Babylon, Iraq, 2015.
Welcome! Marhaba dear reader, welcome. Fadal, fadal, please come. 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, video, and now, in gigabytes. We are the Order of the Gatherers of Truths. Our job, dear reader, is to keep the stories of the souls that walk this earth, to keep them safe for the day when judgment will pass. On that day, you shall each have a tale read from your life. Your tale shall decide whether you shall pass from this world into the next or whether your deeds in life are worthy only of that other place I shall not name. 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. Herself has decided that humans have spilled too much blood not understanding the basic tenements of faith. That your ego has ruled your hearts and therefore we are forced to publish some tales to help you realise that the day of judgment isn't an accounting of your sins and your good deeds, although that is an important part. No, no, no. This is about picking that one moment in your life when, above all others, your true personality, your id, your ego and super ego aligned as one and the instinctual part of your brain melded with your moral part and was balanced by the needs of practicality, love and heart. When your humanity shone through. On that tale shall you be judged. 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. A stranger’s tale you shall not read within these pages, although the tales may well be of people who entered your life briefly, but however briefly, they may have been in your presence, they left an imprint.
Suddenly the car jolted and petered to a halt. Steam rose from the engine seemingly fighting a losing battle with the heat of southern Iraq. Malek Khalil was awoken from his fitful sleep. That sleep when you know you're not awake, but you know you’re not asleep either. He was having that dream again. The one he has had since 2001. The one which made no sense. The one where he would open a book that would change the world and tell tales of people he had met and places he had been.
“Yeah, right,” he thought as he stepped out of the broken car. The car would be fixed as they filmed so he wasn't worried about that. The dreams he was worried about. After so many years dreaming the same dream, perhaps he should seek some help. Perhaps he did have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They used to call it shellshock, but Malek couldn't help but think it was weak persons disorder. Soldiers who killed, whose friends died in a ditch next to them had a right to feel the effects after. Not journalists with expense accounts and nice hotels and the ability to leave. Malek felt journalists who suffered from PTSD just needed to get a grip. He put these thoughts of the dreams, of PTSD, of the broken down car, into the darkened corners of his mind and took a look at the scene around him. He was in the ancient city of Babylon. In the past year the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant had destroyed some of the worlds oldest sites. In the countries north in the city of Mosul they entered the museum which was about reopen. It contained historical treasure beyond belief. The fighters didn't care for its historical value. They burnt books, smashed statues, some in Iraq claimed the statues were copies, other said that some of the artefacts destroyed were real. No matter the truth. ISIL had made their point and not just in Mosul. Hatra was destroyed, Palmyra and dozens of other sites with names familiar to schoolchildren the world over. But this wasn't a mindless a to vandalism. ISIL had a clear ideology on that promoted Monotheism, Tawhid. For them anything Pre Islam or Not Salafist Islam was a deviation and encouraged Polytheism or Shirk, and they insisted that was against Islam.
‘Against Islam’ was a funny term to Malek. He'd grown up the oldest son of a Sunni Muslim father and and Shia Muslim mother. He had attended a predominantly Jewish school and 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 and 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 when the Imam 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 American soldiers storming the beaches in Normandy in 1944. D-Day. Malek would often recreate the battles in his Finchley home and give chase to Gerry scum across Europe. The Imam held the toy in his palm and 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.”
Malek never went to the mosque after that. His father seeing the 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 Quran in English, translation by NJ Dawood, and left it by Malek’s bed. Malek’s father never said a word to him and Malek never said thank you. The gesture was left unspoken and a secret between father and son. It took years for that book to make sense to Malek, written as it was in an English he found difficult to comprehend. But over the years, as he grew, he found it easier to understand. The book still remains, battered, yellowing and musty, in his rucksack to this day. In that book he found words of love. Of revolution. Of guidance. He did not find a chapter on toy soldiers.
Against Islam. Malek sighed and decided to ignore the dream of the book and thoughts of the Imam and instead applied himself to feasting his eyes 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 and smells and noise. Malek’s eyes saw it this way. His teachers always said he was easily distracted and a day dreamer. He never disagreed. He was here on a practical purpose to film a report for his network, Al Jazeera English, on what was being done to protect Iraq's religious sites from the brutality of ISIL.
The shoot was straight forward and gave Malek plenty of time to wander around Babylon. As he walked, he began to pretend that he was a merchant from another place bringing with him a rare jewel. He imagined he had a small silk purse slung over his long robe. The purse was heavy. Wrapped in silk 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 and come out the other side, opening into a thousand shards of pink light that would gloriously illuminate everything in its path.
With this ruby, he would make his fortune. The markets of Babylon narrowed as the wooden stalls huddled together. Mounds 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 suggested trader. The fingernails suggested a labourer. The hair, long and unkempt suggested a traveller. Maybe good for an unfair trade that favoured him.
“You're from the South?” He said, more demanding than inquisitive.
“Yes,” Malek said.
“Tell me then O’ Southern one. What of the mines? As rich as they say?”
“More, and with deep seams that shall not 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 the 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. Written in very careful hand, it simply said, “Babylon.”
“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,” Malek said.
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. Tell me. 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 it in his palm much the same way the Imam had held the toy soldier centuries earlier.
“I dare say, such a trinket you've never seen.”
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.”
Malek swung around. The piercing voice was coming from Claudia Lante, his long suffering British-Italian producer who was a veteran not only of several wars but of several of Malek's breakdowns. Claudia was a petite Roman woman who had reached 40 with more than a few scars, including a failed marriage that she didn't extract herself from until 2014, although she hadn't really seen her husband since 2002. 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 in more countries than either of them wanted to admit. In many ways she was the perfect foil to Malek's otherworldlyness.
Claudia was a practical woman with a flair for detail. Her forensic approach to news gathering meant she was never very far away from academic reports and had a knack for calling people out on their hypocrisy and would often revel in her ability to catch people in a lie. He never understood why, for all her smarts and methodical approach to her work, her white leather handbag, a constant companion, was so disorganised. Her Kindle, her sunglasses all thrown into her bag without cases, with notebooks and papers filling the rest of the space.
Malek on the other hand, was very compartmentalised. Everything was in separate cases inside his brown leather rucksack. Everything had a place. Every pocket was assigned to a specific purpose. It seemed to him that their minds were the polar opposite to their bags. Still. Claudia was quite something. She adored Malek, that much was clear. Malek adored her. Her beauty he would often think about, her smarts even more so. She would describe him as “emotivo”, a term which Malek took as a compliment, although deep down he knew it probably wasn't. Nevermind though. Malek knew that he could make her smile. Often, he would say to her, “You feign disgust at me Claudia, but I know you laugh inside.” Malek liked making her laugh. Right now, though, Claudia wasn't laughing. She was screaming.
“Oh come on! Are you daydreaming again? Yalla fi Sayara! To the Batmobile, let’s go!”
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 are in possession of a smartphone, an Internet connection and an air flight ticket.
“What were you dreaming of Malek?”
“None of your business, Claudia. Actually, I was dreaming it was our wedding day and I forgot to turn up because you didn't send me a call sheet.”
“Asshole. You know I could work with Anderson Cooper, get paid way more and not have to worry about you forgetting where you are?”
“You know he dyes his hair silver, right? It is not naturally that colour. Besides you’re not his type.”
And so the banter went on and on. Justin the cameraman had long ago learned how to ignore them. A road crew is like family. They might not see each other for months at a time, but when they do, they pick up right where they left of, and after a while like all families on a long car journey they soon stopped talking and settled into the journey.
Malek rummaged around in his brown leather rucksack for his Kindle. 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.
"The Tales of the Order of the Gatherers of Truths"
In the corner there was a small stamp that looked like a wax seal. It said Babylon.
The first sentence began with the words: “Welcome! Welcome! Dear reader welcome. Marhaba! Fadal, fadal, please come. You are an honoured guest and welcome visitor to these humble pages…”