Friday, February 12, 2010

Al-Qitta [The Kitten]

Cocoa in Salt Lake City, UT in 1997

Chapter Three from The Agoraphobic's Guide to Cairo. This was originally posted here on May 26, 2008, on the 5th anniversary of Miss Cocoa's disappearance/death. This version was slightly edited for submission to Mused. They're not using it so I'm free to re-post.


You could read the temperature in the faces of the young, underfed security guards draped at the entrance of the American University of Cairo (AUC) as I left my classes one early September afternoon in 1993. Melting in their white wool uniforms of summer, they did not have the strength to stand without leaning on their Kalashnikovs. I returned their drowsy nods as I passed their makeshift post of wood and cardboard. I had only been in the country for a month, but already I was not ready to face my new home across the Nile with nothing but several hours of Arabic homework to pass the long evening hours. My newly-married American roommates lived a fairly self-contained existence. The last thing they needed was a new roommate complaining about being lonely. So rather than hailing one of the million or so black-and-white taxis filling the streets, I headed east down Mohammed Mahmoud Street.

Thousands of Egyptians, a few Americans and others of all nationalities shared the broken and uneven sidewalks. The overflow, and those in a hurry, strode with purpose in the road itself, on the bank of a stream of ever-moving traffic, where they were uninterrupted by the ankle-wrenching breaks found everywhere in the “regular” sidewalk. My goal was the AUC library, filled with books I could only read achingly slowly, if at all. Just a few days before, I had dared myself to seek out the Arabic translation of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” I found it easily enough on the well-organized shelves and pulled it out to run my eyes over the first few paragraphs. After a minute or so, I gently closed the leather-bound cover and replaced it on the shelf. I acted in a deliberate manner such that anyone watching me might have imagined that was all I had really planned to do, anyway. Two and a half years of Arabic may have been enough to help me find the book, but it was not enough to get me much further than that. Baby steps, I decided. “Al-Harb wa al-Salaam” would have to wait.

But I never made it to the library. Instead I found myself drawn through the crowd towards a small shop—more like a dark hole between shops—I had noticed while exploring some days before. Next to the nearby sundries store, where my daily Cadbury bar awaited me, this store would prove to hold my greatest temptation yet.

Stepping out of the flowing crowd, I paused at the window of the small shop. I was immediately transfixed by a white Siamese kitten imprisoned in a ten-gallon fish tank. The rays of the sun drove through the outer window of the store through the glass of the tank without mercy, creating an Easy-Bake Oven within. Flies buzzed around a small bowl of rancid strawberry yogurt. Two enormous, aquiline orbs dominated the perfectly round head of the highly indignant occupant. Her face strained with the effort she had summoned to proclaim the injustice of her condition, and her bright red tongue was a pointed exclamation point on each terrible scream—all of which were completely muted to the outside world by double layers of glass. To this fierce feline, escaping that tank was not an empty hope: it was a foregone conclusion.

A young clerk spotted me from the cool, dark recesses of the store and moved instantly in my direction. I quickly assumed a confident air of indifference, looking around as if I might, at any moment, step back into the stream of the passing population. To this day, I am convinced he was completely and utterly deceived by my calculated actions. I nodded wordlessly in the direction of the fish tank.

“Twenty pounds,” he stated in English. [Roughly $7 USD]

“It is a half-dead cat with no tail,” I said, to no one in particular. She was in fact more than half-alive, but I have never been one to shy away from profitable exaggeration. In her weepy eyes I could see the beginnings of a typical kitten virus, and her tail—something was seriously wrong with that tail. It traveled only an inch from her body before ending abruptly in a tragic little hook.

Our Egyptian matchmaker stepped briefly behind the store window and scooped up the miserable creature in question. Her cries ceased immediately, but her eyes remained fixed upon mine like two tragic blue moons. She appeared overall as if some hand had rolled her in bleached flour, then carefully and deliberately dipped her paws, ears, tail, and the very tip of her nose in dry cocoa. I had never seen anything so adorable in my entire life. The young man abruptly tilted her nose to the ground to better display her deformed tail.

“It is the highest fashion for the male Siamese to have the shortest tail possible.” He spoke with the firmest authority on feline fashion. Craning her head out of his grasp to keep her eyes locked onto mine, she all but dared me to give this man any reason to lower her back into that stifling aquarium. Something in her eyes suggested she doubted I possessed the power to do so.

Feeling myself drawn deeper and deeper into a discussion with only one possible outcome, I tore my eyes from hers and directly faced her captor. “First of all, the kitten you are holding is female. Secondly, mutilation should never be confused with fashion in a Siamese cat.” When he looked down at her in momentary confusion—which probably had more to do with linguistic barriers than anything else—I saw my window.

“Ten pounds.”

The young man shrugged. He knew when he’d been outsmarted by a wily American tourist. I fished a ten-pound note from the pocket of my jeans and handed it to him in exchange for one cutting-edge female kitten. The pads of her tiny feet felt like soft, fresh marshmallows in the palm of my hand. Her brilliant white coat was as velvety as the lightest chocolate mousse. Her eyes, which seemed to grow only bigger as each minute passed, had never left my face, nor had she ever blinked. I began to wonder if she possessed eyelids. Were Siamese cats without eyelids another bizarre trend I was heretofore unfamiliar with?

Finally, I had someone to pass the long evening with—the long year with—and someone to accompany me home. Knowing I had at least thirty minutes of weaving and riding through traffic to reach my apartment, and having nothing but a burgeoning book bag to transport my new ward in, I begged a small Snickers Ice Cream Bar box off of the store owner and gently placed her inside it. She slid weightlessly to one corner of the box, which I closed as I flagged a passing taxi.

Sitting in the backseat of the typical Cairene cab, one could experience for the first time what it must feel like to be a baked potato. The black roof of a taxi worked even better than aluminum foil to heat its contents. The dry, still air would be just on the verge of taking your breath away when a fresh, hot blast of desert wind mixed with car exhaust would burst through the open windows of the car, carrying just enough oxygen to hold you over until the next breeze. Though nearly every cab I rode in during my stay was brightly decorated with turquoise-colored charms to ward off the evil eye, along with Quranic or Christian sayings (depending on the faith of the driver), it was highly unusual to climb into one that was air-conditioned. It turned out to be just one more cannot-live-without American habit that proved to be unnecessary once you grew accustomed to it.

I may have been getting used to the heat, but I did not want my four-legged ice cream bar to melt before I got home. As we began to work our way through the cars and buses entangling Midan Tahrir, I slowly lifted one corner of the Snickers box to check on her. The instant she caught sight of me the cab was filled with an ear-splitting howl. People passing along the street on foot turned to look in our direction. I give my driver tremendous credit for not driving our vehicle directly into the face of oncoming traffic as his head snapped around to see for himself what wild creature was preparing to rip me—and quite possibly, him—limb from limb in the back of his vehicle. I slammed the lid back down on the box—instantly silencing the protest—just as he looked over and, seeing nothing but a guileless tourist, slowly turned back to face the road. I gave him a reassuring smile in the rear view mirror. It was not returned.

He did not say a word during the entire trip, though he always kept one eye on me and one on the road. I signaled him to stop when we reached my street corner and I handed him about twice the typical cab fare, hoping to buy his silence with a monetary apology. As I juggled my bag, box and loose change, Cocoa pushed her nose through a corner of the box, landing her gaze directly upon my startled driver.

“Fi qitta hinaak?!” [“It’s a kitten in there?”] He said, clearly expecting a Tasmanian devil or something along those lines.

Before I could answer him, she let loose with another earth-shaking howl of protest. At the sound of it, he threw my fare on the seat next to him and shook his head, peeling out of sight. I tucked my friend carefully under one arm and climbed the never-ending stone flights to my fourth floor apartment.

Not quite measuring up to my roommate Scott Dewing's foot in 1993. This was taken one week after I brought her home.

Cocoa Bean, my official new back up, weighed less than a pound when her feet first landed on the polished wood floors of my apartment. She could not have been 6 weeks old. Size, I soon learned, has no bearing whatsoever on vocal strength or lung capacity. I was taught within seconds that she not only knew exactly what she needed from me, and that I would pay a dear price should I deny her. I had not even fully straightened to a standing position after freeing her from her Snickers box when she hit me with her opinion regarding personal space. As far as she was concerned, mine was to include her at all times. I tried to walk slowly from room to room to show her new home, but she stood firmly rooted where I had placed her and just cried. Loudly. So she got her first tour riding on my shoulder. For the first several months, in fact, I could go nowhere in the apartment without Cocoa affixed to my neck or shoulder. If I accidentally left a room without her, she would not stop crying until I returned to pick her up. In my high school science class years earlier, we had learned about imprinting by having live baby chicks follow us around the halls of the school. Even those impressionable young babes had the presence of mind to shadow us: Cocoa insisted upon living her early kittenhood wrapped around my neck like a living stole.

I was not the only creature in the apartment to which she attached herself: Cocoa Bean was actually the second kitten who had moved in with my roommates and me in those first few weeks. While returning from a late night chocolate run to the neighborhood shop, I witnessed a small brown tail sticking up like a flag out of a nearby trashcan. I was wearing a loose jumper with roomy pockets, and I dropped my Cadbury in the left one as I reached over and lifted the tail, and everything attached to it, up into the air.

I found myself eye to eye with a wild-haired brown tabby attached to what was left of a quarter of baked chicken. I gave the ensemble a hardy shake, and the chicken fell into the garbage. I dropped the angry kitten into my right-hand pocket. Once I had made my way back upstairs, my roommates were thrilled about the chocolate, but lukewarm about the filthy, wild-eyed cat. The cat had an even lower opinion of the situation, and jumped from my pocket to run as quickly as possible to the darkest recesses under the nearest sofa. Near as we could tell from peering at him on our hands and knees, the recluse was maybe 10 or 12 weeks old. Once a dish of tuna had enticed him back out into the light, we tortured him with his first bath, washing what seemed like a pound of raw garbage and fleas from his long, wild hair. We fashioned a litter box out of a dish pan and a few pounds of stolen sand from the streets. Mounds of yellow sand were always around waiting to be made into cement blocks. Heavy, but functional. We didn’t find a place that sold cat food for weeks, so they lived on tuna and a limited about of mackerel for the interim. Every smelled canned mackerel? I don’t recommend it.

Sharing Mubarak's throne in 1993

Mubarak, named after the president of Egypt, bore silent witness to the introduction of Cocoa to the household three days later. Mubarak, it turned out, bore silent witness to just about everything. He was above getting involved in the petty affairs of humans, and only suffered us so long as we continued to leave unguarded loaves of bread on the kitchen counters, or lids off of the trash basket. Those were his happiest moments, where he was freed from the fetters of self-dignity. I had hoped early on that he might enjoy snuggling under the mosquito net with me in my room at night, but he preferred the company of married folk and had promptly moved in with my roommates, guarding the space under their bed from unwary creatures of the night.

Cocoa, however, would not have dreamed of separating herself from me by such an unbearable distance. That first night, she fell asleep curled in my arms under the sheet that served as extra protection against the rhino-sized mosquitoes. Given her size, I figured it was not entirely unthinkable that one of the heavier insects might succeed in carrying her off should she work her way back outside the net during the night. I needn’t have worried. When I awoke, she was still asleep under the net, wrapped tightly around my neck.

And while Mubarak showed only a mild interest in this bundle of fur (purported to be) of his own species, to Cocoa, Mubarak was clearly the cat’s meow. After witnessing her somewhat unusual emotional demands during those first few hours, my first instinct had of course been to skip every day of school for the rest of the semester in order to ensure she never have to endure a minute alone. My roommates brought me back to reason, and we three left her in the capable paws of her foster brother while we ventured into town for some education the following morning.

Most of the day’s education was received when we returned home. Siamese kittens who have been taken too early from their mothers have some significant issues not only with abandonment, but also with nursing, or so it seemed. We opened the door of the apartment that afternoon to see two small kittens waking from a nap on the sofa. Cocoa Bean immediately let loose with a barrage of complaints, mostly concerning our lengthy absence. As she stretched and stepped away from Mubarak, we had a chance to witness what his day must have been like. His long and wavy fur had been fashioned into so many little peaks all over his body as if some hairstylist, locked in a room with only a cat and a handful of hair gel, had gone utterly and completely mad. In her anxiety at being alone, Cocoa had “nursed” her poor companion senseless.

She did not stop this behavior, despite endless counseling on the topic, for weeks. Nor did she draw the line at nursing Mubarak. A few days later, I awoke to find a pronounced hickey on my neck. Try explaining that away to curious onlookers at school. Let them think what they will, I decided. I had at last found a devoted companion to help me navigate my way through this confusing and overwhelming ice cream social.

Suffering through the 108 degree heat of an intentionally unairconditioned apartment in 1994, thanks to a roomate who will go unnamed (Howdy Stout!)

No comments: