Part 1: Houseguests | Part 2: Pets | Part 3: Goats and Chickens
Naureen fell in love with a tiny orange kitten with a nearly tragic past. Found on a roadside, a cut on his forepaw had become gangrenous, requiring amputation. The first surgery cut the bone on an angle, leaving a sharp edge that prevented it from healing and required a second amputation. While the shelter paid for the surgeries, the rest was up to Naureen, who named the runt kitten Simsim—sesame seed in Arabic—and rebandaged his tiny stump morning and night for months.
On those Saturday nights when I, unexpectedly or deliberately, had missed my bus home from Irbid and ended up at Naureen’s instead, I fell in love with Simsim, too. He would come right to me for a snuggle, and after I had left, Naureen told me, he would sit on the fersheh where I had slept and mew at Naureen, looking about for me.
A few weeks after his second surgery, though, Naureen was travelling to Morocco to vacation with her cousin and best friend. In Jordan, there’s not kennel to leave your cat at while you travel. A cat-sitter was needed, and I could not resist temporary custody of little furball Simsim.
Naureen loaded cat carrier, litter with box, food and other accoutrements into a cab and came up to Faiha’. She showed me how to hold him, barely bigger than my hand, against my ribs to change his bandage and tape a baby sock over it so he would not pick at it. We set up food and the litterbox. We played with Simsim for a few minutes, but he wanted to explore his new digs. Naureen’s taxi was waiting, so she kissed her kitten and left.
Like any cat, Simsim wanted to know what was inside every box and bag and cupboard in my place. Sometimes during those two weeks, I felt like all I ever said was, “No, Simsim, not that!”
Mostly, though, he was more lapdog than cat, perhaps because he had never known his mother or been around other cats. He liked to cuddle, and would have preferred to sleep wrapped in my arms as he did with Naureen.
I had told the neighbors that I would have Naureen’s cat for two weeks, but I am not sure they had much concept of a “pet” in the sense that we do in the States. Reema, one of our LCFs in Training, had a housecat, which was becoming more common in West Amman and the wealthier communities of Irbid. In the villages, though, someone like our Training Coordinator Sultan with his pet German Shepherds was almost unheard of. So it was not more than half an hour after Naureen left that the neighbor kids’ curiosity got the best of them and I heard Alya, Aaliya and Aiat whispering on my doorstep.
Laughing silently, I waited for their knock. “Tafaddalu—Come in!”
Silence. Then Alya: “Is she … inside a…. Do you have her?” The Arabic word guTTah—cat is feminine.
“I’m holding him,” I said. “It’s okay. You can come in.” I did not want to open the door myself in case they saw him and shrieked, up close and personal. It seemed better for everyone to keep some distance, at least at first.
They eased the door open and two of them stuck their heads in. Seeing that I was ten feet away, they piled through the doorway, but then stood in a clump right there inside the closed door: Alya, Aaliya, Hamza, Nour and their cousin Aiat. “You’re holding her?” marveled Alya, the eldest.
“Yeah, sure.” I stroked his head with one hand, the other wrapped securely around his wee ribcage. “It’s okay,” I repeated. “You can come in.”
They took a few steps then stopped again, still clumped together, the little ones Hamza and Nour peeking out from behind the bigger girls. “She lets you hold her?” asked Aiat. Her family had a full Old MacDonald’s farm of livestock, while the other family had no animals.
“Of course.” I scratched his ears. “He likes it.”
“She,” corrected Alya, who often considered herself my teacher. “GuTTah is a feminine word—it ends in –ah—and so a cat is she.”
“But he’s a boy guTTah,” I said. I knew she was correct, grammatically speaking, but I was trying to make a different point about my relationship to Simsim. “His name is Simsim.”
“IftaH, ya simsim!” said Hamza, the youngest, then giggled. “Open sesame.” He knew it from the dubbed Looney Tunes he watched on Jordanian television.
“Bi-l-‘arabi?” asked Aiat, wide-eyed and on the verge of laughter. “His name is Simsim in Arabic?”
“Of course.” I shrugged. “He’s an Arab cat, right?”
“An Arab cat?” Alya and Aiat gave each other one of those “she’s crazy” looks I knew so well. They had never thought to put those two words together, Arab and cat.
“What happened to his foot?” asked Noor.
I explained. I was not sure if they were surprised that anyone would spend that much time and money on a kitten, or if I just expected them to be.
“Can I touch him?” asked Hamza.
“No, no!” said Alya, flinging out an arm in her little brother’s path. “Stay over here, Hamza.”
“Of course you can,” I said, making sure I had a good hold on the soft, warm little kitten body. “Like this.” I stroked Simsim’s spine.
Hamza scooted forward and reached out slowly, tentatively tapping Simsim on the back. When the kitten did not attack, Hamza stroked his back once, and then sat back with a grin.
“Can I?” asked Nour. Something of a tomboy, she rarely let Hamza do something without making herself be brave enough to do it herself.
She stroked Simsim’s back once, and he squirmed in my arms. Nour leapt back with a yelp.
“All right,” I said. “I have to let Simsim go now.”
I never saw the neighborhood kids get up and out of my house so fast!
Despite their continued apprehension, this became an almost daily ritual while Simsim stayed with me. The kids would knock at the door, only daring to enter when I confirmed that I was holding Simsim. They would watch me hold him, the little ones daring to get in a pat or a stroke or two. Then Simsim would get restless and the kids would be up and out in a flash before he could wriggle free.
I did not realize it at the time, but I think keeping Simsim those couple weeks probably got me more much-needed introvert alone time than usual. I do remember sitting for hours with Simsim curled up in my lap, reading thick science fiction novels borrowed from the library in the Peace Corps Amman office.
After Simsim went back home with Naureen, every time she called or I mentioned her around the kids, they would ask about Simsim. “How is he?” I count that as a win, one lesson I know I was successful teaching.
Even years after the Peace Corps, when I would call up Naureen, she would say, “Here comes Simsim!” He recognized my voice even over the phone, she said.