The first thing you notice in Istanbul is the Mosques. Well, most people do. I noticed the cats, which are everywhere. Including in the Mosques. There are old, lazy, and fat cats sunning themselves feet away from manic traffic, and there are swarms of tiny kittens stumbling on new legs around the peaceful courtyards of mosques. There are scraggly cats fighting over bits of day old pigeon and their are chonks surrounded by slabs of fish fresh from the market.
There are cats resting on scooters, on car hoods, in store windows, under park benches, in discarded boxes around garbage cans, and in the garbage cans themselves.
There are cats in tea houses laying on the cool tiles, in the parks being played with by kids, and in the clubs sitting next to old men playing backgammon.
There are cats literally everywhere in Istanbul, especially in the old neighborhood of Üsküdar on the Asian side. That is where I spent a month last summer, mostly walking. I will write more about Istanbul eventually, but I want to highlight the cats. Because I like cats and I presume we could all use a break from the more serious stuff.
There are other cities with no kill policies, or just with no policy at all, that have lots of cats, but in Istanbul, they are almost all well cared for. They are communally owned, and almost everyone takes a part in that. Older women lay food out on window sills attracting a waiting smarm.
Other cats sit mewing under windows, knowing once dinner is done, the scraps will be tossed to them.
The mosque courtyards have the largest collection of cats, including many mothers nursing newborns, who are moved into an inner garden, protected from dogs, traffic, and curious toddlers who might smother them with love.
When the kittens get old enough, the climb into the windows couryard walls, were people dump mounds of food and bowls of water. Sometimes they come down to run around and try to stalk the much larger seagulls stealing their food.
Where I got my daily coffee there where two cats who slept on chairs, keeping an eye on the man working the Bufe across the street. When a customer came to the window, they would race across the street, to be the first to get the left over meat shavings he would toss them, then race back to take a quick nap. Why they darted back and forth, rather than nesting next to his window, I never figured out
Istanbul also has communal dogs, although there are fewer of them. Unlike the cats, they are almost entirely the same. All are super fat,and super lazy. They lounge uncaring, mostly on the waterfront.
There was one who slept in the same spot of the beautiful and ancient Fatih Mosque, a peaceful compound at the top of hill. She was there each time I went, curled up in the shade on the cold stone floor, in the inner courtyard, trying to stay cool from 90 degree heat. As people passed, coming in and out of the mosque, many went over to pat her head, scratch her back, or scruff her neck. The one time she wasn’t in her same spot, she was lazily playing fetch with a bunch of young boys who wanted her to be zesty. Their shouts made no difference, she had an inner dog peace that wasn’t gonna change.
One time she seemed to recognize me, and as I left, got up and followed me out of the inner courtyard, through the garden, and then through the final gates into the neighborhood. We walked down the hill, her trailing behind me by about a block, with what is the closest thing I have seen to a dog smile. She did this for over a mile, and each time I stopped, she stopped, each time I tried to lose her — zipping around a corner, then another corner —she always found me, that dog smile still on her face. I turned to gentle pleading to go back, then scolds, then soft shouts, but she just stood there smiling at me.
Eventually, a young boy working a fruit stand recognized her, shouted out a name, and she trotted over, he hugged her, and tossed her some food, and she forgot about me. The next time went I went to the mosque, she was back in her spot. This time with a red ball nuzzled up near her mouth.
Often, the cats and dogs, are adopted. I watched as litter in a mosque courtyard was slowly taken away, kitten by kitten, by the parents of insistent children, until the mother was left alone, free to finally roam without six little monster grabbing at her breasts.
Another mother with her litter was brought into a tea house, splayed out on the floor, while old men got down on their knees to admire the tiny orange flock.
Near my apartment, there was a very old, small, and distinguished man I nicknamed “Mr Logistically Challenged”, because he was exactly that. He brought and juggled a lot on his walks; cane, phone, glasses, books, hat, and a very large old dog who followed behind him. A larger scruffier version of the mosque dog.
He walked very slowly up and down the streets of Üsküdar, his dog moving as slowly as him, it left ear tagged like all the street dogs. As composed various short stories about how they had became a couple. Most were sappy Hollywood tear jerkers, but the truth was probably a simple combination of empathy and loneliness.
I would like to think that Istanbul’s empathy and sweetness with the cats and dogs says something deeper, but Turkey’s history is filled with as much cruelty as any other country. That isn’t surprising, most cultures and people are capable of both simply decency and awful cruelty. Often at the same time.
So I will celebrate the decency when I can, even if it is small, and even in the grand scheme of things it isn’t that important. Although I do think it is important.
Because if you focus only on all the awful stuff, you will go insane.
(Update: Here is my longer piece on Walking Istanbul)
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Well, that was quite fine.
We lived in Beyoglu for two months last year. Like you, I fell in love with the cats. Almost every morning, I wandered up and down the hills of Beyoglu, down to Karaköy, then across the Galata Bridge, and up into Eminönü, all the while taking pictures.
I, too, noticed the dogs, but they almost seemed sad to me. They were fed and never abused but unlike the cats, it seemed like they were almost always ignored and that made me sad.