Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Amelia Thomas - The Zoo on the road to Nablus

“Zoo animals have frequently found themselves at the center of human conflicts. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the inhabitants of Paris’s Jardin Zoologique were ordered slaughtered and handed over to butcher’s shops. World War II saw Rosa the hippopotamus bombed to death in her pool at Berlin, along with seven Indian elephants. Berlin’s aquarium was hit dead-center. Gasping fish mingled with shards of glass and cascaded in torrents down grand, empty staircases. In Wroclaw, German soldiers shot the lions, bears and elephants. The rest, including a rare Amazon manatee and three chimpanzees trained to take tea, died of cold and starvation. In 1812, the czar’s magnificent animal collection was slain when Napoleon’s troops surrounded Moscow. In modern Sarajevo, the last animal at the zoo, a brown bear, finally starved after surviving for seven months on the bodies of its companions.

Iraq, once home to the world’s first zoological garden at Ur, watched an international public, inured to bombs ripping through mosques and markets, lament a rare Bengal tiger shot dead by a drunken American soldier.”

From The Zoo on the road to Nablus A story of survival from the West Bank

Diplomatic gifts, political paws, prisoners of war, collateral damage. If many deem zoological gardens unnatural creations, they should look at what happens to animals in the midst of human war. That’s unnatural.

“The Zoo on the road to Nablus” is a heart wrenching book that tells the story of a very shabby zoo, on the Palestinian town of Qalqilya, and of its vet/ man with a vision, Dr Sami Khader, intent on turning the garden into something up to date with international standards instead of a dusty collection of cement floored, iron barred and bare cages featuring a few baboons, three lions, a giraffe, a couple of wolves, a crocodile, some ruminants and birds.

The underlying question is “why bother”? When gun-fire scares animals to death (in one case literally), funds are non-existents and requests for help lie buried under paperwork because the town mayor has been incarcerated for months (even though no charges have been formally made). Why care about a lot of scrawny animals that will go hungry next time a curfew is declared for weeks on end?

Maybe because Fufu the ibex, an orphan raised by Dr Khader always seems happy to see him each morning or because Ruti the giraffe likes to search in all his pockets for the small piece of candy he brings each day. Maybe because the good doctor really sees the Qalqilya Zoo transformed into a respected institution in a decade. But then what? What of the rockets, tanks and tear gas?

Amelia Thomas’s book is a melancholic little gem. She recounts the events taking place at the zoo month by month from November 2005 to March 2007. Steering well clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict per se, she intersperses her tale with interesting stories on zoo history and animal science and centers her lens on Dr Sami and the construction (or attempted construction) of a new carnivore wing and a natural history museum on the premises.

The only thing I wasn’t 100% sure about was the author’s choice of tone: she recounts many meetings and events with a wealth of descriptive detail that made me quite sure she had witnessed them, yet she never made herself visible or a participant in conversations where surely she would have an opinion and be urged to participate. Only in the postscript did it become clear that Thomas wasn’t present in any of these situations. With that in mind I don’t know if she made the best choice of authorial voice.

“The Zoo on the road to Nablus” is a bittersweet book that I think many people would enjoy. It has almost a zen feel to it: there is so much suffering, but what comes across is a proud voice that says “we too have a right” out of the mouth of an indomitable individual. It definitely puts our daily lives in perspective. Just one complaint – no photographs.

Here is a link here you can see photos from the visiting photographer Astrid mentioned in the book.
And a news article where you can see a picture of the orphan baboon Rambo and his kitty.

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