“Zarafa” is elegant in its sparseness (only 200 pages with a nice, big, font), there is nothing extra, nothing tacked on or that feels out of place. From first to last page Michael Allin’s book flows effortlessly, gently bobbing the reader along this fascinating tale.
A pawn in diplomatic relations (as exotic animals tend to be), Zarafa was captured as a baby in Sudan (by cruelly slaying the mother, by the way) and grew up in the presence of men, for whom it was made clear this was a precious cargo they should guard with their lives. The exceptionally friendly Zarafa soon turned into what can only be called a pet (dimensions aside) so easy and trusting was she around humans. She was to be a present from Muhammed Ali, Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, to the French king Charles X – a gesture intended to dissuade the French from helping out the Greeks, involved in a civil war against the Ottoman Empire.
Luckier than previous giraffes who set hoof in Europe (Caesar supposedly had hundreds killed or pitted against predators in his circus, while in Constantinople another died of hunger), and than its mate, a sickly giraffe that would soon die in London, Zarafa grew into a vigorous, healthy animal, only slightly short for her species at 3.6m (12,12ft), which as Allin suggests might have aided her travels.
The trip down the Nile, either walking or by boat, is the part of the journey,Allin had more difficulty in reconstructing historically for lack of written testimonies. However, from Alexandria onwards he found a wealth of documentation that must be many a historian’s dream: documents with carefully outlined budgets, schedules and itineraries regarding the giraffe, letters from the many fans the gentle Zarafa made along the way and newspaper articles documenting her passage and witnessing the enormous curiosity and affection the giraffe brought about in the French people.
Aboard a boat altered with a round hole padded with straw on deck (the giraffe’s head was protected from intense sun or rain by an awning), Zarafa and the Arab and Sudanese handlers that would accompany her to Paris made their way to Marseilles. Her travelling companions were the cows, that not only provided the many litres of milk the animal consumed daily but also served as guides in her exploratory walks.
In fact, watching how docile the animal was and how happily she followed the quadrupeds, the natural historian Ètienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire came to the conclusion that walking her all the way to Paris was definitely feasible. For the first leg of the journey he wrote frequently to the mayor of Marseilles, who had built a special stable for Zarafa’s stay in his own property – a friendship brought on by the mutual tenderness both men felt for the animal.
About halfway to Paris, Saint-Hilaire grew sullen with what he felt was indifference on the part of the royal house with the physical effort of the walk. He had wished to board the giraffe on a boat for the last part of the journey, but received no authorization to do so. At 55 years-old the walk was taking its toll on Saint-Hilaire too. In addition to the daily travel he had to entertain the local bourgeoisie every single day and parade Zarafa for their curious eyes.
The king seems to have felt only a modicum of the wonder and fondness Zarafa had elicited in almost everyone else. She came to be housed in the Jardin des Plants and Atir, the Sudanese, became her private carer, even sleeping in her quarters. The French continued to lavish attention on her by visiting daily until her death.
“Zarafa” is a great book where extensive research doesn’t weigh on the reader. Allin transformed what must have been years of work into a sweetheart of a book.