Damascus Cats
A butcher feeds street cats in Damascus. Rasha Elass

DAMASCUS, Syria -- One day years ago, when I was a little girl in Damascus, I heard a strange howling in the street. I remember inquiring with alarm what all the commotion was about. My mother explained that “the cats are getting married.”

“February is the month for cats,” she said, echoing a local saying that I would subsequently hear for years afterward. In Arabic, it rhymes: Shbat shahr al attat

Now, it’s that time of year again, and the feral cats of Damascus have started to howl, seemingly indifferent to all the changes around them, like the fighter jets above and the thunderous sound of shelling in the distance.

With all that has unfolded in Syria, it seems that cat mating season remains the only predictable constant.

Many generations of street-dwelling felines ago, when I first asked about the strange sounds emanating from these animals, Syria was a very different sort of place. It was the '70s, and the country was deep in the throes of Soviet-era influence. I remember we could not find luxuries like bananas and toilet paper, which were readily available when we traveled outside Syria. Sometimes, even local produce like lemons, an essential ingredient in local cuisine, would go missing from the shops for weeks.

This changed in later years, as the country inaugurated policies that made it self-sustaining when it came to food.

There were more changes still, some good and some bad, especially in the year or two just before Syria’s uprising began in 2011.

Drought and poverty ravaged some parts of the country, and political dissent continued to be tolerated only at a bare minimum. Many books were still banned, and congregating in the capital’s only cafe-library unfolded under the regime’s close watch.

On the other hand, Syria’s art scene began to explode, and homegrown artists attracted international acclaim. Damascus hosted jazz festivals, also with homegrown young jazz musicians. Perhaps best of all, something everyone today in Damascus misses, random crime and violence were almost unheard of.

As a woman, I used to routinely walk home by myself after a late night out, and never once did I worry for my personal safety. Now, everyone rushes home before dark, leaving the streets eerily empty by sunset.

As Syria’s uprising turned into a civil war, I watched Damascus transform from a tranquil but bustling metropolis into something of a garrison town. There were days when fierce clashes between rebels and regime forces on the outskirts of the city brought all movement to a halt. People could not go to work, and that included city sanitation workers.

That was good for the feral cats. There were days when only they could be seen prowling the city streets, feasting on piles of uncollected trash.

There have been bigger changes still. One recent weekend, I sat on my balcony and felt speechless at the cacophony of sounds that unfolded before me.

From the alley below, there was the familiar howling of cats in heat. Above me in the sky, there was the buzzing of a fighter jet that I could not see. On the hilltops that surround the city, artillery batteries fired with a roar, followed immediately by its echo. In the distance, just a couple of neighborhoods away, the shells landed with their unmistakable thud and boom.

As if the cocktail of sounds were not enough, the enchanting, lilting voice of a muezzin began the call to Friday prayer.

In more embattled areas, feral cats have experienced firsthand what it’s like to be in a war zone, sometimes gruesomely. Social media is rife with stories of feral cats (and dogs) approaching unattended corpses that locals could not remove due to ongoing crossfire.

Several months ago, one ginger female in the Syrian city of Homs, which has seen some of the worst fighting early in the conflict, became famous worldwide. She had gotten injured, and photos on social media appeared to show the small animal struggle with paralysis of her hind legs.

But good news followed. A few days later, another photo of what appeared to be the same cat made the rounds on social media, this time with the claim that a medical field hospital, the kind of place that clandestinely cares for injured rebels and civilians in rebel-held areas, treated the feline, successfully removing the piece of shrapnel that had gotten lodged in its lower back.

The reaction was mixed.

“The world cares more about cats than about us,” went one string of commentary on Facebook, apparently responding to sympathies that the feline had received worldwide. The sentiment echoed a long-standing Arab perception of the West, where “people treat their pets like children and don’t care about the human suffering around them.”

But if I could rewrite global perceptions, I would say it is the Syrians who have a special relationship with these small animals. Photos of rebels posing with cats and otherwise humorous snaps like this YouTube video of a mock interview with an anti-regime cat in Homs, complete with a hilarious Homsi accent, got hundreds of thousands of hits.

But on a recent stroll through the streets of Damascus, I noticed something new: Homeless people had joined felines in sifting through trash looking for scraps. The cats were still there, surrounding them, waiting to be tossed a bone.

Syria is a conservative society, with staunch traditional values. Large families and clanship have always ensured that anyone down on their luck had a place to stay and a hot meal to eat, especially the elderly.

But the civil war has changed all of this. More than 2 million internally displaced Syrians have been uprooted from their communities and support networks. Entire families and clans may have perished in violence.

In Damascus, where so many people displaced from elsewhere now seek shelter and where kidnappings have become rife, it is no longer prudent to lend a hand to a stranger who appears to be in need.

As life in the Syrian capital continues to deteriorate, the only certainty is that, come May or June, the streets of Damascus will be filled with new kittens, “good-looking Damascene ones,” as the saying goes. And whatever happens with the war, come next year, the cycle will start all over again.