The American Art of Obsessing over Your Pets

Marlo Safi

‘Abu bu Hurairah! Father of the Kitten,” begins the poem “Ad Felem,” written by the Cambridge Arabist Reynold Nicholson in 1904. The prophet Muhammad gave this nickname to a famous hadith transmitter and companion, because he was always accompanied by a cat. Muhammad, too, was fond of felines — his own cat is said to have been named Muizza, he always took care of kittens, and he’d cut off his sleeve rather than disturb a sleeping cat when rising for prayers.

Cats have enjoyed life in the Middle East for centuries, their status as animals relatively sacrosanct, whereas in 13th-century Europe, they were often killed or eaten. The American poet and journalist Bayard Taylor describes his visit to a hospital in Aleppo where cats were roaming freely, taken care of thanks to a waqf, or private endowment, that supplied the cat caretakers’ wages and the veterinary care. Cats preyed on mice that destroyed books, and they would often appear in paintings alongside Islamic scholars. The Egyptian zoologist Al-Damiri wrote that the first cat was created by God when he caused a lion to sneeze, when the animals on Noah’s Ark complained of mice. Cats are welcome in the home. Dogs are forbidden.

One hadith even says that “Affections for cats is part of faith.” The cat is pure, clean, and man’s best friend.

I would’ve never guessed this based off of my upbringing by two Syrian Americans, who prioritized immaculate couches and carpets free of the chore and nuisance that is animal shedding. Dogs require attention, visits to the vet, and walks. Cats licked themselves and would leave you with a hand full of fur after being caressed. Pets — animals — belong outside, and the ownership of multiple dogs as pets in the home was vexing to my parents. But little kids love pets, and I was one of them. So my parents got my brother and I a hamster (a Syrian hamster), which died after two years. As small as Nowasi (which means “night light” in Arabic) was, she was an additional cleaning responsibility and left two young children mourning her death.

No more pets, my parents decided.

Keeping a clean home is important to Middle Easterners, both Muslims and Christians, especially since hosting guests is frequent. There’s often a room specifically reserved for guest appearances, where ornate furniture and decor are untouchable, and your mother will scold you as though you’re a visitor at a museum standing dangerously close to a Caravaggio painting. Having pets larger than a small rodent makes this more difficult. When my brother moved back from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, however, his cat needed a home.

My parents took the cat in, groaning the usual talking points. “It’ll be me who’ll end up cleaning after it”: my mom. “You’re never home, who will play with her?”: my dad.

But, in an unpredictably atavistic turn of events, the Los Angelean tuxedo cat, resembling Chelsea Clinton’s cat, Socks, not only became a member of the household — she became an important one.

My mother catered to Noosie’s every whim, speaking to her in Arabic baby talk, and her anticipation for grandchildren became less latent. Noosie isn’t even the cat’s original name — it was Riz, the Arabic word for “rice.” My parents co-opted my brother’s ownership, adopting this cat as their own, and spoiled their cat as the Arabs historically had.

But it was a very American thing to witness my parents become cat people. Americans spend billions of dollars on their pets annually and have earned a reputation abroad for being obsessed with them. Pets often join their owners on airplane rides, enroll in doggy daycares, and have their own spas. This life of leisure that many American pets enjoy has garnered derision from many people foreign to the coddled culture, including from my immigrant parents. And I pointed this accusation at them every time that they ebulliently greeted the cat upon arriving home, or when my mother would harangue me for insisting that the creature indeed wasn’t bilingual after spending a year with them, or when my father would teach me how to pick her up properly because I was “doing it wrong, and that’s why she always tries to bite you.”

They’re one step closer to cat spas and tufted cat mattresses. They’re already buying gourmet cat food.

I’ve observed them, as objectively as possible, become cat people. But the Syrian element in the spectacle was always present in the cat’s affinity for the outdoors, and how she would claw at the front door until one of my parents (only one of them — she loathes me) would let her outside, and then she would play in my mother’s garden of mint and basil, emerging with fur smelling of all the pungent aromas. My parents both were raised to be stewards of nature; my father harvesting tobacco and olives, and mules were used as transport in the groves. My mother’s family owned livestock, caring for chickens because they’d provide their eggs.

The type of care extended to these creatures in rural Syria, where domestic pets that are confined to the home are not as common, could be witnessed in their interactions with our American cat. She is feral at heart, like a Syrian cat, embedded in the social organ of civil life, permitted to wander freely. I grew up believing that pet ownership, to the degree that Americans exercised it, was an exclusive phenomenon that required a worldview detached from the role of animals in rurality. But in treating her like a member of our household, essential to the family unit for no utilitarian purpose but merely as a recipient of the generous spirit of my parents, was, to me, an American thing to witness.

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