Monday, August 04, 2008

Book Review: Babylon's Ark

Babylon's Ark by Lawrence Anthony is a memoir of a conservationist's trip to Baghdad soon after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to save the animals at the Baghdad Zoo. After reading a number of books on the topic, mostly on the archaeological looting, but also the excellent Imperial Life in the Emerald City, as well as numerous articles in the New Yorker and elsewhere, I feel like I know the story of the initial invasion (and bungling of the occupation) pretty well. For this reason, I found the first couple of chapters of Anthony's book a little tiresome (he also perpetuates the mistaken belief that since many of the major items looted from the Baghdad Museum were returned, that the looting was minor; it was not). The last chapter is also a bit much, a manifesto on respect for earth's creatures and awareness of our fragility, earth in the balance, blah blah blah.

That said, the middle of the book sucked me in. Anthony is South African, and SA was officially a neutral party in the occupation. The stories of the sidemen, the Department of Defense photographers, or the Afrikaan mercenary/security contractors, as well as the NGOs interested in conservation is pretty compelling. The story of the animals in the Zoo is really sad, although ultimately positive. There are also anecdotes about Uday and his pet lions that are pretty disturbing. In general, the portrait of Third World zoos and treatment of animals seemed pretty accurate based on my experiences. And Anthony is sympathetic to the Iraqis who are looting anything to feed their families, but he also rightly wonders about the psychosis that compelled people to loot things --iron bars from animal cages?-- they couldn't possibly sell. I was also interested to read that Captain William Sumner, who oversaw the Baghdad Museum, was also in charge of putting the Zoo right (it's all Civil Affairs).

At 250 pages or so, the book seemed a bit overlong to me, but there's definitely some good stories in there. An interesting angle through which to lament the war.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was skimming a few blogs and saw your comment about finding it interesting that Captain Sumner was also in charge of the museum, etc... are there any questions that I might be able to answer? - William Sumner