Tag Archives: cat

The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

Standard
The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

img_8275

This amazingly captive 370 page, nonfiction autobiography details life during 1992 through 1995 in Bihać, Bosnia through the eyes of a 16-year-old Muslim girl.  The horrors of war, her determination to survive, a lifesaving cat, and her coming of age, all come together to make for a compelling read that is both reflective and inspiring.  I had a hard time putting the YA/Teen book down even knowing that she would obviously survive and being vaguely familiar with the Serbian attacks and ethnic genocide that occurred.  In an easy to read flowing first person narrative, somehow the book avoids being overly political, while still managing to convey the role of the media, the international world, and the hateful mindset that turned friends and neighbors into enemies.  I think teens, 15 and up, should spend some time with this book as well as adults, it really serves as a wake up call to how fragile nations can be when we turn on one another.  We must know the past, to as not repeat it.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts out with Amra on a train returning from Belgrade where she took tests as she is one of the brightest kids in the region.  Immediately it is made clear that she is incredibly smart, and independent as she travels alone into the heart of Serbia.  The war has not yet come, but on the return trip Serbian Nationalist soldiers board the train and she is desperately afraid that she will be sexually assaulted.  Fortunately, she does not “look Muslim” and the soldiers physically leave her alone.  Her naivety, however, is lost as she realizes the war is closer than her family thinks.

Her family lives in a beautiful home that they designed and saved for, they wear hand me down clothes and watch expenses as a result.  Amra has a younger brother Dino, her older brother seemed to have some disability and has passed away, her parents are honest and value education. Her family is everything to her, they are incredibly close knit.  They are ethnically Muslim, but do not practice.  She mentions it regularly, that they are being attacked for a religion they do not practice.  They wear bikinis and date, eat pork and drink alcohol, they identify first as Bosnian and then as Muslim.  But they do identify as Muslim and they suffer for it, over and over and over again.

The story sets the stage by showing how diverse Bihać is and how Serb, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims, Christians, Catholics all live together.  It is Amra’s birthday, it really isn’t, but they could not afford the food and gifts at the time of her 16th birthday, so they are celebrating it now with a sleepover with her closest life-long friends.  When Amra and her father go in to town to get the cake, they see tanks rolling in, refugees from other cities seeking safety and Amra and her father start handing out whatever money they have and take a couple home with them.  At the party, they don’t discuss what they have seen, but when Amra’s best friend, a Serb, cannot spend the night, the parties tone changes and the mood is set for the next chapter in Amra’s life.

At school she shares how Muslims are treated and forced to take Russian, while the Serbs are encouraged in English, while the children get along as many are mixed ethnicities, there is rampant favoritism from the adults.  When one day only the Muslims arrive at school, the Serbs have all secretly evacuated in the night, there is no more denying that the war has come to Bihać. With the comfort of her cat, who she simply calls, Maci, cat in Bosnian, and his “luck” to somehow delay her or warn her of bombings, she and her family endure the first wave of attacks by hunkering down in a cousins basement.

Ultimately they decide that they cannot stop living.  Death is striking at every turn and no one is more safe in one location than another and the family returns home.  They still have electricity at first, but it soon disappears, the phone lines stay, but food starts to get scarce.  At times the family goes out of the city to stay with family on a bee farm and survive off the honey, but it is not safe there either.  School resumes a few days a month, but all the Muslim’s records have been “lost” and paper is in short supply.

Over the four years of the war, Amra’s aging diabetic father is called to fight, an explosion at the house renders her mother deaf, friends and family are killed while somehow the day to day of surviving continues.  Amra graduates from high school, works as a tutor when she cannot pursue her own education, and finds work as a translator for international workers after she teaches herself english.  There are times she is so malnourished her hair is falling out, her gums are bleeding and she blacks out, and there are times when the family is able to trade honey for food and can open a small store in the corner of their house.

The resiliency and heartache is not something a review can capture, you feel for Amra at every turn, both in delight as well as in fear and devastation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It has a map! Seriously, thank you.  I love that the book is so emotional, it doesn’t get hung up on dates and events, but how whatever is happening affects Amra and her view of the world.  As a character, ultimately a person, she doesn’t stay down, she is capable and strong, which is so remarkable in the best of times and absolutely heroic living through this war.  The cat is a remarkable character, and while at times it seems forced, it is a great thread that keeps her story being relatable on all levels.

There are a few chances for Amra to leave her family and get away to safety, the first time it is presented to her she would have to change her name, she decides she cannot.  This is a testament to her love of her family, but also to her identity.  She is proud of who she is, which is mind blowing to me.  I talked about it in my review of The Day of the Pelican, about how Bosnian refugees I got to know in the late 90s knew nothing about Islam, but were being slaughtered for being Muslim.  Repeatedly she talks about how in Bosnia there were some conservative traditional Muslims, but that most of them are not, her family is not.  Yet, my heart truly cried out when her and her mother are trying to get food from drunk soldiers and are certain that they are going to be raped or blown up by land mines and she says the only prayer she knows.  One that she learned after the war started: “Auzubillahi Minahs Shaitan ir Rajeem.  Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim.  Rabbi Yassir wa la Tua’ssir, Rabbi tammim bil khayr.  I seek refuge in Allah from Satan in the the Name of Allay the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.  O God make it easy and don’t make it difficult, O’ God, complete this with good.”  

She explains the cover of the book at the end, “the book’s jacket presents my authentic self, a liberal Muslim teen, yet a Muslim who was still so profoundly hated.  The jacket illustration serves as a reminder that the hate is a product of its perpetrators rather a reflection of its victims.

FLAGS:

The book is about war, it has rape, sexual assault, death.  At times it is descriptive and detailed, not sensationalized, but powerful.  There is kissing, boyfriends and girlfriends, nothing lewd.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I learned about this book from Lovely Books Podcast when she interviewed the author: https://lovelybooks.buzzsprout.com, it is a great introduction along with many of the interviews and articles that Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Reyess has done.

I would love to do this as a book club, but I think it would have be done on a high school level, not middle school.  The dialogue and understanding I would imagine surrounding this book would be compassionate and thoughtful.  I hope those leading book clubs for older students and even adults will consider this book.

The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha illustrated by Yujo Shimzu

Standard
The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha illustrated by Yujo Shimzu

cat man

This 40 page true story about Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel of Aleppo aka the Cat Man shows how one person can make a difference even in the middle of a war.  The amount of text on the page, the topic covered, and the detailed illustrations will most appeal to second graders and up, but younger kids, particularly those that love animals, will enjoy the story as well.

D63A0C5F-727E-427A-AF82-31AAB49F8F51

Alaa loves his city: the markets, the foods, the people.  When war comes, he doesn’t flee, he keeps working as an ambulance driver.  He has a big heart.  His sees destroyed neighborhoods where everyone has left, except for the cats.  There is no one to feed them and give them water, and Alaa feels for them.

E286EEDD-0114-4A0C-A712-DC8F162F4AC6

After his shift he buys meat, and feeds over a dozen cats.  He does this everyday and soon a dozen turns in to fifty and he realizes that he can no longer care for the cats alone.  He needs a place for them.

43F2DBA2-9364-4107-93F2-983172AE9191

Word spreads and volunteers and donations start pouring in.  He purchases a building with a shaded courtyard and soon cats are everywhere.  When people leave Aleppo they bring their beloved cats to him, and even other animals start arriving.  Alaa even builds a playground for the children and digs a well so everyone can have fresh water.

ABA9B59B-43F3-4EEF-83AE-8CC8461D8CAA

The book is pretty straightforward and steady, it doesn’t have much emotion for such a powerful true story, but it will still hit the mark in inspiring children to show kindness and compassion for animals and others.

6B5F68B3-1DA4-4117-A66A-7210DACC468F

There are notes from each other and the illustrator at the end that share light on their connection to the story and the situation in Syria.  There is nothing religious in the book other than a few females in hijab.

Rami the Ramadan Cat by Robyn Thomas illustrated by Abira Das

Standard
Rami the Ramadan Cat by Robyn Thomas illustrated by Abira Das

rami

This delightful little story about a boy, a lost cat, Ramadan and making friends, has a great lesson in empathy and understanding even when things are hard.  The 28 page beautifully illustrated glossy book (8.5 x 11)  is set in Ramadan, but is enjoyable for children 5 to 9 all year long.

Saleem has just moved to a new city with his parents and doesn’t know anyone.  Feeling lonely on the first day of Ramadan he is outside sulking when he sees a lost little cat.  He brings it in and his parents help him take care of him until they can find the cat’s owners.

B342E851-726B-4B8A-9B63-F381F5C1009D

Saleem decides to call the cat, Rami the Ramadan cat for his timely appearance.  The next day the family makes flyers to post around to try and find Rami’s owner.  But no luck even after a few weeks, and secretly Saleem starts hoping they never find the owners.  Rami is his best friend, he jumps on Saleem when he is praying, keeps him company when he reads Quran, even shares his iftar with him.

22F7C85A-8891-4121-A608-421511688C49

One night at the mosque, Saleem makes Dua that Rami will stay with him forever.  After Taraweeh, Saleem can’t find his father, he waits by the door as everyone leaves, but can’t see him, he checks the shoe rack and his shoes are gone.  Feeling scared and alone he wonders if his father left him.  When his father returns from the washroom, Saleem is relieved, but wonders if that is how Rami felt that first day of Ramadan.

6E10660E-7FE3-4341-AF7E-B75EDF45DC8E

The next morning Saleem and his mom knock on every door in the neighboorhood until they find Rami’s owner.  When they find her, she is a nice lady, and tell Saleem, the cat’s name is Sammy.  Rami gives her his address and asks her to contact him if she ever needs someone to cat-sit Rami.

3634A3A5-B74D-4505-8C44-AED216D38872

Saleem’s Eid isn’t very fun without his only friend.  After prayers, there is a knock at the door, Sammy’s owner has come to offer to let Saleem keep Rami if he promises to bring him around to visit with her and her grandkids sometime.  She has other cats and sensed that he was missing Saleem.

16157CCA-24F9-4BDD-A661-B3353B6775C4

Saleem’s parents invite the lady, Mrs. Tompkins and her grand kids in to celebrate eid with them and Saleem and the children play with Rami, the best eid present ever.

The book shows Saleem praying and reading Quran and going to the masjid, but it isn’t preachy.  I think even non Muslims would enjoy the book and not be confused by anything Saleem and his family are doing.

I love that the mom so clearly wears hijab out of the house, but not in the house.  That there is some skin color diversity in the book, that Mrs. Tompkins is in a wheel chair.  I also love that the new friends, and only friends are presumably non Muslim, and that a little gray cat brought them all together, Alhumdulillah.

What Happened to Zeeko by Emily Nasrallah illustrated by Maha Nasrallah Kays

Standard
What Happened to Zeeko by Emily Nasrallah illustrated by Maha Nasrallah Kays

zeeko

Told from a cat’s perspective about living through parts of the 1982 war in Beirut, this translated from Arabic young adult book is 121 pages.  It reads to me more like a middle grades book, and while the story is fairly monotone and anticlimactic, I find myself oddly thinking about it and wondering about everyday events from different perspectives.

SYNOPSIS:

Zeeka as a young kitten is taken from his cat family and placed with a new human owner, Muna, a young girl who loves and cares, and seemingly understands her new furry friend.  The relationship between Muna and Zeeko is really the crux of the book as they get to know one another, trust one another, vacation in the mountains together and then seek refuge in the basement shelter of their building when the shelling starts and the bombs destroy the neighborhood.  

Through the relationship details, the reader learns a lot about what kind of person Muna is and why Zeeka is willing to perform a heroic act to try and help her escape the danger, while sacrificing his own comfort.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I don’t know that I loved the book, but it was a quick read that I don’t regret spending time with.  It is translated from Arabic, so there are some hiccups, but nothing that impairs the story continuity or comprehension.  It almost starts out like an early chapter book with each chapter being two pages long.  But then all of a sudden a neighborhood cat is murdered by a group of naughty boys, and you realize that it is not for younger children. 

How the book handles war however, is very removed and not really detailed at all.  Much like The Cat at the Wall for about the same age group, the use of an animal to simplify the absurdity and details of war is used to show a different perspective, however, in this book there is no information given about the war.  The reader is never told who is fighting, why they are fighting, what sparked the fighting, nothing.  All we know is that there is fighting.  

There is no mention of religion in the book, and I have no idea of the author’s faith, there really isn’t much culture in the book either. I didn’t learn much about Lebanon or the food or traditions.  I got the book from www. crescentmoonstore.com/ so I thought to review it as it seems available on Islamic websites.  Every dozen pages or so there are illustrations and sometimes there is a blank page before each new chapter and sometimes not.  There is a table of contents at the end of the book.

IMG_5938.jpg

FLAGS:

Murder of a cat, violence in general in terms of bombing and micro level of bullying and threatening.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club book, but I think if you are looking to learn more about Lebanon or point of view this book would have a lot of potential with guidance.  From a literary creative writing perspective the book would be a great tool to present complex events in simplified ways, it also would be a great read to get students to just look at things from different points of view.  If you have students that love cats and can handle the war aspects, this book would be fun for them.  In a social studies class if you are discussing affects of war or learning about Beirut in the 80’s the students will be able to fill in the gaps historically and politically.

IMG_5937.jpg