Creature discomforts

British journalist Amelia Thomas depicts a year and a half in the life of a struggling Kalkilya zoo.

zoo nablus book 88 (photo credit: )
zoo nablus book 88
(photo credit: )
The Zoo on the Road to Nablus: A Story of Survival from the West Bank By Amelia Thomas Perseus Publishing 304 pages; $24.95 In the city of Kalkilya, 4.8 horizontal kilometers of farmland and nine vertical meters of concrete from the nearest Israeli town, stands a little zoo, an abnormal normality in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a kind of a traveling circus stuck under siege, with a collection of characters as moody and as idiosyncratic as residents of a neglected nursing home. Among the dusty alleys and rusty cages marches this account's protagonist, a very real Dr. Sami Khader, a zoologist by necessity, slaughterhouse vet by trade and taxidermist by hobby and obsession. In the microcosm of The Zoo on the Road to Nablus: A Story of Survival, Sami functions as a kind of a local deity, with life, death and afterlife at its command, shuffling through the pages of the novel armed with a self-made anesthetist's gun and unrelenting common sense. The most noteworthy feature of the book is a low-key sensibility, which serves aptly to depict the mind-numbing, mundane reality of what the back cover proclaims to be one of the world's most turbulent regions. The Israeli occupation is etched out as a kind of a persistent inconvenience, like permanent bad weather or a traffic jam, even though it dictates the lives and deaths of the men and animals that populate the book. The main effect of the rise of Hamas, aside from the even further shrinking of goods and finances as a result of the ensuing boycott, brings not "separation of men and women at the zoo" and other such religious extremes anticipated by the chance Western visitor; rather, it appears that the terrorist group follows the course of many junior revolutionary governments and wears down its subjects not with ideology, but with bureaucracy, forcing each and every municipal employee to write tedious reports. The populace of the book appears to be much more concerned with each other and the municipal official than with the conflict, and when an Israeli tank does make its solitary appearance, it's treated like yet another animal escaped from its cage: "Sami's instinct was to run for cover, but the keeper stopped him. 'Keep still,' he said. 'You don't know what they are thinking.' The tank stood motionless for several minutes, then swiveled and retreated. Sami raised his teacup with shaking hands." The book is written in long strides, reminiscent of an actual zoo trip, where before you come to grips with the animal you've arrived to see, you are inevitably drawn to the metal plaque describing its treats, pedigree and hobbies. Every time an event or a character of some archetype is introduced, the author puts the plot aside and dives into a recollection of this animal's history in nature, that animal's history in captivity, this particular zoo's history of treating its animals. While these asides are interesting at times, they grow wearisome, and a few could probably have been discarded altogether. Some of the literary techniques are fresh and enchanting, others are rather stale, presenting their morals with chalkboard blandness. A baboon is lodged in isolation; he is dangerous and mad, biting humans and refusing food. When Sami describes him as insane, Dr. Motke, his elderly Israeli colleague, chides him: "He lives in a cage, he can't see any of his kind. How would you feel if you lived like that?" Although it's not a bad use of irony - caged by the caged who are caged by the once-caged and now masters - a tad more subtlety would not be out of place. But while the literary technique may lag at times, this account of a true if unlikely story is well worth reading. Like the zoo workers stealing into their workplace through the back door in times of curfew, it allows us an inside look at the debilitating reality of Palestinian life under direct and distant Israeli rule. It also introduces the readers to a crucial phenomenon often underestimated by the Israeli public: the immense gap between the expectations raised by the Oslo process and the meager leftovers of its grandiose projects lingering on the ground. In the first chapter of the book Sami is asked why he bothers to maintain the unlikely project of keeping a zoo in the West Bank. He reclines in his seat, and replies, weightily: "Every country in the world has its own zoo. Tell me, why shouldn't we?" This is the picture that, for all the kindness of the narrator, stays with the reader after reading this novel. In a tiny strip of land, under a government of a nonexistent state, with a minister of agriculture without lands and a minister of transportation without roads, an unrelenting optimist is laboring on a cardboard model of a Palestinian National Zoo. But there is no happy ending: The prize animals, like other elements of "normal life" so yearned for, slip by him from pink-tinted plans of offspring and expansion to hopeless illness, and then to his stuffing shed. It is not for nothing that his adjacent Natural History Museum with its stuffed and mounted exhibits is better populated than the zoo of the living. Sami himself, in the end, is a caged man, in a caged city, in a caged land. Even the name of the novel, in retrospect, seems tongue in cheek: The road to Nablus has long since been closed by a checkpoint "which very rarely opens," and survival turns out to be a considerably more morbid and inconclusive business than the title of the book implies.