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Scenes From The International Desk: Bingo In Mosul

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's the season of giving, so we've asked our international correspondents to give us the gift of tape, something they recorded that never made it into a radio story that they haven't been able to forget. Today, international correspondent Jane Arraf takes us to a place that she has visited many times. On this visit, she ended up someplace unexpected.

Hi, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: So take us into the scene. Where were you?

ARRAF: So this was Mosul, Iraq's second-biggest city, and a Mosul that was still emerging from the influence of ISIS. It was under ISIS control for almost three years. And almost everything was banned, particularly drinking and smoking. Near the river that divides the city, we went through this entrance through the steel door. And then there were guys collecting weapons from people who had weapons and then quick body searches for the men. And then we opened the doors, and there was this...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: What are we hearing?

ARRAF: It's a big, smoky room - really smoky - full of men with what look like bingo cards. And they're drinking beer and drinking whiskey, but they're mostly focusing on the bingo, which isn't actually called bingo here.

SHAPIRO: What is the Arabic word for bingo?

ARRAF: It's called dumbulla (ph).

ATHEER HASSAN: If you won, you say dumbulla.

(LAUGHTER)

ARRAF: So happy. That's engineer Atheer Hassan, who opened the place. And, in fact, it's the first bingo hall opened in Mosul since 1994, and the first bar to be opened there in maybe, like, a decade.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned that it was full of men. Was this like a strictly male-only space?

ARRAF: It was so strictly a male-only space. We went there with our local producer, Sangar Khaleel - he's from Mosul - and a friend from Swedish radio who's also a woman. And the owner, who was our host, told us we were the first two women who had ever been there.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

ARRAF: He talked about how, in Baghdad, apart from a very old, staid social club where families go to play bingo and win electrical appliances, women didn't go to these places. And I said I thought I had seen women go to them before in Baghdad. And he said...

HASSAN: Bad women.

ARRAF: Bad women.

HASSAN: Yes.

ARRAF: OK.

SHAPIRO: But these were not bad men playing bingo in the hall where you were?

ARRAF: Presumably not. They were happy men - the ones who were winning anyway - because this isn't just - this isn't bingo for like peanuts or electrical appliances. It's for cash money, up to $3,000 a game.

SHAPIRO: Up to $3,000 a game - whoa. Did they have the same kind of, like, big rolling cage in front that they would pull balls out of? Did it look like a bingo hall that we would see in America?

ARRAF: So it had a big blue ball, but it was a lot more complicated than bingo because there are numbers and not letters. And the numbers go from one to 90. And then the announcer would do this clever sort of thing where, before almost every number, he'd give some sort of reference that the Iraqis would get. Like, he'd say, war with Iran. And everybody would know that was 88 because 1988 was the year the war ended.

SHAPIRO: So, Jane, over the last year, you have covered so many scenes of war, of refugees, of cities coming back to life after ISIS. Why is this the scene that stuck with you that you wanted to bring to us today?

ARRAF: I think because for all the time I've spent in Mosul, you know, that that was time spent under the restrictions of Saddam or with the U.S. military or in and out quickly when al-Qaida and ISIS were around. And I kind of felt I'd never got to know it.

So there I was, sitting with remarkable people from Mosul who had been there all along - this young activist whose volunteer movement helped to rebuild the city, with a musician and with people like Atheer, the businessman who opened it, who said he wanted to change the mentality in Mosul. But he wasn't going to do it with guns because then people would bring more guns. He was going to do it by offering beer and bingo.

And I think, most of all, it brought back a part of that Iraq that I had known and loved and that's now harder to find, that tolerance where, if you want to, you can go to the mosque and pray, or if you want to, you can go and drink and play bingo. And all of those things coexist.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jane Arraf with a gift from the international desk - this one from Mosul, Iraq.

Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.