Everyone in Hamra has seen them, I’m sure. Strolling along the pathways, lounging on benches, or hiding in the bushes making the most of their stealth superpowers. I’m talking, of course, about those beloved, pampered beings of the Internet: cats. The army of felines currently residing at AUB is one of the most notable things about the campus. And I’ll be honest, it’s been one of the major highlights of my summer. The cats feature so prominently here that the university created its own webpage for them, which outlines AUB’s policy on cats, guidelines for students and visitors, and a donations page for their maintenance.
Guideline #5 clearly states that it is prohibited for any person to dump cats on campus, yet this is exactly how the “Cats of AUB” phenomenon began. Nearly a million people left Lebanon during its 15-year civil war, which lasted from 1975 until 1990. Before leaving the country, some people abandoned their pets on campus with the hopes that they would be fed and taken care of. This small colony grew over time, and AUB still maintains its policy of providing them with humane care and management. It is difficult to estimate the current number of feline residents, but I would venture to guess that it’s upwards of 200. And despite the university’s noble efforts to ensure the cat population is spayed and neutered, their numbers continue to grow. Even during my short stay here, I happened upon newborn kittens on multiple occasions.
Although these cats have been generally tolerated by the students, many have also complained about the university allocating a portion of their tuition for veterinary care and daily feedings. I’ve heard a number of people commenting on the health risks they pose, and sometimes it does seem like there is an actual cat infestation on campus. For example, the sign below is posted on the Center for Arabic and Middles Eastern Studies door in order to prevent cats from getting into the office. It’s like one of the plagues.
To me, the cats have a certain charm about them that brightens my study breaks. I have been trying to balance this attitude with a sensitivity for the concerns and frustrations of those who live here, but I admit, it has been tough. The idea that interacting with animals helps to cut down on stress and burnout is quite realistic, and – perhaps unwillingly – these feral cats have served exactly that purpose. I can’t count the number of times I left class with a splitting headache, feeling exhausted and utterly incompetent, only to sit on a bench and have one of these cats curl up next to me and show some affection. At one point, I thought of creating a #CatsofAUB Instagram account to document all the cat friends I made during my studies. It never happened, so I’ll share a few of them here to commemorate the furry friends that helped me through the summer.
One of the most recognized faces by those in the Summer Arabic Program has been Margaret, the sassy calico that lives on the wall outside our building. Sure, she may look angry, and she hasn’t quite learned how to control her emotions yet. But I assure you, she just needs some love. Don’t we all?
I found Ambien – named after the sleep drug – napping in four different locations throughout the day. Shortly thereafter I met Walnut, who was an extremely tiny pal with the size of my palm and a constant purr.
While rushing to prepare one of my short presentations for class (we were asked to choose an Arab country and talk about its history and political system), I was distracted by the most gracious tabby cat who was so sweet that I named him Moosh Moosh – the Lebanese word for apricot. That same day, I heard a noise coming from the trashcan and discovered a grouchy four-legged vagabond digging through the rubbish. He earned the name Oscar.
A rather aloof white-haired mutant became known as Mu in honor of a pretty deformity that left her with two different eye colors. Walking home from class one day, I heard the most desperate cry coming from the top of a hill and found 3 newborn kittens stumbling inside a cardboard box. These 3 firecrackers came to be known as Lock, Stock, and Barrel.
And to round off the list, a particularly itchy cat that insisted on jumping into my lap was baptized as Pulgoso (the Spanish word for flea-ridden).
This is only a sampling of the many unexpected cat friends that I met in Beirut. In the end, these cats reminded me of the city itself: colorful, diverse, full of personality, and a bit rough around the edges. And although they carry a reputation of caution and uncertainty, they have an awful lot to offer once you get to know them.