“Omen? Omen? – the dictionary! If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honourably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint.” Moby Dick
There were so many signs yesterday that the trip to the zoo was not a good idea. It started with my friends who live in Birzeit calling to say that it seemed silly for them to take a service to Ramallah only to pick up another service up to Qalqilya which goes through the town of Birzeit. So they asked if I could find the service and convey to the driver that there were three people in Birzeit to pick up. Sure, I thought, I can handle that. … So I went to the service parking lot where my friends said to pick it up. I wander in, look around, find someone who looks like he knows what he’s talking about and ask for the service to Qalqilya. Confusion is written all over his face, and he calls out to another driver who walks over and says, “Other building.” I have no idea what this means as I only know of this one building of services – there are other parking lots, yes. So I walk around a little more, call my friends who are just as confused, and ask another driver. After some confusing Arabic directions (go out, down the street, turn right, turn left… ok, thanks, how about some landmarks?), he walks with me outside and points.
So I walk in what I think is the direction he points me in, for a couple minutes and then I see some services and buses on the side of the road. “Success!” I’m thinking. But of course, when I ask, it’s not the right place. They direct me back in the direction from which I came, and instruct me to turn right instead of left. Ok. Turn right where? Who knows. So I wander around, decide to cut through this market shopping center, come to a dead end, turn left, make it to the main road again, and it turns out the parking lot with services to Birzeit is the same parking lot for Qalqilya as well.
So when I finally get confirmation that one particular service is headed to Qalqilya, I am elated. Then I remember I still need to communicate to the driver about my friends up in Birzeit. I speak in a nice mix of Arabic-English, the only English being “can we pick them up on the way?” – I realize that this is the crucial part of my conversation with the driver, but I just have no idea how to say this in colloquial. He nods and we’re on our way. The pick up goes off without a hitch.
When we get closer to Qalqilya (about an hour north of Ramallah, just west of Nablus), we ask the young guy sitting in the middle seat if he knows English. He nods and my friend asks him to tell the driver we want to get to the zoo. He’s confused at first at the word “zoo” but he seems to grasp the concept, and tells the driver something that sounds like “zoo,” and my friend asks him what the Arabic word for zoo is. He replies that it’s “zoo.” So we’re pretty excited. Until the driver pulls off in the middle of the road, nothing around except this big stone fence/wall that has an Israeli flag flying. We had read that the city of Qalqilya was surrounded by the wall, so we’re a little confused but when the driver says, “through there, through the barrier,” and we try to confirm that the zoo is behind the barrier, and he nods and drives off.
So we walk up the little path to a gate in the fence, and out walks an Israeli soldier. We tentatively walk up, say “Shalom,” and ask if the zoo is through there. He looks so surprised, and says, “What zoo? This is a military base.”
Uh, what? Where’s the zoo? This soldier has no idea that there is a zoo around here, he tells us, but that sometimes he feels like he’s in a zoo because children throw rocks at him. Ok. Something is definitely wrong here. So we try asking if the town of Qalqilya is close by, he says it’s at least a 30 minute walk. Then we’re standing around trying to decide what to do, and the soldier says, “It’s a good thing you look gentle, or I would have shot you.” Granted, English is clearly his second or third language, so I get the intent behind his statement, but it is very disconcerting to have a soldier tell you that!! So we thank him and walk away.
We pick up a cab on the street and attempt to first ask him if he knows the zoo. My friend comes up with “place with animals” in Arabic, since apparently “zoo” does not mean “zoo” in Arabic, though it also doesn’t mean “military base,” which apparently the service driver thought. The taxi driver finally comprehends, and takes us through the town to the zoo.
Which is a beautiful place, and completely empty.
And I do mean that we were the only four people there. It had a good number of animals – zebras, lots of deer and gazelles, baboons, kangaroos, owls, a bazillion peacocks. And the grounds itself were wonderful, with huge playgrounds and picnic areas. One of the large playgrounds is courtesy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:
So we debated why the zoo was so empty and decided maybe it was because of Ramadan. I’ve done some research though, and I think it’s a combination of both the economic suffering of the town of Qalqilya, the transportation difficulties of getting to the zoo for most Palestinians, and the rebuilding of the zoo after Israel’s 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, which devastated both the town and the zoo.
Now we could have a debate over the merits of rebuilding the only zoo in the West Bank or using that money to develop the human capacity, but I think there is an enormous value for Palestinians in having a functioning, thriving space for animals. An agreement was made with the Ministry of Education to make the zoo a destination for school trips in the West Bank. I don’t know how effective this has been, but for a country with such terrible environmental dangers [lack of water, environmental degradation], having a place for children (and adults!) to learn about the environment and animals is very important in my mind.
Alas, we made it back without any significant difficulties.