The Mosul girl: I’m not crying

An Iraqi girl (unidentified) who fled her home during a battle between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants near Badush, Iraq. An Iraqi girl (unidentified) who fled her home during a battle between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants near Badush, Iraq. Reuters


With the expansion of digital media across the globe, having access to world news and the freshest developments is not harder than scrolling down your Facebook or Twitter timeline. This is also where we get evanescent inspirations through captivating quotes posted by someone we might have never met in real life. Have you ever come across a picture on your Facebook timeline which froze you for few minutes, left you speechless, deeply thinking, and strongly touched? By this I don’t mean photographs of dead innocent bodies dumped in a war zone, but shocking pictures which are actually peaceful and calm, speaking for themselves.

Recently, I came across one picture of this kind. This picture is a heart-wrenching photograph of a young girl almost in tears, but, at the same time, in a desperate struggle to keep up appearance for a photo posture. The unidentified girl is said by the publisher to be an Iraqi civilian who has just arrived in a camp prepared for internally displaced people, escaping the war between government forces and Islamic State terrorist group in her hometown. The deadly clash is taking place in Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul which fell into the hands of the Islamist jihadists in June 2014. The group is now on the brink of losing the city to the advancing Iraqi army.

What is initially distinctive about the photograph of the Mosul girl — as I have named her — is an outcry that can be clearly noticed in the absolute silence reigning the atmosphere. A blurred background with no clear figures standing next to the girl within the frame, helps the viewer feel the loneliness, hopelessness and, maybe, sense of fear which is being experienced by the girl right in that moment. In the photograph, there is no sign of blood, violence or graphic elements in general, but a confusing sadness is blatantly obvious through her eyes brimmed with tears while attempting to manage a faint smile. This combination of feelings can remind the viewer of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece “Mona Lisa” or “Joconde's Smile”.

Mona Lisa  by: Leonardo da Vinci

Mona Lisa by: Leonardo da Vinci

For the first few seconds you look at the face of the Mosul girl, you realise a weak smile which fades away soon after you are captured by her tearful eyes. Even though it is not culturally popular in many Middle-Eastern societies to show teeth in front of a camera, in the case of the Mosul girl, her closed lips with that smile-like gesture is likely to be a desperate attempt to swallow her lament and pretend to be fine. However, her eyes make her wail heard before one even find out about her sad story.

Perhaps for a while before the photographer shot the picture, the Mosul girl has been shedding tears as her eyes have already turned to red with pupils enlarged. Looking closer, you can find the trace of tears on her right cheek. You can also see one drop still hanging there, hesitating to jump into its ruin. Bursting to tears for a young girl experiencing a sense of fear is understandable, but in the case of the Mosul girl, she has been pictured right after she arrived in a safe zone protected by government forces against the terrorist groups. So what could be the reason behind her haplessness? One may arguably claim that she is crying out of joy as she finally finds a safe haven; but, devoting few more seconds to scrutinise the portrait carefully, you can merely find agony, melancholy, misery and pain, with no trace of hope and happiness. 

As a child of war era, I was born in the last year of Iran-Iraq war in 1988, for which my family had already been displaced far before I came to existence. Throughout my childhood and continual state of instability in my life, I, to some extent, understand how the Mosul girl feels at that moment. Simply put, surviving death at home does not guarantee relief somewhere else. There is apparently no direct threat to her life any longer, but she has already lost many things which were once crucial to make her feel alive: maybe an adorable doll, perhaps a pair of pink kitten-heel shoes, or probably a family member who was gunned down by terrorist snipers en route to the camp. The girl knows that she is going to live on, but she realises a drastic change hereafter in the prospect of life, an unpleasant one. As a child displaced by war, the Mosul girl may not feel home in a camp with tens of thousands of new people and limited access to basic facilities; but she probably is young enough to yet realise that home is also not going to be the same even if the war ends and she returns.

In Iraq, it is relatively popular to dye very young girls’ hair, usually light-coloured as the majority of Iraqis are naturally brunette. Observing the Mosul girl’s untidy hair, you can find two wisps which are lighter in colour than her own dark brown hair. They are probably from old memories before the extremist Islamists overran Mosul and imposed Sharia law under which dyeing is forbidden unless with Henna. Searching for more details in the photograph, you can find out that she has only one earring which unveils — or maybe adds — a new dimension to the chaotic life of the Mosul girl. To the same side she is wearing the earring, her head is very slightly tilted, as if telling us that the balance in her life is lost with all those things she has left behind.

The camera position and framing of the portrait play a significant role in the enormous potency of the Mosul girl’s gaze. The camera is placed exactly in the same level of her face, allowing her to fix her sad look straightly at the camera. This feature leaves the viewers with no choice but surrendering to her capturing look. She is close enough to the camera that her head exceeds the frame and, together with her body, divides the background into two blurred parts. It makes her appear closer and consequently larger, two features that help the viewers notice every detail easily and focus on the main subject only — no way to escape her again. The eyes right in the centre of the frame are enormously magnetic that you feel pressure when trying to look at the rest of the picture and avoid her piercing stare; as if telling us: LOOK AT ME…! An almost torn collar, in addition to everything else in the picture, shows the difficult days the Mosul girl has lived. 

Comparing the Mosul girl with the famous green-eyed Afghan Girl whose portrait appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic, some similarities can be found, on top of which is the watchful eyes fixed directly at the viewer through the camera lens. However, there is a profound difference in their gaze: the Mosul girl is crying out pain and haplessness while the Afghan girl seems to be expressing “quiet defiance and inner strength” as the result of anger (Callwoood, 2013). In other words, the Afghan girl can be seen as a rebellion who fears nothing as she has experienced constant danger on every step of her life; but the Mosul girl is about to surrender to her uncertain fate.

Sharbat Gula, the Afghan Girl, at Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan. 1984. by journalist Steve McCurry

Seemingly, the Afghan Girl’s photograph is likened to the Mona Lisa portrait by many analysts, including David Schonauer, editor-in-chief of American Photo magazine who argues that "it's a little bit like the Mona Lisa. You don't really know what she's thinking; is she scared, is she fierce, is she bewildered, is she ambivalent, is she confident about her beauty?” (Zoroya, 2002). However, a crucial element of the Mona Lisa’s portrait, the mysterious smile, is missing in the Afghan girl’s photograph while it can be partially traced on the face of the Mosul girl. 

Lastly, there remains one question to be tackled: why the Mosul girl’s photograph did not gain the fame as the Afghan girl’s? Obviously, the press plays a huge role in circulating an item — whether a news story, a footage or a photograph — around the globe, and their measure to pick and choose one among thousands is its characteristic of uniqueness. The Afghan girl’s portrait may have been considered unique in 1980s, but the pain in Mosul girl’s eyes is no longer unique as there are thousands of similarly sad photographs easily being circulated on the social media, gaining attention for a short while and being replaced by another sad one.

[The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BasNews]


Callwood, Taylor. “Haunted, Yet Haunting: A Visual Analysis of 'The Afghan Girl”. James Madison University. 2013. Web. 04 June 2017. <>

Zoroya, Gregg. “'National Geographic' tracks down Afghan girl”. USA Today. 13 Mar. 2002. Web. 04 June 2017 <>