Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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ISRAEL: At the zoo, studying sounds of people

October 16, 2007 | 11:59 am

“Papa, why are they all speaking Arabic?”

The question jostled me into paying closer attention to my surroundings and, sure enough, my 4-year-old daughter was right about what I had not noticed at first: everyone around us was speaking Arabic.

We were visiting the Jerusalem zoo, known formally as the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem — the Biblical Zoo. It is a soothing oasis on a scenic swath of West Jerusalem, the holy city’s predominately Jewish side. It is also one of a handful of places in this polarized city where you can find Jews and Arabs having a good time in each other’s presence, if not together. From numerous visits, we were used to seeing Arab families from East Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel who come to see the animals and make picnics on the zoo’s grassy lawns.

But this day was a departure from the unwritten rules that tend to carve Jerusalem into Jewish and Arabs halves along rigidly observed lines. Nearly all the zoo’s visitors were Arabs; I spotted only a handful of Hebrew-speaking Jews all afternoon. My daughter Selma is quite used to hearing exclusively Arabic when we’re in East Jerusalem, but not at the zoo.

The big Arab turnout had a simple explanation: the three-day celebration ending the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Families were spending time together with meals, gift-giving — and a leisurely day at the zoo.

“Because there are a lot of Arab people at the zoo today,” I said, explaining about the Muslim holiday. Seeming satisfied, Selma returned to our main quest of finding a tiger, done for now with her people-watching but awash in the happy clamor of Arabic-speaking families.

— Ken Ellingwood in Jerusalem