Tarboush

There’s something about cats. They have attitude. They’re feisty.  They nag. A lot. And although they are known to be curious, they seem to be confused.  I don’t know how the idea dawned upon me, but I realized cats and I have much in common. 

But let’s start with my perception about cats growing up. To be honest,  I wasn’t an animal lover. As a child, I feared living things except if they’re caged up. So the zoo was a fun trip because no animal was set loose to freely roam around so I was protected from their unexpected gestures, jumps, or movements.  I took a hamster from school to baby sit over the weekend and my family loved birds and rabbits; my father brought home a number of them (not at once of course) to raise them as part of the family. They didn’t last too long unfortunately and I am not so sure why. And this sums up my limited interaction with animals as a kid. Other than those few trips to the zoo and the rare occasions to babysit, I didn’t enjoy animals. Period.

I lived in an apartment building in Cairo where my neighbours raised dogs as pets. I dreaded the moment of running into my neighbours on my climb up, four flights to get home. Why? Because it seemed that I always ran into them and that meant running in to their dogs. When I saw the dogs, I cried.  When I heard them bark, I stressed and ran back out to the street. I refused, even with my parents holding my hand and by my side (who were unafraid), to go back in to the building, let alone, go up the four flights with the dogs unleashed, randomly and leisurely skipping on the staircase. Going back home meant facing those dogs, trying to make way through and up, and reliving fretful moments that would mark my childhood, forever.

Going to my mom’s mother’s home was not a better experience. She too lived on the fourth floor of her apartment building with a much longer and wider staircase. Wider meant more space to swift away if anything came racing down, I thought. My grandmother’s apartment building was plagued with cats of all kinds and many colours. Every weekend visit to my grandmother was a nightmare. Forget her baking. Forget the treats. Forget the royal breakfast she prepared and the home made take out on our way home. Nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing would ever make up or eliminate the constant anxiety and distress I felt every time I went over to visit her.

Ironically, even though she noticeably knew and acknowledged my cat-phobia (the poor lady witnessed way too many soprano -like screams screeching in to her ears and echoing through her neighbours’ doors) she insisted to feed street cats who sought shelter, daily. She refused to let any cat pass her door or sight without providing water and food for them. My grandmother is a generous lady and she followed a habit of our beloved Prophet: caretake, love, and shelter animals for they are beings like humans. Indeed, it’s an honourable example of compassion which I admire. But my young self, the once chubby girl with long thick braids refused to like cats, not one bit.

One day, the fear disappeared from me. I often visited friends’ homes who had cats and dogs. I must admit, I was jealous of the ease and comfort they had around animals. Bit by bit, I started stroking, petting and then holding them. Eventually, I got over the fear but liking them was years away from happening.

I don’t recall exactly when I came to accept animals. The one thing I know for sure was that I fell in love with dogs. I loved their fluffy hair, noses, playfulness; and the more I spent time around them, I realized their loyalty, devotion and faithfulness to their owner. These are the attributes that matter to me personally and hold on to dearly with relationships I have with people; discovering it amongst dogs was ever more heartening. Dogs tugged at my heartstrings and from that moment onwards, I simply clicked with dogs; they were in my good books. Forever.

But cats, I still didn’t warm up to them. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it took me living in two countries, a dozen home owned cats, and one man to finally accept them. And then love them.  The cat’s name that taught me how to love cats is Tarboush. Tarboush is an adopted, black, male cat. He just turned eight this April. His owner is a man who respects every single living being that ever exists. Tarboush’s name comes from a Turkish flat-topped red hat with a tassel on top; men wore it back during the Ottoman Empire until the late 1950s.

Tarboush is ‘chunky,’ over fed (which is a gesture of love and generosity in the Arab culture: to show how much you love someone, you keep feeding or stuffing them), showered with loved, and single (not dating or married and with no intentions to).  He loves to play outside and is incredibly gutsy. He will chase every new predator he sees in sight. You name it, he’ll catch it. I doubt he has any friends beyond the French doors he sleeps behind.

Tarboush is rather rough around the edges. He’s hard to get to know. He doesn’t like strangers. He tags on to his owner and more often than not, bosses him around too. Although Tarboush may be considered like all the other cats: feisty, lazy, boring, curious (too curious for his own good), he actually carries himself well. He won’t warm up to you easily and he will set his own rules until he does. He has character, a distinctive personality and proud ego, which after a few encounters, I didn’t care enough to care whether I was his friend or not. After all, his owner runs his world and the home he lives in, and I will have to manage and tolerate Tarboush for as long it takes. So be it!

Within a year after our first ‘hello’, Tarboush finally realized I am not going anywhere. I visit often, host dinners with his owner, and somehow end up feeding him (just because I’m asked to, nothing more).  Tarboush and I had to find a way to get along. So I took it upon myself to feed him, open the doors to let him out for his fetch and play time, and make sure I am not stepping over him while walking around the house (or sit on him by mistake!).

Tarboush has it his way around the house. He will keep nagging until he gets what he wants. I envied him way too many times because I wish I had his obnoxiously annoying yet persistent attitude. He doesn’t give a damn in the world; he will ask for what he wants and will keep after it until his owner surrenders to Tarboush’s will. He will sit and stretch anywhere he wants without caring for anyone looking or whether he’s blocking anyone’s way.  Something like this comes out from him, “deal with it because I’m not going anywhere.”

At times, I find Tarboush confused. I never really understand whether he wants to step outside or stay indoors; he’ll stare out the window for hours, as if curiously waiting to step out, and just when I slightly slide the door open, he wouldn’t nudge. There are days when he drives me crazy. Unexpected heavy sprints would be heard as he races down the stairs, up the stairs, then back again, around the plant, up the stairs, and the evening continues with this unpredictable course all along.  He is confused and he confuses me with him. But eventually he settles down, calmly. He doesn’t beat himself up when he can’t make up his mind with his final destination. Decisions could be made later, at a better time; now it’s time to unwind and relax.  Yes, I envy those moments too. Sometimes, I assume his indecisiveness is a sort of frustration and the circus course he makes may be an outlet for him to express anger or vent.

There’s more to Tarboush than just the things I didn’t like or couldn’t understand about him. It seems he taught me so much about myself. I’ve spent enough time with him to finally be accepted. But there are certainly life-turning moments that defined me over time with this cat. He taught me to stand my grounds; be firm and not let anyone break my will. Even if he’s getting yelled at, he will still persist on what he wants until he gets it.

My fear and absolute dislike to black cats especially made me realize that I may consider myself to be a liberal and inclusive woman, but with a slight tendency to being biased. I think part of the delay in liking Tarboush was because he was black; I didn’t like black cats the most. I associated them with magic and witchery; they were spooky and in my eyes they just meant bad luck (and man do I have enough of that in my life).  So it seems that I built the wall before ever crossing the terrain and giving myself a chance to get to know him better and patiently.

Tarboush was right about one thing: everything takes time and it’s his right to take the time to get to know me. It’s not only about patience, it’s about learning about me, setting his boundaries, understanding how I related and behaved with his owner, measured my tolerance levels, my commitment to him, and adherence to his scheduled feeding times too. He endlessly sniffed me and excitedly yet foolishly I thought I was finally approved of! But as it seems, having a respectful conversation with someone does not mean opening up and inviting them in to private territory. This is evident when he meets new neighbourhood cats; he invites them over but never lets them in the house, and dare they step a paw through the door, he will rip them apart (not literally of course), but ferociously and fiercely in protection of his territory.

The days I yearned for love, attention and care, Tarboush was there, somehow. I am not sure whether he is as smart as my golden retriever, Mango, the dog I once had- who instantly knew every emotion I felt. I’d like to think, though, that Tarboush taught me that it’s not always going to be about me. He doesn’t have to fetch and carry me at every downfall I experience and sad or depressing moment I feel. He will just be there. Around me. And he will extend his paw out to me because he needs the love, care and attention. His need for love immediately changes me. He snuggles between my knees and makes his final position, the space he digs between my thighs where he warmly and perfectly fits. When he is in this territory, he reminds me what it means to be loved and needed but in a completely different way. I learnt that I will survive my sad moment and that sometimes that will happen when I am there for someone else. I didn’t know Tarboush and I would ever reach this level of intimacy, but with time he found his way to my heart. And I praise the Lord for his expressive affection; it feels like I have won his heart and I ought to be grateful for this inexplicable connection I worked so hard for, forever.

Cats are mysterious and fun. I must admit they are witty and have their ways which you may end up adapting to.  Cats add something to our lives; I think it’s the surprise- the suspense of not knowing what they are up to, what’s next and what kind of attitude they will carry in your home. This unknown surprise keeps you on your toes- wondering and begging for signs and approval.

And cats may have six, seven or nine lives (depending on which cultural myth you believe in).  They perfect their jump and land with precision, refine their communication skills, sharpen their strategic traps and fearlessly execute their attacks.  They will do anything they want because they don’t care what you think, feel, and how you react. They will do it anyway because although they may seem confused, they are adamant to do as they feel and see right.

Surely cats are curious. And they never stop asking- even if they seem to not care enough, they actually really do.

I’d like to think cats and I have things in common, but it would only be wiser to say: maybe there’s a few lessons we ought to learn from cats.

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