,’ Majar said, calling on the international community and Arab countries to help reinstate cultural life in the country.