x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Cat fight

How a fat cartoon feline hijacked Abu Dhabi's online identity.

Garfield is more welcome on Broadway than in certain parts of cyberspace.
Garfield is more welcome on Broadway than in certain parts of cyberspace.

The discussion section of the Wikipedia page dedicated to Abu Dhabi is relatively sedate. It bears little resemblance to the politically charged discussion page for the Saddam Hussein article, where one commenter theorises caustically that the article has been "heavily edited by conspiracy theorists and anti-western ragtags", or the in-depth discussion page for the entry on Star Trek, where someone has taken the time to argue that: "The Federation is socialistic while the Romulans, Klingons and many other races are governed by pseudo-fascist systems."

Instead, most of the discussion over the Abu Dhabi page concerns whether a Wikipedia search for Abu Dhabi should direct users to the Abu Dhabi (City) or Abu Dhabi (Emirate) page and how the two pages should be connected, disambiguated and so on. Boring, web encyclopaedia management stuff. Everyone keeps their cool - except for on one topic: Garfield. Yes, Garfield, that obese American comic-strip house cat who has, since 1978, been commenting gnomically on his likes (lasagne, naps and mischief) and dislike (dogs, spiders, diets, alarm clocks, Mondays, people generally and his owner, Jon Q Arbuckle, specifically).

Garfield also hates Nermal, a cute kitten who is always dropping by unannounced and uninvited to remind Garfield how old and fat and uncute he is. When Garfield gets really ticked off, he stuffs Nermal in a box and attempts to mail him to Abu Dhabi. In one episode of the animated show Garfield and Friends, he sings a little song: "Abu Dhabi, it's far away / Abu Dhabi, that's where you'll stay / Abu Dhabi, the place to be / For any kitten who's annoying me, yeah!"

This information was once on Abu Dhabi's Wikipedia page. Last November, a nameless user deleted it. A Wikipedia editor called Leitman protested instantly. "This section seems important," he insisted. "Abu Dhabi is not a very well known city. Only recently have people become aware of its existence. The usage of Abu Dhabi in the late 1980s and early 1990s is very interesting." Six minutes later, a user named Gazpacho shot back: "You cannot possibly be serious."

Four minutes later, someone named Spooner chimed in: "Nobody gives a **** about Garfield." After two months (during which he edited articles on George HW Bush, Tom Cruise, Scientology, Bill Gates and Wikipedia Vandalism) Gazpacho returned to the Abu Dhabi page, saw that the Garfield section had been restored, and went ballistic: "NOBODY IN THE WORLD EVER HAS OR EVER WILL LOOK IN AN ENCYCLOPAEDIA ARTICLE ABOUT A CITY TO FIND OUT WHETHER IT WAS MENTIONED BY A ******* TALKING CAT."

Some Wikipedia higher-ups deemed this too disrespectful to be allowed, and investigation revealed that Gazpacho and Spooner were "sock puppets" of the same person (who also posted as BillyMurray). Eventually, all three were banned from ever posting again. Leitman went on editing Wikipedia articles. To date, he has edited over 1,800, almost all of them about the Emirates. According to his online profile, he lives in Phoenix, Arizona, but wants to move to Dubai. He has never been there, but he "finds it easier to name buildings, streets, and landmarks in Dubai than it is to do the same for Phoenix."

He also professes to be worried that "the culture and urbanity of Dubai is being eroded by the extensive growth." In February, AreJay - a long time Wikipedia contributor who has earned several Wikipedia medals of accomplishment for his work on articles about Bangalore, India and the British rock band Genesis - removed the Garfield reference for good. Later that month, at the Garfield discussion page, someone wondered whether Garfield's bed was actually a lasagne pan.

And just last week, an anonymous commentater stopped by the Abu Dhabi page. "Hi," he said. "Just wanted to say that I did in fact look up Abu Dhabi to see if they were going to mention Garfield."