Nur lay on his bed, hands thrust awkwardly out at either side, and wondered if anyone would remember his birthday. His mother had remembered his sixth birthday last year, but only in the nick of time, just as darkness and curfew were descending, and his father had rushed out to the nearby shop to buy sweet pastries and a carton of juice.
Today was a Saturday. Under normal circumstances, this would have been cause for celebration as it meant he didn’t have to be at school and could enjoy his birthday properly. But now, he could think of few places he’d rather be since his school had been forced to close a month ago. There was of course one place he would rather be though. Crouching down, Nur pulled out a tatty box from under his bed and gently extracted from it his most recent drawings. He studied them, laying aside a couple of his favourites—an elephant spraying droplets of water over its baby with its trunk and a monkey swinging from the highest branch of a tree, a wild grin on its face.
Nur enjoyed drawing, but his real love was for animals. The very thought of them made him fidget with excitement; the way they loped and swung and sprang and crept. He had never been to the zoo, but a school friend had been taken there before the occupation and raved about it. There were lions and bears and even penguins in the cold inside part and I saw them being fed fish! Penguins! Nur could only listen in envious rapture.
It had been almost two years since his country had been invaded. Nur could barely remember it, though he heard his family talk about it with great heated passion. The invasion and its consequences became by far the most commonly discussed topic around the dinner table. Nur said very little at these times, understood even less. He swung his legs and made shapes with his food and gazed out of the window, wondering what his friends were doing and if they, like him, were no longer allowed to go out to play.
‘Stop that kicking, Nur,’ his mother often grumbled.
‘Can I go out and play football?’
‘Cha! No, you stay here and help clear up—’
‘No!’ said his father. ‘Not another word…’
It was not long before Nur stopped asking, knowing what the answer would be and he began to draw more and more to relieve some of the aching boredom he felt.
Nur longed to go to the zoo more than anything in the world. He wanted to see these animals that lived in his imagination and scurried across his sheets of paper. Sitting on the edge of his bed that Saturday morning, Nur decided that today would be the day. Even if he had to walk there.
Downstairs, his mother was busying herself in the kitchen preparing the midday meal, which had generally become the only meal of the day. She kissed him absently on the head and jostled him to one side as she bent down to collect pans. So she had forgotten. He walked to the yard and stared at the scrawny hens pecking in the dirt, ignoring the noises of his stomach. When he turned round again, his mother had a smile on her face.
‘Happy Birthday, Nur!’
In astonishment, Nur took in the scene on the table. If he was not mistaken, his mother had laid out gaymer wa dibis, a pot of creamy buffalo milk and date syrup, a delicacy they hadn’t eaten for months. Walking to the table, he scooped up the pieces of flatbread and dunked them in, letting the delicious sweetness warm his stomach.
‘Where did you find this, mama?’
‘Never you mind, just eat as much as you can before your brothers get up.’
Nur tore the warm bread between his fingers and with the same precision with which he drew his animals, gently dipped it into the pot and shook off the excess milk before turning to the syrup bowl. After eating in blissful silence for several minutes, Nur took a deep breath.
‘May I go to the zoo today?’
His mother raised an eyebrow and continued preparing food.
After receiving no reply for some time, Nur ventured his request again. ‘Well, may I?’
‘Cha! You must ask your father.’ Seeing how crestfallen he looked, her face softened and she came toward him and pulled his head to her chest. ‘Perhaps he will say yes, little one. Perhaps he will.’ And with that, she continued with her preparations.
Nur’s father had once made a good living as a taxi driver. He knew the streets and alleyways of the city better than anyone and work was never scarce. Yet people went out far less now, the security situation being so volatile. Custom dropped off though did not disappear entirely, and he kept his taxi parked in front of the house, having to be content with the few rides he gave. He knew he was luckier than most and bit his lip each time he opened his mouth to complain about the pitiful wage he now earned. ‘Abba before’ and ‘Abba after’ was how Nur’s eldest brother talked of their father before and after the invasion. This meant little to Nur; he could barely remember his father before and the lines that ran across his forehead as deeply as wounds were as much a part of him as his short temper and shoulders so tense they seemed part of his neck.
‘What was ‘Abba before’ like?’ Nur asked once. And in answer, his brother had lifted him high on to his shoulders, held out his hands at either side and spun him gleefully round until Nur had squealed in giddy delight and begged to be put down.
‘That is what ‘Abba before’ was like,’ he had said. ‘He was playful.’
Playful? Nur could barely imagine it, this man whose frown was a permanent feature of his face and who had not once kicked a football with him in the yard. But he loved him deeply, despite his sadness which infected the whole family. He loved the feel of his worn leather jacket which hung like a familiar sigh on the back of his chair; he loved his large, dark lashed eyes which occasionally, just occasionally, seemed to smile at him. And he loved the fact that on his sixth birthday he had put himself in danger by leaving the house during curfew to look for sweet pastries and juice. Yes, he loved him desperately.
It wasn’t until just before the midday meal that Nur’s father appeared. This was a good sign as it meant that he had managed to find several people to give rides to and Nur shifted excitedly in his seat in anticipation of his father’s favorable mood and positive response. He too had remembered his son’s birthday and pressed a small toy car into his hand. ‘Here you are, Nur. Sorry it’s not much, but…’ His high shoulders lifted a fraction…’this is how it is.’
Nur grinned at him and raced it round the kitchen floor before his mother called him to wash and join the family at the table. As they ate, Nur waited for an appropriate pause so he could ask his question.
‘Abba, may I go to the zoo?’ he ventured in a bold voice.
All eyes turned to look at him.
‘The zoo?’ His father asked.
Nur nodded brightly. ‘I know you already gave me the car Abba and…and I love it, but I would like so much to visit the zoo.’
His father stared at him, an expression of pure disbelief on his face. ‘The zoo? Which zoo?’
‘Well, City Zoo of course.’
Nur’s father emptied his palm of the olives he was about to tip into his mouth.
‘Nur,’ he said very quietly. ‘that zoo doesn’t exist anymore.’
Silence enveloped the room.
‘But…’ Nur ventured, ‘but…how do you know?’
‘How do I know? How do I know?’ His father was half-smiling, half-scowling. ‘I drive taxis, remember? I drive all around this city, including past the gates of the zoo and believe me, that place is closed for good. What importance do animals have at a time like this?’
Nur’s father had slumped forward in his seat, elbows on the table. Nur bit his lip and stared down at the half-eaten piece of bread on his place.
‘Perhaps a phone call might confirm…’ Nur’s mother never reached the end of her sentence; angrily, her husband pushed his chair back and strode to the yard where he lit a cigarette at the door and blew gray smoke rings out into the dust that swept in eddies up into the sharp blueness of the November sky. Nur watched him, trying to fight back the tears. He felt ungrateful for his gift and didn’t want to quarrel with his father, today of all days. Nobody said a word, they just picked at the rest of their food.
Having finished his cigarette, Nur’s father walked back into the room, picked up his leather jacket and motioned his head in his youngest son’s direction.
‘Where are we—’
‘You wanted to see the zoo, I’m taking you to see what’s left of the zoo.’
Nur’s mother stood up hurriedly from the table and clasped her husband’s wrist. ‘No, sit down, it’s not safe taking him out there. Please—’
He shook himself free and slung the jacket round his shoulders. ‘He has to grow up!’
‘But he’s only a baby!’
Nur’s father turned his black eyes on her. ‘He has to understand what’s really going on in this country.’
Nur’s brothers and mother watched intently as he was maneuvered toward the door. Glancing back, he saw that his mother was crying.
Outside, the bright light hurt his eyes and he stumbled blindly toward the taxi. A neighbor, leaning idly against the wall, unsmilingly watched them go, a look of envy in his eyes. Nur’s father smoked cigarette after cigarette as they tore through the suburbs. Nur thought to himself that even if they never made it to the zoo, this was a good enough birthday present, to be outside once more: to see the city. He had no recollection of what it was like when the markets were full to bursting; when rows of palm trees swayed gracefully against the dazzling sky and when people went to pray at the mosques without fear. His nose glued to the window, Nur smiled, finding beauty in the pot-holed back routes with trellises of bougainvillea clinging for dear life to crumbling walls and the varying shades of the bedraggled markets.
Pulling up at the zoo gates, Nur’s father grasped the steering wheel, staring intently ahead at him. Nur stole a look at his clenched mouth and white knuckles and wondered if he was having second thoughts. Eventually, they left the car and stood at the gates, peering through the railings. Nur felt his heartbeat quicken—the zoo was still here! The gates were here, the sign was here, surely the animals had to be here!
Walking round to a rusted side gate, Nur pushed it gently with his foot. ‘Abba, look. We can get in this way.’
His father took his hand, grasping it so hard that it hurt and they stepped gingerly in. A large white placard lay directly in front of them. ‘Welcome to Baghdad Zoo,’ it read above a map of the park. Nur grinned as he traced his finger from the penguin area down to the lion’s den. ‘Can we see the penguins first, Abba? Can we?’ His father frowned and moments later, a white man in military uniform strode toward them, saying something neither of them could understand. Nur’s father shrugged and the man called to another soldier who hurried over.
‘What are you doing here?’ The soldier translated.
‘The child wanted to visit the zoo.’
‘This park is closed. The US military have taken it over as a base. You shouldn’t be here.’
Nur’s father released his hand and pushed him forward slightly. ‘I know, but it’s his birthday.’
The second soldier who had taken over shook his head in disbelief and ran a hand over a face which Nur thought looked the color of curdled milk. He coughed and, taking Nur’s father by the arm, led him to one side, out of earshot of the boy. ‘You know the animals that are left are in a bad state? I mean, really bad. Half of them got looted months ago—monkeys, camels, bears, you name it. The only ones left are the biggest. We’ve got a foreign vet here trying to help them but…’ he shook his head. ‘I don’t know if you want your kid seeing these things—’
‘Just a short time. Please.’ He looked at Nur who was craning his neck down the path. ‘For my son.’
The soldier glanced at his watch. ‘You’ve got ten minutes. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
They followed the soldier along a narrow path flanked by yellowing tufts of grass, the air still and silent. Nur tugged on his father’s sleeve. ‘Ask if we can see the penguins,’ he whispered urgently. Nur’s father cleared his throat and put the request to the soldier.
‘Penguins?’ He shrugged. ‘Sorry, none left.’
‘Where did they all go?’ Nur piped up.
Before the soldier could answer, his father cut in. ‘They decided to fly back to the Antarctic. They were too warm here.’
‘Really?’ Nur asked excitedly. ‘Penguins can fly?’
‘These ones can.’
The soldier raised an eyebrow at Nur’s father and then motioned that they follow him off the path. ‘There’s a lioness over here.’
They came to a cage and Nur walked tentatively toward it. He felt his father come up behind him and take his hand and together they peered into the gloom. At first, it was hard to see anything but eventually they made out a large paw suspended disconnectedly from the creature’s leg. Her fur was mottled and singed, patches of discolored tufts like the grass they had just walked along covering her body. They stared at the empty eyes of the once proud lioness. They were like a light bulb about to expire; the last embers of a graying fire. Nur’s father felt an intense sadness crashing down upon his shoulders; the sadness that held his country in a stony grip and was now enveloping him in a way he had never before experienced during all the months of occupation. And all if it, everything—the bombs, the hatred, the factional fighting and wrecked lives were staring out at him from the eyes of this lioness.
Nur felt his hand being squeezed tighter and glanced up at his father who had his eyes clenched shut.
‘Abba, are you alright?’
‘Abba…’ he murmured. ‘What’s wrong with the lion?’
Nur’s father tried to stifle a sob and dropping slowly to his knees behind his son he drew him close into his chest and gently stroked his dark hair. Delighting in this unexpected closeness, Nur leant back and allowed himself to be drawn onto his father’s knee.
‘There’s nothing wrong with her, Nur,’ he whispered softly into his ear. ‘She is just a little tired today.’
Nur’s father took a deep breath. ‘Why? Because this morning she was stalking through the park on her daily rounds when she saw a gazelle and—’
‘What’s a gazelle?’
‘It’s a bit like a deer, a pretty little deer. Anyway, the lioness was hungry so she chased this gazelle all over the park. But this gazelle wasn’t going to be caught without a fight, she was a tough little thing. So they ran and they ran for hours, around trees, up and down hills, through swamps and marshlands and while they were running the lioness hurt herself several times.’
‘Because she’s not as nimble as a gazelle, that’s why.’ Nur’s father was warming to this story and his voice had become animated. ‘So when she chased the gazelle through bushes and over streams she occasionally hurt herself. That’s why she has a few injuries.’
Nur nodded earnestly and gazed at the beast. ‘Then what happened in the end?’
‘She caught her. The lioness may not be as nimble but look at the size of her, she has more strength. So she had a good lunch and now she is back here resting and recovering from her wounds.’
‘With a full stomach!’ Nur squealed.
‘Yes, with a full stomach.’
‘Ha!’ Nur was laughing, overjoyed that this lioness lived exactly how he had imagined all this time; exactly how he had drawn it in his pictures. The two of them stood crouched in front of the cage for several minutes longer, lost in their own reveries, until they heard the soldier behind them clearing his throat.
‘I really need to get you out of here.’
Nur and his father took one more look at the lioness, returned the gaze of her solemn eyes and stood up. As they walked toward the gate, Nur’s father silently took his son under the arms and hoisted him up onto his shoulders, holding his hands out on either side. Nur felt his cheeks tingle with joy and as he looked out across the zoo from high up there, he thought excitedly about what he would draw that night. Yes, he would draw a picture of him and his father. They would be sitting on the roof of their house and a huge lioness would be jumping over them, chasing a small, dainty gazelle. Above them all, high in the dense blueness of the sky he would draw dozens and dozens of penguins, flapping their wings and dreaming of their icy Antarctic paradise.
rebecca stonehill lives near Cambridge, England where she teaches piano, cares for her two gorgeous daughters and tries to turn her insomnia into something creative. She dreams of the day when she can devote more time to her passion of writing but in the meantime makes frenetic dives for the laptop when her children take naps. She becomes most inspired to write when she is in motion, whether it is walking or taking a bus.