x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

They've got that loving feline

Beliefs that cats are dirty or evil have left many Arabs with an aversion to the creatures, but one family in Abu Dhabi, cannot imagine life without their pets.

Hassan Hussein with all five of his cats in their favourite place to relax - his wardrobe.
Hassan Hussein with all five of his cats in their favourite place to relax - his wardrobe.

ABU DHABI //The Hussein home is not a typical Arab abode. The three-bedroom flat on the eighth floor houses two parents, four siblings - and five cats. Guests sometimes decline invitations to the apartment, just off the Corniche, when they hear about the flurry of felines.

Many members of the Arab community fear - or even hate - the animals. The aversion stems from a variety of beliefs about cats including that they are evil or dirty or that they can cause infertility. Hassan Hussein, 21, just shakes his head when he talks about the problems his family's love for the creatures can cause. "People are just ignorant," he said. "In Islam, cats are respected, as the Prophet Mohammed had a cat and a cat saved him from a snake bite."

Hassan is the second-youngest in his family - he has a 17-year-old brother, Hussein, and two sisters, Aida, 29, and Merwat, 23. After a visitor steps out of the lift, his family's apartment is easy to spot, marked by an assortment of colourful cat carriers and a pile of empty litter boxes. "People say we love cats because we are Egyptians and in the time of the Pharaohs we used to worship them," said Hassan, with a laugh.

The cat goddesses, known as the lion-headed Sekhmet and the domestic cat-headed Bastet, were daughters of the sun god Ra and worshipped by ancient Egyptians. The five pet cats may be from the Hussein's native country of Egypt, but that is where the similarities end. Two of them were abandoned or homeless until the family rescued them. Aida found "the grandmother" of the group, a pure white Persian called Tiga, on the streets of Alexandria, wet from the rain and deaf.

She was brought over to the UAE when Aida was visiting Abu Dhabi from her college in Egypt. "She is quiet and sweet and communicates to us through her eyes," said Hassan. A quick tap on the bed was all it took for the four-year-old to jump up for a snuggle. Tiga's son Roco, a one-year-old red-orange Persian, copied his mother, climbing on to Hassan and settling on his left shoulder. He was quickly followed by Fastooka, a two-year-old gray Persian. She was found, also in Egypt, by Hassan's sister, and has since become the "most motherly" of the group.

"She takes care of everyone," said Hassan. Two-month-old Nacho has long black fur peppered with gold. The offspring of Fastooka and Roco is already fiercely loyal. Once, when Hassan was locked out, the kitten stood by for an hour - gently scratching on the other side of the door. "I recognised Nacho's meow," he said. "She kept me company the whole time and then welcomed me home with the rest of the cats when the door was finally unlocked."

Nacho and her sister, the brown-gray Tushi, are the most "mischievous" of the family. Chasing a piece of paper, they ran and slid across the floor before slamming into their sleeping mother. "They keep the house alive, and keep us all busy," said Hassan. Mealtime for the pets means four bowls of wet cat food and a fifth bowl of milk for Nacho, who still "prefers" it, and lots of catnip. The rest of the time is a sort of organised chaos.

None of them likes the cats when Hassan and Hussein divide their attention from them by studying, and sit on the brothers' books and papers in an attempt at distraction. The Hussein family's love for cats and animals began long before Hassan was born. His father has rescued and taken care of cats and dogs since his childhood. "Father always defends the cats," said Hassan. "If he sees one running, he comes and scolds us, asking what did we do."

Like father like son. When Hassan posts photographs on Facebook, the cats are featured alongside his siblings and parents. Hassan cares for two more cats, Timmy and Jack, who live on the campus of Abu Dhabi University, where he studies marketing. When he moves out of the family home, Hassan plans to move into a big villa and fill it with animals. "I don't know how people can live without a pet," he said. "Our cats make such a huge difference in our lives."