Whisky returns to Ya Hala pub as Islamic State retreats

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Ruined buildings amid the rubble of Mosul’s old city.
Louise Callaghan
The glasses clinked and the ­whisky flowed. Pop music played over the sound of singing from the Ya Hala bar’s customers.

They had a lot to celebrate — and even more to forget. Not long ago, this pub in the Christian town of Qaraqosh, 20km from Mosul, was being used by ISIS for bomb-making, but for a month now it has been welcoming thirsty customers back to its smoky interior after the militants were ousted from the area by Iraqi forces.

For the men — Christian and Muslim — who propped up the bar, Ya Hala was an escape from the ruined world outside, where scarcely a building is undamaged and the danger from Islamic State sleeper cells is ever present.

“It’s good to be back,” said Abu Firas, the bar’s corpulent owner. “But it’s not the same.”

Before Islamic State swept through Iraq and Syria in 2014, Qaraqosh was known for its nightlife. Each weekend, Muslims from conservative Mosul would come to drink and dance in the town’s bars, gamble in the casinos and stock up on whisky.

The Christians fled from the jihadists’ advance, but rumours claim Ya Hala was kept open for the benefit of Islamic State fighters until the drink ran out.

“There were empty bottles everywhere when I came back,” said Abu Firas, shaking his head.

Since the bar reopened, regulars have flocked to sample the imported whisky and beer. There are also new customers: young Mosulawis who became disenchanted with religion after three years of Islamic State rule.

“Many are drinking for the first time. I think 90 per cent of the youth in Mosul drink now. They suffered a lot. ISIS said they represented Islam. But Islam is very far from ISIS,” said Abu Firas.

In a corner of the bar, two Muslim businessmen downed cold beer at an astonishing rate.

Both had stayed in Mosul during the occupation, suffering airstrikes, systemic violence and alcohol shortages so dire that they had been forced to turn to home-made arrack, sold by smugglers at $130 a bottle.

“When ISIS was gone, it was like a nightmare had ended,” said one. “I drove to Qaraqosh and bought a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label. I drank half of it that first day.”

The Sunday Times