I am translating a superb article I read in LeMonde (July 2, 2011) by Frederic Bobin, in the bi-weekly rubric "Letter from Asia". This expert on Chinese affairs and journalist has been posted in Afghanistan, where he is covering the so called "transitional" period as foreign troops prepare to withdraw gradually, whether it will happen or not.
I need not make added comments, but want to remark that a trivial visit to the Kabul zoo could have much insight on the present day atmosphere. The translation is not precisely accurate, but rather amateur. I wish I could convey the perfect French that had been used and struck me as very refined for a more casual space in the newspaper.
"In the shade of the high pines, the small crowd sweeps by the fountain and heads towards the dry alleys. Behind the grilled enclosures, a placid menagerie soaks in the sun. White and brown bears, peacocks, gazelles, wolves, eagles, owls and parrots attract the looks of the good-natured public. Entertainment is a must in Afghanistan at war. The Kabul zoo is part of these havens of carefreeness, with the Shahre now park and the gardens of Babur, where the capital's inhabitants come to forget, for a few moments, the daily worry and the future anxiety. All know that these islands of peace are factitious. The night before, a police station had been attacked by a suicide bomber and killed nine. In a few hours, the city had emptied, regaining its impression of absence of bad days. But today, people came out, taking over the markets and the side walks. One must live well.
The crowd at the zoo is an image of this urban multicolored population where the young man clad in jeans rubs shoulders with the grilled woman under her blue burqa. At the aquarium, a mother shows her handicapped son the shimmering colors of the fish. The child is amazed. Facing the enclosure of the gazelles, a shop sells sodas and kebab sandwiches. Under the trees, visitors lay down to nap, tucked in the freshness. And all around, serpentine the hills of Kabul, circuses of stone flanked by clay homes. The light is so hard that the peaks of stone seem to take fire.
Azizgul Saqeb has a laudatory resolution. The zoo is his fight. Generous amounts of hair and sober tie, the director receives us in his haste office with crimson carpets stitched with flowered motifs. Equipped with a computer and a television, the room is a proof of relative ease, a sign that the Government that makes effort to exist. The zoo, that was the pride of Kabul in the 1960s, when the King Zaher Shah modernized Afghanistan, must relive. It is a question of principle. Educated in India, the young director solicited foreign support. The zoological society of London and the North Carolina zoo answered their calls. But the toll is heavy and the resurrection demanding.
For the civil war has devastated Kabul zoo, to its disadvantage at the heart of the frontline. It was the era of the moudjahedeen factions had plunged the country is a bloody chaos, at the eve of the Communist regime collapse (1992). The animals - there were about 400 - died of hunger, no one fed them at the time. Or because the tempted fighters came to serve themselves as if it at anti-room of the butcher. Gazelles, dear and ducks ended in pots. However, the milicians didn't touch the bears, tigers, monkeys and eagles that are considered haram (forbidden) for consumption. Those died from neglect or from lost bullets. In power in Kabul since 1996, the taliban reduced the damages. Azizgul Saqeb talks of how they rebuilt a surrounding wall and offered food to the surviving animals.
The tragedy of the lion Marjan alone summarizes the misfortune of the zoo. Ah! The lion Marjan! The people of Kabul still speak of it with emotion. It has been erected as a national symbol. Its story is the parabole of the Afghan martyr. Marjan had been offered by the Germans at the end of the 60s, at a time when the director of the zoo was prince Nader, son of the king. Besides the Bactrian deer (very rare specie), Marjan was the glory of the establishment. In 1993, at the hight of the civil war, a desperado had the strange idea of entering its den and defying it. Marjan ate him in one mouthful. The next day, the brother of the victim came to seek vengeance and threw a grenade at the lion's face. Marjan lost an eye and some teeth. "Look how it suffered" whispered Azizgul Saqeb showing the photo of the disfigured Marjan that stands in his library. With its dented mouth and blind since that day, Marjan survived. It died of old age in 2002, at the time when, bitter coincidence, "the new Afghanistan" was waking up to hope. Since, a bronze statue of Marjan stands at the entrance of the zoo. The visitors caress it lovingly and of course take photographs next to it. Marjam has been immortalized as a hero of legends.
After she died, the Chinese offered Afghanistan two new lions of Africa. They then added two bears, substitutes to their habitual diplomatic pandas. Pakistan outdid them with Kashmir peacocks. Now the menagerie is almost complete. Azizgul Saqeb would have preferred to get provisions from Afghanistan itself, but the wild life is threatened by the rare species' traffic. The snow white leopard of Badakhshan suffers enormously. "It was out of the question to put an almost extinct animal in a zoo" declared Azizgul Saqeb.
Regardless. The people of Kabul on an outing don't come in throngs to the zoo necessarily for a precious feline. But for the oasis of quietud, its puddles of shade, its sodas, its kebab sandwiches and the myth of king Marjan."