The Kittens of Konya by Ahsan Chowdhury

The kitten, a pot-bellied calico with rickety legs, couldn’t have been more than four weeks old. It was the only one to detach itself from the litter and waddle toward me. I was kneeling on the uneven stony surface outside the rusty metal fence enclosing a cluster of low mound-like graves. The litter evidently claimed the small graveyard as its own, as had many more before it. The low gravestones had inscriptions in Ottoman Turkish as well as modern Turkish in Latin script. Here lay princes, businessmen, scholars, and humbler folk. These permanent residents of the burial ground must have done something to earn the honor of being buried so close to the storied dervish.

My wife and I were visiting the shrine of Sadreddin Konevi, a contemporary and close associate of the medieval Sufi poet Rumi, the founder of the Mevlevi order of dervishes. It was a hot July afternoon in Konya, the capital city of the eponymous province in central Turkey. After a whirlwind tour of Granada in Spain, we had landed in Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport the night before and caught a domestic flight to Konya during the small hours of the morning. Before that we had been to Paris and London briefly. We were trying to make the most of the travel award for narrative writing that I won in 2019, but we kept postponing our travels because of the on-going Covid-19 Pandemic. The indulgent award committee finally told me to use it by the summer of 2022 or lose it. So it was that we found ourselves in the fabled city of Rumi, the mystic, and the original whirling dervish.

The street on which Sadreddin’s shrine is located was densely shaded by stately trees. We had just finished saying our afternoon prayers in the mosque adjacent to the saint’s tomb. While parts of the mosque looked to be of a more recent vintage, the inner courtyard that houses the cemetery looked ancient. The cobblestones were eroded by countless footsteps over the centuries. Among the gravestones dappled with patches of sunlight that filtered in through the leafy branches of a large apricot tree, an extended feline family lounged about. There were two nursing queens in the clowder made up of felines of every age, size, and color conceivable. Eyes closed and lying on her side, the one closest to me, a tuxedo, breastfed seven little ones. Right in the middle, a short-hair and tabby cross furiously pumped both sides of the tit it was latched on to. With its snow-white paws and a lucent bib, it looked uncannily like our Kaia when she was only a few weeks old. The familiar ammoniac smell of cat piss mingled with a faint whiff of decay wafted in with a welcome breeze, punctuated by many a yowl and hiss. 

It must have been the travel weariness that made me kneel and make the clucking noise that I employ to attract the attention of our two cats whom we had left behind to go on this much too short a tour of Europe and Turkey. I also missed our cats and the moderate Edmonton summer after the scorching heat waves we had endured even in London, let alone the arid plains of Granada. Seeing the Kaia-look alike kitten brought a lump to my throat; a childless man in his early fifties, I longed to hold Kaia, now almost a year-old feisty young cat, in my arms again. The one that my clucking finally got the attention of had been squeezed between the Kaia-twin and a hefty ginger. A particolored runt with a swollen belly and skinny body, it eventually got dislodged by its bigger and stronger siblings and was forced to roll away from the heap of purring and heaving fur. With admirable tenacity it threw itself back into the fray again and again and lost. 

At last, the furry little Robert the Bruce wearing motley turned around and tottered toward me. I reached over the low fence and picked him up by the scruff of his neck. Suspended momentarily in the air, the variegated Bruce mewled and squirmed mightily. I cradled his tiny head in my left palm and his bloated trunk—turned out it was a ‘he’—on my right. As if he were a human infant, I held him nestled against my left cheek, his still amorphous, smoky kitten eyes locked into mine and the forepaws reaching for my nose.

My wife said, “That’s so cute! Hold it like that.” Before she could fish out the phone, I had to let the kitten go, revolted not so much by the reek of urine and feces as by the distended belly that boded a bunch of parasites ensconced within. Bruce shambled back to the hairy pile and was engulfed by it. An open sore on the calico’s back was licked to an angry red by its mother. I began to notice how scrawny and unkempt the whole lot looked. Even the Kaia-double turned out to be a far cry from our plump and pampered pet, fed on chicken-flavored Purina and pumped full of vaccines to protect her from a whole gamut of diseases and all manners of parasites. The grownups fared no better. One of the adults was missing an ear, another was obviously blind and kept bumping into the gravestones. A stench of death and decay emanated from a declivity in the southeast corner of the yard. Perhaps, when the time came, they crawled into the hole to die. That would explain the swarm of blue bottles nearly covering a saucer full of milk someone had placed outside the perimeter fence. 

Cats are as ubiquitous in the holy city of Konya as in the rest of Turkey. They are the closest Islamic analog to the Hindu holy cows that lord it over the residents and pilgrims alike in the holy cities of India where these scared creatures hold up the traffic and raid roadside vegetable stalls with casual impunity. Tradition has it that one of Prophet Muhammad’s blessed Companions was a cat lover, as was the Messenger himself. Although dogs are not welcome in the sacred precincts in Konya and elsewhere in the Islamic world, they are treated humanely enough. I remember with fondness and some trepidation the very large and hairy dog, which looked like a cross between an Irish wolf hound and a Labrador, barking at and chasing a streetcar in what passes for the downtown area of Konya. The tall and thick leader of the pack was followed at a respectful distance by four or five smaller dogs who felt obligated out of respect for their shaggy chieftain to chase the strange animal throwing off sparks and making incessant clanking noises. Unlike the emaciated and constantly persecuted pye-dogs of the Indian subcontinent, these looked at least well fed and relatively unmolested. The adoration lavished on the street cats of Konya, however, falls just short of idolatry, the gravest of sins according to Islam and the other two Abrahamic religions. All over the city there are permanent feeding and watering stations for cats. Even some of the restaurants provide the clients with bone plates, the contents of which are earmarked for them. I have seen human eaters intentionally leave succulent meat still attached to the bones so that the cats could eat their fill.

The faith-based compassion shown to the cats is also an unwitting act of cruelty. With their source of food well-nigh permanently secured, these animals are free to breed unchecked. Although many die from diseases and parasites, many more survive to carry on the cycle. The local humans get something out of this process: earning spiritual merit-points by being hospitable to the near-sacred animals. For Western tourists, it’s a chance to immerse themselves in a cat-loving culture that is otherwise alien to their own, for the odd ones like me an occasion to indulge in self-pity. Evidently, the Konya Buyuk Sheher—Metropolitan City—department of public health has more important matters to attend to. Judging by the large number of pet supply stores inevitably flanked by veterinary clinics in the upscale parts of the city, purebred pets in the well-off households are getting their needs and wants taken care of. I recall seeing several flashy billboards advertising the services of vets that reminded me of the omnipresent hoardings in Istanbul publicizing cosmetic surgery procedures.

Our visit to the shrine was cut short when my wife’s phone vibrated. It was our guide/taxi driver Ahmet, reminding us that it was time for us to say our salaams to the saint and set out for the final and most important lag of our tour of the holy city: the Mevlana Museum of Culture and Arts. That night the troupe that traces its origins all the way back to the Mevlana—“Our Master,” as the Turks refer to Rumi—was scheduled to perform the Sema: the dance of the whirling dervishes. The shade cast by the Apricot tree over the cemetery had thickened as well as lengthened. As we made our way to the çıkış, a young man clad in tattered jeans and a faded t-shirt of indeterminate color accosted us and offered us apricots in the scoop of his palms. My wife unfurled her handkerchief, held it out like a basket and accepted the fruit on our behalf. Beads of water glinted on the overripe apricots. The young man had plucked them from the large apricot tree that casts its shade over the little graveyard and washed them at the drinking water fountain that are a common feature in all important landmarks, as are animal feeders. I held out a five Lira note.

“Bir dostluk nişanesi,” the young man shook his head. A token of friendship.

Outside the exit, A dusty little boy sat cross-legged on the sidewalk with a tabby kitten on his lap. An old woman clad in an abaya sat next to him with her legs spread out off the sidewalk into the dry gutter. The boy looked up and squinted at me. A blue bottle that was buzzing around his face had alighted in the corner of his left eye and was trying to ensconce itself there. The woman said something in Arabic and chased the fly away. These were just two of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees that had flooded into Turkey in the aftermath of America’s War on Terror and the Syrian civil war, compounded by U.S. abandonment and exacerbated by the Russian mercenaries who filled in the void left by the Americans. I handed the woman the five Lira note. She accepted it quietly and took out a string of prayer beads from a plastic shopping bag and gave it to me. The beads were of different sizes and colors and were hastily put together. All over Turkey in the tourist spots frequented by plebeians, but never in the heavily guarded and patrolled elite enclave-like resorts, you see these fiercely proud people trying to hang on to the last shred of dignity by selling knickknacks. The money and the trinket were exchanged without the rumor of a generous traveler spreading like the aroma of freshly cooked Nargisi kofta and attracting an army of beggars—even the deaf, mute, and the blind—as it so often happens in the holy places of India.

The little boy gave me a gap-toothed smile. I squatted next to him and showed him a picture of our two cats in my phone. I pointed at Aantar, our fifteen-pound grey tabby who at eight weeks-old used to look like the kitten on the boy’s lap, and said, “Qitati.” My cat. 



Ahsan Chowdhury teaches English at the University of Alberta. He lives in Edmonton with his lovely wife Rani and two beautiful cats.