Sunday, October 30, 2011
STALK LIKE AN EGYPTIAN
We weren’t expecting to get another kitty.
My boyfriend James and I were still completely inconsolable over the disappearance of Blondie, a beautiful tabby “teenager” cat who had vanished a few months before.
I was on tour teaching and performing in the UK when I heard the awful news, and was totally heartbroken for many reasons. I absolutely adored Blondie- she was a loving cuddle-puss who had been born on my bed to Sphinxie, a young, feral tabby tuxedo whom we had recently managed to tame.
Coincidentally, Blondie’s birth had taken place when I was on tour in the UK the year before. That fact alone made her disappearance seem so utterly horrible and surreal that I could hardly comprehend it… there was just something eerie –and terribly finite- about the fact that I was in the same country with the same sponsor when the two most significant events in Blondie’s short life occurred.
Every time James called to give me an update-and none of them were good- the pain in his voice was breaking my heart. Though he loved all our cats, Blondie was his favorite- he had delivered her when Sphinxie was giving birth, and since day one, he and Blondie had been bonded as if by super-glue. She was his little baby, he doted on her shamelessly. A big gruff-looking man, he would sing her lullabies as she fell asleep nestled under his arm in a little tent he had created from the bedclothes.
Apparently, what had happened was: Blondie had woken up in the middle of the night, and somehow knocked over my shamadan, which had been stored on a high shelf. The noise and clattering spooked her, and she ran outside…. never to be seen again. A few days later, James chased a huge coyote out of our fenced yard, something that had never happened before, but it was an ominous sign.
In England, I felt totally powerless over the situation, and I was so sad, just overcome with grief and guilt. I felt I was at fault because I wasn’t there to help look for Blondie or put up signs in the neighborhood, because it was my candelabra that had set off the chain of events, and also that I sometimes even wished that this had happened to one of our other cats, grimly thinking that I would have be able to handle it better- James was so disconsolate that I was seriously afraid he would fall into a depression and might never recover. I’d be in the middle of teaching a workshop in London, or in between sets at a show in Leeds, and run into the bathroom to weep for a few seconds, before wiping away my tears, stepping outside and acting cheerful and “normal”.
Months after Blondie had gone missing, we were still checking all the Los Angeles shelters for her- just in case. We would see a blurry pound picture online and then drive thirty miles to the facility just to be certain that it wasn’t Blondie.
So there we were, on a warm October afternoon at one of the worst and most over crowded animal shelters in Los Angeles. We had to walk by the “feline pediatric room” to get to the part of the building where they had posted the pages with photos of newly inducted animals. The pediatric room was maybe one of the most wrenching things I’d ever seen, and I had seen plenty of sad things in shelters.
The cages took up the entire room, stacked from the floor almost to the ceiling, and they were full of young cats- pairs of identical, scruffy adolescent siblings that looked like book-ends, proud mothers with full litters of nursing babies, and small, terrified single kittens who’d crammed themselves into the corners of their enclosures, trying to disappear. As we tried not to take in this hopeless sight, we heard a crazy, high pitched, urgent howling.
Directly at our eye level, in a bare metal cage, was a tiny little striped kitten, all by herself. Her face pressed against the bars as she stuck her arms out of the cage, extended straight out, claws unsheathed as she grabbed at the air wildly. For some reason, her cage door was unlocked. My boyfriend reached in and scooped her into his arms, and her howling immediately abated as she snuggled into the space between his neck and shoulder. She began purring immediately, but it sounded asthmatic and congested.
She was dirty and very sick, with matted fur, her ears were full of fleas, and one side of her nose was almost completely taken up by an open sore that was oozing pus, an injury that had obviously come from her smashing her face into the cage bars, in an attempt to free herself. Her eyes were crusty and running, and there was dried, yellow mucous caked around her nostrils.
We put the miniscule kitten back into her cage, and we could hear her wailing all the way down the hallway as we adjourned to the parking lot to have a serious conference about whether or not we could take her on. Our other cats ranged in age from two to seventeen years; one was a diabetic and one was starting to grow senile. Our cat food and vet bills were staggering, and we were both still traumatized about Blondie. Plus, this kitten seemed gravely ill, and in our small house, there was no place to guarantee her safe quarantine if whatever she had was contagious.
James then dropped a bomb: he told me he had seen the kitten the previous week, when I was away on yet another workshop weekend. He had debated internally about adopting her then, but hadn’t mentioned it to me because she was ill; but he added, she had not appeared nearly as seriously sick as she was now. She was dying. Amidst us both crying and arguing the pros and cons, we decided to take her.
We went up to the shelter’s front desk, waited in a long line, and then gave the woman behind the counter the kitten’s cage number, saying we wanted to adopt her. It took forever for the worker to look up the kitten’s paper work, but finally she came back, and with the lackadaisical, contemptuous delivery that only a government worker can muster, she said,
“You can’t adopt her, she’s only three weeks old, and they have to be eight weeks old and spayed.”
Resolute in our decision, I waved the cash for the adoption fee and answered happily,
“ Oh, that’s OK, we’ll just pay for her now and get her when she’s old enough!”
The woman looked at me condescendingly and stated,
“ We don’t do that… Besides, that whole room is being put down tomorrow, they’re all sick.”
Horrified at what I was hearing- the entire room was going to be exterminated- I almost yelled,
“But she doesn’t have to die! We’re pet owners- we want her! We’ll give her a good home, love and take care of her! We’ll give her medicine, and when she’s better, we’ll get her spayed when she’s old enough!”
The woman put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes before turning her back as a way of wordlessly dismissing me.
I was unable to comprehend the notion that the shelter would rather let a cat die than bend the rules a bit and hope that things might turn out well if they took a gamble by letting someone adopt a small, sick, “underage” kitten.
“Is there a vet here?” I inquired politely, “Can I please see the vet?”
The woman went about her business, wholly ignoring me. Beginning to get infuriated with the situation, I started yelling, repeating like an obnoxious parrot,
“I WANT TO SEE THE VET! PLEASE LET ME SEE THE VET…I NEED TO TALK TO THE VET… LET ME SEE THE VET!”
After about three minutes of my loud, rhythmic and repetitive chanting, the woman glared at me as though she’d like nothing better than to stab me. She picked up the phone, and covering it with her hand, hissed something into the receiver.
A lot of time went by, and we were beginning to think that perhaps a veterinarian wasn’t even on the premises.
After a while, I heard a thickly accented man’s voice asking,
“Yes, Madame, may I help you?”
If this was the vet, I thought, I’d better act quickly and show that I am a very responsible human being! But before I could think of what exactly it was that I was going to say, I realized that something sounded awfully familiar about the inflection in this guys’ voice, and for a second, I couldn’t place what it was…it just seemed as though I had heard this voice many times before.
Looking up slowly, the first thing I saw was nice shoes-doctor shoes- and a lab coat…it was, indeed the vet. He was holding a sheaf of papers in his hand, hopefully the kitten’s records. The next thing I focused on was his piercing hazel eyes. He repeated his question, and then it hit me- suddenly I knew why the doctor’s voice sounded so familiar!
Without even thinking, I blurted out,
“ARE YOU EGYPTIAN?”
Obviously a little taken aback by this question, the vet answered,
“Yes, I am Egyptian!” He regarded me curiously before asking,
"Why? How you know I am Egyptian- are YOU Egyptian?”
“No,” I answered, sure now that my prayers for this little cat would be answered,
“ But I go to Egypt all the time!” As an afterthought, I added in Arabic, “ Ana Ra’khassah- raks sharqi!”
When he heard that I was a belly dancer, his eyebrows flew up in surprise. Admittedly, I certainly didn’t look like a belly dancer… I was wearing sweatpants, my hair was in a sloppy bun, I had my glasses on and it was pretty obvious I’d been crying. I looked like a bag lady- no, I looked like shit!
I fumbled in my purse for a business card, handed it to him, and he looked at it in disbelief.
“This is you?” he questioned, staring at the card.
“Yes, it’s me! I usually look better than this….hey, do you like Om Kalthoum?”
The moment I mentioned her name, he seemed to melt, a trait that is, after all the years since her death, still common among Egyptians.
“Oh, Farhaaaaaana”, he said, drawing out the syllables of my name luxuriously,
“I looooove Om Kalthoum,” he declared passionately.
This lead to a ten-minute discussion about Abdel Halim Hafez, Farid Al Atrache, Dina, Lucy, Mohammaed Abdel Wahab, and our favorite current pop songs. Finally, I couldn’t stand the suspense any longer, not that I wasn’t enjoying our conversation. Leaning in close to the vet’s ear, I whispered,
“So, listen, I really really want this cat…”
He glanced over her papers, smiled conspiratorially, and announced,
“NO PROBLEM! SHE IS EIGHT WEEKS OLD!”
As James, who had been left out of the conversation entirely,stared in amazement, the vet began scribbling down some completely insane, implausible excuse as to why the cat wasn’t actually three weeks old, and also that she was too sick to have gotten spayed.
“She looks like an Egyptian cat”, I pointed out.
“Yes, she looks 100% Egyptian!” the vet declared, commanding us to wait where we were for a few moments.
Presently, he returned with the kitten, a certificate for a free spay, and a weeks worth of antibiotics in pre-measured droppers. We signed the papers, and suddenly, we had a new cat.
As she rode home in a makeshift cat carrier-ok, it was a shoebox from my trunk– we decided to ask our elderly neighbor if the kitten could stay at her house until her respiratory infection cleared, so our other cats wouldn’t catch it.
As I looked over the baby’s paperwork, I discovered she had been named “Bella” at the shelter. I was absolutely sure she’d been given that name by one of the sullen, teenage volunteers they had there- kids who were working off their juvenile offenses by doing community service. It was pretty clear that some “Twilight”-obsessed, sixteen-year-old gang chick had named the kitten Bella, after Kristen Stewart’s role in the vampire film.
I was about to suggest we change the kitten’s name, until I thought of one of my favorite belly dance costume designers, Bella of Istanbul!
That night, James stayed in our neighbor’ guest room, with the baby on his chest, wheezing and sneezing until it got light out. He said that at one point, he’d been afraid she wouldn’t make it, but she had- and she grew stronger every day.
A week later, as little Bella tore around the bed pouncing on things that weren’t there, my phone rang.
It was the vet, asking how Bella was doing. When I told him she had stopped sneezing, gained some weight and was looking fluffy and alert and that her nose was healing up well, he sighed,
“Hamdalillah!” which means “Thank God” in Arabic.
That was a year ago.
Bella is now a sleek adult, long, elegant and lean. She still has the giant ears she had as a kitten, and when she sits a certain way, she really does look like an Egyptian statue. Her nose has a small scar from her wound, but she is gorgeous, with glossy fur covered in crazy, circular tabby whorls. She and Sphinxie are best friends, and the other cats love her too. She is the light of our lives…and strangely enough, she also shares many of Blondie’s unique personality traits, which makes James and I wonder if somehow, all of this was meant to be.
Please consider adopting your next pet from a shelter!
Photos: Bella as a kitten; Bella now