Mosul, Iraq’s second city, is still reeling from three years of brutal Islamic State (IS) rule. On 9 July 2017, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared it had been liberated after months of fighting, but prospects in the capital of the Nineveh Governorate remain bleak.
“The economy is devastated. No one can find work,” Said, 37, says.
Several initiatives have been launched to help the inhabitants of Mosul move on, of which One FM and its shows are a major part.
The name of the radio show was not chosen at random. Nor was its audience. “Many young people in Mosul are forced to work as taxi drivers, given the present context of economic gloom,” Said says.
“Most of them are university graduates, engineers, attorneys and teachers. But none can find work in their profession.”
By targeting cab drivers, Said knows he can reach a large proportion of the population. Today’s programme opens with a trivia question. The winner can come by the station to pick up a prize – a bottle of perfume.
“How many doors were there in the ancient city of Mosul?” Said asks his listeners.
Immediately the phone starts ringing off the hook, proof that the show knows its audience. In the station’s modest control room, separated from the studio by a glass wall, Mohamad Talal, 31, transfers a call to the radio host.
On the line is Abu Karim, a taxi driver from the Old City, trying his luck. “Nine doors,” he says. “There were nine doors.”
The answer is correct, but this is not mentioned. The name of the lucky winner will be drawn at the end of the show.
The two men then engage in a short conversation. Said asks what morale is like on the street. Karim lives in the Old City, the final redoubt of IS forces during the coalition air strikes, the hardest hit district of Mosul where IS held part of the population hostage.
Today, secured by government forces, it is nothing more than a vast field of ruins where thousands of decaying bodies lie buried.
“I’m out of money,” says Karim. “I can’t take my car to the garage for repairs.”
Why IS targeted journalists
The calls continue throughout the show. Later another listener complains about Mosul’s endless traffic jams. During the fighting, the five bridges which spanned the River Tigris were severely damaged.
“On my show, people can express themselves freely,” says Said once he comes off air. “They can say whatever is on their mind, women as well as men. Everyone has a voice. That’s the key to changing mentalities.”
Said, like the rest of the city, carries the scars of IS rule, which forbade mobile phones and news programmes and saw radio stations replaced with propaganda broadcasts.
“Daesh fighters shot me as I tried to escape the Old City,” he says, pointing to a scar which encircles his left ankle. “I was lucky. The radio station I was working for was completely destroyed. Three people were murdered there.
“The jihadists knew that journalists were a threat to their extremist propaganda. Nearly 40 were eliminated in Mosul alone.”
He was not the only one under threat: Talal, who sports a neatly trimmed beard and steady gaze, was also forced to flee his home.
“My name was on a list of men to be shot on sight,” he says. “I am Muslim, a Sunni, but I could no longer make it through the checkpoints without risking arrest.
“I hid at my grandfather’s for an entire year. I only left the house once, hidden in a car, to see a dentist. I read 500 books and started writing. I am an entirely different person now.”
Talal, an emerging journalist who hosts a philosophy programme on One FM, is one of the six founding members who pooled their savings to fund the station, raising $70,000 for a space to set up a small studio and a newsroom.
“Our aim is to broaden our listeners’ minds,” says Talal, “to talk to them about peace and mutual respect. War brought ignorance and intolerance. That is what we are fighting against.
“When Daesh [the Arabic name for IS] took control of the city, 80 percent of Mosul’s population held extremist views. The number today is around 50 percent. Our aim is to eradicate Daesh ideology.”
Karim al-Atar, 25, sits on a sofa, reading a news dispatch before going on air. He smiles shyly but his voice is confident once behind the microphone.
A volunteer, like everyone else at the station, he calls his programme “A New Day”. But the latest news reminds listeners that Mosul still has to shake the ghosts of its past: two members of IS have been arrested, while its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still at large.
Laughter in the dark
On the air, Abou Taxi is coming to an end.
“I hope Mosul will be like New York one day, a city that never sleeps,” says a listener a few moments before Said signs off.
Just then, the studio’s neon lights begin to flicker mischievously. The studio goes dark. “It happens all the time,” Mohamad jokes. “We all suffer power cuts in Iraq. But luckily, we have a generator!”
After all the horror, the civilians of Mosul have learned to laugh at just about everything. Humour is proving to be the city’s weapon of mass resilience.