Muhammed’s Cats

We were barely off the airplane in Casablanca when we noticed the cats. You couldn’t not notice the cats. They were everywhere, all the time, street cats with the hungry look of street cats, brazen and intrusive in tourist venues, city shops, and roadside cafes. But cute, always cute, especially the little ones; so cute that even the inevitable germophobe in the group risked the assault of unspeakable miseries to pet them.

In European cities like Rome, feral cats don’t often win local hearts, but the cats we saw in Morocco seemed not unwelcome. Tourists weren’t the only ones making mewing noises to signal the imminent drop of scraps from restaurant tables. Shallow bowls of water were set out everywhere too, even in the middle of what seemed like nowhere.

On a showery day in Rabat, we came across an old man inside the 14th century Chellah Necropolis. He was the unofficial guardian of a shrine inside the grounds. Don’t ask me now which saint was venerated in that small dark room, there were so many shrines along the way. Unlike Shiites elsewhere, the adherents of the somewhat sui generis Sunni Islam of Morocco routinely deposit their raw needs at the feet of long-dead holy ones in hope of answered prayer, much like Berber “pagans” and Christians in North Africa did before Islam arrived. Some shrines are imposing and ornate, but most are as forlorn as the people who trudge to them. And they are filled with cats. The shrine in the Necropolis had its ample share, and the guardian fed and watered them every day, asking alms from visitors to offset the cost of his mercy.

He’d been there too many years to count, he told us, and so had most of the cats. They were his preoccupation. When a man in our group asked the obvious “Why?”, the guardian told us one of those short, slight stories that explain everything to those whose hearts want to know.

“Once upon a time, the Prophet awoke at the sound of the call to prayer and went to put on his best robe in order to pray. But he discovered that a cat, whose name was Muezza, was sound asleep on the sleeve. Rather than wake her, he got a pair of scissors and cut off the sleeve, leaving her there undisturbed.”

I liked that story very much, but it was another legend we heard in another town that captured my heart. Forgive me, Muhammed, but I think I fell for it so hard because it sounded a lot like a story Jesus would tell; and as much as I respect you, I am a hopeless sucker for him. Anyway, my Christian chauvinism aside, here it is:

“A woman with a bad reputation was returning from a night of debauchery when she saw a cat in the road. The wretched thing was starving, very close to death. The wicked woman ran into her house and filled one of her jeweled slippers with water, returned to the street, and set the slipper down before him. The cat drank and lived. Many years later, a holy man of that same town died and entered Paradise. There he saw the woman and was astonished. He asked the Prophet how it was she had found mercy. The prophet said, ‘Because she showed mercy, even to a cat.’”

Under my breath, I said (for my own instruction), “Go and do likewise.”

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