‘What Happened to Zeeko?’ Celebrating Emily Nasrallah, BOTD in 1931

The celebrated Lebanese author and women’s-rights activist Emily Nasrallah was born on this day in 1931. Nasrallah grew up in Al Kfeir, a village in southern Lebanon, before moving to Beirut to study and work as a journalist and teacher. Her debut novel, Birds of Septembercame out in 1962 and was later listed as one of the Arab Writers Union’s 105 best books of the twentieth century. It has been translated into German as Septembervogel by Veronika Theis, but not into English.

However, her young adult novel, Diary of a Cat, appeared in English as What Happened to Zeeko? For our CATS issue , Hoda Marmar wrote about the novel and asked to Muna Nasrallah, the author’s daughter.

By Hoda Marmar

كُتب الكثير عن بيروت في زمن الحرب. وكانت الكتابة, في معظمها, عن الكبار, وللكبار. وكانت عن الناس. أمّا سائر المخلوقات المقيمة في المدينة, فقلّما ذُكرت. بلى: كتبت الصحافة عن ظاهرة القطط والكلاب الشاردة في زمن الحرب. ولكن, ماذا عن تلك المخلوقات اللطيفة, الأليفة؟ وكيف عاشت؟… وماذا جرى للعلاقة المميّزة التي تقوم بين طفل, وحيوان بيتيّ؟

Much has been written about Beirut in times of war. Most of it was about adults, for adults. And it was about people. But what of the rest of the living creatures that inhabit the city? They were rarely mentioned. Yes: the press investigated the phenomena of stray cats and dogs during the war. But what of these sweet domesticated animals? How did they endure? And what happened to the special bond that unites child and pet?

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Thus does Emily Nasrallah (1931-2018) introduce her young adult novel يوميّات هر, first published in 1997 by Hachette Antoine and illustrated by Maha Nasrallah. It won the Lebanese Association Award for Children’s Books and was later translated to English, German, Dutch, Spanish, and Thai.

In the wake of the recent Beirut explosion on August 4, 2020, I remembered Zeeko and his human companion, Muna, and the lives of children and cats forever affected by trauma. Revisiting Emily’s novel offered much-needed healing, warmth, and understanding.

Zeeko was a Siamese who belonged to Emily’s daughter Muna. He died in 1982, during the Lebanese Civil War, after the bombing of the family’s West Beirut home. But how to explain Zeeko’s disappearance to young Muna? How to talk about it? In the beginning, Muna was simply told that Zeeko had vanished. And while she accepted the answer, Emily still decided to write the cat’s story. She gave Zeeko a voice and allowed him to give his own view of our cruel world. She led Muna, and her readers, to the comforting conclusion that Zeeko had escaped. In 1983, Emily finished the novel, but it wasn’t until fourteen years later that she decided to publish, at a time when Muna was more prepared to face the pain of losing the irreplaceable Zeeko.

Najla Reaidy, Emily’s editor at Hachette Antoine, shared the following: 

Whenever you read any of her novels, you think you know Emily. But when you listen to her talk about her writing, you realize that there is another side to her, a background to the story, and you discover how candid and transparent she is. She put everything on the table, even her own life and her own heart; I loved her for it all the more. In What Happened to Zeeko?, there are two striking scenes: the one at the barricades and her husband’s visit to the destroyed factory. The barricades and sandbags made me remember the civil-war days, and she wrote about them in such an emotional tone, as the cat wandered the streets. I was also moved by the way she ended the story, as she was conflicted about the ending, because—how could she tell her daughter that Zeeko was no longer with them? So she had to end it in a different way, that showed he left without mentioning a destination.

And what of Muna Nasrallah’s side of the story?

What was the real Zeeko like?

Muna Nasrallah: I’ve always loved cats. Ever since I was five years old, I always had a cat around, whether in Beirut or in the village. But for some reason they were always temporary, as if their proprietors would entrust them to us for a short period while they were away. When I was ten, Zeeko was born to the cat of close family friends. Zeeko’s father was a tomcat called Abu Shakir, and his mother was a very refined Siamese. I wanted a cat, and Zeeko had too many siblings for the family to take care of. And so, with my parents’ blessing, I became Zeeko’s owner. I loved him from the very beginning, as he was very peaceful and calm. There was a mystical force that drew me to him, and I enjoyed taking care of him. I even wrote his medical chart, observing him as if he were a human baby. Zeeko was very special to me, and he occupied a big place in my heart and my family’s hearts. My dad used to play with Zeeko and make up songs for him, and teach him tricks like flipping from one side to the other. My mom liked cats and all beings in general, but because of my attachment to Zeeko, she loved him even more. Zeeko was a part of our family.

How did it feel to read يوميّات هر for the very first time?

MN: My mom wrote the novel [in the early eighties], and back then I refused to let her publish it, as I didn’t want to hear about it. In 1997, while I was in medical school abroad, she sent me a published copy of the novel and said, I hope you’re not upset that I decided to publish it. It was a big emotional surprise, especially since I was away from Lebanon and my family. I didn’t mind that she published the book after all those years had passed. When I read it for the first time, my heart was filled with warmth, and I was touched by how much detail my mom had seen, about me and about Zeeko. This book was a true gift; it brought me so much happiness, and it still means a lot to me to this day. And it keeps giving me positive experiences with students and readers who want to know more about the novel. 

Why do you think she was determined to write and share your story and Zeeko’s with the world?

MN: I wish my mom were here to answer that question herself, but I’ll try my best. She said that she wanted to talk about the war through the eyes of the little ones, for a change. And I was an example of how children had lived through the days of war. Another reason might be that Mom always wrote about real events and people, and maybe my story with Zeeko had such a big impact on me that Mom decided to write it down. Also, she was deeply marked by the Israeli invasion of Beirut and by the fact that our house—like many others—was completely shattered, along with my dad’s workplace. It was as if she wrote about our collective trauma, as writing is also a therapeutic tool that heals and promotes growth.

Was Emily a cat lover? How was she around Zeeko?

MN: Although Mom did not particularly prefer cats to other living beings, she and others in the family grew fond of Zeeko. I remember when Zeeko was fixed, as he’d been having rage episodes and once bit my dad and hurt him. When he got back from the vet, Zeeko was sad and in pain. I remember my mom was lying down, and for once Zeeko got up and laid down on her chest with his head between his paws in a sphinx pose, demanding some tenderness. My mom got teary-eyed and started hugging and kissing Zeeko. I was very moved, and I felt how loving my parents were, and how relationships based on love can cross all boundaries.

How does it feel to read the book these days, after the recent tragic explosion in Beirut?

MN: Each time I reread the book, I find something new in it that draws me in and touches me. The book is available narrated on a CD in mom’s voice. It hasn’t been long since the first time I listened to it in her own voice—it was two years ago, after she passed away. This gave the book a new dimension for me, and I felt it was even more precious, more personal. I’m blessed and lucky that Mom wrote it for me, and in the audio when she mentions my name, I feel the love and warmth in her voice. In terms of the devastating Beirut explosion, which happened against an already dark background in Lebanon, and in the midst of a rapidly changing world, I needed time to absorb it and the extent of its impact. I certainly look at it differently now as an adult and a mother of two boys who are close to the age I was when I had Zeeko. There is a lot more anxiety and deep reflection. As children, we tend to take events as they are, as fated happenings that will eventually come to an end. Now, I no longer have the protective bubble of childhood.

Zeeko was irreplaceable, and it wasn’t until 2006 that a tiny frail kitty pushed her way into your life and heart again. Tell us about her.

One thing I learned from Zeeko was not to be afraid to push the limits. It took me a long time to get a cat after Zeeko. It wasn’t until 2006, when I met my future husband, who happened to have recently rescued a two-month-old kitty. He named the cat Silly, and, when he went abroad, I took care of the cat. Ever since then, Silly has been with us. Although Zeeko and Silly have very different characters, both have a special place in my life, family, and heart.

Muna with Zeeko in 1979 taken by her father Phillip Nasrallah

Also:

In Photos: Memoir and Foundation Remembering Emily Nasrallah (1931-2018)

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Hoda Marmar has been the administrator of “Bookoholics” Book Club in Beirut since 2012. She strives to spread the love of books on social media. She is a proud Goodreads librarian and book reviewer whose background is in Educational Management and Neurosciences. Her favorite authors include May Menassa, Amélie Nothomb, and Haruki Murakami.

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One thought on “‘What Happened to Zeeko?’ Celebrating Emily Nasrallah, BOTD in 1931

  1. Quite interesting for a type of children’s story, yet a new version of story-telling techniques through the eyes of a non-human creature living the turmoil of the Lebanese Civil War and the Zionist Invasion of Beirut in 1982. Zeeko, the cat, says it all.

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