One of my favorite stories to come from Afghanistan is the story of Marjan, the one-eyed lion of the Kabul Zoo.
I like it, because it is a story about an animal, and like a lot of people, I love animals.
I also like it because it is a story of persistence, survival and stubbornness. It is also a symbol of resistance against the kind of anti-intellectual narrow minded evil, as embodied by the Taliban, with their destruction of culture, misogyny and just plain ugly meanness.
When our current leaders discuss “including the Taliban” in any withdrawal/peace deal in Afghanistan, I think to myself that is like “including a boa constrictor” in a peace deal with a cage full of mice. The only way the Taliban would accept a peace deal, is if it were a complete surrender. A surrender of everything we value. And a cruel betrayal of all the women in Afghanistan, whom we’ve encouraged to fight against the oppression of a system which fundamentally views women as animals who coincidentally happen to bear human children.
But Marjan, on the other hand, understood the Taliban. And he understood, in his life as a Lion, what you do to Taliban. While Marjan was no paragon as a lion, thanks to years of neglect and near-neglect at the Kabul Zoo, this did not stop him from being a real lion, when it counted.
Just a moment to digress, with your kind permission. Yes, Kabul has a zoo. It’s not a huge zoo; in fact, it’s entirety can be taken in from the entryway. But it is a zoo in a country where scarcity is the norm.
The zoo has animals, of course. Animals to include Afghanistan’s only domestic pig. Camels, goats, jackals, brown bears, black bears and even a lion.
Despite the pedestrian nature of the zoo, it is wildly popular. Regardless of the weather, there are always crowds of people there.
In fact, the Kabul Zoo is one of the few government run activities in Afghanistan that actively turns a profit. Despite the extremely low cost of admission, it still brings in more than it costs to administer.
There is also a small amusement park for children, with a swinging boat and a ferris wheel.
The remaining lion is female, but as you can probably figure by the title of the blog entry, there was a time there were two lions.
In 1995, some Taliban soldiers decided it would be fun to tease/torture/frighten Marjan, in their typical bullying manner. But they misjudged Marjan’s rather humble appearance, and paid for it, when Marjan surprised his attackers by retaliating and killing one of them. The officer in charge of these thugs then decided to kill Marjan with a grenade.
The grenade exploded, shattering Marjan’s head in such a spectacular fashion that the Taliban left him, convinced he was dead.
But they misjudged Marjan’s tenacity and will to live.
Marjan not only lived, he largely recovered from his wounds, and went on to become the most popular exhibit at the zoo; a symbol to all people in Afghanistan, and hopefully to the world, of how to stand up to the ignorant savages who make up the Taliban and all other movements that want to force their fellow man (and woman) to live in ignorance as well.
Marjan passed away, peacefully, in 2002. If you were to go there today, you would be greeted by a bronze statue of Marjan, as he looked before his wounding, guarding the gate of the Kabul Zoo.
As the West starts eyeing the exits in 2014, I hope and pray that somehow, somewhere, there is another Marjan out there, to keep Afghanistan out of the clutches of those who would return it to ignorance and oppression.