The peace of pool

Rid of ISIS, res­i­dents of eastern Mosul ‘seek joy’ in re­opened bil­liard halls

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY LOVEDAY MOR­RIS

mosul, iraq — Inside the Cap­tain pool hall in eastern Mosul there are few signs that a war still rages in this city or that ear­lier this year the Is­lamic State was in con­trol here.

A gath­er­ing place for pool and snooker lovers since the 1990s, the smoke-filled room tiled with grimy beige mar­ble ex­udes a faded charm, one mir­rored in its cus­tomers, now back at the ta­bles after be­ing de­prived of their fa­vorite pas­time for more than two years.

Shortly after the Is­lamic State took con­trol of Mosul in the sum­mer of 2014, hit­ting brightly col­ored balls with a well-chalked cue was among the many ac­tiv­i­ties the group ruled un-Is­lamic and a dis­trac­tion from ji­had, and it or­dered the halls to be shut down.

With the mil­i­tants now ex­pelled from the city’s east, Cap­tain is one of more than a dozen pool halls that have re­opened as res­i­dents try to bring back a sense of nor­malcy to their lives. New clubs have also opened up, TOP: Mo­hammed Fathi and other lo­cals play pool at Cap­tain, a pop­u­lar club in Mosul, where bil­liards clubs have re­opened after mil­i­tants left the city’s eastern side. ABOVE: Iraqi boys wait to play at Cap­tain. The Is­lamic State for­bade ac­tiv­i­ties such as pool. bet­ting that res­i­dents will in­dulge in some of the plea­sures that were banned by the mil­i­tants.

“We don’t seek win­ning, we seek joy,” said the owner, Faris al-Ab­dali, an in­ter­na­tional snooker ref­eree, as he fin­ished up a game. “The wheel of life is turn­ing again, but it’s slow.”

No one flinches at the sounds of dis­tant ex­plo­sions that oc­ca­sion­ally ring out above the mu­sic, also banned in the Is­lamic State’s self-pro­claimed caliphate, along with the cig­a­rettes and wa­ter pipes that fuel the clien­tele.

Mosul is di­vided, with Iraqi forces still fight­ing a gru­el­ing bat­tle against the Is­lamic State on the other side of the Ti­gris River, which cuts through the heart of one of Iraq’s largest cities. After a seven-month war, the mil­i­tants are be­sieged in the few dis­tricts they still con­trol, along with hun­dreds of thou­sands of res­i­dents trapped along­side them, short on food and liv­ing un­der daily bom­bard­ment.

But since the city’s eastern side was fully re­cap­tured ear­lier this year, life has grad­u­ally re­turned. Stu­dents are back in school and at­tempt­ing to catch up on years of missed ed­u­ca­tion. Shops have re­opened, with man­nequins in newly re­placed store win­dows show­ing off col­or­ful cloth­ing that was banned un­der the mil­i­tants.

Still, mor­tars fired from the other side of the river shake the frag­ile peace, along with oc­ca­sional car bombs, while new waves of fam­i­lies from the west ar­rive ev­ery day to seek refuge. The trau­ma­tized pop­u­la­tion knows the mil­i­tants are not far away.

Ab­dali was ap­pre­hen­sive when he re­opened his doors two months ago. He posted a look­out on the street to keep an eye out for sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­i­ties. He wor­ries that his club could be a tar­get for a bomb at­tack.

“I was very ner­vous. We still

“Step by step we will get there.” Salim Younes, for­mer Iraqi pi­lot

don’t have full trust in the army,” he said, re­call­ing how govern­ment sol­diers de­serted the city en masse in the face of the Is­lamic State’s at­tack nearly three years ago.

Ab­dali had just re­turned from ref­er­ee­ing an in­ter­na­tional snooker tour­na­ment in the United Arab Emi­rates when the mil­i­tants took con­trol. He said he ar­gued with them when they turned up at his busi­ness and told him to shut down. A week later they ar­rested him. He spent 37 days in an Is­lamic State jail, all but two in pitch-dark soli­tary con­fine­ment.

“I’m still suf­fer­ing from that psy­cho­log­i­cally,” he said.

Ab­dali, 56, learned to play snooker in the 1970s — Korean con­struc­tion work­ers who worked with his fa­ther had a table and taught him.

Pool and snooker took off in Mosul in the 1980s, Ab­dali said, be­com­ing pop­u­lar among stu­dents in the univer­sity city. There were more than 400 pool halls in the city be­fore the Is­lamic State’s rule, he added.

Ab­dali opened Cap­tain in 1997, after run­ning an­other of the city’s pop­u­lar pool halls. A wooden ship’s wheel hangs on one wall, in line with its nau­ti­cal theme, and tar­nished brass tro­phies are dis­played on a shelf on an­other.

He fondly re­calls when na­tional tour­na­ments were held at the club and he had a large staff who wore for­mal uni­forms.

The city’s pool hall own­ers be­gan to strug­gle long be­fore the Is­lamic State took con­trol. The group and its pre­de­ces­sor, al-Qaeda, de­manded ex­tor­tion money as they tight­ened their grip. Since 2005, Ab­dali had paid $200 a month in pro­tec­tion money to keep Cap­tain open. “We had no choice,” he said. “If you didn’t, they’d put a bomb out­side.”

Com­plaints to the cor­rup­tion­rid­dled Iraqi au­thor­i­ties were point­less, he said. Now, for the first time in decades, he can op­er­ate with­out pay­ing bribes to the ex­trem­ists. He hopes that it will last and that life will fully re­turn.

For the mo­ment, peo­ple still worry about com­ing out at night, and a cur­few in the area means cus­tomers can stay only un­til 8 p.m. On the other side of the street is the cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Mosul, once one of the most re­spected ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions in the re­gion, its ru­ins now a re­minder of the mam­moth task of re­build­ing the city.

The Iraqi govern­ment stopped pay­ing pub­lic work­ers in Mosul in 2015 to cut off fund­ing to the Is­lamic State, leav­ing many res­i­dents with­out an in­come for two years. Salaries have not been restarted, al­though some work­ers, such as teach­ers, have re­turned to their jobs in the city’s east.

With­out in­come, many res­i­dents are scrap­ing to­gether money for food and can’t af­ford ex­tras like pool and snooker, Ab­dali said. Still, some of his reg­u­lars are back.

Salim Younes, a wiry for­mer Iraqi air force pi­lot, comes most days. Dressed in a bright white track­suit with pur­ple, blue and neon green flashes, his fa­vorite game is the pool vari­ant “three ball,” which is met with some be­muse­ment by the younger cus­tomers — one of whom dis­missed it as a “70s game.”

Younes said life has been on “standby” un­til now. “Step by step we will get there.”

Boys who gath­ered to play pool swapped sto­ries of their ex­ploits un­der the mil­i­tants. Mo­hammed Ibrahim, a 16-year-old who serves drinks, se­cretly sold cig­a­rettes, and he spent time in Is­lamic State pris­ons after be­ing caught. The last packet he sold was for 32,000 di­nars, about $25. A packet now sells for just 500 di­nars.

Mo­hammed Fathi, a 37-yearold gym teacher, shows videos of chil­dren at the soc­cer club he ran un­der the mil­i­tants.

“I was do­ing this so they’d go in an­other di­rec­tion, away from Is­lamic State,” he said.

Many still have rel­a­tives trapped in Is­lamic State ar­eas on the other side of the river. There, the fight has been more fe­ro­cious, with en­tire neigh­bor­hoods flat­tened, mak­ing re­build­ing more of a chal­lenge.

“The joy has re­turned, but it’s not com­plete yet,” Fathi added. “Not un­til the western side is fin­ished. As for the fu­ture, we don’t know what will happen.”

PHOTOS BY ALEX POT­TER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

PHOTOS BY ALEX POT­TER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Iraqi Fed­eral Po­lice mem­bers take a break at Cap­tain, one smok­ing a wa­ter pipe and both check­ing their cell­phones. Life is slowly re­turn­ing to nor­mal in eastern Mosul.

Salim al-Khatabi lines up a shot at the Cap­tain bil­liards club in eastern Mosul. When mil­i­tants con­trolled the city, they de­manded ex­tor­tion money from pool hall own­ers. “We had no choice,” said Cap­tain’s owner, Faris al-Ab­dali. “If you didn’t, they’d put a bomb out­side.”

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