It’s time that we get our Middle East animals straight. The other day when I was watching men on camels and horseback charge through Tahrir Square in Cairo, whipping demonstrators, I felt like I was witnessing a bad Hollywood remake of Ben Hur or any other “cue the camels” movie depicting battle in the Holy Land.
Only Hollywood wasn’t guilty of this travesty. It was the fat cats of Egypt. In this case, when I say “fat cats” I mean it metaphorically, although there are a lot more real cats in Cairo than camels. It’s just that camels do seem to be the default animal of the Middle East. They show up in movies, t-shirts, billboards, souvenir mugs and any other item meant to say “look, this is about the Middle East,” even seemingly used by a besieged president to show the few television cameras allowed to film Tahrir Square that “we mean business,” because after all, he had sent in the camels.
If you know Cairo at all, you know that the only camels you’ll meet are at the pyramids, used as props for tourist photos. In truth the Arab animal kingdom is a lot more about donkeys, goats, and sheep. Even in the Gulf Arab countries, where there actually are a lot of camels, the horse is the gold standard of animals. In Cairo, you’re much more likely to have an encounter with a sheep or of course, a donkey. The donkey is the favorite animal of the Arab countries sharing the Mediterranean Sea—not only does he provide transport, he provides plenty of humor, being a symbol for stupidity.
The other day my friends from school days in Beirut were sending back and forth quips on Facebook about what to name the donkey necessary to complete a Middle East farm scenario. There was even some talk about the goats’ and chickens’ names.
No mentioned the cats. But the Middle East is really about the cats. Go to any Arab country, and you’ll find feral cats perched on windowsills, patrolling the back alleys of restaurants by the dozen, peeking through military sandbags, chilling out on beach rocks, and in better times scurrying amongst the masses in places like Tahrir Square.
No one feeds them, as they have plenty to eat in the overflowing garbage dumps of the Middle East. No on brings them home as pets. No one even seems to notice them much. They are the most universal sight in the Middle East, and the least thought about. Unlike the wild dogs that are rounded up, the cats continue to roam free.
Cats tell you a lot. They sense earthquakes coming before we humans do, including manmade earthquakes like war. And they are barometers of a changing society. For example, when I first moved to Abu Dhabi two and half years ago, the cats were so skinny they looked more like bald mice. Today, they are far furrier and plumper, just as Abu Dhabi fortunes have become far plumper. In Beirut, the cats are very adept at taking cover, and in Jordan, the one cat in the pack seems to always take on the role of king with his loud meows.
The metaphorical fat cats (it would be too easy to continue with Middle East leader animal metaphors) can send in the camels, but the real cool cats bask in the Middle East sun, happy to be ignored as they take in or avoid what their home countries have to offer them in these changing days.