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Ode to James Joyce, cat

November 30, 2009

James Joyce and the author, lobby of Farah Hotel

I lived for a month in a room with an open window out to an alley above the loud, hurried streets of Wustel Bellet.  Travelers passed through the hostel; from a tight-faced Russian with a Palestinian Keifiya and a burning desire to get back into Iran to a less tight-faced Russian who slept all day and had no idea why he was in Amman or what falafel was, to a Dutch man wearing a Indian/hippie skirt looking for peace festivals in Israel. And I had two long term roommates: Jon, a pre-med student at a college in the Southern United States who had been wearily partying the world on a stipend, and Troy, an Australian who had quit the accounting job that made him miserable, and had set off across Southeast Asia, through India and Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, and was now stuck in Amman.  With Jon I would wander out for falafel at midnight, with Troy for tea in the afternoon.

But the majority of the time, when I wasn’t working I was sitting in the lobby of the Farah Hotel waiting for friends to get online and vaguely watching Arabic language sitcoms and soap operas. The window of communication with the United States, I found, was from around four or five in the afternoon until I went to bed at eleven or so. And I tried, mostly, to be occupied at night. Mid afternoon was my designated intercontinental communication period, and it was sacred. It was shared by a Troy or Jon, depending on what else was going on in their lives, a group of friendly, English speaking male receptionists, a middle aged American woman who tutored English in an Iraqi refugee camp and played watching TV in the afternoons, and cats.

The cat most popular with the guests and staff was probably Mish Mish. She was a big, black and white long-haired cat with a sweet personality and was, apparently, a bit of a hooker. She disappeared for a few days at one point, which gave the hostel staff and residents something to talk and worry about, and re-appeared with kittens. Now we all had something else to do. Watching Turkish soap operas became watching Turkish soaps with kittens. Playing Tetris was playing Tetris with kittens. And, if he wasn’t careful, laying out a prayer mat and bowing to Mecca for a hotel staffer could easily become prayer with kittens.

I liked playing with the kittens, being chewed on by them, trying to guess their next move (eating my computer power cord, falling off a couch, getting stepped on by a Saudi man in an enormous white robe), and using them as conversation pieces with cute hostel guests. But kittens do not really have established personalities, and I like my animals to have idiosyncrasies, likes and dislikes. The kittens, cute and entertaining as they were, fell far short of my dandered soul mate: James Joyce.

At the risk of sounding like one of those people that needs their animals to make them feel loved or useful or worthwhile, I will admit that James was more affectionate than most cats I’ve known. Perhaps this is because he had a horrendous flea problem or epidermal parasite and needed constant scratching, but I never saw any evidence of this. James liked sitting on my lap and liked having his head scratched. But his favorite contact with me was to sit on my shoulders and survey the lobby while I tapped on my laptop. His head was usually cocked, and jumping up to my seat reminded me of a drunken racer trying to run hurdles. This is because my cat, James Joyce, only had one eye.

We can only guess as to why James was a Cyclocat. I may like to think he lost his eye in a vicious alley battle for a bodacious she-cat – Mish Mish comes to mind. Other lodgers less inclined to that sort of thing might have imagined him struggling out of an impoverished background, pulling himself up by his furry little bootstraps, and succeeding as a hotel parasite despite an abusive childhood and 2-D vision.  How he became an affectionate, one-eyed hostel guest does not matter though; the point is that he survived to maturity and, at last sighting, was happy and strong, if a bit wobbly.

James Joyce disappeared from the Farah Hotel a week or so before I flew back to the United States. I asked if anyone had seen him; no one had. By the time I left, Mish Mish’s kittens were large enough to sit on a shoulder. But they didn’t like it as much. They bit my headphones. Besides, they had no personality – just curiosity and cuteness. And they were popular; every travel that sat for more than a minute was playing with a kitten. James Joyce may not have been beautiful, but the brother had soul. Here’s to the indomitable spirit of the Jordanian street cat, eyeless, staggering, horny. May James Joyce be jumping, cockeyed and tipsy, into a warm lap as I write this, and may he make his mark – the shoulders that mean safety and triumph.

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