A Dream of a Thousand (Turkish) Cats

I have to confess.

Sometimes, in spite of all my sanctimonious rants about difference between voyagers and tourists, and the universal contempt for the latter, I indulge in activities that would put selfie-stick musketeers, pineapple pizza eaters or “I HEART Italy” hat wearers to shame.

When in Turkey, it happens that I give myself the guilty pleasure of buying a worthless object from a Kapalıçarşı vendor whose soul has no hope of salvation, for all his lies assured eternal flames to him and his descendants for generations to come. Or like that night in Istanbul, when I allowed myself to be dragged into a tourists’ trap shisha restaurant, with assurances of bad food and noisy foreigners.

Nothing terrible, except that I hate it and the bill would probably be enough for an out of court settlement against a Tobacco Corporation.

The problems began when, through the smoke and my misted eyes I believed to see someone sitting on a couch, looking at me like expecting to start a conversation. Ah, and the problem, I mean it was someone, but not a person, in the sense, not a human person.

It was a cat.

An elegant, classy female cat with that patient and polite attitude that all educated Turks have when they are forced to deal with uncivilized tourists.

Still nothing unusual for Turkey, I mean, a cat sitting like any other customer on a couch in a shisha cafe, but this one looked strange. I must then have looked even more strange, because, maybe smoking was too much after a long day strolling through Istanbul, but I casually started the conversation that Lady Cat seemed to wait patiently for.

I introduced myself and ignoring worried glances from other customers asked her about her life, her parents, her kittens, where her family’s original memleket was, and how she had come to Istanbul.

I have always been suspicious about the apple flavored tobacco in nargiles, and after that night I prefer to think the worst about it.

Because, if it was not the “apple” in it, Lady Cat really answered my questions.

She told me of how her ancestors had lived in Anatolia for centuries. Their remains, still guarding the first barns from mice, have been found in the most ancient archaeological excavations. Cats watched, from the shadow of a wooden horse, mythical cities being sacked, with flames shining in their eyes. Cats who enjoyed the golden age of Ephesus still have descendants living among its ruins. Byzantine mosaics were clearly inspired by cats’ golden eyes reflecting Imperial robes.

But in a far away land, in sunny Arabia, other cats were cuddled by the Prophet and as a remind of His affection they kept forever the sign of His fingers on their heads. They followed the Arab armies laying siege to Constantinople, they witnessed Eyup bey fall by the Golden Horn, and eventually fell in love with the Byzantine cats.

When Mehmet II Fatih conquered the city, cats were already fighting on their own an endless war with the enormous, ferocious Constantinople rats.

But times were changing.

Terrible news came from Europe. The times when cats were well regarded, protecting people from the plague carried by rats, were over. Now cats were hunted and killed because considered companions of witches and instruments of evil.

When European cats’ fate seemed sealed a hope came from the East.

The new Sultan Beyazit II had offered hospitality to Jews expelled from Spain, ridiculing King Ferdinand for losing such valuable subjects to enriching his rivals. If an enlightened sovereign could see the advantage of welcoming skilled craftsmen, jewelers and literates to his realm, why would not his people see the advantage of welcoming cats too?

So, while Europeans killed thousands of cats to the delight of rats and rat fleas, the feline refugees who had followed in the steps of Sephardi Jews were fed and cared after in the Ottoman Empire. They purred to rulers’ favorites in the harems, played with the most precious tulips, enjoyed unpunished silky pillows and wool carpets in palaces and villages alike.

The barks of Fox, Atatürk’s terrier, signaled that times had eventually changed, after horrendous wars and famines that ravaged the old Empire, whose human and feline peoples suffered terribly.

Predictably, in the new Turkish Republic people renewed the old pact with cats.

According to some sources, Atatürk claimed that his successor would have been bitten on an ankle by an odd eyed white cat. People still debates if the legend is about the swimming Van cats or the puffy Ankara cats.

Not that it matters: in hot summer times, in every village and even in big cities, bowls of water and piles of kibble are left out of doorsteps for less fortunate feline Turks living in the streets.

Many Turkish cats work as doormen, others as park or museum guardians, others check tickets in subways or entertain lonely guests in cafes or restaurants, some have domesticated their dogs.

I remembered one, as black as an Aegean black olive, acting as a watchdog, sorry, a watchcat, angrily scratching intruders and noisy housemaids away.

The fascinating story of cats in Turkey was thinning out into a stream of detailed anecdotes when the restaurant man, the one who had unceremoniously lured me into the tourist trap, came to tell me that my nargile was out, and that it was time to get a new one… He gave me the distinct feeling that he thought I was annoying Lady Cat, who observed the scene with half-closed eyes but no comments.

So I respectfully greeted goodbye to my furry host, caressing her head where the Prophet’s fingers had. She could finally relax, laying down on the couch, free from the formal duty of entertaining another ignorant yabanci.

I paid the check, enough to feed Lady Cat’s whole aşiret for a year and left, trying to walk straight, towards dreams of ancient cats.

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Photojournalist and writer, traveler, biker, based in Genoa, Italy.

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Piero Castellano

Piero Castellano

Photojournalist and writer, traveler, biker, based in Genoa, Italy.

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