On a beautiful day in the fall of 2021, my beloved cat went missing. I was working from home in Washington, D.C., attending an editorial meeting on Zoom when I first noticed. The cat was nowhere in the house and nowhere in the yard. Panic set in. The thought of losing him loomed ahead like the Gates of Hades, not only for the grief that I knew would befall me and my family but also because for over a decade the cat accompanied me on adventures by land and sea, throughout the Middle East and onward to America. Together we survived mortar attacks and power cuts, hostile checkpoints and authoritarian regimes, all while bearing witness to human nature in its many manifestations, its whims of love and folly, in peacetime and in war. And, most recently, in this time of pestilence.
Did I now stand to lose him to a banal urban mishap, the inattentiveness of a driver in a speeding car or the pettiness of a thief who preys on charismatic pets?
Banish the thought.
I muted myself on Zoom and ran outside to find him, shoes unlaced, headphones half-hanging.
I accosted passersby: “Have you seen a fluffy orange cat?”
“No,” came the answer, one after the next. “Sorry. Good luck.”
Pumpkin, my missing cat, along with his best friend Gremlin, had been with me ever since I adopted them as kittens in Abu Dhabi in the spring of 2009. If they could talk, they would tell a story of humanity that — despite its shortcomings — has left their innocence intact, for they have received kindness no matter the hardship and grace no matter the circumstance.
Their story begins before they came into my life, when an Emirati woman abandoned them at the veterinarian’s office because they were diseased. They needed a 10-day medical regimen to cure their ringworm, which they contracted at the local pet shop where they sat on display waiting to be purchased.
“Keep them, I will go buy new ones,” the woman told the veterinarian, who later narrated the incident to me with incredulity. “As if they were a pair of shoes!” the veterinarian, a gentle Australian woman, added.
Around that time controversy was brewing in Abu Dhabi over how to best manage the city’s stray cat population, which seemed to be exploding, like in many cities around the region, except for places like Dubai that culled their strays without flinching. Should Abu Dhabi do the same? Or should it follow the more humane catch-neuter-and-release approach?
The debate grew tense in the newsroom at The National where I was on staff, dividing our reporters into two camps. As if to bring the point home, a stray cat moved into the ceiling and gave birth there. Every morning we wrapped up meetings and settled into our beat, and the cat sprang down from the ceiling onto a reporter’s desk, then the floor, before sauntering outside to fend for rations, leaving her youngsters above us to puncture the newsroom chatter with their tiny meows. The cat returned in the mid-afternoon and reversed her steps, hopping back into the ceiling.
Arguments ensued. Should we call animal control and beckon a near-certain death for our newsroom cat and her babies? Or do we let her be; allow her to nurture her young until she weaned them, and they went their separate ways?
It was in the middle of this drama that a mass email from the veterinarian landed in my inbox. “Urgent Foster Home Needed,” said the subject line. The attached image showed a gray-blue Shirazi female with a floppy ear and uneven fur patches (from the ringworm), resembling the fuzzy creatures in the movie “Gremlins” before they hatch into little monsters. The ginger, long-haired domestic male sat next to her, head hanging, like a pumpkin on Halloween. Their sad state of affairs was not merely a commentary on human caprice but on the consumerism that plagued the United Arab Emirates and much of the Gulf Arab states, an attitude that spared not even sentient creatures.
I didn’t need much convincing to take them in, and within a day I named and adopted them.
Abu Dhabi was not yet a vivacious city nearing parity with Dubai, and there was little to do besides consuming things, most of them mediocre and overpriced, and this got old. During the day I went to work, and the kittens stayed home and slept. In the evening I invited friends over and we watched movies, interrupted by Gremlin pushing things off the coffee table and Pumpkin getting high on catnip.
In Washington before Pumpkin went missing, he made many attempts at clearing the tall fence that surrounds our backyard, as if determined to seek something more meaningful than the toys and catnip and the human attention that had been constant in his life. In this he is different from Gremlin, who is a glut, contenting herself with food and belly rubs and hours lounging by the fireplace.
Various loved ones have told me over the years that they identify more with one cat or the other, and these pronouncements made sense because the cats indeed embody clear and distinct traits that are relatable to humans.
They both love the steam in the shower, for example, so they follow anyone into the bath and perch themselves on the vanity, waiting for the hot moisture to rise.
“And when I took off my clothes, I swear Pumpkin looked at me in a ‘Biblical’ way,” a friend once told me. I agreed. Pumpkin indeed appears to do that around human nudity, glancing at you from top to bottom and back to the top again, making eye contact without flinching, and for a fleeting moment this can leave you feeling scandalized.
“He is a gentleman cat,” another friend observed. And with that I also agreed. Pumpkin sits on the sidelines after Gremlin headbutts him out of his food bowl and eats his share. Unless I intervene, Pumpkin waits for Gremlin to have her fill and walk away before he eats. Gremlin is plump, her belly round, and sometimes she can’t reach the places where she needs to groom, so Pumpkin steps in and grooms them for her. Sometimes during the night, if she finds a small toy, she will pick it up with the soft palate of her mouth, then pace and cry, waking up the household. Pumpkin will leave whatever warm bed he happens to be sharing — he likes to sleep with the humans — and tend to Gremlin’s nighttime anxiety, licking her face until both of them eventually fall asleep cuddled together, like yin and yang.
He is brave. He once stood up to a dog many times his size because he perceived a threat to Gremlin (and to me). This incident happened shortly after we came to America, before we settled in Washington, when the cats and I were staying for a few weeks in Virginia with family and their 80-pound Samoyed, named Dakota, a beautiful and intelligent dog who humored my cats no matter how suspiciously they treated him. One time I accidentally stepped on Gremlin’s tail and she screamed. I startled and fell, bellowing a loud “ouch!” Dakota rushed over with a concerned whimper and licked my face, then tried to sniff Gremlin, who was preoccupied with her tail. Pumpkin was in the other room and saw none of the chain of events but heard the commotion. He must have thought that Gremlin and I had come under attack from Dakota because he bolted into the room — all nine pounds of him — in an attempt to protect us. He huffed and puffed and arched his back, appearing twice his size. With his claws he slapped the hardwood floor repeatedly, the snap-clap sound echoed; and he hissed and jeered at Dakota who stood perplexed and startled until I finally collected myself from the floor and intervened.
He is a “guard cat.” After the Jan. 6 riots at the United States Capitol — walking distance from my house — when local businesses shuttered their storefronts and the city stood on edge and many of us were still observing the COVID-19 lockdown, I kept a close eye on any changes in Pumpkin’s behavior, like pacing the room or sitting by the window and yowling a dulcet “enwowow? … nwowow?” That’s his tell-tale distress call posed like a question, as if asking what’s going on. Such behavior would help me ascertain if rioters were nearing my street before I could see or hear them. (Fortunately, Pumpkin’s behavior never changed and the rioters never came.)
Because Gremlin’s legs are shorter and her body heavier, I never worry about her jumping out of the yard, whereas with Pumpkin, a natural athlete, I always supervise him when he’s outside, except on the day when I happened to be in an editorial meeting and became distracted long enough for him to leap into the city terrain in search of adventure.
Less than a year after adopting Pumpkin and Gremlin in Abu Dhabi, I decided to move to Damascus, my birthplace, where I also had lots of family, including my mother. I lived there briefly as a child, and over the years I had come and gone enough times to romanticize the place but not truly know it. In an attempt to remedy this, I moved there in 2005 from New York City to cover Syria as a journalist, hoping the move would deepen my understanding. I stayed for three years (before moving to Abu Dhabi in 2008), fascinated by an ancestral land that was still thawing from its Cold War-era alliance with the Soviet Union. It was a country among few on Earth without a Starbucks, yet it stood on the cusp of embracing globalization and the super malls that were fast becoming a signature of modernity in the Arab world. During my time in Syria I managed to further acquaint myself with it, but I still felt like a stranger. So this was my chance for a do-over, an opportunity to burrow deeper into the trenches and get a better feel for the place. It was early 2010, before the Arab Spring and the uprisings and the war, and there was no reason to expect anything but a smooth transition.
Distrustful of airlines in the UAE and of their underpaid (and sometimes abused) staff, I did not want to fly Pumpkin and Gremlin in the cargo hull. I had heard tales about animals in crates left to starve or freeze or asphyxiate to death while all alone inside the belly of a jet plane, and I didn’t care if the stories were true or the exaggerated trifles of anxious animal lovers. I wanted my cats with me in-cabin where I could keep an eye on them.
But finding an airline that allowed this wasn’t easy. Etihad and Emirates, the UAE’s flagship airlines, flew falcons in business class and thoroughbreds in-cabin. (The raptors wear blinders and perch on the head of the seat next to their handler. The airline serves them mineral water! The horses fly in a designated area in the back accessible only to authorized personnel.) All other animals were relegated to cargo.
Syrian airlines prohibited flying pets in-cabin, and that was “firm and nonnegotiable,” the representative told me over the phone.
The only airline that allowed four-legged passengers was Lebanon’s Middle East Airways, which meant I would have a layover in Beirut and from there continue by car to Damascus.
So be it, I thought. And I booked my flight.
As the plane began to taxi on the tarmac, the engines revved and roared. My cats must have felt the power, each of them seated inside a soft carrier stowed away beneath the seat in front of me. Through the mesh I saw Pumpkin crouch, like a tiny lion, fuzzy and golden, and I knew he was calming himself and purring. Gremlin, on the other hand, started to freak out. She pushed her head repeatedly against the carrier’s zipper until it popped, then pulled herself up my leg all the way to my chest, pressing her belly against mine in such a way that made it impossible to pry her off without causing a ruckus. I let her be and she finally lay still, her face buried near my armpit, her paws sprawled around me like a child. Luckily I had trimmed her claws, which dug through my sweater and pricked my skin.
Up until that point the flight attendants hadn’t noticed anything strange. They rushed back and forth through the aisle in their last-minute preparations for takeoff when — screech — one of them stopped in her tracks.
“That’s a cat?!” she exclaimed.
“Yes. She’s scared,” I said.
In my mind a bad and comical scenario played out wherein the flight attendant compelled me to put Gremlin back into the carrier while the cat refused and howled and created chaos, arching her back and hissing until she caused our forced disembarkment from the plane and, possibly, my arrest and detention — I knew people in the UAE who had been prosecuted for lesser offenses. But instead, the flight attendant said, “All this time I’m walking back and forth and I didn’t even notice a cat?! She’s so fluffy I thought she was your sweater!”
Relieved, I laughed. And so did the passengers near me.
“Make sure she doesn’t run up the aisle, or else I’ll have to tell the captain there’s a cat loose on the plane, and that’ll be a problem,” she said.
“No problem,” I said. “She won’t get loose. I promise.”
And then our plane took off.
I thought about all the disregard for rules in parts of the Arab world, especially in Lebanon, where the people prided themselves on “finding harmony in chaos”; the “laisse-tomber,” let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may attitude, the fatalistic expectation that nothing will change, a relaxed approach toward public safety and regulations that made me nervous, except now Gremlin and I were the recipients of this laxity and we were grateful for it.
At some point in mid-air I could smell the acrid stench of cigarette smoke, a pet peeve of mine after suffering the poor air quality of the UAE and all the sinus problems that had come with it, something I endured in childhood when I spent a few years living in Saudi Arabia. Even then, despite a happy and privileged childhood, I sensed a suffocating quality that is unique to the Gulf Arab states, as if trapped in a tin can with terrible air.
How awful if someone were smoking on the plane, I thought, and I flagged the attendant to inquire.
“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “It’s just the pilot. He’s smoking in the cockpit.”
I shook my head in disapproval. But with a cat still attached to my person while in mid-flight, what authority did I have to protest?
In Beirut, the cats and I stayed with a friend for the night. The next day I hired a car and off we went to the Syrian border. On the way there Gremlin climbed onto the shelf beneath the sloped rear windshield and lay in the sun, motionless, watching the world through the glass. Pumpkin sat in my lap and occasionally stood on his hindlegs and looked out the window. Traffic near the border was busy, the driving aggressive. But anyone who honked and cursed and cut off other cars slowed down for a double-take when they saw our furry passengers. Some drivers even gestured to us with a smile to “go ahead,” a near-impossible courtesy as anyone who has driven in Lebanon knows.
When the war starts the cats will continue to soften the rough edges of the humans around them, even those who become agitated and brandish Kalashnikovs. But that comes later.
This thought crept up on me while in Washington looking for Pumpkin — how his friendly demeanor can play out in his favor, or against it, depending on the intentions of the humans he encounters. So I upped my search and hurried into the back alley, where the city sometimes puts rat poison. I looked for him in nooks and on ledges. I could not see into neighbors’ yards, so I raised my voice and called his name when perhaps I should have been listening.
In Damascus, Pumpkin and Gremlin became an instant hit, adding life to our already busy home. Loved ones who came and went grew attached to them. In the morning I hosted an exercise session with a friend or two and a personal trainer whom I shall call Sami. We practiced martial arts — hand-to-hand combat — and mused at the cats’ moves while they engaged in their own play fighting: a headlock with hindlimbs on the muzzle, a neck hold with paws on the scruff, a soft belly exposed, a nip, a roll, fluffy bodies silently falling on the Persian rug before us until Gremlin runs off and Pumpkin gives chase.
With all the new human interaction, it was in Damascus that the cats became talkative and started to meow a wide range of intonations. Hard-of-hearing relatives sometimes mistook this vocalization for a person talking and would search the room for the source, especially if it was Pumpkin’s voice, a sweet-toned cadence within the range of a mezzo-soprano, like prattle delivered in a foreign language that is almost understandable.
There were some near misses, like the time when Pumpkin sneaked out and no one noticed until we heard his cries. We found him sitting in front of the apartment below us, confused and scared, meowing a melodic desperado as if trying to melt the wood and iron that stood before him. I scooped him up and brought him home.
As with many things in Syria back then, the veterinarian offered a menu of excellent services at reasonable rates. For the equivalent of $10, he made a house call to check up on my cats, update their vaccinations, trim their nails and bathe them, making sure to use one special shampoo for their body and a different one for their head.
“The fur is a different quality on their head,” he explained to me and to my perplexed, endlessly amused mother, who witnessed the spectacle. Then he proceeded to blow dry the kitties’ fur, brushing it with his hands for maximum floof.
“These cats are better off than most of the people,” mom quipped.
It was a tongue-in-cheek comment. We could not yet know the ominous truth in my mother’s words, which carried a heavier, sadder meaning when the war started.
“Animals are better than people, wallah,” the vet responded. “Animals cannot lie. And they never kill for pleasure. And they cannot cause the harm that we cause each other and our environment.” He went on and on like that, and we nodded our heads and agreed with him.
Innocence indeed belongs to animals and children. And, perhaps, to no one else.
Like all professionals in Syria, our veterinarian was a card-carrying member of a Baath Party National Association. One day he received a call from the Party’s Association of Film Producers, asking him to nominate “good-looking cats” to star in an upcoming television novella, to play the part of spoiled pets that belong to a well-to-do family. He nominated Pumpkin and Gremlin, and the association called my mother and invited her to bring the cats for an audition at the studio, located at that time on the periphery of Damascus. It was the summer of 2011 — a few months into the uprising — and the country I had known as one was starting to fragment. Skirmishes flared up on the outskirts, and the people warned of kidnapping-for-ransom and sniper fire that killed indiscriminately.
“What a crazy idea?! I can’t drive the cats there. The road is too dangerous,” my mother protested.
“No, it’s not. The road is fine,” the association’s spokesperson said.
“The road is scary,” Mom said.
“No, really. It’s fine,” he continued.
I was not privy to this conversation in real time. I learned about it after the fact. But I remember those early days of the uprising, a time of uncertainty when people wavered between fear and repudiation as the country was breaking into rebel and regime-controlled areas. The signs of war lay in our midst as if a beast-in-waiting, yet the people remained oblivious like the flight attendant who mistook my cat for a sweater.
Mom never brought the cats to the audition, and before long she left the war in Syria for the safety of America. Others followed, but many stayed, unable or unwilling to go, myself and the cats among them.
The war gave me a sense of urgency, a last chance to fully embrace my ancestral land, to finally become part of it before it vanished. I wanted to bear witness to what was coming, both on a personal level and as a journalist, especially since the country was closing its doors to members of the international media, and I was becoming the only such journalist who could report from both regime and rebel-controlled areas. There was no scenario in which I would have felt OK about leaving, so I stayed.
The war gained momentum, and in Damascus people became accustomed to a more timid life. They stopped their comings and goings, and at home the phone barely rang anymore. Power cuts left us in the dark, contemplating the shadow of our impending fate. Before long Pumpkin and Gremlin learned to differentiate between the varied sounds of war, and I learned to observe their reaction and deduce which weapon had detonated.
The first mortar attack that I endured with my cats sounded like a whistle, the foreboding and shrill sound of an incoming missile, a fast-moving promise of demise that slows down time. I was sitting in my living room when I noticed the cats turn their heads in the direction of the whizzing and then scramble into hiding. The mortar flew over the roof of our building and landed on the other side, in the public park that my living room overlooked, exploding with a thud, a loud but low-frequency boom that shook the doors and windows throughout the apartment.
At the sound of the second incoming my instincts took over, and I rushed through the door for lower ground. I had no time to search for Pumpkin and Gremlin and take them with me as I had rehearsed many times in my mind, and in practice, in my attempts to prepare for the “emergency exit,” as the “experts at hostile environment training” teach. I did have an emergency bag sitting by the door packed with extra water and batteries, as the “experts” suggest, but the moment of reckoning arrived too fast and with a foreboding that left me feeling — on a visceral level — that I had one goal only: to run for my life.
In my speedy descent from the third floor I skipped several steps at a time, jumping through the air to lower ground as the mortars kept coming. At street level I found one of my neighbors standing and staring out the lobby, as if frozen with astonishment. When she turned and saw me, her panic set in.
“My kids, my kids,” she said, gasping for air. “My kids should be on their way back from school now. My kids, my kids.”
Still reacting instinctively, I grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the basement, but she resisted.
“My kids, my kids. They’re about to be released from school. Maybe already on their way. I have to wait for them here,” she said. I began to feel a steadiness and focus within me that seemed to grow in proportion to her panic.
“I’m sure your kids are safe and their school is in lockdown,” I told her. I knew it didn’t matter if I was right or in the grip of wishful thinking, because under no circumstance should she have gone outside while the mortars were still coming. I grabbed her arm harder this time and felt her weight move with me toward the basement.
Another KABOOM. This mortar fell very close and exploded right outside our building. It weakened my grip and my neighbor pulled away, aiming for the gate, obeying the impulse to search for her children, but I grabbed her again and pulled her back. We made it to the basement where a few other neighbors were already sheltering.
Minutes went by. Maybe five. Maybe 10. Maybe more mortars fell; it is difficult to recall. But everyone went quiet in between the blasts because I remember hearing the panting of the people near me and the beating of my own heart. In our temporary reprieve we tried to text and call loved ones, but the phone lines were down. My mind wandered to Sami, who had trained with me that morning and left my apartment minutes before the attack. He must have been crossing the street when the first mortar hit. Was he all right? What about Pumpkin and Gremlin, all alone in my apartment? Were they safe in their hiding places?
During a different attack on another day, a mortar had hit a building a few doors down the street from ours and gutted an entire floor. I had a fleeting thought about my own apartment — cats inside — enduring this fate, but I remained calm and reassured myself that no such thing could have occurred because, at the very least, we would have felt the impact all the way in the basement. I focused on the immediate situation and, somehow, with my wits still about me and as the phone lines came in and out, I began to report on the attack to my news outlet.
Later that day I learned that my neighbor’s kids were fine. Their school had indeed kept them safe in lockdown. Sami, too, was unharmed, though he endured a very close call in the public park. One of the mortars “fell one or two meters” near him and burrowed in the dirt but didn’t detonate. He took shelter in a building nearby. Back at home, I found everything in place, and the cats ventured out of hiding, unscathed.
That attack came sometime in February 2013 from a rebellious suburb where the people had been enduring government shelling by land and air and wanted to retaliate against regime-controlled Damascus, which was where I lived.
We often heard these regime attacks on the suburbs because they were initiated near us. They continued day after day, in the twilight hours and at high noon. Regime helicopters whirred above us on their way to the outskirts where they dropped their load, then buzzed over us on their way back. Sometimes we heard the thunderclap of a “barrel bomb,” a crude and effective contraption filled with shrapnel and explosives that a soldier could light with a cigarette and push out with both feet while crouched inside the belly of a helicopter.
Regime missile batteries fired from their perch in the hills that surrounded us, gun barrels aimed at suburbs below. Boom, boom, boom. Thuds and roars followed. Then came the death notices, flyers plastered on city walls so numerous they covered the urban gray, a blanket of names on thin sheets of paper.
There is a local proverb that prays for shelter from calamity, when all is lost in a blink of an eye, suddenly and irreversibly, during “saet al ghafleh,” the hour of oblivion, as you go about your day unaware of fate sneaking up on you from behind: a solemn figure that appears at your doorstep, a phone call that comes in the night. A beloved cat that goes missing.
“Allah yjirna min saet al ghafleh” — God save us from the hour of oblivion.
In Damascus after one particularly brutal night of booms and bangs, I awoke to find a notice on my street that has remained with me to this day. In it I read the names of eight members of one family who perished together. There were a mother and father, four children and two grandparents — a catastrophic loss rare enough to shock then and now, but not too unusual, which made the war in Syria particularly cruel.
The regime censored those notices so mourners in the city could not state the real cause of death of their loved ones, which in this case was due to indiscriminate air raids carried out by the government against a rebellious suburb filled with civilians. Instead, the bereaved stated that the death was “due to a tragic accident,” a tired euphemism from that era. In wartime Syria, loved ones found themselves divided between those who bent to the will of an authoritarian regime and those who broke under the wrath of its bombs.
To report on both scenarios I often smuggled myself out of Damascus and into rebel-held areas. I crossed checkpoints pretending to be someone I was not and met smugglers who hid me. A guide once took me across a lake where the bodies had sunk to the bottom. On the other side I found a haunted landscape, buildings cut in half and lives interrupted. No birds chirped in trees and no strays roamed the streets. Neither foxes nor coyotes nor the wingspan of a vulture could be seen in the patches of the country where fire and iron fell from the sky and the humans hid below ground.
Before departing on these journeys, I enlisted a trusted neighbor to look after Pumpkin and Gremlin while I was gone and made her promise to keep them safe in case I did not return. The contingencies of war demanded such foresight, not only when I went on assignment to the other side but also while I stayed in regime-controlled Damascus, where I risked detention or forced disappearance, a fate endured by hundreds of thousands of other Syrians. I was reporting on the war undercover, without the authorities’ knowledge, who would have otherwise watched me closely and impeded my reporting. I took extra precaution not to get caught or get any of my sources in trouble. This sometimes lent itself to a paranoia that played vicious games on the mind. Henchmen were known to retaliate by hurting their target’s loved ones, and although I was relieved that my immediate family was safe in America, I could not help but imagine a horrifying (yet highly unlikely) scenario in which thugs were going to kidnap or hurt my cats just to get to me. It was an absurd thought because such Hollywood horror tropes were not part of the national psyche. But that did not stop me from thinking about it.
I recalled this while in Washington searching for Pumpkin, and it beckoned the question of how much of an award I would offer if I didn’t find him and was compelled to post a “lost cat” flyer in my neighborhood. But the question left me stumped.
On a different day, a car bomb exploded around the bend from where I lived in central Damascus. Unlike the mortars, this KABOOM traveled in a burst, and the strongest soundwaves rippled closest to the ground.
I was home putzing around and making coffee, waiting for my hired car to pick me up and take me to Beirut when the bomb went off. Pumpkin and Gremlin startled and jumped up high in the air. They came down crouched on all fours then moved with an unfamiliar and slow gait toward the closet. Their tails dragged behind them, heavy like lead.
I noted those visuals before I took notice of a light breeze that blew back my hair, which puzzled me because I was not standing near a window and, because sometimes the measure of time is best captured in thoughts and images and not in seconds and nanoseconds, I wondered about another sensation that I felt in my torso, one that left me aware of the contours of my internal organs, as if they were delineated by a sonic force. Here were my lungs and there, a little lower and to the right, my liver. The brain inside my head felt slightly shaken, and before I understood anything I finally heard the bomb.
Later, after the ensuing gun battle subsided and I ventured outside to report on the scene, I found only a handful of civilians, their faces sullen and stoic. They moved in silence amid the hundreds of uniformed state security guards who had fanned out through the streets in and around Umayyad Square, where the attack occurred. Snipers watched from the rooftop of the armory building, the apparent target of the rebel attack, along with the state-run television station across the street from it. Heavily fortified, these buildings endured minimal damage. But the Assad Library on the other side of the square suffered a big hit. The shattered glass revealed dust and debris and three stories of library innards: a fallen ceiling fan, books strewn about and chairs in disarray. In its dilapidated state the library resembled the bombed-out buildings I saw in rebel areas, where the insides bared the detritus of families long gone: a basin unhinged by the wayside, a commode cracked in half, a crib abandoned on its side.
When I returned home it was already mid-afternoon, so I hurried and filed my reportage to my editors. Once done, a wave of fatigue overcame me, and I lay supine on the sofa. My eyes shuttered and in a stubborn disobedient way refused to open. I surrendered to my state of affairs and let the mind replay the day frame-by-frame, in flashes, with color and sound as vivid as the real events.
I was lost to this when I felt a gentle tug on my belly. I knew it was Pumpkin, who has a lighter presence than Gremlin, and for a moment I felt torn between the compelling bursts and flurries that flickered in my mind and the paw-sized indentations that pressed into my flesh. It took all my strength to move my hand and pet my cat, though the flicks continued with a prolific force and my eyes still refused to open. Pumpkin purred and kneaded and sniffed my face, short little exhales as if to ensure that we were both still here.
Such memories floated beneath the surface during the frantic search for him in my Washington neighborhood. And in my fugue that day in the back alley behind my house, as I moved in between garages looking for Pumpkin, I heard a man call from inside a yard.
“Hello?! Hello! Excuse me. Are you missing a cat?”
And although his query registered with me, I remained engrossed in the frenzied mind, moving hither and to, in search of Pumpkin.
“Hello! Hello! I think we have your cat!” he continued.
And now he had my full attention. So I climbed on some stairs to see who was talking and asked:
“Is the cat orange? And fluffy?”
“Yeah. He’s in the yard next to mine,” my neighbor said, pointing outside my line of sight. “He’s fine. Just complaining a lot.”
And then I heard it, the glorious tell-tale cry delivered in mezzo-soprano: “enwowow? … nwowow?”
In the summer of 2014 I packed my belongings and the cats into a car and drove toward Beirut, leaving Damascus for the last time, though I did not yet know it. On the way to the border we passed a dozen checkpoints. Some guards wore a uniform. All brandished firearms. Agitated ones barked orders and banged on cars, demanding to inspect the inside.
Pumpkin and Gremlin were accustomed to this because they always traveled with me between Damascus and Beirut except when I found them a cat sitter. I was also accustomed to the guards’ reaction when they opened my car and found the cats riding shotgun, harnessed and leashed so they wouldn’t hop out. Time and again, without fail, the men’s growls turned to chuckles, sneers to smiles and, sometimes, endearingly and tellingly, a teenage conscript said something like: “Whoa! What are those? Do they bite? They look nothing like the cats in my village.”
A couple of days later while in Beirut, I received a call from a friend in Damascus warning that “some people” were looking for me. It was no longer safe to return. It took some time for the dust to settle and for me to realize that my decade in the Middle East had come to an end.
Time to leave it all behind — the people, the country, the war — and return to America, cats in tow.
Heart-wrenching goodbyes followed.
“Take me with you. Please. Pack me in a suitcase and take me away from here.”
“What I would give to be one of your cats. They are sooo lucky!”
True words. Pumpkin and Gremlin survived the war with all its tribulations, as did I. In our departure there would be no long lines at embassy gates and no smugglers at the edge of the sea; no closed doors or lost fortunes, no visas denied in red ink. No ethnic slurs and humiliations, and no fate worse than death.
This time we flew Lufthansa, the only trans-Atlantic airline that allowed the cats with me in-cabin. Gremlin did not freak out and both cats fell asleep, each in a carrier perched on the empty seat next to mine in the luxurious premium economy class. During our layover in Frankfurt, I took them into the restroom, and they used their travel litter box. We continued to our connecting flight then landed in Dulles Airport, a seamless repatriation to America, save for the haunting within.
I never found what I was looking for in the Old Country. The more the years pass, the less important the urge, like a shoreline receding in low tide. Only the people left behind matter. For them, I can only hope that one day, they too will tell a sad story with a happy ending.