WKND Books: The secret life of Dubai's street cats
In a new book of fiction, Emirati author Bashayer Arif examines the lives of street cats of the city, juxtaposing fiction with Dubai’s love for the feline
Look around and you will discover that there is no dearth of animal lovers in the city. There is also a particular lo ve for felines that has led to a number of Facebook and Instagram groups, that offer wellness and grooming tips for cats. Taking a cue from the city’s love for felines and her own experience of saving an Arabian Mau, Emirati author Bashayer Arif has penned a fiction, The Secret Life of Dubai’s Street Cats, that in exploring the lives of three stray cats in the city offers a window to the city itself and its relationship with pets. Excerpts from an interview with Bashayer:
What led you to pen a book on Dubai’s street cats?
This requires a backstory! I never used to like cats until I rescued a street cat myself, an Arabian Mau. This particular cat caught my attention. He would sit outside my parents’ back porch at night, and looked fragile and sweet. I felt he needed some care. So, I would drop saucers of food and water for him — at least five feet away — and run back inside. Over time, this became a pattern. One day, I saw him in daylight. He had large wounds on his body. I was alarmed. I told my sister and we took him to the vet.
On the way over to the vet, he kept meowing. He had no idea who we were or why we were doing this to him. When we released him at the vet’s, he darted out of his pet carrier. His eyes were wide with panic. I’ll never forget the look of utter fear on his face. The vet picked him up and gently stroked him, and you could see him beginning to calm down. He understood that he was safe.
My sister and I decided to name him Salem. Salem was sick and needed looking after. He couldn’t be outside where he’d be at risk of getting attacked by other cats. For several reasons, we couldn’t have pets in our house at that point, so we had to find a home for Salem. I joined a Facebook cat group based in Dubai and put the word out that little Salem needed a home.
Going through this experience, I realised so much about the Arabian Mau that I didn’t know before. First of all, I didn’t even know that street cats were a formal breed, and that they were called Arabian Maus. I didn’t know that they were native to the land. A majority of people still don’t know this either. And I realised a major discrepancy between Arabian Maus and other native animals. For example, we valourise falcons and camels. But you never see cats; they’re so invisible in those spaces of national and cultural symbolism. Yet, they are so present in our everyday lives. It would be hard for any of us to walk a day out in Dubai, without coming across one of the cats.
I learned how sweet these Maus are; they have such dynamic personalities and they’re actually great with humans. They’re great with children. People prefer a Scottish fold or Persian, the fluffier breeds that look ‘prettier’. But I believe the real value in a pet is the company they give, and Arabian Maus make for fantastic companions and pets.
Eventually, I was fortunate to have found a happy home for my Salem. This lovely Dutch woman adopted him, and he actually moved all the way to Holland. But lots of Arabian Maus aren’t so lucky. And so I thought, perhaps I could help to inspire change, if I wrote a story that would maybe not only attract cat lovers, but also non-cat lovers, people who are like me, or how I once was, at least. And that could maybe help expand their perspective.
How do the illustrations in the book aid the narrative?
Writing the book, I always imagined illustrations — at times, I would imagine it written as a graphic novel, or portrayed as an animated series. I still would love to see it as an animated series! I loved the idea of using Dubai as a backdrop, to have familiar elements that readers based here could relate to, and to also have the opportunity to show a bit of Dubai to the ones who haven’t really seen it or explored it.
In Sharpclaw’s exploration of the city, what new facets of Dubai does a reader get to examine?
There was definitely a juxtaposition between the glamorous versus the not-so- glamorous Dubai, and the traditional versus the modern. It was important to show a range of the city within the story. We have the skyscrapers that signify modern architectural Dubai, but we also see the traditional, such as when the cats visit a mosque, and they hear the athan (the call to prayer). Even on the cover, you see the abayas and the kandooras contrasted with pants and sneakers. We’ve got the messier side of Dubai, with the more polluted streets, and the busy karak shops and cafeterias. We’ve got the pristine residential neighbourhoods too.
When did you start writing the book? Did the pandemic shape some aspects of the writing?
I started writing this book back in 2015. Initially, I was inspired by my own experience rescuing Salem, and this sudden awareness I had of the Arabian Maus. I completed the book but I lost direction with the story, and for some time, I left it. I got bored of what I wrote. In 2019, I decided to revisit my draft, and saw it with a new perspective. I felt it was a story worth sharing with the world. I made some changes and searched for a publishing company. I came across The Dreamwork Collective and submitted my manuscript to them. They took a chance on me, which I was very grateful for. By the end of 2019, I signed with them and began working with their wonderful team, including my editor, to produce the best possible version of the story that I could produce. It was in 2020, the year of the pandemic, that we truly started delving into the manuscript.
You talk about how rescuing Salem helped you discover a whole new world of cat lovers.
When I first rescued Salem, I was desperate to find him a home, and I didn’t know what to do. I joined a Facebook cat group and that was such an eye opener for me. I was introduced to the cat community in Dubai and the UAE, in general. I learned of the various initiatives, rescue groups and shelters that were making every effort to save the cats and dogs of our city and other emirates as well. I met some exceptionally compassionate groups who were doing whatever they could to help the strays, and to rescue abandoned pets. I even got to know individuals who were fostering over 20 cats!
Salem was fostered by different families. A few of them would’ve loved to keep him for good, but they already had too much on their plate. I am forever grateful to those who helped him.
The city also has a sizeable population of cat lovers. Where do you think this love for the feline comes from?
I think we have some real animal lovers here that appreciate the unique nature of Arabian Maus and have so much compassion towards them. I truly believe that, if you gave Arabian Maus a chance, you will find it difficult not to love them. It’s lovely to see people that care and uphold such animal welfare.