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 was in control here.
A gathering place for pool and snooker lovers since the 1990s, the smoke-filled room tiled with grimy beige marble exudes a faded charm, one mirrored in its customers, now back at the tables after being deprived of their favorite pastime for more than two years.
Shortly after the Islamic State took control of Mosul in the summer of 2014, hitting brightly colored balls with a well-chalked cue was among the many activities the group ruled un-Islamic and a distraction from jihad, 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 up, 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, Faris al-Abdali, an international snooker referee, as he finished up a game. “The wheel of life is turning again, but it’s slow.”
No one flinches at the sounds of distant explosions that occasionally ring out above the music, also banned in the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, along with the cigarettes and water pipes that fuel the clientele.
Mosul is divided, with Iraqi forces still fighting a grueling battle against the Islamic State 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 colorful 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 traumatized population knows the militants are not far away.
Abdali was apprehensive when he reopened his doors two months ago. He posted a lookout on the street to keep an eye out for suspicious activities. He worries that his club could be a target for a bomb attack.
“I was very nervous. We still don’t have full trust in the army,” he said, recalling how government soldiers deserted the city en masse in the face of the Islamic State’s attack nearly three years ago.
Abdali had just returned from refereeing an international snooker tournament in the United Arab Emirates when the militants took control. He said he argued with them when they turned up at his business and told him to shut down. A week later they arrested him. He spent 37 days in an Islamic State jail, all but two in pitch-dark solitary confinement.
“I’m still suffering from that psychologically,” he said.
Abdali, 56, learned to play snooker in the 1970s — Korean construction workers who worked with his father had a table and taught him.
Pool and snooker took off in Mosul in the 1980s, Abdali said, becoming popular among students in the university city. There were more than 400 pool halls in the city before the Islamic State’s rule, he added.
Abdali opened Captain in 1997, after running another of the city’s popular pool halls. A wooden ship’s wheel hangs on one wall, in line with its nautical theme, and tarnished brass trophies are displayed on a shelf on another.
He fondly recalls when national tournaments were held at the club and he had a large staff who wore formal uniforms.
The city’s pool hall owners began to struggle long before the Islamic State took control. The group and its predecessor, al-Qaeda, demanded extortion money as they tightened their grip. Since 2005, Abdali had paid $200 a month in protection money to keep Captain open. “We had no choice,” he said. “If you didn’t, they’d put a bomb outside.”
Complaints to the corruption-riddled Iraqi authorities were pointless, he said. Now, for the first time in decades, he can operate without paying bribes to the extremists. He hopes that it will last and that life will fully return.
For the moment, people still worry about coming out at night, and a curfew in the area means customers can stay only until 8 p.m. On the other side of the street is the campus of the University of Mosul, once one of the most respected educational institutions in the region, its ruins now a reminder of the mammoth task of rebuilding the city.
The Iraqi government stopped paying public workers in Mosul in 2015 to cut off funding to the Islamic State, leaving many residents without an income for two years. Salaries have not been restarted, although some workers, such as teachers, have returned to their jobs in the city’s east.
Without income, many residents are scraping together money for food and can’t afford extras like pool and snooker, Abdali said. Still, some of his regulars are back.
Salim Younes, a wiry former Iraqi air force pilot, comes most days. Dressed in a bright white tracksuit with purple, blue and neon green flashes, his favorite game is the pool variant “three ball,” which is met with some bemusement by the younger customers — one of whom dismissed it as a “70s game.”
Younes said life has been on “standby” until now. “Step by step we will get there.”
Boys who gathered to play pool swapped stories of their exploits under the militants. Mohammed Ibrahim, a 16-year-old who serves drinks, secretly sold cigarettes, and he spent time in Islamic State prisons after being caught. The last packet he sold was for 32,000 dinars, about $25. A packet now sells for just 500 dinars.
Mohammed Fathi, a 37-year-old gym teacher, shows videos of children at the soccer club he ran under the militants.
“I was doing this so they’d go in another direction, away from Islamic State,” he said.
Many still have relatives trapped in Islamic State areas on the other side of the river. There, the fight has been more ferocious, with entire neighborhoods flattened, making rebuilding more of a challenge.
“The joy has returned, but it’s not complete yet,” Fathi added. “Not until the western side is finished. As for the future, we don’t know what will happen.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.