By Imran Khan
In Truth, Madness is the fictional story of a correspondent driven to despair by the Middle East and South Asia. A reporter strives to find the truth. The more truth they find, the more maddening the world becomes
Babylonian Tales of Death, Heaven and Hell
Welcome! Welcome, dear Malek! You are an honoured guest and welcome visitor to these humble pages. For thousands of years we have kept a record of the events of our times. On papyrus, clay, print, film, video and now in gigabytes. We are The Order of the Gatherers of Truths. Our job, Malek, is to keep the stories of the souls that walk this earth, to keep them safe for the day when judgement will pass. But before judgement can be passed this book shall test you and ask you to decide who gets to go to heaven and to the other place. Now, our Order used to be quite secretive, quite secretive indeed. Heaven forbid a soul should find our books, should find these tales on which so much depends. But an edict from upstairs has changed that. She has decided that humans have spilt far too much blood not understanding the basic tenets of faith. So, in your hands you hold a book containing some tales. The concept is simple. From the tale you read, can you see into a person’s soul, and can you decide whether that soul goes’ to heaven and hell? The tale is a study of character, if you will. What follows are tales of women and men, of love and loss, collected through the ages and from all of the corners of this great earth. Only one common thread links them; the tales come from the places you have trodden, and the people you have met, Malek. A stranger’s study you shall not read within these pages, although the study may well be of people who entered your life briefly, but however briefly they may have been in your presence, they left an imprint.
Babylon and on.
The car jolted and spluttered to a halt. Steam rose from the engine, which was fighting a losing battle with the heat of southern Iraq. In the back seat, Malek Khalil was daydreaming again. Malek daydreamed a lot, but not like other people. He created worlds in his head and projected his visions onto the world around him.
The tech world has a term for it. It’s called ‘augmented reality’. In AR, as the hipsters call it, you point your smartphone at something with the camera on and it adds things like small creatures or information about what it is you are looking at. With augmented reality, you point your smartphone at the Dome of the Rock in occupied East Jerusalem say, and a piece of software overlays photographs of the same location from history and allows you to time travel backwards through recorded history. Malek had taken augmented reality in another, all together more personal, direction and could daydream whole new worlds. In his daydreams time was elastic. What might be a day in his daydream was mere seconds in real life. He didn’t need a smartphone: sometimes his Kindle seemed to be enough of a trigger; at other times, just being in a certain place would do it.
En route to modern-day Babylon he had been reading about the history of ancient Babylon on said Kindle. As he read, he saw the characters leap from the page and begin to talk to each other. He laughed to himself at the fine silk clothes the rich would wear, and pitied the battered hessian cloth of the poor.
His daydreams didn’t require him to be asleep, or even to have his eyes closed. They weren’t hallucinations like the visuals he would get from LSD and mushrooms which, along with cocaine and Ecstasy, had made up his staple diet during the ’90s. This was something else. Not a superpower, but not a normal sensory capability either.
He stepped out of the broken car. The car would be fixed as they filmed so that didn’t concern him; it was the augmented reality thing he was worried about. After so many years of daydreaming this way perhaps he should seek some help. Perhaps he did have post-traumatic stress disorder. They used to call it shell shock, but Malek couldn’t help but think that it was a weak person’s disorder. Soldiers who killed and whose friends died in a ditch next to them had a right to feel after-effects. People whose family members had died, whose homes had been destroyed and who lived in misery had the right to feel after-effects. Not journalists who had the ability to leave at will. Malek felt that journalists who suffered from PTSD just needed to get a grip. He took a look at the scene around him. He was in the ancient city of Babylon. In the last year, the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant had destroyed some of Iraq’s oldest and most valuable sites, claiming that they were, wait, what was that term they used?
Against Islam, that was it.
‘Against Islam’ was a funny term to Malek. He’d grown up as the oldest son of a Sunni Muslim father and a Shia Muslim mother. He had attended a predominantly Jewish school and had studied Religion in Global Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He’d spent 14 years in the Middle East and South Asia bouncing around from one crisis or war to another. ‘Against Islam’ was a term he’d first heard in the mosque when he was around 11 years old. Malek had gone to the mosque clutching a toy soldier. The imam had stopped him and asked him what he was holding. The imam took the tiny green plastic figure from him. It was from a set of Americans storming the beaches of Normandy in 1944. On D-Day. Malek would often recreate the battles in his Finchley home and chase Jerry scum across Europe. The imam held the toy in his palm and then held it upright in front of Malek’s face.
‘These soldiers did a good thing. They fought bravely. They rid this world of a tyrant. Their masters though had another plan. Their masters used the tyrant as an excuse to rid the world of an ancient people in an ancient land. Their masters used the massacre of the Jews in Europe to destroy the Arabs of Palestine. What did Arabs have to do with a European war? Nothing. The Arabs didn’t create the tyrant, yet they paid for his evil. The Jews took their homes and raped their women and killed their children. These soldiers that you play with are tools. These soldiers represent their masters’ will and the death of Palestine. Therefore, they are against Islam and should not be toys that you play with.’
Malek never went to the mosque after that. His father, seeing disappointment in his young boy, never pushed the subject. Instead, he went to the Bounds on the high street and bought a copy of the Koran in English by N.J. Dawood and left it by Malek’s bed. His father never said a word to him and Malek never said thank you. The gesture was left unspoken, as a secret between father and son. Dawood was an Iraqi Jew who moved to London. Malek was in Iraq. A coincidence that Malek found touching. He never did find a chapter on toy soldiers.
In the years since 1977 and his first, difficult reading of the Koran so much had happened in and to the Middle East and South Asia. Malek remembered the first time he had heard names like ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Palestine’ and how new terms like ‘intifada’ and ‘collateral damage’ began to appear in the newspapers that his father left lying around the house. While other children would pore over the comic strips and the sports pages he would be scouring the foreign section for news from far-off lands with funny-sounding names. Today, Malek helped write the headlines, write the stories, spread the news that once again blood was being spilt in the name of religion. He would talk of armed groups like ISIL and The Lord’s Resistance Army. The genocide of Rohingya Muslims was another topic. He reported on immigrants who had escaped bombs in Iraq and Syria but also about them getting on wretched boats that often capsized in the Mediterranean, killing all those aboard.
‘Against Islam.’ Once again the phrase came to his mind as he began to think about how to report the story. ISIL had made it clear that their version of religion was the only version. The imam all those years ago had made it clear that he was right and the toy soldier was wrong. When it came to religion, everyone claimed to be right.
Malek sighed and decided to ignore the dream of the book and the characters that jumped from his screen. He ignored the thoughts of the imam and the Koran and instead applied himself to feasting on Babylon. The home of the Tower of Babel. The Hanging Gardens. Even centuries later it still looked majestic if one looked at it with the right kind of eyes, eyes that saw past the ruins and saw the city come alive with people and markets, smells and noise. Malek’s eyes saw it this way. His teachers always said he was easily distracted and a daydreamer. He never disagreed. But now was the time to concentrate and to look for the details that would make it into his report.
His network was Al Jazeera English and the assignment was to report on the measures being taken to protect Iraq’s religious sites from the brutality of ISIL. The shoot was straightforward and gave Malek plenty of time to wander around Babylon. Spiders crawled over the adobe-brick walls of the city as he turned into the main gate. Perhaps the spiders were the only constant inhabitants of this 2,600-year-old city. The road was battered and crumbling in places but you could still see the routes into the city and, in parts, he could see the faint sketchings of the Arouchs and Dragons. The city itself remained largely hidden from view. Malek had read that only a tiny part of it had been excavated, some three per cent.
Looters, both ancient and modern, had long had their fill. Perhaps though, the greatest act of vandalism before the Americans arrived in 2003 hadn’t been by the looters but by Saddam Hussein himself. The now-dead Iraqi dictator had decided that he was as important as the ancient Kings of Babylon and had ordered a new palace to be built on the hilltop where the old palace had once stood. Malek stood below, looking up at it. Hussein was an impatient man and had had no time for the slow, methodical process of archaeology. He was frustrated by the bespectacled men and women gently brushing ancient rocks and cataloguing each thing unearthed. It took far too long, and why did everything need a number anyway? Finally, in a fit of dictatorial impetuousness and much to the dismay of historians everywhere, he had razed some 90 per cent of the ancient palace to the ground and built his new one. It was a gaudy monstrosity, so cheaply built legend has it that it was falling to pieces before it was even finished. Malek climbed up to take a closer look. The palace was a shell now and, inside, graffiti covered the walls. But what really took his breath away was an inscription on some of the bricks. The bricks were supposed to copy the bricks of the old city walls. They were a very poor facsimile. He read the tiny Arabic script.
‘In the reign of the victorious Saddam Hussein, the President of the Republic, may God keep him, the Guardian of the great Iraq and the renovator of its renaissance and the builder of its great civilization, the rebuilding of the great city of Babylon was done in 1987.’
Malek snorted in disbelief. They couldn’t have built a more hideous palace in Las Vegas.
As he walked around the palace he began to daydream, and his brain began to fizz. He blinked. He blinked again. Blinking twice was an uncontrollable reflex action that meant he was about to enter his augmented-reality daydream. He was no longer in modern Babylon.
Now the year was 637BC.
He was a merchant from another place, bringing with him a rare jewel. He had a small leather purse slung over his long robe. The purse was heavy. Wrapped in silk and tucked inside the purse was a ruby of deep fiery red. If you held it to the sun the rays would pierce the ruby and travel through it, come out the other side and open into a thousand shards of pink light that would gloriously illuminate anything in the ruby’s path. With this ruby he would make his fortune. The markets of Babylon narrowed as the wooden stalls huddled together. Piles of spices from the east gave the street a heady musk as a gentle breeze whisked spice dust into the air. He stopped by a stall. The owner was a generously sized man with a complexion that suggested more than one night spent in a Babylon tavern. He looked up and began to size up Malek. The clothes suggest a trader. The fingernails suggest a labourer. The hair, long and unkempt, suggested a traveller. Maybe he would be good for an unfair trade that would favour the trader.
‘You’re from the south?’ he said, more demanding than inquisitive.
The accent wasn’t unfamiliar. It wasn’t English with an Akkadian accent but perhaps something more biblical?
Although Malek was immersed in ancient Babylon, he was still aware that he was from the modern world. This was a sort of defence mechanism, it protected him from a full and permanent descent into a different reality and afforded his mind a way back to his own time. He wasn’t sure how it worked, but it worked.
It did have a funny side effect however. It meant that everyone spoke a little like Alec Guinness playing Obi-Wan Kenobi. Somewhere in his head, he transposed Obi-Wan onto ancient Babylonians and took the accent for himself also. Curse those countless viewings of Star Wars in his childhood.
‘Yes,’ said Malek.
‘Tell me then, O southern one. What of the mines? As rich as they say?’
‘More, and with deep seams that can be mined for a lifetime hence. What knowledge have you of these mines?’
The owner began to rummage through the books on his table. ‘Let me introduce myself. I am Zamama. Come sit. I shall find something of interest for you.’
Trees were rare in this part of the world but clay wasn’t. The books on his table were clay tablets. While the clay was wet, the author would inscribe his words carefully onto them, without wasting space, and with the flourish of his sharpened reed would transform the clay into a valuable record of the time. Sometimes, one clay tablet would not be enough and so several tablets came to be collected together. The owner pulled out one such volume entitled ‘The Southern Mines and the Mineral Therein’. He showed it to Malek.
Malek brushed it aside. ‘What need have I of knowledge I already possess? Tell me what have you of the otherworld? Of the one discussed in secret and only at night?’
‘A learned man of an enquiring nature, I see. Well, allow me to show you this.’ The owner pulled out a new collection of tablets but, this time, wrapped in a deep-blue silk envelope and adorned with golden embroidery. A wax oblong on the book sealed the silk. The embroidery read, in very careful stitch, “Babylonian tales of death, heaven and hell.” I’m afraid this might be a little rich for a southern miner’s pockets, but it is one of the books of which you speak.’
‘Let me see what my pocket can bear, and what it cannot,’ said Malek.
The inscription was clear. The penmanship of the author flawless. The words both clear and concise. Malek had to have this book.
‘Tell me, owner of this book. What is this worth to you? I have Sumerian silver. A fair price for a silly tale told well I think.’
The owner looked both hurt and insulted. Malek ventured that this look had been well practised.
‘You’re a stranger in our land and, for that, I will forgive you. Tell me, O southern miner. What price is the key to mystery and the secrets held within? Some weight of Sumerian silver is not a price. It is a cup of beer.’
Malek laughed. ‘Your beer must truly be divine. What if I gave you beauty you could grasp in your hand? That you would clutch with such lust that you yourself would be reluctant to look at it for fear that your own eyes weren’t worthy?’
‘I have no need for a southern miner’s trinkets. Be gone with you. The day is short and the bellies of my children rumble so loud that even at this distance I can hear them. Not to mention my wife, who will not allow me into her room at night without a healthy profit jingling in my purse. Be gone with you. Others are waiting.’
Malek reached into his purse. He unwrapped the silk and held the ruby in his palm in much the same way that the imam would hold the toy soldier centuries later. ‘I dare say you’ve never seen such a trinket?’
The owner gasped. ‘The book is yours. Go with the gods. But be warned. This book has power beyond a southern miner’s understanding. Now leave me. I have a wife to please and children to feed.’
Startled, Malek turned around. The voice had shocked him out of his daydream. The piercing voice was coming from Neeka Shirazi, his long-suffering Iranian-American producer who was a veteran not only of several wars but also of several of Malek’s breakdowns.
She was a practical woman with a flair for detail and, right now, she was obsessing over getting the perfect shot. Standing next to her was Justin the cameraman. He did have a surname, but it had long been lost to the sands of time and everybody called him Justin the cameraman. They were both huddled around the viewfinder, trying to figure out where to place Malek for his PTC (piece to camera) that bit in a TV news report when the reporter comes into vision and tells and shows you something relevant. Justin the cameraman was an Aussie fellow from Brisbane with silver hair. He claimed that his hair was blonde. Malek and Neeka said it was white. They settled on silver. Justin had a propensity for fixing everything. His cargo pants were more of a toolbox than an item of clothing.
‘Let’s put Malek over there and I’ll pan down. It will look pretty sweet.’ Years abroad had done nothing to diminish his Aussie accent.
Neeka murmured in agreement and looked around for Malek. He was still rooted to the same spot, staring into the distance. ‘Ay, Baba, what is he doing? She spoke 3 languages fluently, French, English and Farsi. But what she really spoke on a day to day basis was, English with some Farsi thrown in. It was a by-product of her upbringing. Practically it meant she peppered her faintly accented international school English with a few words of her native Farsi. Words, as it turned out, often tended to be loving insults directed at Malek.
MALEK!’ she called, this time in a tone often used by annoyed teachers. For a petite woman of forty she had a ferocious voice, especially when shouting.
‘Yeah, I’m coming. Christ Neeka, don’t shout. You’ll wake the dead.’
Neeka rolled her eyes.
‘Na Digeh! You know, everyone else gets talented people to work with and I get you two idiots.’
She had an ability to reduce battle-hardened commanders to tears with her razor-sharp and sometimes patronising manner. Between them, they had shared more meals and hotels in more countries than any of them wanted to admit. In many ways, she was the perfect foil to Malek’s daydreaming, and to Justin’s practicality.
Justin lined up the shot as Malek took his mark, his position to deliver his words direct to camera.
Despite his practical, no-nonsense attitude, Justin had a whimsy and an eye for detail unmatched by anyone else that Malek had worked with. When the camera rose to Justin’s eye something chemical happened: his mind would be bonded to the technology with his eye as the intermediary. Justin would find details in pictures that no one else could see. A look here, a shadow there would make the pictures he shot so much more, well, more.
Neeka had a forensic approach to news-gathering. This meant that she was never very far away from academic reports and she had a knack for calling people out for their hypocrisy. She would often revel in her ability to catch people in a lie, something that drove Malek mad. TV news suited her, with its mix of practical and creative.
‘So you’re ready, right? What are you going to say?’
‘Well, Neeka. I thought I would wax lyrical about your handbag.’
‘Malek. It’s hot, and we need to get back to Baghdad. Be serious.’
Malek got his brain into gear. He had three points he wanted to make, each separate yet connected. Compartmentalised. He looked straight to camera and began to speak, his three points rolling off his tongue calmly and effortlessly.
‘So you can actually report?’ Sarcasm had now replaced her annoyed tone.
Neeka was quite something, thought Malek. She often described him as ‘Omr-an’ meaning life force. It was a term that Malek took as a compliment although, deep down, he knew it probably wasn’t.
‘You feign disgust at me Neeka, but I know you laugh inside.’ And laugh she did. Malek liked making her laugh.
Malek allowed himself a smile. Without her he would be nothing, just another washed-up hack scrapping for airtime with younger, prettier people willing to call themselves foreign correspondents because they were in possession of a smartphone, an Internet connection and a flight ticket.
They bundled themselves into the 4×4 and, once again, this odd family were on the road. Like any family that spends any length of time in each other’s company in the confined space of a car, the bickering stopped and the conversation died down as they drove back to Baghdad.
Malek dug into his rucksack and found his Kindle. It was easy as everything was compartmentalised and in different textured cases so he could pull it out by feel alone. He noticed Neeka dump her handbag’s entire contents on the floor looking for her sunglasses. Time to catch up on some reading. As it flickered into life he noticed a book downloading, which struck him as odd as he was without an Internet connection and couldn’t actually remember buying a book recently. It finished downloading.
The title page surprised him.
Babylonian tales of death, heaven and hell...