The Zoo on the Road to Nablus

A Story of Survival from the West Bank


By Amelia Thomas

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The last Palestinian zoo stands on a dusty, dead-end street in the once prosperous farming town of Qalqilya, on the very edge of the West Bank.

The zoo’s bars are rusting; peacocks wander quiet avenues shaded by broad plane trees; a teenage baboon broods in solitary confinement; walls bear the pockmarks of gunfire. And yet the zoo is an extraordinary place, with a bizarre, troubling and inspiring story to tell. At the center of this story is Dr. Sami Khader, the only zoo veterinarian in the Palestinian territories. Family man, amateur inventor, and dedicated taxidermist, he is fiercely independent, apolitical, and resourceful in times of crisis. Dr. Sami dreams of transforming the zoo into one of an international caliber.

In The Zoo on the Road to Nablus, Amelia Thomas brings the reader into a world rarely glimpsed from the outside, weaving the stories of the zoo’s animals, its staff, and its visitors into a rich, colorful chronicle of the indomitability of the human — and animal — spirit.


the Zoo on the Road
to Nablus

the Zoo on the Road
to nablus

A Story of Survival from the West Bank


‘A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage…
A dog starv’d at his Master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.

Joy and Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the soul divine;
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.’


Map of Region

Map of Zoo

September 2005

Meet Your Brothers.
Take Them to Your Hearts,
and Respect Them.


The Municipal Zoo stood in a derelict district of the once prosperous farming town of Qalqilya. The road was deserted except for a garage, from which came a rhythmic clanking and the sharp drone of a welder. Paint peeled from a shabby signpost above the entrance, bearing the remnants of a cheerful procession. Lions, a camel, and dancing bears followed a high-stepping giraffe. To either side was bolted a broken neon “ZOO” sign. Power cables hung in vines from a deserted stadium flanking the approach, its walls pockmarked with fist-wide flack.

The main gates were padlocked; a side door stood ajar. Mosquitoes whined in the hot September sun. Inside the ticket booth, a toothless old zookeeper snoozed on a plastic chair. He clutched a walkie-talkie, suspended from a curly wire. The air was still and smelled of petrol and spoiled hay. A spluttering car drew up. Its engine died with a cough, and a plump, spry figure in a tweed jacket climbed out. He hummed, swinging an old leather briefcase, and walked through the open gate.

Qalqilya is a compact town of almost fifty thousand. At its heart is the souk, dense and throbbing. Veiled ladies squabble for meat, bleach, and stockings in alleyways enveloped by a haze of rotten fruit and clogged drains. Radiating out from the souk run arteries of dusty homes that form a tight, breathing band around the town center. The last of Qalqilya’s farms and garden nurseries range out beyond, contained by the circular path of the Wall. In places a series of staggered razor-wire fences, in others a thirtyfive foot face of concrete, the Wall cuts a gray swathe through farmland that once undulated down the hill into Israel.

The entrance to town, prefaced by a checkpoint, is marked by smoldering rubbish dumps and a sprinkling of the poorest small-holdings At its mouth are the police station, a manufacturer of playground equipment, and a miniature cement mosque, striped yellow and white, surrounded by flowerbeds of pansies and marigolds. The road straightens into a wide main street, lined with shops piled high with furniture and second-hand fridges. At the bottom is a junction where a white-gloved policeman directs lazy traffic. The traffic lights are often broken. To the left is the souk and the Municipal Council offices. To the right a straggle of shops selling paint, exhaust pipes, and sacks of grain; a food distribution bureau; and, further along, the zoo. The road leads on to Nablus through a second checkpoint, which is rarely open.

A canopy of plane trees shaded the zoo’s entrance. Pipes sprouted from a fountain’s dry, pebbled terraces. Somewhere a big cat roared in warning or protest. Above the snoring keeper a single fly buzzed erratically, turning sharp angles over his upturned face. It alighted on a vibrating bottom lip. The old man snorted, and awoke. A chubby tweed figure stared down at him. The keeper’s cross-eyes widened. “Dr. Sami!” he exclaimed, involuntarily thumbing a button on the walkie-talkie. His voice boomed down the zoo’s tinny tannoy system, reverberating from rusty megaphones. It mingled with the wails of a muezzin summoning the faithful to midday prayer and the shrill alarm hoot of a monkey. Dr. Sami waved cheerfully and disappeared up the main avenue, past lines of concrete cages.

Dr. Sami Khader was the only zoo veterinarian in the Palestinian Territories. Portly and clean-shaven, he wore a nylon shirt, tight around the armpits, with an African-print tie in bold shades of orange, black, and gold. His jacket was patched at the elbows, his briefcase scuffed. A generous belly protruded over stay-pressed trousers. His thick black hair was peppered gray at the temples. His face was soft, unlined, and his eyes twinkled.

A tall, sullen man, with a turtle’s slack neck and bulging eyes, stepped from the Friends’ Restaurant next to the empty fountain. He wandered to an office marked “Manager” with a smeared plastic sign, drawing deeply on a Victory cigarette, and stepped inside. The office was windowless, draped on all sides by heavy curtains. The walls were tongue-and-groove pine, thickly varnished toffee brown. A rattling fan circulated cigarette smoke evenly throughout the room. One poster showed an impish Yasser Arafat waving to a crowd; another, a glossy white tiger. An old concertina of postcards—“Qalqilya: Ambitions and Achieve-ments”— displayed an array of municipal buildings, each with a Palestinian flag fluttering on top. A drum of rat poison perched on a shelf. The tall man bolted the door behind him.

The zoo manager, a small, terse figure puffing impatiently through a packet of Alla cigarettes, was stationed behind a vast, empty desk. Angry lines carved across his forehead, above heavy eyebrows and a thick mustache. A homemade tattoo, heart-shaped and bleary, decorated his right forearm. His eyes were a distant blue. He nodded, then went back to scowling into his newspaper. The tall man sat down on a vinyl sofa that ran the length of the room and examined the glowing tip of his cigarette.

An old electric clock on the desk dealt out digits. Eventually, a rap came at the door. The tall man rose to open it.

“As-salaam al-lekum, Abu Shir,” said Dr. Sami, stepping in. “Any news about the carrots?”

“Al-lekum as-salaam,” replied the zoo manager gloomily, without looking up from his newspaper. “I have not had the time.”

Dr. Sami nodded to the manager’s sullen assistant. Mr. Eesa gave a sallow smile and flicked away an inch of ash.

“I see.” He turned back toward the door. “A foreign journalist is coming today.”

The manager dropped his newspaper.

“Dr. Sami?” Abu Shir called as the vet departed, hastening up the avenue, “Dr. Sami?”

Dr. Sami chuckled and kept on walking.

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 butchers’ 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. Far away, fundraisers rallied to save what remained of Baghdad’s once impressive collection. Though a sign on the gate requested “No Alibaba,” the zoo had largely been looted. Among the survivors, too intimidating or ugly to warrant theft, was Mandor, a Siberian tiger whose coat hung shy of his ribcage.

In Afghanistan, Kabul Zoo, inaugurated in more progressive times by the royal family and zoologists of the university, was decimated by the Taliban. Its elderly keeper was taken from his hut and shot one winter night. Many of the zoo’s creatures had been maimed or killed during the civil war; others were slaughtered for food or succumbed to hunger and freezing winters. Then came international forces and another wave of destruction. In Kabul, they discovered Donatella, a bear whose nose had been slashed by the Taliban, and Marjan, a pitiful blind lion who roused the sympathies of the world, while children died of hunger in the Afghan mountains.

Qalqilya’s was the last Palestinian zoo. A zoo in Jericho had opened its doors briefly and without fanfare in the 1990s, before draining its coffers dry and disappearing as quietly as it began. Another, in Gaza City, had been attempted in 2004, but its prize lion cub was stolen within a week and the enterprise brought to a halt.

Not far from Mediterranean beaches of Gaza, sandwiched between the seething Rafah and Brazil refugee camps, there had once been one more modest zoo. It was privately owned and contained at its peak more than eighty specimens. Then, in May 2004, Israel Defense Forces Operation Rainbow tanks rolled in and flat- tened it. The unlucky ones—the pheasants, ducks, emus, and lovebirds—disappeared easily beneath the tanks’ treads. The more fortunate got away. A gazelle, crushed and quaking, was plaster-cast and treated for shock. A rock wallaby cowered in a nearby basement. Fifty parrots, macaws and African grays, disappeared entirely; soldiers claimed to have set them free. Seven creatures survived unscathed, including a twenty-foot python, recovered alive from the rubble, a raccoon, and an ostrich. The zoo’s tiger, wolves, foxes, and jaguars were never seen again.

In Gaza, parents whisper tales to restive children of creatures that roam the camps in dead of night, searching for young, disobedient prey. Legends endure of ferocious leashed wildcats, accompanying heavies and racketeers to extract protection money from recalcitrant members of an already impoverished population.

Qalqilya Zoo was founded in 1986 with help from Israeli zoologists, vets, and wildlife workers. A year later, the first Palestinian intifada erupted. Riots, strikes, and demonstrations showering Israeli military forces with Molotov cocktails spread across the region, as Palestinians rallied to the call for an independent homeland. In 1988, some began a nonviolent protest movement, withholding taxes from the Israeli government. Many were imprisoned or their homes demolished. In 1989, a Tel Aviv bus on its way to Jerusalem was hijacked and driven over a precipice. Fourteen passengers perished. In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian death squads killed hundreds of their own, labeled collaborators with Israel. By 1992, almost two hundred Palestinian children had been killed for hurling stones at Israeli troops.

The zoo sat out the storm. By September 1993, as the hard-wrought Oslo Accords were signed between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, promising a measure of independence for a region to be administered by the Palestinian Authority, an uneasy calm settled on the West Bank. The zoo profited and grew. Visitors began to return. Palestinians and Israelis spent summer afternoons wandering its shady lanes, eating at its Friends’ Restaurant and feeding peanuts to its inhabitants. Optimism was in the air. Israeli professionals ventured back, bringing new animals. But for most Palestinians, little changed in the wake of the Oslo Accords. Discontent simmered on for seven years. Finally, the second, “AlAqsa,” intifada erupted in September 2000, named after Jerusalem’s holiest mosque.

This time, Palestinian suicide attacks across the border in Israel increased in frequency and ferocity. Retribution was harsh, and punishments often collective. Qalqilya became paralyzed by military roadblocks, and visitors from neighboring towns disappeared. By the end of 2000, the zoo’s Israeli friends no longer came. Inflation soared as quickly as unemployment. Though the zoo slashed its ticket prices and opened its gates every day, its avenues emptied.

In 2001, week-long curfews heralded the end to Qalqilya’s scout groups, youth clubs, and soccer practice. By 2003, the zoo’s visitors had dwindled, from a reliable weekly five thousand to less than two dozen a month. It was now the sole source of entertainment for the town’s children. There had never been a cinema or theater. There was no river and no access to the sea, though from the higher slopes of the town it could be seen twinkling tantalizingly on the horizon. The mountains, the beaches, Jerusalem: all were a world away. At the zoo, no international teams of animal behaviorists were sent to lend a hand. No donations were received.

By 2005, Qalqilya Zoo had survived the lean years. It was half a decade since the Al-Aqsa intifada had ushered in violence. Arafat was dead and gone, and with him widespread support for the politically dominant Fatah party. Suicide attacks had slowed to a trickle, and conditions for Palestinian civilians had eased slightly. There were no more curfews, though Israeli jeeps still embarked on daily patrols of the town’s streets and nighttime arrests remained commonplace. A few dozen workers were reissued permits to cross the border into Israel

But Palestinians had lost faith in the governance of Fatah. It was time for a change, and the only major opponent was Hamas.

In May 2005, Qalqilya voters elected the very first Hamas Municipal Council in the Palestinian Territories, and clean men with clipped beards moved into the council buildings on Market Street. “Strength. Honesty. Credibility” boasted their motto. Hastily, the last of the town’s allies backed away.

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 Shetland 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, and 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-storey building. “Watch your step,” he warned. “Latrines.” A swarthy construction worker emerged, zipping up his trousers, and coughed phlegmily.

Dr. Sami climbed 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 on 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. Mounted on the wall above it were two stout, crudely made rifles. “When the troubles began,” Dr. Sami said, “our anesthesiologist from Israel would no longer come.” He had pleaded, even securing for the vet a “Certificate of Permission” from the local council, but the elderly Dr. Motke Levinson would not relent. What use, the anesthesiologist asked, was written permission if someone shot you before you could pull it from your pocket?

“So I had to do something myself,” Sami said. He took one of the long-barreled wooden rifles from the wall. “Made here, in the city,” he fondly turned the heavy object over in his hands, “to my own design.”

The larger gun bore a metal nameplate, “Dido.” The other was decorated with a sticker of a squirrel turning a somersault. In place of bullets, each fired syringes, which Sami had tailored to fit with flights of hen feathers. Propelled by a small carbon dioxide canister, the larger gun had an anesthetic range of ten yards. But for times when canisters were scarce, he had come up with another alternative.


He pushed a sharp syringe into Dido’s barrel. Putting his lips to the head of the rifle, he aimed and puffed. The syringe shot out and stuck firmly in a cork notice board on the opposite wall. “Thirty foot capability,” he said contentedly. “My own invention.”

Dr Sami settled down behind his desk. “A very important point,” he noted. “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 Qalqilya Zoo for five years, arriving in early 2000, just months before the outbreak of the second 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, then 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?”

Chapter One
Early November 2005

Kullu am wa antum bi-khair.
May you be well throughout the year.


R uti stood alone in her favorite dusk-time spot, her head resting on the tall fence at the top of the main avenue. Evening light shifted through the whorling dust. She selected a mouthful of dry leaves from an overhanging branch, tugging gently with her tongue, and considered the scene. She chewed and watched with interest. All along the avenue, bright strings of light bulbs draped the deciduous trees. Red, yellow, and electric blue, they popped and fizzed, as quick isosceles bats emerged flitting from branches above. A long trestle table stretched along the avenue, bristling on either side with folding chairs. Plastic tablecloths, embossed to resemble lace, flapped in the breeze. Crowds of hungry men, congregated in conversation beside the ticket booth, made their way to the table. They sat elbow-to-elbow and poured orangeade into plastic cups: Zookeepers, postmen, city sweepers, clerks, and officials, puffing cherry-scented nargh-iles and pointing at the bright white bow of a new moon.

Ruti swallowed and turned. The snack had woken her appetite. She moved silently toward the doorway of the night shelter. Behind her sprawled a whitewashed school, its windows dark and empty. She splayed her front legs, squeezed her eyes tight, and plunged her face into a pile of sweet, grassy hay.

It was the fifth of November, the welcome end to Ramadan, and Eid ul-Fitr, the Feast of Breaking the Fast, was in full swing. Some, Dr. Sami’s wife among them, were preparing for a second, six-day fast in the hopes of garnering an extra dose of spiritual advantage. Others were relieved to be back to normal, after being deprived during daylight hours of food, water, coffee, cigarettes, and unkind and lascivious thoughts for a long, torturous month.

Forty miles south, in the ancient, labyrinthine Arab quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, the streets echoed with the call to prayer from the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s most hallowed after Mecca and Medina. Floodlit lanes milled with festive Muslim families down from Nazareth or maritime Acre, all decked out in their best new outfits. Little girls wore frilly white frocks, pink ribbons, and polished patent shoes. Young boys, walking hand in hand with their parents, sported smart nylon suits of brown and sky blue, their ties straight and hair slicked back with brilliantine. A makeshift fair had been set up on a scrubby patch of wasteland; a wooden Ferris wheel, its limbs creaking, hoisted bucket loads of squealing children up over its peak. Two teenage boys raced unbridled horses, sparks flying, up and down Al-Mujahideen Street past the stout wooden doors of the Monastery of the Flagellation. Groups of ten-year-old tearaways battled each other with spluttering plastic Kalashnikovs, gifts from friends and relatives to celebrate the arrival of the holidays.


On Sale
Jan 11, 2008
Page Count
336 pages

Amelia Thomas

About the Author

Amelia Thomas is a British journalist, working in the Palestinian Territories and Israel. She is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, Middle East Times, Lonely Planet, and Egypt Today.

Learn more about this author