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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For two or three minutes Hakam and his friends lay there, hands over their heads, waiting. The street was filled with smoke, the screams of the injured, the shouts of the soldiers. As it quietened, the boys stood up, terrified. The tables were turning, as they always did after an attack. Soon the soldiers would start blindly shooting at anyone dressed – as the militants were – in civilian clothes. Everyone was a target. The boys high-tailed it down the road.

When Hakam went back through the checkpoint the next day, there was no sign of the attack. There were families walking on the street, and people lining up to pass through, grumpy in the fume-soaked heat. They had all learned to live with it.

Across the city, opinion was divided: some saw the jihadis as gutsy liberators who would rid them of the army, others – like Hakam's family – saw them as troublemaking fundamentalists.

Waiting in the fifty degree heat one day at a checkpoint on his way to the gym, Hakam wondered what would happen if the soldiers left. He wheeled his pushbike over the uneven roadside towards the soldiers standing at the barricade. He would much rather have driven a motorbike, but they had been banned for years after becoming the transportation of choice for suicide bombers. Instead, he cycled along Mosul's traffic-choked streets on a green and blue pushbike, attracting strange looks and inhaling lungfuls of dust.

Without the checkpoints, it would have taken him five minutes to get to the gym. Now, because of the spaghetti-strand route he had to take, it took him a lot longer. Sometimes he would charm the soldiers, who would let him sail past. He'd learned their names, so he could call out and say hi as he approached, buttering them up. But every two weeks the units changed, and a new – roundly suspicious – group of soldiers came on duty. They were nervous, jumpy and sometimes bent on revenge for friends who had been killed by the jihadis. Every Moslawi they saw was a potential terrorist.

This time, Hakam could tell, would be bad. As he rolled his bike towards the checkpoint, he saw unfamiliar soldiers at the barrier. He braced himself for an argument, and smiled pleasantly. Some of the soldiers were sitting on chairs, others standing up to check the cars. One walked up to him and made a cutting motion with his right hand over his left arm, the universal Iraqi sign for papers.

Hakam passed over his identity card. The honking of the cars was so loud it was giving him a headache. The soldier looked at the card for a moment, then stood back. Hakam held out his backpack, packed with well-worn gym gear.

The soldier rooted through the pants and socks. He pulled out a protein shake, unscrewed the top and looked inside at the milky swirl, checking for a bomb. 'What the hell is this?' he asked.

'It's a protein shake,' Hakam said. It was the same every time there were new soldiers. He adopted a tone of studied patience. 'I'm going to the gym. I live round the corner. I come here every day.'

The soldier looked down at the bike. 'Hands on the wall,' he said, pulling the bike away from Hakam. Around them, the cars blared long, insistent signals.

Hakam turned and raised his hands towards the wall. Men had been lost this way, taken from checkpoints and never seen again.

'What's your name?' the soldier asked.

'Hakam Zarari,' he said.

'Where are you going?'

'To the gym,' Hakam said, as calmly as possible. 'I come here every day. I live really close by.'

There was no reply. The soldiers had walked off – some to check the cars going past, some to shake down pedestrians, some to smoke and drink tea. Hakam waited, his hands on the wall. He didn't want to look round. His shoulders ached. He felt embarrassed, which was what they wanted. They were, he thought, ignoring him on purpose. Anger and shame coiled inside him as the sweat soaked through his t-shirt.

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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