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

    Jan 2021, 416 pages


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Lula was a quiet soul who liked honey. When Abu Laith finished up at his mechanic's shop, he would come to the zoo with half a kilo of honey for Lula, who would eat it and lick it from her paws. She liked apples, but only if they hadn't touched the ground. She was a very clean bear.

The training continued apace, and within a few months Abu Laith knew, with the confidence of a man who had only met four lions in his life, that he would be able to tell Zombie apart from a thousand others of his species.

* * *

When night fell, and all the families and the small, annoying children were gone, Abu Laith would take a bottle of whisky to the zoo and sit down with Zombie for a yarn.

'If animals are really dirty,' he would sometimes ask, gazing out over the Tigris as the reeds rustled, 'why did God create them?'

The lion couldn't answer, but Abu Laith thought he knew what he was talking about.

A few months after Zombie came to the zoo, however, Abu Laith's dreams of building his own wildlife park on the Tigris were dashed by a suicide attack that killed one of his business partners in the zoo-building venture just as he was emerging from Abu Laith's front gate. He had been drinking with the man in his courtyard, and Abu Laith survived, but was accused by the police of having ordered his partner's murder.

Because the man had died in front of his house, Abu Laith felt compelled to pay compensation to his family to the tune of almost all his considerable fortune, amassed through years of saving up every dollar from fixing American cars. After four months in prison, when he was released after the police realized he wasn't a murderer, he came to the zoo to see Zombie, his dreams of re-creating Dubai on the Tigris in tatters.

He could feel the lion had missed him.


By the time he had turned twenty-five, Hakam Zarari was a seasoned weightlifter, a bird tamer and one of the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture's most talented chemists. He could bench press over 120 kilos and had written his master's dissertation on the theoretical study of critical packing parameters of hydrotropes, using DFT theory and QSAR calculations. He had a pet bird called Susu who slept on his chest.

His family were all similarly overachieving. Hakam's parents, Said and Arwa, were lawyers and his sister, Hasna, was majoring in literature. She was twenty years old and studying English at Mosul University, an august institution of ochre stone on the eastern side of the city, where she read Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Hakam's dashing younger brother Hassan was away in the US studying for a masters in law at Penn State University. Their house was one of the mansions that lay on leafy roads not far from the eastern bank of the Tigris. Behind the thick peach-coloured walls that faced on to the street the garden was a verdant paradise: an orange grove banked with delicately tended flower beds, and beyond them a towering house with airy rooms.

Being part of Mosul's upper crust, however, did not insulate the family from the unstable and dangerous reality of their city. Mosul, a stronghold of Iraq's Sunni minority, had for years been under the strict control of the army, sent by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.

The soldiers had kept the city on lockdown in response to a wave of attacks from Sunni jihadis, part of a homegrown insurgency that swept the country after the American-led invasion of 2003. The jihadis attacked the American and British armies, as well as the local army they had created after dissolving Saddam Hussein's forces, with suicide and roadside bombs. Though Mosul wasn't as notorious as Fallujah – a city to its south known as the 'graveyard of the Americans' – it was plagued by violence. In 2004, al-Qaeda launched a takeover of the city, which was only put down after the intervention of thousands of Kurdish, American and Iraqi troops. For years afterwards, the jihadis retained enormous control over the city's western side.

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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