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Excerpt from Father of Lions by Louise Callaghan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Father of Lions

One Man's Remarkable Quest to Save the Mosul Zoo

by Louise Callaghan

Father of Lions by Louise Callaghan X
Father of Lions by Louise Callaghan
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    Jan 2020, 400 pages

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1
Abu Laith

Abu Laith was not the kind of man to let another man insult his lion. Especially not a man who looked like this.

He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, well pressed, and had the air of a civil servant. He carried a baby in the crook of his left arm. In his right hand he held a reed, plucked from the banks of the River Tigris, which he was using to poke Abu Laith's newly acquired lion cub, who was asleep in his cage.

The man's wife and the rest of his children stood nearby, watching sullenly. Despite his efforts, the poking was having no measurable effect on the lion, who wasn't moving at all. All of this registered in Abu Laith's mind as he ran at full pelt through the zoo towards the man, who had not seen him coming.

It was around 7.30 p.m. in the zoo by the Tigris, and the dusk was settling pink over Mosul's Old City. Families were sitting outside the zoo cafe drinking cold Pepsi and glasses of tea. The bears were reclining in their cages as Abu Laith charged past.

'What are you doing?' shouted the self-appointed zookeeper, who rarely spoke at less than a bellow. 'Get out of the zoo.'

The man, who did not realize the danger he was in, barely glanced up. 'Why aren't they doing anything?' he asked, irate. 'We paid money to see them.'

Abu Laith came to a dead halt in front of the family. 'They're full,' he shouted. 'They've just eaten. When animals are full, they sleep.'

The man, who wasn't listening, kept poking at the lion cub. Next door, the lion's mother and father – known to the zoo's employees as Mother and Father – were also asleep.

'We paid money to see them move,' the man said, prodding the lion cub again.

'How would you like it if I poked your children with a stick?' Abu Laith spat, advancing on the family.

The man, who had finally got the message, backed away, his wide-eyed family backing with him. 'I'm not coming here again,' he said, snippily.

'Good,' called Abu Laith, as the visitors turned and scuttled off. 'And you had better not, because if you do I'll feed you to my lion.'

Grumbling to himself, Abu Laith turned his attentions to the cub. He was sound asleep, and looked not unlike a middle-sized ginger dog. None of the zoo workers, who were milling aimlessly around the park, had reacted to Abu Laith's outburst. They were used to it.

Everyone always said that Abu Laith himself looked like a lion, and it was true. He was five foot six with a rock-hard keg of a belly and an opaque halo of orange hair. His nose looked like it had been hewn from a boulder and sprinkled with freckles. He spoke in a roar.

That was why they called him Abu Laith, which – loosely translated – meant Father of Lions.

* * *

Since he could remember, Abu Laith had loved animals, and devoted himself to them at the near-absolute expense of humans. He had raised dogs, pigeons, rabbits, cats and beetles and held them in his hands when they died. For his third-eldest daughter's birthday, he had driven a herd of sheep into the family home. He had once given a baby monkey a shower in his garden.

He had one ultimate, lifelong ambition: to live on a farm with large predators roaming free around him. In Mosul, this was considered a suspect ambition. It had, possibly, something to do with the restrictions on animals in the Quran and the Hadith. In the holy texts, dogs were listed as haram – forbidden – along with pigs, donkeys, wolves, glow-worms (and all such bloodless animals), snakes and chameleons (animals that have blood, but whose blood does not flow).

Most people, even if they weren't religious, thought that dogs were dirty, and somehow unsavoury, in the way that people in Europe felt about rats: plague carriers and unclean beasts that defiled their surroundings. Though some families kept pets, it was considered disreputable to own a lot of animals. Among the people of the great city by the Tigris, animal lovers had a shady reputation as hustlers, fighters and panhandlers. Pigeon breeders, a fraternity to which Abu Laith also belonged, were especially dodgy.

Excerpted from Father of Lions by Louise Callaghan. Copyright © 2020 by Louise Callaghan. Excerpted by permission of Forge Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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