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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Where ISIL once thrived, beer, bingo and raki now prevail 

A Mosul hotel is a meeting place that underlines changes thought unthinkable months ago 

A recently reopened liquor store in Mosul. March 6 2018. Florian Neuhof for The National
A recently reopened liquor store in Mosul. March 6 2018. Florian Neuhof for The National

To some, Ayad Tarek's business could be seen as a personal form of revenge. A 27-year-old Yazidi, a religious minority persecuted by ISIL during its reign in northern Iraq, he moved to Mosul after the terror group was purged from the city, once their headquarters.

Though his small shop is inconspicuous, among trades such as as car mechanics and spare parts dealers, bottles of whisky are stacked behind Mr Tarek and beer cans are visible in tall fridges with glass doors. Selling alcohol is his plan to make enough money to establish another business in Germany, the country to which he once fled, but he is mindful that what he does would have been unthinkable under ISIL, and even frowned upon years earlier.

"Before 2014, liquor shops would be targeted. My nephew was killed in 2013 because he sold alcohol," he says.

Mr Tarek is not alone in seeing opportunity in activity that ISIL would have killed people for.

In a brightly-lit hall that stretches over the entire top floor of the Al Habda Hotel, Ali Qareshi bellows out numbers over a creaky public address system. His amplified voice echoes from the shiny new cladding that covers the walls and the ceiling as men scour sheets of paper on long rows of tables.

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The guests snack on kebab and drink beer and raki as they listen intently to Mr Qareshi, a former traffic policeman who lost his job when ISIL stormed Mosul in 2014. The city's traffic directorate has yet to reopen, so Mr Qareshi took a job in what has become the city's beer hall.

ISIL's extremist interpretation of Islam banished gambling, drinking and even smoking.

"They used to behead anyone they caught selling cigarettes," recalls Mr Qareshi.

Iraqi security forces liberated Mosul in July 2017, after three years of ISIL rule. But the city's people had suffered ever since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which saw Mosul become a hotbed for an anti-government insurgency headed by Al-Qaeda and other militants, who also pursued radical conservatism that perpetuated a climate of fear in the population.

A bingo hall selling alcohol would have been a prime target.

"The terrorists would have hung anyone opening such a place from a lamppost," says Mohammed Abu Ali, who was drinking raki with a group of friends. "We used to go to Baghdad or Erbil for this kind of place. Mosul was always a place for terrorism."

ISIL's surprise capture of Iraq's second largest city almost four years ago was not easily overturned.

Finally flushed out in a gruelling nine-month battle to liberate the city, most people with ties to ISIL have been killed or arrested. Their families have been expelled from the city, though sleeper cells remain a threat.

"We are not afraid of extremists in Mosul now," says Ahmed Abu Zahra, one of Mr Ali's friends, who noted numbers on his bingo sheet while sipping his drink.

The Al Hadba Hotel, named after the famous leaning minaret of Mosul's Al Nouri mosque that was blown up by ISIL, reopened in February.

Its main building had to be refurbished after being scorched by the retreating terror group, which used the premises as a base. Bungalows that are clustered around the hotel grounds remain blackened by smoke. Security is tight, but the owners felt sufficiently safe to convert the top floor into the beer hall.

It remains Mosul's only working hotel, says Ata Walid, the manager. It is situated on a strip of amusement parks and restaurants that line the Tigris river next to woodland on the river's east bank.

The strip was heavily damaged in the fighting. But here too, a gradual revival is evident. Newly refurbished restaurants gleam brightly at night next to burned out competitors. Rides are being repaired and Ferris wheels are spinning again. Families are returning to enjoy candyfloss and sweet tea at the waterfront. A zoo has reopened, though the lions, deer and monkeys remain crammed in filthy cages with Iraq's typical but tolerated disregard for animal welfare.

"People are really happy to come here now after being trapped in their houses and not having any entertainment," says Mr Walid.

For Mr Tarek, Mosul is only a stepping stone to his real dream: establishing a shisha bar in Germany, where he was granted asylum in 2014. ISIL killed thousands of his fellow Yazidis.

Mosul is not the only city where alcohol vendors have lived dangerous lives. His employee who was gunned down in his Baghdad shop died at the hands of a member of the Madhi army, a militia led by Shia cleric Muqtadr Al Sadr.

Shiite militias remain a powerful presence in the capital, whereas the Sunni extremists of Mosul appear to have been banished.

Improved security also prompted Harith Yassin to try his hand at something new.

The 31-year-old engineer has been unemployed since ISIL took over Mosul. Having tried and failed to find a job since last summer's liberation of the city, he and a partner opened up the "Book Forum Cafe" on a bustling street near a university. It quickly became a favourite haunt for artists, musicians and students taking a break from classes in the bombed out campus.

Paintings hang from the walls and book shelves are heavy with university course material and Arabic literature, students wearing headscarves revise for exams and old men debate politics. Cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the air. A band comes in daily to rehearse a soulful blend of guitar and violin compositions.

"I was worried about opening up a venue like this. But then I saw liquor shops and casinos opening up, and I became less scared. Those places will be targeted first," said Mr Yassin, on a less optimistic note of trouble that might return.

The cafe's live music, artwork, and air of liberal intellectualism mark a stark contrast to life in ISIL's so-called caliphate. It would have been impossible to embark on this venture even before the city fell to the jihadists.

"The terrorists would have bombed this cafe or shot the owner," said Mr Yassin, who believes the ferocious battle to liberate Mosul left swathes of the city in ruins, and hundreds of thousands displaced, but also removed the suffocating grasp of terror.

"In 2013, you didn't trust anyone you met on the streets. Now I do, because I believe that 99 per cent of the people with ties to Daesh have disappeared."

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