author Rajiv Joseph
Built in 1971, the Baghdad Zoo was long known for its insufficient and inhumane conditions. It was closed by Saddam Hussein in the Spring of 2002, at which time he used it as a kind of semi-military base. The 2003 invasion killed all but 35 of the original 650-700 animals housed in the zoo. Several lions escaped, to be rounded up by American soldiers, three of them shot by American forces. Other animals were looted or found dying of starvation and thirst, including Uday Hussein's (Saddam's violent son) Siberian tiger. In mid-April of 2003 a South African conservationist, Lawrence Anthony, visited the zoo and with Baghdad Zoo directors began caring and feeding the few remaining animals. U.S. Army Captain William Sumner, officer in charge of the zoo, also helped with the protection of the animals.
If this all sounds gruesome, it is—these are the events, after all, of an insane war. Yet Joseph slightly skews the horrifying facts to probe—at times poetically and provocatively and other times comically, even inanely—what it all means; how do these impossible realities fit together in the larger frame of things? The tiger (played by Kevin Tighe/in the performance I saw by Paul Dillon) cannot die, despite his murder, and wanders about Bagdad trying to piece things together, to comprehend how God could have created him to eat living beings and yet damn him for doing so. Kev also wanders the city after death, suddenly beginning to comprehend information and language in way that he could never do while he lived. Musa is, in turn, haunted by Uday—who visits him with the head of his brother in a plastic bag—and by his own sister.
The only one seemingly less haunted—although he does see Kev—is Tom, a man so deluded and selfish that he hires a prostitute, not for regular sex, but to jack him off as he was once able to do with his own right hand. He is determined to retrieve his ill-gotten booty; like the US soldiers he represents, his only vision for a future is an abstract American dream fueled by the promise of EBay checks.
God has spoken. This world—this is what he said.
Whether that is a horrible reality or a hopeful one depends, it appears, on what each of us makes of our existence.
Los Angeles, May 15, 2010