Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Zarafamania

By Leonard Gill

AUGUST 3, 1998:  On Tuesday, October 31st, 1826, Zarafe, a female giraffe, set foot in France and France fell to Zarafamania. King Charles X formally received her in ceremonies performed in the spring of 1827, and in July and August of that year, roughly 100,000 Frenchman, one-eighth the population of the country’s capital, crowded the Jardin des Plantes to view her.

Parisians, being Parisians, immediately saw spots, on textiles, wallpaper, crockery, soap, even furniture, and went to extended lengths to capture her profile in everything from topiary to coiffure. With hair piled fashionably high a la Girafe, women took to the floor to fit themselves and their towering creations inside carriages, and men took to learning the intricacies of tying the “giraffique” cravat to go with their “giraffique” hats. “Belly of Giraffe,” “Giraffe in love,” and “Giraffe in exile” were the season’s colors. And that winter, a new strain of influenza, “Giraffe flu,” hit the city.

You may never understand the French, but you will understand after reading Michael Allin’s Zarafe (from the Arabic zerafe, meaning “charming” or “lovely one”) that this was no ordinary giraffe. For starters, she was the first such animal in France ever.

She had arrived in good shape and in sweet temper after travelling 200 miles on camelback across what is now Sudan, sailing over 2,000 miles up the Nile on board a felucca, weathering three weeks on the Mediterranean with her head poking through the deck of a brigantine, and making the final 550 miles, from Marseilles to Paris, at two miles per hour in 41 days on foot. That’s a total of some 4,000 miles on 25 gallons of milk per day in two-and-a-half years so that the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, could make valuable PR work of her before the good people of France and especially their king. Accept my rare gift of a giraffe, the viceroy was saying, and leave Greece to me.

There is more to this story, of course, amazingly more and in all manner of contradictions: The African slave trade; the European Enlightenment. Napoleon’s defeat in Egypt; Napoleon’s intoxication with Egypt. Cabinets de curiosités; the founding of municipal zoos. Mameluke fighters; the corps des savants. Antiquities for profit; antiquities saved from ruin. The Rosetta Stone rubbed black by untold hands; the Rosetta Stone deciphered at last. Belief in mythological creatures; astonishment at the sight a giraffe.

Michael Allin does with this unexamined material what Dava Sobel managed to do so well in the bestseller Longitude: concentrate on an underreported discovery, track it for individual personalities, and mine the impact of that discovery on history for all its worth. Allin’s results, as they were with Sobel’s, make for unexpected connections and fascinating reading.

For his research, the author went directly to the great and sometimes inglorious record of the man himself, Muhammad Ali, as transcribed word-for-word over the course of his more-than-40-year reign by Arab scribes. What didn’t turn up there (and it wasn’t much or reliable enough for news of Zarafe’s transport out of Africa) was more than made up for once the giraffe reached the port of Marseilles.

It is at this point, through the letters, memos, invoices, and newspapers that crisscrossed France and charted the giraffe’s slow progress to Paris, that the personalities of savants and handlers, functionaries and royalty, onlookers and the looked-upon herself, Zarafe, spring from the page. The author says as much and better. “Zarafe came to life with the times she lived in,” he concludes after the 10 years it took for him to piece together this kaleidoscopic story. His handsomely designed book does just that again for us.

No such luck if you view Zarafe today – in the flesh, stuffed but still standing, inside a museum in La Rochelle on the west coast of France. Keeping her company are Empress Josephine’s pet orangutan, half a dozen shrunken heads, the skeleton of a dodo, and the alimentary system of a vulture in formaldehyde. And to what past and continuing purpose?

“It is without doubt useless to explain how and why the nature of things was thus decided,” Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the eminent naturalist and a hero in this story, declared in his report on the strange and wonderful Zarafe. The book on her suggests that, despite our trying, the same may wind up said of human history too.

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