It was a reading festival. But this is Mosul, and until a few months ago it was crawling with Islamic State militants.
They occupied the city’s university library, where last week festival-goers celebrated a rich culture and donated books.
The volunteer effort to save what was left of Mosul University library after it was destroyed by IS has renewed hope for the city after more than two years of occupation.
The library once contained hundreds of thousands of ancient documents, including a ninth-century Koran, before it was burned down in a deliberate attempt to erase culture.
But Mosul local and amateur photographer Ali ِAl-Baroodi, who once taught at the university, has been part of a community campaign led by independent blogger Mosul Eye to restore what remained of the library’s collection.
“At the beginning when we went by the library, we couldn’t hold back our tears, and we thought it was all over,” Mr Al-Baroodi said.
“We thought nothing survived from inside the library. Then we found that some books have survived and some of them are old manuscripts from 100 to 200 years ago.
“So we could save 86,000 books and removed 36,000 surviving beautiful books to a safer place. It was a big accomplishment.”
For now, a temporary location has been set up to house the recovered collection, with more books being sent in from foreign donors.
“Now there is a substitute location. It’s not operating unfortunately, it’s not operating right now because of the lack of shelves, the lack of a lot of things,” Mr Al-Baroodi said.
“A lot of institutes, including the Minister of Culture in Italy and Marcello Lippi — the famous Italian football coach — they all made campaigns to send books to Mosul.
“We are receiving a lot of books from Italy, from France, from the United Kingdom, from Canada, from the United States. So it’s always a pleasure to know that we are not alone in this.”
Book festival was ‘biggest event since ISIS’
Last week’s reading festival was the culmination of Mosul Eye and the volunteers’ efforts, and was attended by thousands on the grounds of the university.
A celebration of books and reading, music and poetry, Mr Al-Baroodi said the event just months after the city’s liberation was proof of the resilience of the Iraqi people and culture.
“We expected a couple hundred people, but it was a big surprise to find no less than 3,000 to 4,000 people. We couldn’t count because the audience was so huge,” he said.
“People are so hopeful despite all the odds, despite all the hard circumstances. In the beginning we didn’t have water, we didn’t have electricity. We had to dig for water to use well water.”
Mr Al-Baroodi said he was overcome with emotion at the sight of cultural life returning to his city, which just months previously was a battle zone.
“In fact I felt speechless because nobody at all, nothing in the whole world expected this city to come from the ashes in this way,” he said.
“Publishing houses did not only send books and donations for the festival, but heads of festivals, university chancellors attended. In fact it was the biggest event since ISIS.
“Fortunately in the eastern side of Mosul where I live, life is almost back to old days. Water is back, the electricity is back. But unfortunately on the western side of Mosul, it’s still a tragedy.”
An earlier version of this article referred to the festival’s organiser as Ali Al-Baroodi, when in fact it was the blogger Mosul Eye.