By Jim Miles
The Zoo on the Road to Nablus – A Story of Survival from the West Bank. Amelia Thomas. Public Affairs, New York, 2008.
This tale from the West Bank operates at several levels. Nominally it is about one man – Dr. Sami Khader – and his attempts to sustain the dream of having an internationally approved zoo in the town of Qalqilya in the West Bank. Almost completely surrounded by the infamous ‘wall’, impoverished by the conditions of the Israeli occupation, Qalqilya would seem to be one of the least likely places in which to sustain this dream. By keeping this intriguing narrative on a basic descriptive level, an anecdotal history of current events, Amelia Thomas reveals not only the pathos of the situation, but also the indominatable will to survive – for both the human and animal menagerie – and the humour and everyday ‘ordinariness’ of those involved.
It took a few chapters to become fully involved in the work, perhaps more so as my expectations were not in line with the essential point of the story. But then having realized that this truly was the story of one man and his efforts to sustain his dream, and not a political or religious tract, I let the story speak for itself.
First of all, it speaks of Dr. Sami Khader and the people that he interacts with. Dr. Khader is an unpretentious veterinarian trying to create a zoo with minimal resources. His character is softened by the patience of his wife Sarah and the pleasure that his first-born daughter Uzhdan provides with her desire for knowledge and education. At first seemingly aloof and single-minded, his character grows on the reader as his humour, compassion, sensitivity, stubbornness and positive thinking create a likable if eccentric -eccentric by nature, as who would conceive of a zoo under the conditions present in Qalqilya – character. The other characters are the many people employed at the zoo, the municipal politicians, and the visitors received at the zoo ranging from the Cairo zookeeper and the many school children from the local area to the ‘donkey’ lady, and the ‘lion’ lady too.
It is the interactions with these many other people that provide the comedy of the story. There are comic elements throughout, not the staged studio laugh comedy familiar to most North Americans via Hollywood, but a comedy of the absurd and ironic. There is the ‘donkey lady’, who having heard about the “deplorable conditions” at the zoo through an animal rights group, visited in order to ensure the safety of the donkeys: not much concern for the residents of Qalqilya itself, but particularly grieved by the donkeys – worn out from a life of toil and labour – being led to the butcher house to be fed to the zoos carnivores. Following her comes the ‘photographer lady’, looking for a story of some kind, finding herself in a very unfamiliar world. She comments about the spent shells and grenades not looking “very biological,” and provokes Dr. Khader’s reply to her pronouncement about Bill Gates greatness that “It must have been a different man. It was only very little money.”
The latter comment also reveals a second level to the story, that of the political situation within the greater world around them, the confinement and deprivations of the people of Qalqilya that they have to take in stride every day. Understated throughout the work, the reader cannot help but form a picture of the human zoo that is Qalqilya and the West Bank, wherein zoos provide, as stated by one of the characters, the “illusion of freedom.” Perhaps it is too much to read into the book, but at that level the story becomes a metaphor, maybe unintended but certainly accessible, of the conditions under which the people of Qalqilya live and their apparently ‘normal’ responses to them.
Going to prison, arrested in the middle of the night, is an “unscheduled leave of absence” from work. Dr. Khader wished to purchase a car “a newish model, just two decades old.” The seeming indolence of the workers reconstructing parts of the zoo covers their need for employment after being cut off from their former Israeli work at the same time keeping them on the UN dole, money often not forthcoming for months at a time. Obtaining permission to travel requires both extensive time and effort either within the West Bank or especially to another country, as Dr. Khader journeys to the Giza Zoo in Cairo, where he views both the poverty and opulence of that city, leaving him wishing ironically for the quiet and slower speed of his home town.
Metaphor meets reality: as Dr. Khader prepares to leave Cairo he is questioned by a friend Muhammed Badur who had left Palestine for Cairo: “But how can you call that place your home, when you are trapped inside it like a cage?” Khader’s reply is that “home is the place where you have everything you need.”
Home. Illusions of freedom. Everything you need. “The Zoo on the Road to Nablus” works at several levels and, beyond the entertainment value of the story, leaves the reader wondering about the struggle and the will to survive under deplorable conditions.
-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for PalestineChronicle.com. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.