Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Cairo Cats Need Our Help Too
I became a urban wildlife tracker for my book Cairo Cats. Walking through a historic neighbourhood in Cairo, Egypt, a city of twenty million where I lived for seven years, a kitten is curled up on a piece of scrap cardboard. The noise from typical Cairean traffic and horns is deafening. As pedestrians scurry to and fro, the bottoms of gallabeyas and women's skirts brush the feline's fur. Everyone shifts to avoid stepping on the vulnerable creature. My destination is the Mosque of Sultan al-Mu-ayyad, a sanctuary offering tranquility in-between the forays I take into the nooks and crannies the feline denizens inhabit. Men pray on the carpets, cats lounge. A man who has finished praying, is feeding a group of cats. Whenever I return, this man is repeating his beneficent gesture, and obeying the teachings of Mohammad the Prophet, who is attributed to saying, “Love of cats is part of the faith.”
Thousands of years before in Ancient Egypt, people worshipped not only the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, but also the gentler cat-headed Bastet. It was at Bastet's temple in Bubastis in the delta of the River Nile, that special priests devoted themselves to the cat’s services. Great cat funerals took place in Bubastis — solemn ceremonies in which all those whose cats had died participated. To show their grief, people were even known to shave off their eyebrows. The owner, if his wealth allowed, would embalm the animal and wrap it in fine linen perfumed with cedar oil and buried just like a human being, often putting some objects into the grave so his pet could play with them in the Otherworld. Even little bowls for milk have been found in the cats’ cemetery. It was not unknown for someone who killed a cat to be executed or, if he happened to be caught in the act, lynched by the masses.
These attitudes have not always carried over to the Egypt of the present day. Authorities have sometimes dealt with cat overpopulation as they have in many urban centres — by mass culling. There are no longer gardens in the Mosque of Mu-ayyad for cats to escape busy streets, nor are their special cat gardens overseen by the qadi or judge. But scores of people make it their responsibility to feed the cats of Cairo and loyally protect all animals.
While living in Cairo, I joined a small group of expatriates and Egyptians who formed the Egyptian Society of Animal Friends. ESAF has grown into a influential humane organisation, working with zoo and pet shop workers, and even horse owners who cater to tourists wanting a special view of the Giza Pyramids. One of the founding members of ESAF is a lawyer, and has worked with Islamic scholars to bring increased public awareness of the teaching of animal rights in the Qur'an. They've even hosting the first Middle East animal conference. Four legged critters need our help more than ever. Until the end of March, a generous portion of the proceeds of my book Cairo Cats — Egypt's Enduring Legacy purchased from my site, will be donated
to the Egyptian Society of Animal Friends. Help me, in helping them, help the cats of Cairo. http://www.cairocats.com/, and The Egyptian Society of Animal Friends @ http://www.esaf.info/.