Meet Malek Khalil. In his mid-40s, Malek is a brilliant reporter with decades of experience in the field. If there has been a war, natural disaster or political crisis, Malek has been there and will be there.
But the years of conflict reporting have taken their toll and Malek is slowly unravelling. His colleagues, Neeka and Justin, have noticed a change in him. Neeka should know, she has been his producer for decades and knows him better than he knows himself. Justin the cameraman has shot his material for just as long. Together they make a formidable team. But they are only as strong as each other – and Malek is fast going down the rabbit hole.
Born a Muslim but an atheist to his core, Malek undertakes a voyage that takes him around the world and back in time to ancient Babylon as he finds himself arguing with a God in whom he doesn’t believe.
The novel takes place throughout Middle East, South Asia and London where the backdrop of war, religion, political skullduggery and love play out to take the reader on a journey through some of the most dangerous parts of modern culture and the ancient world.
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.
Thank you, Imran Khan and Random Things Tours.
About the author
Having kickstarted his career in the heady world of 1990s independent magazine publishing with work on Dazed
and Confused, and launching seminal style title 2nd Generation, Imran Khan jumped into the mainstream with
BBC London – hosting radio shows on popular culture, arts and news as the millennium approached. Despite
having a face for radio, in 2001 he produced a series of short documentaries for BBC Newsnight, Britain’s
leading current affairs programme. His work was noticed in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and
Channel 4 commissioned the award-winning film “The Hidden Jihad”
, which he wrote and presented. Imran
subsequently moved full-time into TV news, working as a BBC producer and correspondent reporting from
Lebanon, London and Qatar, with freelance stints in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He became a correspondent for Al Jazeera English in 2005 and is known for his extensive reporting from
Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Libya, as well covering the Arab Spring and the conflict in Syria. He
continues to work as a correspondent for Al Jazeera English, dividing his time between the Middle East, South
Asia and London.