The Fall 2020 issue of ArabLit Quarterly — our issue of summer insight & delight — is now available as PDF and EPUB, and in a searchable online edition for Exact Editions subscribers. The print edition is also available (in the US, Canada, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and soon elsewhere):
By M Lynx Qualey
Cats have made themselves an essential part of human literatures.
They weave through folktales, often as “domesticated” creatures that have become so familiar that we see them as family. Yet they are also otherworldly, their inner lives encoded in a language we don’t yet know. Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb wrote a poem for his beloved deceased housecat Susu, “موت سوسو”. And he also wrote, in his memoir A Child from the Village, “it was forbidden to strike a black cat during the day, or any cat at night, because it might be an ‘afreet or else the soul of one of those humans who could roam apart from their bodies.”
The stories we pass down about people and cats sometimes showcase the best of human behavior as when, famously, the prophet Muhammad cut off a section of his cloak so that a cat could go on sleeping in peace. Such small acts of kindness have a more than ordinary importance. In al-Suyuti’s fifteenth-century compilation The Merits of the Housecat, translated here by David Larsen, there is a story of a man whose sins were pardoned because he had once taken pity on “a little cat that was weakened by the cold, huddled at the foot of a wall[.]”
Other stories that we pass down show us as a species that acts even more cruelly toward cats than we do to each other. Cats might be easy to love, but they are also easily abused.
In his essay, “The Cats of Al-Quds/Jerusalem,” Basem Raad connects the Paris cat massacre of the 1730s to the intertwined lives of cats and humans in contemporary al-Quds. The hundreds of thousands of street cats in the city are hardy and suspicious. They survive, Raad writes, “in an environment in which they are not really welcome, but are allowed to remain because they are there[.]” Some, he writes, “blame the British for bringing them in, but they must have existed long before.”
In the short stories in this issue, cats are both banal and ethereal. In Ameer Hamad’s “Schrödinger’s Cats,” and Hisham Bustani’s “The Disappearance of Bubuz,” translated by Thoraya El-Rayyes, cats are both present and absent. And in Amgad ElSabban’s “Tale of the Resurrected Brother and the Metamorphosed Mother,” translated by Mona Khedr, characters shift between cat and human states. All of these cats are what we see before us. But they are also something else entirely.
Literary cats are often associated with unfulfilled desire, as in Michrafy Abdelwadoud’s “Cat Love,” translated for this issue by Mariam Antar and Zahra Hankir. Or sometimes cats are a substitute beloved, as in the poems by Rasha Omran collected here, which appear in Omran’s Arabic, in Phoebe Bay Carter’s English, and in Henri Julien’s French.
Cats also represent a city’s most vulnerable, as in Layla Baalbeki’s “The Cat,” translated here by Tom Abi Samra. The cats in Baalbeki’s story can be abused with impunity, thrown out on the street, and they have no recourse to complain to authorities. They can also be snatched up, used as a child’s plaything. All they can hope for is that someone—as in this story—lends them a sudden and mysterious hand.
Cats are even more disposable in Ghada Samman’s “Beheading the Cat,” where a man must behead a cat on his wedding night to prove he can dominate his wife. As Layla AlAmmar explains in her essay “A Guardian for the Untamed,” this maxim came to Samman’s story from Persian, Bengali, and Pakistani traditions, as in a Persian proverb that suggests, “One should kill the cat at the nuptial chamber.” (But don’t worry: No cats are harmed either in Samman’s “Beheading the Cat,” translated by Issa J. Boullata, or in Alammar’s “A Guardian for the Untamed.”)
Real cats also appear in this issue. They are the companions of authors, as pictured in our gallery, and they are also photographed on the streets of Jerusalem. Real cats are useful to humans, as al-Suyuti writes in Merits of the Housecat, both as companions and as catchers of mice. And—as thirteenth-century author al-Jawbari wrote in his Book of Charlatans, here translated by Dima El-Mouallem—cats can be of great assistance in one’s house burglaries.
In Hoda Marmar’s “What Happened to Zeeko?”, the titular cat is both real and fictional. He is the Zeeko of Emily Nasrallah’s classic Young Adult novel, and he is the Zeeko who belonged to Emily’s daughter, Muna Nasrallah. Muna and Hoda talk about the cat of her childhood, the cat in her memory, and the “domesticated” cat in her mother’s fiction.
Here and earlier, I couch “domesticated” in quotes. That’s because, according to a 2017 study in Nature: Ecology & Evolution (“The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world”), ancient DNA suggests that cats “domesticated themselves”—that they chose to live amongst and alongside humans, finding it useful to adapt to our behaviors, much as we adapted to theirs.
From a human point of view, cats were domesticated. However, from a cat’s point of view, perhaps it looks more like our species has morphed into a more feline-friendly form. And indeed, this issue of ArabLit Quarterly, our seventh, hasplayfully adapted itself to the cat.
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Also look for Thursday’s episode of BULAQ, which will feature a discussion of this issue.