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Chapter 14: Steve

Mosul, Iraq. April 18-19.

From Mosul, like with every stop on my journey, I bring with me new friends - people that will remain in my heart, my memories and my contact list for the next visit. Krista, with a smiley smoothness and discrete depth. Ali, floating between worlds with admirable patience and empathy. Mohammed, with a hard-worn surface and the softest of hearts beneath it. Yet, as a character befitting a good story, no arc can rival that of Steve.

We - Me, Ali, Krista and Mohammed - were visiting the old town of Mosul. Most of it lie in ruins and is dark by night, but we could still see the destruction of walls blown to pieces, smashed doors in the ground and bullet holes in what was still standing. On the main street shops and cafes had been rebuilt on the ground floor, with the top still blown apart. Yet, from the atmosphere, filled with jokes and laughter on the Thursday night, you could not tell of the violence that had shaped the city.

If you followed the news the last decade (I didn't) you might remember that a leader of the Islamic State, locally known as Daesh, announced a caliphate in 2014 from a Mosque in Mosul with an iconic, crooked minaret. Later in 2017, said leader blew himself up along with that same Mosque, the Al-Nuri Mosque. As we were closing in on the site of the Al-Nuri, we came to what Krista called the "hipster corner of Mosul", a small alley with colourful lights, art vendors and a culture museum. Krista and Ali were looking to buy some art for their home in the UK, and when we came out of the shop a bald man with a big beard asked if he could give us a tour. Enter: Steve.

Steve is a multitude of stories in one package. First, there is the stories that he tells. In his tour that started in the museum he walked us through city history, which saw settlements as far back as 6000 years BC and have been a strategic hub for many Empires and trade routes over millennia. We had a look at some historic artifacts before we came to Steve's masterpiece: the fashion collection. Full attires including both original pieces from their own time, dating back a hundred years or more, and Steve's own creations based on designs from different sections of society through the ages. The pride he took in his work shone through in his passionate presentation, and rightfully so. Still, he saved the best for last.

He took us around the block to a back alley where there was once an old pottery. In the rubble from the explosion that took out the Mosque and much of the neighborhood, you could still find pieces of jugs and cups that were made there. He showed us the old minaret, now a UNESCO site for reconstruction, both from the closest point on the ground and the rooftop right beside it. The rooftop was that of his family home, the house demolished in the blast. The structure has been rebuilt, but the memories were too painful for him to move back there. Steve, like all non-muslims and countless more, fled the city when the violent and extremist ways of IS became apparent. But, against all recommendations, he was the first christian to move back to Mosul, insisting that there was still hope despite all that had happened. Steve has personally lived through the events that were seen on videos online. Still it was neither the stories of old, nor those of the recent past that captured me the most with Steve. Rather, it was the story that was happening right then and there, as he was showing us around in his full originality.

Steve is not your typical rebel, and his likeness is near impossible to find in the middle east, where men are expected to be manly. His flamboyant energy, feminine hand gestures and expressive charisma was more than a little refreshing to see, to the point where l wondered whether his character was accepted, defiant or overlooked in this conservative country. Either way, it was a joy to see him unfiltered, with be a passion for fashion and an undying love to a place that have seen so much hate.

The following day, Mohammed took me to other parts of the city where the fighting had been intense. Seeing it all in daylight gave a different sense of scope to it. I knew about IS and their brutal violence. But I hadn't quite realised the scale of the civil war. What is Mosul today is either demolished or rebuilt. Everything was destroyed. Everything, in a city with population in the millions.

It was unnerving to see the homes in ruins, whole neighbourhoods as ghost towns. And yet, thanks to people like Steve, hope is not gone. Even after the atrocities of IS, rounding up the gay men and throwing them off the roof in the main square while forcing people to watch; despite the total annihilation in the following war, including his home; defying the fears of neighbours and fellow friend's, Steve refused to let evil win while he was still standing. How could he?

How can I?

Frodo: I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.


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