I recently came across a story in a book called The Taliban Shuffle (now a major motion picture starring Tina Fey) about the Kabul Zoo and its most famous resident Marjan the lion. As news circulated yesterday of yet another Taliban bomb attack in Afghanistan claiming the lives of 64 people and injuring more than 300 I remembered this story once again. Marjan which means coral or precious stone in Persian, was given to the Kabul Zoo by the Germans along with a lioness called Chucha in 1978 . He was donated in order to quite rumors of a Soviet invasion. Of course within a year the Soviets did invade Afghanistan and the zoo, like all the other sites in Kabul suffered the consequences.
Kabul, Afghanistans capital City was captured in 1992 by Jihadi groups and the Government lost control. As soon as the Russians left Afghanistan warlords moved in and a terrible civil war broke out. They began shelling and sending rockets into Kabul, as a result the walls of the zoo came tumbling down. The medical unit was destroyed making it impossible to treat any of the animals. Disease and hunger spread like wild-fire. Although many of the animals were eaten or died the fledgling zoo somehow remained open.
In its heyday the zoo was home to more than 700 animals but the arrival of the soldiers sparked trouble for its residents. When they weren’t fighting the bored soldiers would beat or throw rocks at the animals for sport. They even shot an elephant 40 times just to see how many bullets it would take to kill him. Through all the chaos Marjan and Chucha remained relatively unscathed. Until one afternoon in March of 1995 when one of the Pashtun fighters, who was showing off to his friend jumped into the lions cage and pretended to mate with the lioness. She did not react but Marjan attacked him instantly biting off his arm. The man later died as a result of the injuries. The following day his brother returned seeking his revenge and threw a hand grenade into the lions cage. Marjan sustained serious injuries in the blast. He emerged alive but blind in one eye and completely deaf. Despite several surgeries to try and save it, he also lost part of his mouth and had to have all of his teeth removed.
While Marjan was left wounded and permanently scared the Taliban continued to tighten its grip on Afghanistan. They demanded that Afghans live under their rule and their destorted definition of Islam. Women were not allowed to go outside unless they were covered up with a burka or accompanied by a male escort. Television, music and gambling were all banned. Even the zoo’s director had to prove to the Taliban that keeping animals did not violate Islam in order to stay open. Miraculously the zoo and Marjan continued to survive but only barely.
After the twin towers came down as a result of terrorist attacks at the hands of the Taliban in 2001 the group fled Afghanistan leaving only destruction behind them. All that remained of the Kabul Zoo was a few vultures, owls, wolves, one bear and of course Marjan. At the same time as U.S. Troops were moving into Afghanistan a picture of the wounded lions face was making its way around the globe. For some reason his portrait tugged at people’s heart-strings and he became an instant celebrity. The proud lion represented all of the pain and suffering that had been inflicted on the war-torn country over the years. He may have been bruised and battered but he was still standing and this was a message of hope to many. He was now a living embodiment of Afghanistan and a sign that it could survive in spite of all it had endured.
World Animal Protection was called in to come to Marjans aid and a ton of money was raised to help him recover. Heaters and ramps were installed to make it more comfortable and easier for him to get around. Unfortunately this money could not rescue Marjan from old age and he died the following January. Marjan was given both a private and public burial ceremony at the zoo. Crowds along with the worlds media gathered together to bid farewell to Afghanistan’s king of the jungle. A 400 pound bronze statue of Marjan, made by an American architect, was erected at the front of the Kabul Zoo. A fitting tribute to the lion who will always be remembered as a symbol of resilience and recovery to the Afghan people.
It might seem strange to some people, that a fierce animal like Marjan could capture the hearts of so many but if you think about it this lion survived a Soviet invasion, a Mujahideen rocket launch, a grenade attack, American air strikes and cruelty at the hands of the Taliban. In that respect it is easy to see why he has inspired millions. Afghans had been suppressed by war and violence for decades and they needed someone or something to look to for hope. Marjan was proof that against all odds it is possible to survive.
This latest bombing in Afghanistan reminds us that the road to recovery is long and not in the least bit straight forward. Each attack leaves behind its own set of scars that need time to heal. The Kabul Zoo mirrors the journey taken by its country. There has been many ups and downs and there is likely to be more but as of today the Kabul zoo is still open. It currently has around 280 animals and has become a refuge for visitors. It has survived and so will Afghanistan.
There are still a lot problems to contend with of course but there has been a vast improvement since 2001. Progress is slow but it goes on. Marjan continues to represent hope in Afghanistan. We all need symbols in order to add meaning to our lives because so often don’t make sense to us. If we can give them meaning then we can transform the suffering and start to heal. They help share our burdens and give us strength. I hope the memory of Marjan can continue to do that for Afghanistan during this time.