New Fiction in Translation: Layla Baalbaki’s ‘The Cat’

“The Cat” originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of ArabLit Quarterly:

The Cat

By Layla Baalbaki

Translated by Tom Abi Samra

Now, it was the beginning of summer.

Back in February, the kittens’ mother had put her little ones down on a narrow street, which the city workers had paved, and where they threw their dirty leftovers. At first, the mother spent her time licking the blood off the kittens’ bodies. One night—during which the rain didn’t weary of accumulating on the street, the thunder consumed every other sound on Earth, and the lightening slit open the fabric of the sky—the mother cat heard quiet footsteps against the tiled sidewalk, behind the metal trashcan. This made her anxious. She pulled her kittens closer and rubbed her body against theirs, warming them. The footsteps hovered and hovered. She sniffed them, slowly. And she recognized these footsteps. She had heard them at the window of the house where she used to live; her heart fluttered. This was months ago, when she lived with an elderly couple, their only unmarried son, and the maid. Everyone used to cuddle and admire her. She had the prettiest eyes, of a color shading between violet and petrol blue. She was graceful, and her white fur, with amber patches, glimmered like a window facing the rising sun. Like a princess, she partook of everyone’s calm, simple life. “What are we going to cook, ya Fullah?” “The old man is smoking too much, ya Fullah!” “Let’s play cards together, ya Fullah!” “The kid’s running late, ya Fullah!” “Fullah, Fullah, …”

The lady told the cat that her name means a white flower that bloomed and faded quickly, its smell the most aromatic, softest, and sweetest of all flowers. Why didn’t the lady tell her that she didn’t resemble a fullah, except in her ephemerality, like fading stars in bright night skies? But the point is, she saw him occupying the window with his mighty, intimidating stature. She glanced at him and murmured to herself that he was the most handsome cat she’s ever seen, that she grew weak and paralyzed upon seeing him, and that experiencing love with him was incredible. One night, she left the house, loitering around with him. And he gave her love. Lots and lots of love. He showered her with love. He buried her with love. He choked her with love. She was the richest cat in the world. At least she carried these experiences, feelings, and colors, and the fervor of these moments of pleasure, shuddering, and fear. And he gave her—this one who was roaming around now, roaming around the trash—more than love. And she, for the kids’ sake, would respond to him, follow him, dream of him.

The soft steps of the children’s father waned. The storm intensified. Cautiously, the kittens’ mother listened. The little ones, inquisitive, looked at their mother’s face. The mother reassured them that safety would return to their shelter, and that they would move to another hiding place tomorrow.

When the storm subsided and dawn broke, the kittens’ mother started moving her little ones. She found it best to hide her kittens in different places, and one kitten’s destiny was the window of a well-lit kitchen.

This kitten didn’t know what had happened to her mother and siblings, but what she did know was that, when she left her hiding spot, she sensed the smell of milk seeping through a crack in the window, and so she stuck her head through the crack. A fat woman spotted her and violently pulled her inside, shouting in a dreadful, hoarse voice: “That cat came at the right time! She’ll get rid of the mice in the house, and she’ll eat only what she hunts.” At first, the mice didn’t come out of their burrows. Even if they had, the cat wouldn’t have recognized them, since she’d never come across one before. She had to steal a good deal of milk so as to not die of starvation before she met her first mouse.

She was falling asleep in the dark on a chair in the corner of the kitchen when, suddenly, she heard an unusual sound. She opened one eye only to see a herd of mice, big and small; it must’ve been the whole family! She got ready to pounce. Then she closed her eyes; she was scared and disgusted at the mere thought of one day being forced to eat these icky creatures. She wondered: How could she even swallow a creature this size? Why must she antagonize them? And who knew—maybe these mice were kinder than the fat woman? She leapt off the chair and onto the ground to greet the guests, but the mice immediately dispersed, terrified. She looked around. On one of the shelves, she saw a bag overflowing with flour, and she immediately understood. She then snuck into the salon, giving the mice space to carry out their mischief.

In the morning, the fat woman learned of the kitten’s collusion with the mice, so she hit her and threw her out. The kitten was stranded, moving from house to house, where she was hit, imprisoned, starved, and forced to kill even rats, worms, and mosquitos. That was until the day she found an abandoned park, in which she settled. She ate what fell from the buildings’ balconies, and she roamed the park, singing and cheerful. She was now in her own land—free and nameless.


When my mother was pregnant with me, she used to love a man other than my father. Because of how much she adored him, I turned out beautiful, really beautiful. Whoever saw me would repeat the same thing—that I am “beautiful, really beautiful.” I am now 19 years old. I won’t become pregnant without a ravaging sea of love to drown in; and then my baby’s face will make it into this world beautiful like the rising moon. Moon? No, the moon is distant and foolish—no meaning to it. My baby’s face will make it into this world shining like the sun. Had I lived during the Pagan age, I would have worshipped the sun, bowing to it in the temple, burning incense. Earth? Earth doesn’t concern me: the dirt, the trees, the rocks, the springs. But I am concerned about being loved on this Earth. And now I have a man who loves me. This is the only thing that gives me satisfaction.

I know what I want: as my feet sink into the dirt and the sun embraces my face, I await the arrival of a human to the moon to exterminate it and relieve me of its foolish light. I know that I’m not fighting to be free, heroic, immortal. I would like to enter university this year, and to partake of my family’s boredom, quarrels, shallowness, naïve dreams, and the depravity and cowardliness of some of its members. I get lost in my own home and melt in the street, and this makes me feel safe, dreaming peacefully—peacefully and delightedly.

No. I am not one of these mythical women who can live alone. Solitude? It kills me. Places that are deserted and free of people terrify me. That’s why I’m going to get married and have many babies. But until then, I am incapable, incapable of breathing if there isn’t someone who loves me by my side. As of yet, however, I have not loved.

And this man who’s next to me in the car listens carefully and cautiously to the cat’s meows. He’s the man with whom, these days, I cruise around the city and beneath it. Even though he’s double my age, he’s more cheerful than me. He’s the one who taught me how to laugh, and with him I discovered that my laugh oozes desire, that my smile is a tulip, that my skin is like rose petals, red and velvety, that my eyes are a harbor that lure seamen to the shores of pleasure, diamonds, and triumph.

What I like about him is the white hair at his temples; he’s the only one who makes my fingers go numb. He asked me to ask something of him, so I said: “Your white hair.” His eyes turned murky, his face pale. He pulled me toward him and showered me with kisses. He didn’t spare any part of my body. When he kisses me, I feel as if I’m bathing in a stream under a walnut tree. Meanwhile, far away on a rugged valley road, a villager carries a load of wheat up to the mill, which is on the top of the mountain.

From the very beginning, I made sure he understood that I know what I want, and that I won’t fall crazy in love with him to the point of leaving my world behind and flying behind him on the back of mare into an unknown forest. Because of that, we never talked about his wife, home, and work, and I never told him anything about my life. We have dinner together, we dance, we swim, we climb mountains, we get bored. I am his spring, and he’s my summer. We just have fun.

Yet he astonishes me—

Now, in the car, he astonishes me. Instead of wrapping his arm around my shoulders and making room for my head in the space between his neck and shoulder, and moistening my eyes, mouth, and neck with his tongue; instead of driving the car with one hand, intoxicated, as we drove through the city streets, he was stiff, his bleary eyes shifting between the club’s sports field and the abandoned park. He asked: “Do you hear a cat meowing?” I answered: “I hear a cat meowing.” He jumped up and commanded me, saying: “Wait, I’ll catch it and take it to my son, for him to play with.” He went around the colorful plant fence, disappearing from my line of sight for a moment. Then he appeared, his hand gripping a frail kitten, and she was tearing the fabric of space with her meows. He tossed the kitten in the back seat of the car, and he rolled up the windows like a madman on the street. I closed my eyes, scared that, at any moment, he might crash into a wall, or a person. I never saw him as proud, triumphant, and elated as he was now, in these moments. And without even looking at me, he said: “I’m going home to give my son the cat to play with it, and then we’ll have dinner.” I felt alone, alone and sad, suffocating. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t open my mouth. I did what follows with a quick, swift, magical move: I stretched a hand into the car’s darkness and into the back seat. The cat had become mute, and I couldn’t find her. My fingers glided over the rough carpet. Through the tail of my left eye, I examined his face: he was euphoric, as if intoxicated, his eyes adrift, gazing at the houses along the street, the lights, the people. I opened the window on my side, and I continued searching the carpet with my other hand. It was as if the cat foresaw her salvation: she approached my fingers. I grabbed her and squeezed her delicate body with my fingers; this time, she let out a shriek. I withdrew my hand and began shaking. I let out a sigh of relief when he wasn’t looking. Yet he said: “My son’s going to be so happy with the cat—it’ll be so much fun!” Exhausted, I smiled to myself. I closed my eyes, placed my hand on its stomach, lifted it with care, and threw it out the window into the street. I then quickly closed the window and wiped my burning face with my cold hand. After that, I couldn’t get up the courage to look at his face. My hair was in my eyes, and I wished that my hair was a palm tree so that I could hide behind it. I struggled to speak, and I said: “Drop me at a café.” He didn’t seem surprised. He said: “We’re going to have dinner in the mountains like we agreed, after I drop off the cat so my son can play with it.” But I shouted: “Drop me at a café.” Pain was savaging my whole arm, suffocation was gathering in my chest—gathering—and sadness paralyzed my feet.

“Drop me here.”

He stopped the car in front of the café, and he said: “What’s the matter with you? Wait for me here until I drop off the cat.”

I dragged my shoes along to the door, but I didn’t go in. I hurried, hurtling through the quiet, vicious streets.

Layla Baalbaki was born in 1936 and is a widely acclaimed Lebanese novelist, journalist, and activist who is perhaps most well-known for her 1957 novel Ana Ahya (I Live), which she published when she was 22 years old. Her beloved collection of short stories A Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon appeared in 1963, which led to charges of obscenity and “endangering public morality.” She was acquitted.

Tom Abi Samra translates literature from Arabic into English and occasionally writes poetry.