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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But for many of Mosul's residents, the soldiers were invaders, rather than saviours – an occupying force. The suicide bombings continued, sometimes more, sometimes less, but leaving an ever-present fear of strangers and crowds. The soldiers seemed to delight in causing endless traffic jams and humiliating people at checkpoints. They set up roadblocks on a whim, conducted relentless stop-and-search operations and smashed the windows of parked cars that stood in their way. Those they arrested sometimes came back crippled from torture, or didn't come back at all.

One of Hakam's relatives was kidnapped from his workplace by a group of corrupt army officers in Mosul's main industrial district. At first, no one knew where he was. After a round of frantic calls it became clear that the kidnappers would give him back if the family paid a ransom. State-sanctioned kidnapping, the family reasoned, was infinitely better than being held on political grounds. They paid the ransom and he was returned, relatively unharmed. Little more was said about it. The man was lucky.

As the government tried to bring Mosul and its jumbled streets under control, the architecture of the city itself was altered, turned into a strange network of fortifications. The entrances and exits around the district where the Zarari family lived were closed off by roadblocks. The only way in and out was through a checkpoint at one end of the district, an area of about three or four blocks.

In theory, the aim was to stop the jihadis from launching multi-pronged suicide attacks. In practice, it inconvenienced the area's residents and provided more work for the soldiers – many of whom were already bored, angry and spoiling for a fight. Their friends had been killed by Sunni fanatics, and many thought the city's residents were little different.

The army checkpoints meant it took Hakam an hour and a half to get to his lab, a mile away. During the military lockdown, basic services were neglected: water was intermittent at best, the electricity flickered constantly and sometimes disappeared for hours, and in the slums around the Old City – which teemed with resentment towards the government – sewage ran in the streets. It was, many Moslawis thought, insultingly clear that the government did not care for the wellbeing of their ancient city.

While Sunnis had held most of the power under Saddam Hussein's supposedly secular government, the ruling class installed by the Americans was decidedly Shia-dominated. Their new leaders were eager to exact revenge on the people they saw as their former oppressors. Despite the army's efforts, al-Qaeda cells regularly targeted the soldiers, and their American backers, with car bombs, suicide attacks and sniper bullets. More often than not, civilians were killed alongside them.

Every day was a risk. Life was normal one second, and the next, everything was dust and blood, eardrums broken, screams and chaos. If Hakam was at school, his parents would sometimes call to tell him not to come home because there had been an attack near the house. Before mobile phones, it would take hours before a relative returned home after crossing an area where a suicide blast had taken place. The family would wait, glued to the news, hoping that this time they would not be affected.

In 2005, when he was sixteen, Hakam was walking home one day with his friends from a study group. It was summer, and they had been taking private lessons ahead of their baccalaureate exam. They were meandering through the heat towards a checkpoint when someone started firing a gun just ahead of them. There was no shelter, no houses to take them in. They hit the ground as the world around them exploded. A huge thump shuddered the road in front of them. Maybe an armoured car had been blown up, Hakam had thought, as the debris fell around them, and he prayed he wouldn't die.

By now, Hakam knew the anatomy of an attack. Sometimes the militants would only sweep past a checkpoint, spraying it with bullets or detonating a suicide bomb before running away. If you were less lucky, you'd be caught up in an attack with a specific target: an assassination or an assault from different directions aimed at destroying a checkpoint. This was one of the targeted attacks.

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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