In his book, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, Amin Maalouf describes Mosul as "the fertile plain watered by the two great rivers; Tigris and Euphrates.
It was a political, cultural, and economic centre of prime importance. The Arabs boasted of its succulent fruit: its apples, pears, grapes, and pomegranates. The fine cloth it exported - called 'muslin', a word derived from the city's name - was known throughout the world. At the time of the arrival of the Franj, the people of the emir Karbuqa's realm were already exploiting another natural resource, which the traveller Ibn Jubayr was to describe with amazement a few dozen years later: deposits of naphtha. This precious dark liquid, which would one day make the fortune of this part of the world, already offered travellers an unforgettable spectacle."
When Zakarya Daad started taking photographs, he often thought of the spectacle behind the rubble, not the spectacle of war. He tried to steer away through his lens from the stereotypical imagery of Mosul after its brutal liberation from ISIS in 2014. He was only 13 and already aware of the photograph’s power. He told me that photography is so effective, referencing the Napalm Girl photo's impact by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Nick Ut during the Vietnam war.
Zakarya was generous enough to give some time, during his exam period, to speak about his philosophy, his process and his quest to inspire a renaissance in Mosul, as he beautifully puts it.
"When Mosul was liberated, I started looking for any opportunity to volunteer my time and help rebuild the city. I first started working with - Ana Iraqi, Ana Aqra أنا عراقي، أنا أقرأ - an initiative to collect more than 10,000 books for libraries in the city. I remember looking for books in my house to donate, and in the process, read so many of them. During my time volunteering, I had the pleasure of meeting some of the city's most inspiring intellectuals and entrepreneurs who all shared one goal: reviving the spirit of the city of Mosul."
Zakarya recalls the time after the liberation of Mosul as a time of intense attention to visual details, whether from international news agencies or photographers that came to the city to capture its essence after the war.
"I started examining the media photos of Mosul and realised that photography is far greater than the knowledge of taking pictures with a professional camera; it is the innate ability to capture the complexity and beauty of human life."
During this time, Zakarya managed to enrol in several initiatives and projects to rebuild his city; he especially mentions Ali Al Baroudi, his mentor who supported his creative drive. Professor Ali is a writer and photographer who documents life in Mosul through his popular Twitter account. He is also a Professor at Mosul University and the organiser of the first TEDx conference in the city. He credits his time volunteering as the beginning of his love for photography: "through photography, I was able to communicate using a universal language, the whole world can understand."
Zakarya started taking photos of plants first, then turned his lens onto the street, capturing both the subtle and harsh realities of life in Mosul. His eagerness to learn led him to what he calls "the most valuable resource today:” the Internet.
"My parents are right when they say that this generation is lucky because of our access to information online. I wanted to learn photography and content production, and I did so through the valuable resources available online, particularly through the works of Professors Ghaith Saleh, Fadhel Al Mtagwi, and Majid Sultan Al Zaabi. I am so grateful for what I learnt from them."
Soon after, Zakarya won the National Geographic Moments competition, with a photograph of one of the alleyways in Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
"This was an important win for me, and it encouraged me to challenge myself and navigate the difficulties of photographing people who are otherwise reluctant to trust the lens."
Zakarya's photograph was one of the five winning selections in the National Geographic Competition; his photos were also published in the Arabic version of National Geographic magazine. His winning photos were ones captured with a 3mm lens, through his mobile phone only.
Today, Zakarya uses his photography talent and his phone to create content on his social media platforms that inform and inspire others to counter what is commonly known about their localities. He believes that paying it forward with knowledge is essential and that we must use our access to information to educate, inspire and influence positive change. His Instagram account includes many tips and tricks for young photographers that he verifies through expert photographers and content creators.
Today, he continues to capture the human element, dedicating his lens to telling the stories of the people of Mosul, otherwise marginalised in favour of photos of rubble and destruction.
"In my country, faces narrate profound stories that must be captured. Since I was young, I was drawn to the silence in people’s faces and realised soon after that only through my lens can I hear these tales and narrate them to the viewer through my photographs."
On Mosul, he tells me:
"My city is a sad mother, that's how I see her. She continues to smile and persevere for her children. She is so beautiful and ever so strong. I want people to see the beauty in this city, in her glory and even in her destruction."
Zakarya hopes he can continue developing his practice and raising awareness of the importance of photography in Mosul. He wishes one day to have the freedom to take a photo in any street without worrying about security restrictions. When I asked him how we, as members of the Iraqi diaspora, and the creative community outside of Iraq, can support him, he told me that constructive criticism is the best form of support for him.
Zakarya Daad was born in 2005 and is currently a high-school student in Mosul, Iraq. You can follow him here.
About the Writer
Maryam Wissam Al-Dabbagh is a writer, researcher, and a cultural consultant. She is the co-founder of Rouya in the UAE, a specialised content and communication consultancy. She graduated in Journalism from the American University of Sharjah, and obtained her Masters in Art in Global Media and Post National Communications from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Maryam is half Mislawi, half Baghdadi, born and raised in the UAE.