West Mosul Between ISIS Snipers and Allied Bombers: One False Move and You’re Dead

Author’s Preface:

I Won’t Return to Mosul

I know I won’t return to Mosul. I won’t return to its pistachio, mulberry, and pomegranate orchards. I won’t see the grape vines again, the almond and hazelnut trees, the herds of water buffalo or flocks of sheep returning from the pastures every day. That was the last time I will taste clotted cream, khathir yoghurt, or the best sheep milk cheese found anywhere on earth. As far as I’m concerned, the best baklava anywhere has ceased to exist as has the finest sujuq sausage. I will never return, because I no longer have a house or even a room there. The bombardment leveled everything that protruded above the ground. All the buildings were reduced to rubble. No bricks survived, no marble, no columns of colored alabaster. I will not be able to walk through the seemingly endless fields of yellow mums or white daisies—or even anemones. Will daffodils, carnations, and fragrant roses grow in Mosul’s squares again along with flowering leeks?

The city of Mosul I knew no longer exists. It was struck by ten times the number of bombs that destroyed Berlin during World War II. Mosul was originally on the right bank of the river. After 1950, construction began in earnest on the left bank. All that remains on the right bank are a conglomeration of ruins with only piles of stones and bricks showing above the ground. There are no more apartment buildings, no houses, no warehouses, and not even any streets. The city has become forests of debris and hills of twisted metal resembling Satanic black hair.

I wrote an entire novel about Mosul: The World Through the Eyes of Angels. In it I mentioned a legend recounted by the old folk about a pack of wolves that attacked the city one very cold night, devouring everything they encountered until a Sufi confronted them and saved the city. But no Sufi blocked the human wolves this time, and the entire city was totaled.

I headed to the house where I was born 78 years ago, a house next to the Bab Jadid Mosque. I had a clear memory of all the details of that mosque: its broad metal door, its minaret, the richly decorated mihrab, the wall adjoining our house, even what the muezzin looked like: he had a large nose. I remembered Allied warplanes flying overhead, perhaps in 1944: planes with red circles on their sides with a gray roundel. I later heard that they were heading to Tehran and Moscow. Our house, the mosque, the minaret, the neighbors’ homes became mounds of rock and metal skewers.

Two of the most beautiful things in the city of Mosul were the clock of the Roman Catholic “Latin” Church and the minaret of al-Nuri Mosque. That clock was massive and fancy. Its ring could be heard throughout most of the city. The wife of Napoleon III gave it to a delegation of Roman Catholic nuns. Oh—how beautiful the paintings inside that church were! The faces of angels and the Child enchanted me. I described that in another of my novels. I entered that church once with my friend Toma, but he wouldn’t accompany me there again. He shouted angrily at me: “You go alone!” That church stood near the largest mosque in the city like a little sister cared for by her big brother. That mosque’s minaret was referred to as “hunchbacked” because of the distinctive way it leaned.

When I approached a pile of rubble, during my last visit to Mosul, after it was liberated, I had to detour and hold my nose to avoid smelling the stench of bodies buried beneath it. The government had not taken the trouble to dig out the bodies and give them a proper burial. I intended to visit what was left of the historic souks, the gardens, the famous madrasas, the mosques with their domes and carved decorations more precious than gold or silver, the libraries where I spent the best days of my adolescence and youth. But I did not. I realized that I could only visit rubble that stank of the dead. Rubble with human remains that were moaning and would continue moaning till Judgment Day. I am almost eighty, and my city has aged and grown decrepit along with me. The bombardment ended the life of the city that I knew, and my life will end soon as well.

Short Story:

West Mosul Between ISIS Snipers and Allied Bombers: One False Move and You’re Dead

Their two children lay near them on a pallet in the shade. The couple assumed that the rays of the August sun would reach them in two more hours. She refused to shelter in the cellar and gazed at him with tear-filled, frightened eyes. “The basement’s a tomb; it’s dark and dank. You go down there if you want. I’m not hiding there. Whenever destiny determines, I’ll be blown to bits by bombs like everyone else. That’s preferable to interring myself while I’m still alive.”

“We’ll share our destiny. I won’t part from you.”

All of existence shuddered. They snatched the two terrified boys from the ground without even thinking about it. They embraced and collapsed to the ground in a single ball. They were sitting on the pallet at the center of the courtyard, far enough from all the walls to protect themselves from falling masonry. They had put all the chairs inside, and for three days they had sat on the ground, waiting for an opportunity to flee to the emergency shelter, which was only a couple of hundred meters away. They hadn’t ventured outside to see which neighboring houses were still standing. They were both weak and had eaten nothing for days. The two children, only fifteen months old, were crying. She placed Taha beside his brother on her lap.

So thirsty he could scarcely move his tongue, he said, “If you have a piece of muslin cloth, I could wipe the bottom of the water tank and perhaps obtain some drops of water that way.”

“What about the ISIS sniper in Abu Amjad’s house. He’s upstairs and keeps an eye on all the alleys in al-Thalimi.”

“If he’s upstairs, the east wall will prevent him from seeing me. I’ll be safe if I move cautiously.”

“I’ll come with you.”

“No. The children are crying. They’re hungry and thirsty. Don’t leave them alone. They might crawl up the steps behind us. They’re very weak from hunger. If one of them fell back down the steps, he’d die. I’ll go by myself.”

She placed the twin boys beside each other on the pallet, entered the house, and soon returned with the china teapot and a folded piece of white muslin. “Do it. I’ll pray to God for your safety.”

He smiled bitterly. “Right! All we can do is pray.”

She started to dandle the crying boys on her lap. Then she raised her hands and face toward the sky. Her heart aflame, she prayed even as she wept: “Lord, our suffering is more than we can bear, and the tyranny of our enemies is unprecedented. Life is hard for us. You represent hope and promise for us. Be merciful to us, Lord, through Your compassion.”

She did not feel calmer. She trembled, and her tears flowed down her cheeks. She wiped them away with a hand she had been using to cradle the head of one of her babies.

When she heard his footsteps descending the steps, she turned, but a massive explosion immediately caused her to glance to the left.

“Did you get much?”

He put the teapot on the ground near her and immediately headed, staggering from exhaustion, to the kitchen. He returned with a spoon and a bowl. She put the twins between her knees and watched the spoonful of water shake. “Be careful spooning them water so they don’t waste any with a careless gesture.”

“That’s why I brought the bowl.”

Taha drank a few drops but continued crying. He reached for the teapot, but his father gave water to his brother and his mother. Then he placed the remaining drops in his mouth.

He smiled. “Just enough.”

He was smiling for the first time in—he could not remember how long. “What a break!”

She smiled. “It’s because I prayed. I’ll pray again.”

She gazed up toward the heavens. “Please, God! Relieve our suffering and affliction, Lord.”

They both heard a scratching on the door, which was a few meters away.

She opened her eyes in alarm: “What’s that?”

“That must be Hoosh. I saw him in the street. He had a piece of bread the size of my hand in his mouth.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? I’ll get it from him. He likes me. I often pat and feed him.”

“I’m afraid he’ll bite you.”

She ignored him and hurried to the door, which she opened a little. In a sweet voice she called, “Hoosh, my dear, come here.”

The dog poked his head inside; there was a crust of bread in his mouth. She quickly hit the bread hard enough to knock it out of his mouth. Then she shoved him back outside and locked the door. She returned in high spirits, her eyes gleaming with victory. A shot rang out. It struck the bottom of the door and the marble doorstep. They heard other shots, but those were muffled by the wall. They were accompanied, however, by a bark of intense pain from the dog, which had been hit.

When she looked at her husband, her eyes revealed how guilty she felt. She hoped her husband would say something and justify her action, but he remained silent. The twins opened their eyes delightedly when they saw the bread. She asked, “Does a dog transmit germs?”

“No, not unless it bites and wounds you.”

“Praise God!” Then as her eyes widened with consternation, she glanced at her husband and complained: “This bread’s as hard as a bone.”

She threw it to him, and he caught it. He tried to break it apart then said, “Yes, it’s like iron.”

The two kids cried as their hands reached for the bread. Their father put the edge of the crust in his mouth but found even he couldn’t chew it.

She commented, “Only God knows where he found it.”

Then she cried out: “Aren’t there even three or four drops left in the water tank to moisten it?”


“Then how can we feed it to the children?”

“Let me check the garden well. Perhaps some water has risen.”

He walked off, so tired he was almost crawling. When he returned, he said in a dull, hoarse voice, “The pit’s dry: not a drop of water. We’ll have to pee on it.”

She yelled disapprovingly: “Pee on it?”

“That’s better than letting the boys die. Necessity legitimizes this.”

“No. I won’t pee on it.”

“Life or death—I will.”

He rose, but another bombardment lifted him from the ground, causing him to lose his balance. When he fell, she shouted desperately, “Were you hit?”


He turned his back on her. When he looked at her a couple of minutes later, he commented dejectedly, “I can’t produce even a drop of urine. If we continue like this, we’ll all be dead in two days. We can’t resist thirst any longer than that.”

“Or hunger.” She looked up at the heavens and entreated: “God, grant us relief and deliver us from despair, O Most Compassionate of all Merciful Beings.”

“All this, in August.”

She rose. “We’ll leave in a bit, no matter what.”

She waved the piece of bread in the air. “I’ll grind it so it will dissolve in their mouths.  Perhaps I’ll mix sleeping powder with the flour. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to act on our plan.”

He repeated, “Yes, we must break out of here.”

He approached the two children, placed them on his lap, and dandled them. Then an armor-piercing shell landed, and they all rose in the air half a foot before settling back down.  The two kids almost fell off his lap. She was flung against him, and he fell on his back. They were startled as a sound like the roar of a hundred trains filled all of existence. The two adults felt they were rotating around each other.

He said breathlessly, “Praise God that my head landed on the pallet. Otherwise I would have been injured. That shell will wipe out everything in a circle with a circumference of two hundred meters. Deafness seems to be exploding inside my head.”

The two boys screamed as loudly as they could. The explosion was followed by a lighter blast. The young children continued screaming. He had seen two pits in the ground the previous week. The first had been at least ten meters deep with a diameter of ten meters as well; it had reduced the Shaykh Muhammad Mosque to rubble. Where did this shell land? Doubtless near the center of the Bab al-Jadid district. Had it demolished one house or tens of structures? Who knew!

She emerged from the kitchen, looking blank. She complained, “I tripped and almost fell.  The flour I ground could have spilled. Be Gracious, Lord!”

He embraced her fondly and pleaded, “Pee on the flour, if you can. The kids can’t eat it like this. They’ll choke. They’re writhing with hunger, like us. I beg you.”

“They’ll be poisoned.”

“Urine isn’t toxic. Please do it.”

“Fine. God help me.”

She squatted down and turned her head away. She cried out imploringly, “Lord, Your forgiveness!”

She began to feed them a little gruel at a time, and disgust showed clearly on her face. He started to wipe the tears from her face affectionately. His voice quavered sadly as he said, “I wish I’d listened to you and emigrated as soon as we were married.”

She turned toward him angrily and complained: “How many times have I told you not to regret the past. Regret is forbidden. Praise God!”

Each parent took a boy and cuddled him till they fell asleep. She drew her abaya over her head and donned a niqab veil showing only her eyes. Then she said, “Let’s go.”

She headed toward the door with feeble steps. He cried out nervously, “Do you want to die? The dog was killed there fifteen minutes ago.”

They began to climb the stairs, each carrying a child, both panting. He cautioned: “Move slowly. We’re both exhausted. Try to keep your head down.”

He was in front of her. When he saw she was almost collapsing from fatigue, he pointed to the screen. “That’s only two steps away. Rest beneath it.”

They leaned against the screen, breathless. He reached out with his left arm and hugged her. He placed his cheek on her veil and kissed it. Then he said, “I wish I could carry you.”

“Praise God.”

The top two meters of the wall had been blown off. He crossed, took the second child, and told her, “Cross now.”

He caught her to keep her from stumbling on the toppled bricks and extended a hand to help her over the rubble left from Allied bombs. But the moment she set her foot down, a bullet rang out. She fell with a mighty scream. Warm drops spattered his face. Her veil flew off with some of her coal black hair, which he adored. Blood gushed out of her cratered forehead. He spontaneously shouted, “Allah!  Allah!” He stacked Taha on top of Yasin on his left arm to grasp her with his right, to prevent her from falling farther. She felt heavy, and her breathing sounded like snorts. He couldn’t carry her. He drew her toward him with one hand. As he sat down, his tears streamed out. He held her in his arms, together with Taha and Yasin. He realized he had to move. If he placed the two boys in the direct sunshine, they would soon die of exposure and sunstroke. He remembered there was always shade between the water tank and the wall. Weeping, he removed her abaya, which he quickly placed under the boys’ heads in the shade of the tank. He picked her up and found that her hands and feet were trembling violently. His tears continued to flow uninvited, almost blinding him. He went downstairs with her and, without meaning to, cried out: “Don’t die!” He could not see clearly, but there was an open wound on her head and egg-sized bubbles over the wound above the white bone. He had a sour taste in his mouth and almost threw up. She gradually stopped moving. He sat on the bottom step with her in his lap as his tears fell on her chest. Despite its pallor, her face was beautiful. Her mouth was open. He didn’t look at the wound. Then he remembered the two children on the roof. He wanted to carry her to the well but couldn’t. He took hold of her hands and pulled her there—as her head rocked back and forth and her hair swept the ground. The strong rays of sun by the well were infernal. He lowered her down the well, and her legs tumbled in. He rose, panting. He wanted to hurry but couldn’t summon the energy. He rose but staggered. Thank God the sun didn’t reach them.

He picked the twins up with difficulty. One boy’s head was stained with blood, while the other’s forehead was splattered with it. He poked his nose up. Before he pulled it down a second sniper’s bullet rang out and dug into the wall beside him. With a reflex action, he leaned over. He went downstairs and sat on the bottom step, gasping for breath. He looked at the faces of the two boys and started to wipe off the blood, which had begun to dry, with his wife’s veil. He pulled the pallet into the full shadow and stretched the twins out carefully as his tears watered their faces. He headed back to the well and carefully lowered his wife’s body three feet into it.  He picked up the shovel and feebly began to cover her with dirt. He wailed aloud, “My God, help me! What wrong have we done?”

He picked up the two boys, who seemed heavier to him now. The pain in his left arm was excruciating. He made a mad attempt to cross the street quickly, expecting to die. He heard a bullet graze him but felt no pain. Where had it hurt him? He retreated to his house. No sooner was he inside it than his strength failed. He sat on the ground, panting. His head was spinning.  He breathed deeply. Gain control of yourself. Don’t let these catastrophes kill you. I can at least save the kids. He felt moisture beneath the child he held in his left arm and raised him. He found he was bleeding on his brother. So he placed both boys on the ground. He went to the well, where his strength evaporated. He returned to fetch the bleeding child and placed him in the well on top of what was now his mother’s tomb. Then he sprinkled dirt over him.

He had an idea and went into the living quarters. He picked up a thick, leather jacket.  His left arm hurt so badly when he put it on that the pain felt like an electric shock. It stretched down over his belly. In the street he placed the boy over both his arms, the way a soldier carries his rifle. He started crawling even though his left elbow was partially paralyzed from pain. He reached the middle of the street and avoided the pile of rubble there. A bullet whizzed by his right and dug into the street near his face. He could smell the asphalt then. He crawled past the dog, which was looking at him with a last glimmer of life. Another bullet passed over his head. A third went by him on the left. He kept crawling determinedly. Bullets whizzed around him. “Lord, kill me and spare the child!” He couldn’t believe it when he reached the other side of the street unharmed. A miracle. What a miracle! The sniper would not dare venture down to the street to kill them. He rested for some seconds. Now it would take him only a few minutes to reach the emergency shelter.

He saw a paramedic several minutes later. The man shouted: “Stay close to the wall!  Don’t go on the street!” One of the men took the child. Glimpsing a plastic bottle, he seized it, emptying the contents down his gullet. He was conscious of the wave of acids that flooded his intestines. He vomited some liquid. He remained seated on the ground where he was. His head was spinning. He watched as a paramedic removed his jacket, pulling it off and dragging his spirit along with it because the pain was so intense. Blood dripped from it.

“You were shot in the arm.”

Was the man speaking to him? His head was muddled. It was spinning. He lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes, he wondered: How many remain? He didn’t ask anyone. A smiling face. Looked down at him.

“We treated your wound and sewed it up. You’ll survive.”

Another face came into focus. It asked: “When was the child killed? Why did you bring him, since he was already dead?” He did not understand these questions till they were repeated several times.

“Who’s dead?”

“The boy.”

A paramedic brought the boy to him. His face and body were stained with blood. His arms hung down. His tunic was pulled up to his knees.

“Touch him with your fingers. His body’s cold.”

He yelled: “My son Yasin’s alive. He’s not dead. We gave him sleeping powder so he wouldn’t cry—to keep the snipers from hearing him.”

“He’s dead. We tried to save him several different ways. A person who’s sedated still breathes. Your child doesn’t.”

He fixed his eyes on the void and reflected. He wished he had died too. Suddenly he sat up and shouted as loudly as he could—in a wild, insane outburst: “Woe is me! Lord of the Heavens! I buried my live son, not the dead one.”

He started beating his head with his hands, wailing and weeping. The two men were dumbfounded and didn’t have a clue what he meant.


Mahmoud Saeed

Mahmoud Saeed, a prominent Iraqi novelist, has written more than 20 novels and short story collections. He was imprisoned several times in Iraq and left his homeland in 1985 after the authorities banned the publication of some of his novels, including Zanka bin Baraka (1970), which won the Ministry of Information Award in 1993. He served as the first writer-in-residence at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, Kurdistan, and returned to visit relatives in his hometown of Mosul, Iraq, after it was liberated from ISIS. Two of his short stories have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail: “Love and the Demonstration” (May 2013) and “Yunus and Yusuf” (October 2014). Several of his novels are available in English translation, including: The World Through the Eyes of Angels, Ben Barka Lane, Saddam City, and A Portal in Space.

William Maynard Hutchins

William Maynard Hutchins has translated numerous works of Arabic literature into English, including Return of the Spirit by Tawfiq al-Hakim, The Cairo Trilogy by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, and The Fetishists by Ibrahim al-Koni. His translation of New Waw by al-Koni won the ALTA National Translation Award for Prose in 2015. He received National Endowment for the Arts grants for literary translation in 2006, 2012, and 2020. He earned degrees at Yale University and the University of Chicago, and has taught at the Gerard School, Sidon, Lebanon, the University of Ghana, the American University in Cairo, and Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina.

Copyright (c) Mahmoud Saeed, 2017, 2020. English translation copyright (c) William Maynard Hutchins, 2020.