The Cats of Amman

Story by Maggie King, Global Co-opPhoto by Maggie King

My home in Amman was on the top of a hill, like at least half of the houses in the undulating landscape of the city. “Right off the Seventh Circle, then go to the supermarket and make two turns,” I would instruct my taxi drivers in Arabic, paying careful attention to make sure they weren’t taking a long route. Once a week, I would navigate those two turns on foot, walking down to the supermarket to fill up on my bread, cheese and pomegranates for the week. Then I’d trudge back up the hill, out of breath with the weight of my groceries by the time I reached the turn at the bottom of the hill. I always made sure to look over at the two dumpsters on the corner: stinky, overflowing and home to a surprisingly chunky family of street cats. They typically lay lounging in the sun, offering a lazy hiss if I walked too close. I loved them. And I wasn’t the only one. As I walked by one evening after work, readying myself to power up the hill, a car pulled over next to the dumpsters. I watched as a man dressed in a suit exited, carrying a large bag. The cats began to circle him, mewing loudly. He proceeded to pull several butcher packages out of the bag, carefully unwrapping the cuts of meat and placing them on plates he spread across the back of his car. He sang to the cats as he placed the feast on the ground. They purred; he sang. Full of joy. He got back into his car, his evening task complete and I finished my trek up the hill. The mystery of the cats’ chunk was solved and my love for the city deepened.

I could feel my phone buzzing in my bag as my boss spoke to me. I thought, “Who would call me during the day?” I nodded at his instructions and slipped into the bathroom as soon as I could to make sure there wasn’t an emergency. It in fact was not a call, but dozens of texts from my roommate. At least 20 photos of the cutest kitten I had ever seen, interspersed with heart eye emojis and a long voice messaging asking if I wanted a new kitten as a roommate. One look at the kitten’s fluffy ears and I immediately understood his urgency to message me at work. I responded in all caps. Two days later, he was ours. We named him Natuf though we called him “habibi”, or “darling,” so much he probably thought it his name. We danced around the house with him in our arms, lay on the floor for hours watching him sleep and took hundreds of photos. Natuf was officially the cutest cat in Jordan, and arguably the most spoiled. He lived his entire life in our little apartment, occasionally joining us for an evening on the balcony for a little fresh air. He meowed at the street cats below. I felt like they were talking to each other, sharing secrets about their city and the people that they allow to live there. When I left my co-op in Amman in December, I held him in my arms and cried. 

I returned to Amman two months later on a study abroad program. I would stay in the city for only four weeks this time. I visited Natuf on my second day there. He purred. I convinced myself he remembered me. I sat at my old kitchen table with him on my lap, scooping labneh onto bread and catching up with my former roommate. I slipped Natuf scraps of bread as we ate. On my way out, I stuffed some extra food in my pocket. As I walked past the dumpsters, I stopped to disperse it to the cats. I convinced myself that they, too, remembered me. Amman is a city I will always long to return to. But it will never be my city. It will always belong to the cats.