What to Do When You Find a Stray Cat in Ramallah

'I bought cat milk formula for the kitten for 75 shekels ($22)' and then promised myself to buy gum during my next trip to Qalandiyah checkpoint from the ten-year old children who work day and night ■ Post #6

The stray cat found in Ramallah
Umm Forat

I'm an Israeli lawyer, Jewish, married to a Palestinian resident of Ramallah. After years of wandering throughout the world, we returned to the West Bank with our two children, 5-year-old Forat and 2-year-old Adam. We are trying to lead ordinary lives in an extraordinary and unforgiving reality, one that I will share with you here. (click to read all previous posts). I have changed the names of people in the blog, including my own. "Umm Forat" means "Mother of Forat" in Arabic.

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“Ima, Adam is throwing a shoe at the cat again!” Forat called from the garden. I looked outside the kitchen window. The black kitten showed up five days ago. Osama heard her meowing underneath the pile of thorny cactus branches he had uprooted, the ones that were exactly at Adam’s eye-level. We waited a day but saw no sign of her mother or siblings. When we pulled her out from the branches, she pressed herself against the sliding glass kitchen door and begged to come inside.

The other cats in the garden gave her threatening stares and hissed at her, until she froze in terror, her gaunt body tense and cocked. I gave her food scraps, but she only smelled them. Guided by Google, I examined her teeth and the color of her eyes and concluded that she was about a month old. Why did her mother abandon her while she was still nursing?

I found the telephone number for Ginny, the American volunteer who had rescued three kittens from the courtyard of our apartment building in Philadelphia and transferred them to lives of luxury in adoptive American homes. I explained the situation.

“Call the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” she said.

“Here it’s different,” I said. “No one will come. I wanted to ask what she can eat.”

“Then call a veterinary clinic,” she insisted. “They can come and give her immunizations.”

“Here there are thousands – no, tens of thousands – of street cats,” I said. “There are no services for them, and I can’t bring her inside our house. I’m allergic.”

At Ginny’s suggestion, I found a recipe on the Internet for cat milk substitute: cow’s milk, yogurt and egg yolk. The kitten stuck her face into the liquid but mostly spread it over her whiskers. The Internet warned that the mixture could only be a temporary alternative, because it was hard to digest.

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The kitten cried, day and night. One day I broke down.

“I’m ashamed of myself,” I told Osama.

“Why?”

“I bought cat milk formula for the kitten for 75 shekels ($22).” 

“You’re kidding.”

I hadn’t meant to do it. Driving home, I passed a pet store. In my clumsy Arabic, I explained what I wanted, and to my surprise, the owner pointed to a dusty box, on a high shelf behind the cash register, powdered cat milk formula. She refused to discount more than five shekels from the original price of eighty. “It’s imported,” she said. “Expensive.”

Street signs directing travelers to Ramallah and Tel Aviv
Emil Salman

“Ever since the children were born, I feel solidarity with mammals,” I told Osama. “That kitten wants to breastfeed.”

Adam picked up a branch from the garden and thrust it toward the kitten. “Aaahhhh!!” he rejoiced, laughing and dancing. The kitten, who was the size of a rat, looked sick. When she drank the formula, she made loud breathing noises, as if her lungs were infected. I figured her survival odds were low, even with the gourmet meals I gave her three times a day.

“Maybe we should call the municipality,” Osama said. “Maybe they can do something.”

“Let them first help the children selling gum outside Qalandiyah checkpoint at eight o’clock at night,” I said. I felt guilty for not giving those children the seventy-five shekels. With that sum, I could buy twenty packages of gum and maybe cause one child to go home earlier. Or not.

Qalandiyah is no-man’s land, where the Palestinian police have no authority to enforce the law, and the Israeli army has no interest in enforcing the law.

I wondered how Forat experienced our move back to Palestine from a rich country like the United States, or even the impossible transitions she and I make within an hour, from Ramallah to Tel Aviv. There are rich people in Palestine – there are rich people everywhere – but Palestine lacks the infrastructure and services that sovereignty, control over resources and a good government can build. Un-fenced construction sites next to daycare centers. No sidewalk or worse, a sidewalk bordering a deep pit, with no wall to stop a child from falling.

When we visited the children’s new daycare and kindergarten, at the peak of the August heat, we checked how they warm the buildings in winter and whether there were exposed electrical heaters. I remember years ago, during one of my first visits to Ramallah, a fellow lawyer who joined me for work meetings called my attention to cooking gas canisters stored in the kitchen of a house in which children lived.

“That’s so dangerous,” he whispered in my ear. Now we also store our gas canisters inside a home where children live, because otherwise how can we cook them dinner?

During a rare visit by Osama to the other side of the separation wall – we got him an entry permit into Israel to accompany Forat to a doctor’s appointment – he stared at the playground next to the Tel Aviv clinic – the shade, the padded mats on the ground, the sign listing the date of the last municipal safety inspection – and asked me, referring to the Israeli authorities: “Are they serious?” I assumed Forat was also comparing it to the playgrounds in Ramallah, which are nice, but mostly unshaded, littered with broken glass bottles, and containing swings with torn metal chains.

Qalandiyah checkpoint, West Bank, June 2019.
Emil Salman

A hysterical feline yelp. “Imaaaa!!” Forat pointed to Adam, who held the kitten by her tail and lifted her to his face to inspect her up close.

“Adam! Put down the cat! It hurts!”

Adam looked at me, serene and brimming with scientific curiosity, and put the kitten down. I mean, he released her tail, so that she fell, crashing into the garden tiles. She fled into a corner next to the kitchen door and curled up into a small, black, traumatized ball.

Maybe I’ll try to find someone to adopt her after all? Again I felt shame at the selective compassion that my privilege allows. I promised myself to buy gum during my next trip to Qalandiyah checkpoint from the ten-year old children who work day and night.

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