The Magazine

Sam and the Sabra Tomcat

Lee Smith, peace (kitten) maker

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By LEE SMITH
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The anniversary of the start of the last war between Israel and Lebanon is coming up on July 12, and it makes me wonder how Israel is doing. Not Israel the country, of course—it’s thriving seven years after fighting Hezbollah on its northern border for 34 days. I mean Israel the cat.

tom labaff

tom labaff

A couple of months before the war broke out, I was walking home one night after an evening with friends in my Beirut neighborhood, when I heard the loud cries of a cat. I looked around and spied her peeking out from behind the tire of a parked car. She was still a kitten, much smaller than her voice let on, and she looked hungry. As I was deliberating whether to go in search of a can of tuna for her before sending her on her way, she made the decision for me. She raced up my blue jeans and blazer, claws first, and perched on my shoulder for the walk home. As soon as she surveyed the beautiful view of the city and the Mediterranean from the balcony of my apartment, she resolved to stay. 

A calico, the kitten, whom I named Sam, was a product of the large feline clan that lives on the campus of the American University of Beirut, where students feed and care for them. It’s part of the ambivalent relationship that Lebanese who grew up during the country’s 15-year civil war have with feral animals, cats as well as dogs.

In her wonderful Diary of a Cat, the Lebanese novelist Emily Nasrallah explains that one of the least remarked aspects of that war was the sheer number of pets that the violence—including the death or exile or impoverishment of owners—forced into the streets. Nasrallah tells the story of the war through the eyes of one cat and the little girl who took her in.

The sad irony of the book is that the war also left many young Lebanese terrified of animals. “Parents used to tell their children that if they didn’t behave, the wild dogs and cats in the street would come for them,” my friend Fawaz told me. One of my Lebanese neighbors was both repelled and fascinated by Sam, wanting to touch her, then hiding behind me whenever she came too close. 

Many Lebanese were the same with dogs. Fawaz and I would walk downtown with his white golden retriever, and stylish and sophisticated Lebanese would shrink away in fear. Although many Muslims steer clear of dogs, it was often tourists from the Gulf countries, including girls shrouded in black, who used to stop to pet and play with Fawaz’s retriever.

Before long, it came time for me to flee the violence, and my calico cat came with me. We left Beirut a week into the 2006 war and made our way across the Syrian border to Damascus, then to Jordan, and finally to Jerusalem, where I rented a basement apartment on Emek Refaim Street. Because Sam was a street cat, it was difficult to keep her inside. She’d push against the loose screen in the kitchen window and disappear for the day. At night, she’d sit high in the tree outside our building watching for me to come home after dinner with friends and then scramble down to greet me.

Somehow I hadn’t had a chance to get Sam fixed before the war started and we embarked on our carefree life as refugees. As summer turned into fall and I prepared to go back to the United States, I was oblivious to
the reality that a female cat spending most of her time outside is likely to conceive. The fact that numerous male cats used to hover around the apartment was also lost on me. 

As we left Israel, the girls at the border, in their green uniforms and sandals, were smitten with Sam, but none so much as an enormous Russian-Israeli kid, Alex, whose unit had fought in Lebanon two months before. “A Lebanese cat!” he said. “I have to get one.” Had I known at the time, I could’ve produced two for him—with Israeli lineage on their father’s side.

Sam’s two kittens, both male, were born in Washington. I know who your father is, I thought to myself as I watched their kitten ears unfold in their first weeks: one of the rogues of Emek Refaim, a thick-set black-and-white tough with eyes as old as an Israeli general’s, a real Sabra, a Zionist. 

So when it came time to give the kittens away, Craigslist lit up with talk of the two “peace kittens,” half-Lebanese, half-Israeli: black-and-white Lebanon and his brown- and-white brother, Israel.

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