In his studio apartment in Chicago,Mahmoud Saeed is surrounded by a city gripped by gun violence. But it is the violence tied to his hometown in Iraq that saturates his soul with sadness.
He remembers a time in the northern city of Mosul when Arabs, Kurds, Jews, Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen and Armenians existed harmoniously with one another.
Hard to imagine now, Saeed says. "People just want to kill each other."
Saeed, a celebrated Iraqi author of 30 novels and short stories, monitors the news of an imminent and decisive battle to drive ISIS from Mosul, the militant group's last bastion of power in Iraq. An unlikely alliance of troops is converging on the rugged plains of Nineveh, and the first salvos could come as early as next week.
I telephone Saeed to get his perspective on the so-called mother of all battles to liberate Iraq's second-largest city. We talk about how evil inherent in the human spirit motivated his writing, and how ISIS epitomizes that evil. For his independent ideas and frank opinions, Iraqi authorities jailed Saeed six times, tortured him and banned his work. He tells me he had no option but to leave his homeland in 1985.
Now 77 and frail, Saeed views the upcoming offensive as perhaps the last opportunity in his lifetime to build a path to peace in Mosul and, subsequently, Iraq. What happens in post-ISIS Mosul could act as harbinger for the rest of the fractured nation.
After years of dictatorship, occupation, sectarian strife and government mismanagement in Iraq, Saeed's perspective on the future is laced with a heavy dose of skepticism. I can hardly blame him.
Power in the name of religion has destroyed Iraq, he says, and ISIS is the latest manifestation of a long line of injuries to the nation.
The importance of the looming military operation has been highlighted in the halls of power from Washington to Baghdad, but Saeed is concerned that few discussions are centered on the plight of his fellow Moslawis.
First, there is danger of a catastrophic civilian exodus in the midst of raging battle, as was the case last spring in the fight for Falluja.
The United Nations estimates as many as 1.2 million people could be affected in the Mosul campaign. Already, 3.3 million Iraqis are displaced from their homes, and aid workers fear they do not have the resources to absorb many more.
Bruno Geddo, the UN refugee agency's Iraq representative, says Mosul could trigger "one of the largest man-made displacement crises of recent times."
A second worry is the one that consumes Saeed: How will Mosul and the rest of Nineveh province ever be able to rebuild and reconcile the deep scars of sectarian atrocities?
Those scars predate ISIS; the minority Sunnis were favored under Saddam Hussein. The tables turned with the 2003 invasion, and in recent years the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has marginalized Sunnis and failed to guarantee representation for all Iraqi communities, according to a report by the US Commission on Religious Freedom.
Now there are fresh wounds that have to be healed, but few seem to be addressing the harsh political realities of a post-ISIS Iraq. Many players from the various ethnic and religious factions within Iraq are united in their opposition to ISIS, but they could try to vie for power in the aftermath.
Saeed tells me stories about his youth in Mosul, known as the city of two springs because the weather is just as pleasant in the fall as it is in the spring. Often he tended to his family shop in a centuries-old souk when his father went for afternoon prayers.
He remembers his father's Jewish friends.
"They all spoke Arabic and we were one family," he says. "Mosul was a peaceful city. I want this blackness to be over."