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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Meet the woman who picked up the pen under ISIL's sword

Hadeel Ziad is learning to be a dentist again, as well as writing her second book

Hadeel Ziad clutches a copy of her novel in her family home in the Mosul Jadida neighbourhood.
Photo: Florian Neuhof
Hadeel Ziad clutches a copy of her novel in her family home in the Mosul Jadida neighbourhood. Photo: Florian Neuhof

She was busy learning about dental fillings, crowns and bridges when the fighters of ISIL swept into Mosul and turned her life upside down.

A daily routine of university study was swapped for life indoors, a self-imposed retreat to shut out the dire reality of the caliphate declared by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in the northern Iraq city's famous Al Nouri mosque, not far from her home.

By her own reckoning, Hadeel Ziad left the house only 10 times during the next three years, on essential trips such as medical appointments. Covered in a black garment from head to toe, with even her eyes shielded by a niqab and her fingers concealed by gloves, she would venture outside with a male relative, as mandated by the archaic rules imposed by ISIL.

Hadeel was desperate for an escape, and she found it in her passion for writing.

A keen reader of Arabic literature and novels, she had dabbled in short stories. As the terror group shut down life in Mosul, and air strikes heralded a fierce battle to remove the militants, she started to write a romantic novel.

"I was stuck at home, so I decided to write," the petite 22 year-old, who covers her hair with a scarf but wears a tight fitting jumper and a knee-length denim skirt, just as she did before ISIL took over, told The National.

Immersing herself in the writing of romantic fiction was a corrective to the outside world.

"There was a lot of war and destruction, and I wanted to write about love rather than dealing with the war," she says, sitting in the reception room of the family home in Mosul's Jadida district. With the city liberated, calm has returned to the affluent neighbourhood, and spring has come to the well kept garden outside.

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Mosul still bears the scars of war, with nothing like enough money to rebuild destroyed infrastructure and bombed out houses. But the guns have fallen silent and aircraft no longer circle to drop their deadly payload. The ISIL killing squads roaming the streets are gone, and Hadeel now travels through the city without fear.

She is back at university, crossing the Tigris on one of the bridges patched up after being bombed by the US-led coalition, and attending lectures in buildings once booby trapped and gutted by ISIL.

Things were different when she began writing about Abdulrahim and Rayla, who met in a cafe and started dating. Because electricity was limited to two hours a day, Hadeel would write a first draft on paper during the daytime, and type it up at night while her laptop was charging, working until the machine ran out of power. Afraid of air strikes and unannounced visits by ISIL or its sympathisers, she often wrote in the basement.

Set in a fictional world, resembling Iraqi society but bearing no reference to time or place, the novel, "I Love You With Every Breath", is rich in emotion and drama. Having fallen in love, the couple wants to get married. This is at first opposed by Rayla's family, who have already received a string of suitors for the young woman. The parents relent at last, only for Abdulrahim to get cold feet. Pretending to have cancer, he breaks off the engagement, and leaves a devastated Rayla.

As the terror group shut down life in Mosul, and air strikes heralded a fierce battle to remove the militants, she started to write a romantic novel. Florian Neuhof
As the terror group shut down life in Mosul, and air strikes heralded a fierce battle to remove the militants, she started to write a romantic novel. Florian Neuhof

Hadeel is convinced that she would have been killed had she been caught by the Hisbah, ISIL's morality police, or Emni, the group's secret service. Writing became a form of personal resistance.

"I tried to break the rules in any way I could. After all, a terrorist group had invaded my city," she says.

She finished her manuscript late in 2016, just as Iraqi forces were gearing up to retake Mosul from ISIL. The battle commenced in October 2016, and lasted for months. During that time, thousands of civilians would die as the insurgents used the population as human shields.

"I considered it my legacy in case I didn't survive the war, I really wanted it to be published," says Hadeel.

Her area of the city was finally liberated in March 2017, but after a massive cost to its inhabitants. The neighbourhood made headlines around the world when a coalition air strike hit a house packed with civilians, claiming at least 100 innocent lives. Hadeel's family had taken to an underground existence soon after the battle for the city began.

"In the last five months before the liberation, we stayed in the basement all the time. We didn't know if there was night or day outside," she says.

During those terrifying months, she began work on a second, as yet unfinished, book to cope with her fear.

A fictionalised account of ISIL's reign in Mosul, it is a dark contrast to her first novel.

After the liberation of Mosul in July last year, Hadeel sent the draft of her romantic novel to her brother Ali, an author of several books, who passed the manuscript to his publishing house in Jordan, which duly released the novel earlier this year. The book is already on the market in Jordan, the UAE and in Qatar, says Hadeel, brandishing a crisp new copy.

So far, the novel is not available in Mosul, but that is about to change. Another brother, Ahmed, is planning to open a book cafe in the city, and the novel will be stocked there.

It may not go down well with everyone. Even with ISIL gone, the family had to endure something of a backlash to the book's publication, says Ahmed. Mosul is a largely conservative city, and neighbours and even relatives grumbled behind their backs about Hadeel's refusal to comply with what is classed as expected by elders.

"They said things like 'What she did is shameful, it will bring shame to her and the family. A woman is not supposed to write,'" says Ahmed, who wears a traditional thawb and keffiyeh, and chaperones his sister through the interview.

The criticism leaves Hadeel cold. Softly spoken and slight, she regards herself as a feminist, and is determined to pursue her writing.

"People who oppose women's rights are uneducated. There needs to be more education," she shrugs.

And the love story she wrote is not yet over, given it remains unclear why Abdulrahim decided to leave the heartbroken Rayla. The sequel to her debut novel will be her third book.