ISIS on way out, pool halls reopen on cue

Locals playing pool recently at the Captain, a popular club in Mosul. ISIS had banned such activities as un-Islamic.
Locals playing pool recently at the Captain, a popular club in Mosul. ISIS had banned such activities as un-Islamic.PHOTO: ALEX POTTER/WASHINGTON POST

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 in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was in control here.

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

Shortly after ISIS took control of Mosul in the summer of 2014, hitting brightly coloured balls with a well-chalked cue was among the many activities the group ruled un-Islamic and a distraction from militancy, 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, 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, Mr Faris al-Abdali, an international snooker referee.

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

Mosul is divided, with Iraqi forces still fighting a gruelling battle against ISIS 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 colourful 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 city's pool-hall owners began to struggle long before ISIS took control. The group and its predecessor, Al-Qaeda, demanded extortion money.

Since 2005, Mr Abdali had paid US$200 (S$280) a month in protection money to keep Captain open. Now, for the first time in decades, he can operate without paying bribes to the extremists.

He hopes it will last and that life will return fully.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2017, with the headline 'ISIS on way out, pool halls reopen on cue'. Print Edition | Subscribe