The zoo on the road to Nablus

An ibex at Qalqiliya Zoo. (Khaleel Reash/MaanImages)

Dr. Sami greeted the journalist at the ticket office.

“Welcome,” he said. “Please come this way.”

He began a tour of the zoo, first heading north up the zoo’s main avenue, past the dry fountain, the restaurant, and a dusty playground. At the top, he introduced Ruti, his prize giraffe. An impassive silver-haired keeper trailed casually a few footsteps behind. Along the back wall ranged the herbivores: Fufu, a sleek, bearded ibex, another of Sami’s favorites. Four piebald ponies. An irritable camel. A collection of sheep.

“The people want to see something in every cage,” Sami explained, “so I filled them with whatever I could find.”

Halfway along, the path cut left across the playground to a narrow central boulevard that bisected the zoo. A row of cramped, bare quarters contained the smaller animals. A porcupine. A gaggle of fat geese. Five tawny owls. Pigeons. A plump, solitary badger taking a dust bath in the sunshine.

At the boulevard’s eastern end, a crowded stretch of avenue led back down toward the southern perimeter wall. It housed Sami’s best exhibits. Three glossy zebras. Dubi, the hippo. A hyena, four wolves and eleven miserable monkeys. Three ostriches, two pairs of crocodiles in an oily pool. A glaring emu. Four hirsute Syrian bears. A pair of leopards, curling against the bars of their tiny separate cells. And Holi, Rad and Rabir, three handsome young lions who yawned and kept watch from a spartan cage no more than forty feet square. Dr. Sami shook his head, whistling through his teeth. He pointed out some tortoises, and moved along. The silver-haired keeper followed. “That,” hissed Sami, “is head keeper Yail Misqawi.” He tutted. “One day, I’ll run away to Africa.”

The park clock struck midday. A young father appeared, leading a dawdling little girl through the zoo. He hoisted her up to tap on the grimy glass of a snake tank. Sami led the way back across the zoo, toward a squat, two-story building. “Watch your step,” he warned, “Ladies’ Latrines.” A swarthy construction worker emerged, zipping up his trousers, and coughed phlegmily.

Dr. Sami climbed the iron stairs up to his first-floor office and fiddled with a lock. He glared down at the keeper, who lingered, kicking at a patch of dead grass, then bustled inside and firmly shut the door.

The office floor was littered with cages of chirruping, budgerigars, finches and canaries. Two more sat on a table in the corner near the window.

“No money for a computer,” Sami said. “Instead a live screen saver.”

The vet set an old kettle to brew and seated himself at a desk scattered with papers, books and bric-a-brac. Binders, feathers and scraps of medical equipment lay about the small room. Against one wall, a squat cabinet held old boxes and bottles of medicines, and the empty cases of missiles and ammunition shells that once tumbled down on the zoo. On top, a monkey skeleton squatted, smoking a cigarette.

Dr. Sami settled down behind his desk. “A very important point. If we open our minds, we can achieve many things.” He took a small dispenser from his desk drawer. “If we do not,” he deposited two sweetener tablets into his mug, “nothing.”

Steam rose from two mugs of Butterfly Brand tea as he arranged a rainbow of felt-tipped pens in a Dammam Modern Poultry Company penholder.

Sami had tended to the animals of Qalqiliya Zoo for five years, arriving in early 2000, just months before the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada. Since then, he had witnessed violence and hardship ebb and flow. He took a sip of tea and cleared his throat.

“In this place,” he noted, “there are many problems.”

Politics, he said, deprivation, and military, civilian, and suicide attacks. Lawlessness, isolation, and corruption. The incompetence of his staff, without qualifications, training, or discipline.

“These people,” he lamented, “will be the death of me.” His wages, unchanged since his arrival at the zoo, so low that he supplemented them by running his own private clinic each evening in town.

“And this man, Abu Shir,” The zoo manager, once a farmer, then a laborer and a ticket clerk at the zoo, before his mysterious promotion, overnight, to manager. “He will be here soon,” he whispered, “because he will worry he is missing something. This man likes to talk about himself too much.”

The absence of open borders, Sami resumed, the lack of money. Few connections, making it all but impossible to replenish lost stocks. “We are treated like animals,” he concluded with a dry smile.

“Why, then, bother at all?”

Dr. Sami fell silent, his smile fading. He stared down at his desk.

“Every country has a zoo,” he answered at length. “Tell me. Why shouldn’t we?”

The above essay is an excerpt from the book The Zoo on the Road to Nablus by Amelia Thomas.  Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs (, a member of the Perseus Books Group, copyright © 2008. Amelia Thomas is a British journalist working in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the wider Middle East. She has written features on Palestinian subjects for publications including The Washington Times, CNN Traveller, Middle East Times, Egypt Today and The Christian Science Monitor, and writes regularly about the Palestinian territories for Lonely Planet. After visiting Qalqiliya Zoo for the first time during the second Palestinian intifada, she felt it was crucial that its sad, touching, sometimes comic and often uplifting story be told to the world.

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