DAMASCUS, Syria -- Life at the Damascus Zoo unfolds like a microcosm of reality in Syria today.
Children play in spite of their wounds, zookeepers look after their charges despite the chaos and the lions continue to thrive.
For the past 40 years, Syrians have been reluctant to admit that lions are animals, or predators, or that, as felines go, they cannot be trusted.
For as long as the Assad family has ruled tyranically over Syria -- more than four decades now -- Syrians have tiptoed around the subject.
The reason is simple. Assad is Arabic for “lion,” and no Syrian wanted to be accused of referring to the president as a predatory animal that could turn on his own cubs.
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On a recent trip to the Damascus Zoo, located within the city's boundaries, the taxi driver would not even admit that the Assad was indeed among the animals on display at the zoo.
“They have some big cats, you know, the usual predators,” he said, when asked exactly which large fauna lived at the zoo.
Pressed harder on the issue, he used a synonym to describe the lion. He called it a “layth,” which is a lyrical name more appropriate for poetry and classical Arabic, instead of using the more common name.
At the gate, a zookeeper promptly escorted visitors to what he called the most important display, the Lions’ Den.
The Assads were basking in the shade. They looked healthy and robust, the young males among them already growing a thick and shiny mane.
There were 35 lions, an unusually large number for any zoo, let alone the relatively small one in Damascus. Two or three large cats shared each enclosure.
As it got closer to feeding time, the lions seemed to know it without prompting. They got up and began to pace. Some started to roar, producing powerful vibrations, to which residents in the surrounding neighborhoods have grown accustomed.
“They roar on many occasions,” said the keeper. “Like when they hear the call to prayer, five times a day, they roar every time.”
Asked what the lions do when they hear the shelling and bombing that has become as common an occurrence in Syria as the call to prayer, he said they roared in response to those sounds, too.
A bit later, the lions heard their keeper throw large chunks of raw meat behind the iron gate that opens onto the indoor portion of their den. Right away, a large male subdued a younger one, as if to reiterate who would be first in line once the feeding door opened. The younger lion lay on his back, apparently acquiescing to the pecking order.
“Here, the law of the jungle rules,” the keeper said.
With all the commotion leading up to lunchtime, two lions seemed busy mating.
The keeper explained that the lions have had a very successful run, with multiple generations born at the zoo.
Compare the lions’ good fortune with that of the sorry-looking tigers, who inhabit a separate cage at the edge of the lions’ den. There were only two tigers, a male and a female. The male appeared so old that grey hair peppered his honey-blond and brown striped fur. His roar sounded husky, like the hoarse voice of a heavy smoker in his eighties.
“We tried very hard to breed him, and we brought different females, but he just wouldn’t breed, and we never understood why,” the zoo keeper said.
He continued about how the tigers could not be trusted.
“Just the other day, this tiger turned around and bit his keeper for no reason at all,” he said. “But that’s predators for you. No matter how much you feed them, they still betray you.”
Asked whether he thought the Assad in the next cage was also prone to betrayal, the zookeeper shot the big cat a blank look and said nothing.
Of all the animals at the zoo, like the Rhesus monkeys, the pair of camels, the two dozen or so goats and sheep, the swans and ducks and pelicans, only the lions conspicuously did not have a name card. To identify the Assad in large, bold font as a predatory animal would be akin to blasphemy.
“We don’t need to name the Assad. Everyone can recognize him,” said the zoo keeper, when asked why there was no identifying plaque explaining the lion’s temperament and diet, just like with the other animals.
The zoo, which is not larger than two football fields put together, captured other, more tragic aspects of Syrian society.
On the other side of the lions’ den, across a green patch of grass, children played on a swing. They were not ordinary kids.
These particular children were homeless, recently displaced from their home in a suburb of Damascus by the violence that has probably not left a single family in Syria untouched.
Their faces looked familiar. A large family that spans three generations and cares for about a dozen children, one of them a girl with Down Syndrome, they were easy to remember.
They had already been seen taking shelter in public parks throughout Damascus. The authorities, and sometimes local residents, have kicked them out of one park after the next.
Now it seems they have taken shelter at the zoo. It is only a matter of time before zoo officials will kick them out.
But in the meantime, the children swung on the monkey bars and took turns on the slide.
A boy looking no older than five broke into chants. He was aping some of the revolutionary slogans that are now more familiar than nursery rhymes to many Syrian children.
The People Want To Oust the Regime!
Other children began to join in.
Such dissent in a public, state-run facility like the zoo could easily land people in prison.
So it was no surprise that the kids’ controversial intonations caught the immediate attention of the adults. One of the mothers shouted, and the kids fell into place like soldiers responding to an order.
Without further prompting, the young sloganeers switched their catchphrase to its counter-revolutionary equivalent. Chanting to the same tempo, and well within the field of vision of the lions across the patch of grass, the children bellowed:
The People Want Bashar al Assad! The People Want Bashar al Assad!