Mamdouh: the Baghdad tiger on Broadway

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The tiger whose death after the US invasion of Iraq inspired a play that is garnering roaring reviews on Broadway is still remembered at the Baghdad zoo, where he was born and raised.

Six months after the March 2003 invasion, when the big cat was shot and killed by a drunken US soldier, the news made international headlines.

Playwright Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal tiger at the Baghdad zoo," which opened last week on Broadway with Robin Williams in the lead role, is based on that incident.

"The tiger was named Mamdouh, and for us at the zoo he was special not only because he was a rare Bengal tiger and the zoo's prized possession, but also because we raised him from birth and remember him as a cub," said Adel Salman Musa, the 54-year-old director of the zoo.

He recalled that in the immediate aftermath of the US invasion hundreds of animals were killed, stolen or died of hunger and thirst in their cages.

"But Mamdouh, who was about 14 at the time, was very strong. He survived the hunger and thirst, only to die senselessly a few months later," said Musa.

In life, as in the play, it was a time when the popular jubilation of seeing Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein overthrown was turning into a nightmare of surging violence.

The invasion had unleashed an Al-Qaeda insurgency targeting US soldiers, and every day somewhere in Iraq innocent civilians were getting caught in the crossfire and losing lives.

The streets were then patrolled by young American soldiers who did not understand the language of the natives, nor their ways.

Only months ago, WikiLeaks revelations disclosed the US military's own documented accounts of innocent Iraqis killed by nervous American soldiers.

One victim of the violence was the Bengal tiger, a dwindling species that is internationally protected. He was killed during a drinking party at the zoo, when a US soldier decided to share his food with the cat.

The serviceman reached inside the cage with a piece of meat, and the hungry tiger lunged forward and mauled his arm. Another soldier shot the tiger.

"Among zoo staff there were tears in our eyes when we heard Mamdouh had died," said Abubakr Farouq, a zoo veterinarian. "Together we had endured so many things -- wars, sanctions and difficult times when the animals were starving and we had no food."

Musa, the head zoo keeper, recalled a day when he had to slaughter the pigs to feed the starving tiger, and some of the other beasts.

On stage, Mamdouh's ghost resurrects as a foul-mouthed tiger witnessing the violence of Baghdad, haunting the soldier who caused his death and pondering the existential mysteries of life.

The New York Times called the play, a "smart, savagely funny and visionary new work of American theater."

"I am surprised and delighted that Mamdouh is still remembered, especially in this way," said Farouq, 39, when told about the play.

"It's nice to see people still caring about such a thing, and it is an original way of portraying the nightmare that all Iraqis lived through -- and are still enduring."

Violence in Iraq has plunged since its peak in 2006 and 2007, but bomb attacks and kidnappings are still common.

In the streets, the Americans have become nearly invisible after officially ending combat operations at the start of September.

The nearly 50,000 US troops remaining until a full pullout at the end of the year now rarely venture outside their bases.

From the grimness of Baghdad, the bright lights of Broadway can only be imagined. The replenished, modest zoo remains one of the leisure-starved city's very few attractions.

On the Muslim weekend last Friday, cars packed with families lined up in a two-kilometre (1.2-mile) queue to get into the sprawling grounds of Baghdad's Zawra Park, a favourite family picnic spot with a zoo and rides.

At frequent intervals, taxis and buses disgorged parents and kids overloaded with picnic baskets and giant-size bottles of fizzy drinks, ready to escape the daily routines of waiting in traffic at security checkpoints, scrambling for scarce food rations, or enduring daily power cuts of eight hours or more.

Inside the zoo, Mamdouh has been replaced by Riley and Hope -- two Bengals donated by the United States, which also paid a $23,000 compensation for the dead tiger.

Watching Riley and Hope feeding on their daily ration of freshly-slaughtered donkey flesh, Akeel Mukarram pondered the lives of ordinary Iraqis like himself, as his three kids gawked excitedly at the frisky beasts.

"In Iraq, it is better to be an animal at the zoo than a human being," complained the civil engineer, who is in his 40s. "At least you are protected by a cage and someone feeds you every day."

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