Occupied Territory

Reviewed by Ibtisam Barakat
Sunday, June 1, 2008


A Story of Survival from the West Bank

By Amelia Thomas

PublicAffairs. 293 pp. $24.95

There were no zoos on the West Bank when I was a teenager growing up in Ramallah in the late 1970s and early '80s. The only zoo I had ever visited was in West Jerusalem. Most animals were kept in pairs, as though Noah had just arrived and emptied his ark.

Seeing a lion and a giraffe especially made me happy, but I did not like the zoo because captivity was the reality of my life, too. If these animals -- most displaced from their homes -- had a language that people could understand, I thought they would be asking us all to leave. "Why is my captivity entertaining to you?" they would demand. I felt humiliated by my initial happiness. I did not want to ever visit a zoo again.

In The Zoo on the Road to Nablus, Amelia Thomas tells the story of the Qalqilya zoo, the only public zoo in Palestine, established in 1986. A town of over 40,000, Qalqilya until recently was famous among Palestinians for its fertile groves and its produce, which was distributed throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Now it is an economically ravaged town separated from most of its farm land and the world by razor-wire fences and a concrete wall that encircles it almost completely.

And yet this bleak place has a zoo. The reader gets to meet the animal friends of the zoo's extraordinary veterinarian, Sami Khader. Inside this unlikely zoo many unlikely friendships occur. A hyena shares its food with stray cats; a hippo lives peacefully with strutting peacocks; a monkey named Rambo and a cat named Bussi become inseparable. And because of the zoo, Israeli veterinarian Motke Levinson and Khader learned to be friendly with each other, too.

The Zoo on the Road to Nablus avoids much of the political strife of the area, except when it relates to the animals. Thomas recounts the night when Brownie, the male giraffe, was killed during a raid on Qalqilya by the Israeli army. "As gunshot peppered the zoo's perimeter wall, Brownie lost his footing. He slipped and slammed hard into the shelter doorway. His head cracked against its metal lintel."

The Zoo on the Road to Nablus is beautifully written and entertaining. And ultimately it is hopeful: The zoo, after all, remains open. ยท

Ibtisam Barakat is the author of "Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood."

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