The Shoe-Shine Boy, the Muslim, the Cat, and Me
—A Syrian Shoe Shine Boy,
—a Lebanese Muslim
—and an American Christian (me)
all end up together on a Beirut street
…to help a starving cat.
Joan D’Arc Street was probably gorgeous at one time, as it connects the two major universities in Beirut. Spots in front of new buildings are nice, but others require you to pick your way through broken sidewalk and dog poop while squeezing between overflowing dumpsters, while is preferable to stepping off (what is only technically) the sidewalk and risk getting creamed by a speeding truck or Vespa.
I’ve walked this street countless times in my 2 1/2 years here, and have become familiar with the ruthless drivers, bunched-together shops, and uncollected garbage. I’ve also become accustomed to the street kids: Syrians—the tiny kids selling boxes of chiclets or kleenex, the slightly older shoe shine boys who double the price before they start the second shoe, the girl who wears a nice new outfit each day but still shows up at her spot to beg while pointing at her mouth. My giving money to them depends on which story I am swayed by that day—the stories of the scumbag adults who have organized them into a pint-sized begging industry, or the stories of what the scumbags (often their own parents) will do if they don’t make quota. Give or not give, it’s a hard choice either way.
And then there’s the cats.
There are loads of cats on Joan D’Arc Street. Both big universities on either end are known for their populations of semi-feral cats which are actually well-cared for, fed daily, tracked and spayed/neutered, and loved-on by students. But out on the street between those two “kitty cities”—on Joan D’Arc—you find the ones that fell through the cracks. Most are pretty sickly, dirty, lots of cuts and battle scars. Most keep their distance. They’re not used to human contact—the good kind, at least.
So, when I was out on Joan D’Arc Street and heard the unmistakable sound of a Bsanay (Arabic for cat), I knew this one was in trouble.
Took me a few seconds to find her under a car—she was wary but must have been desperate enough that she actually came up to me, alternating nuzzles with piercing cries and dashes back under the safety of the car. She had a dirty gash on her chest, partially healed, and a claw on her back paw appeared to have been ripped out. Her fur couldn’t hide her ribs, and her skin just hung around her belly.
I decided to make a quick run for a can of tuna at the nearby shop when I saw him—a shoe-shine boy. Early teens, maybe. I’ve seen him before, one of the regulars. He was looking at the cat, concerned.
I explained my errand and dashed off.
When I returned, the boy was digging through a dumpster, and now a sharply-dressed woman was kneeling over the cat. The boy brought over one of those two-compartment plastic food plates and wiped it clean, while the woman poured a bottle of water into it.
So, there’s the three of us (humans) on the street tending to this bsanay (cat) as she dives into the tuna as quick as I empty it onto the plate. The woman exclaims and points at something red in the tuna can—turns out I bought a can of CHILI-flavored tuna (I can speak Arabic, not read it) and we both look nervously at the kitty, who looks like she’s handling the extra spice just fine. We shrug and laugh. The boy is still kneeling by the cat, keeping his eye on her.
The sharply-dressed woman points to the boy. “He told me she was in trouble. He’s a good boy. I see him here sometimes.”
He looked like he hadn’t smiled in a long time.
I wondered about him—Where is he from? Does he have a roof over his head? Family? I learned a few basic things, but the stuff I really wanted to know—What was his experience in Syria? Does he have family here? Is he being mistreated? Is he making enough to survive?—those questions might be too invasive, right now.
So we focused on the cat.
She took a break from the tuna and started on the water. Every few moments she would abruptly look up, like she was expecting something dangerous—on guard, makes sense. I’ve seen how animals are treated here.
So, the three of us sort of hung out while the kitty ate and drank. None of us seemed to be in a rush to leave her. The shoe-shine boy kept a close eye on her while the sharply dressed woman and I talked.
She’s a Muslim—very devoted, very learned in her faith. Like so many other Muslims I know, she’s grief-stricken over the violence happening in the name of her faith.
“Please, tell the people that we are not terrorists!” she pleads with me. “Those terrorists, they say they are Islam but they are not Islam. We are people of peace. Please tell that to the people you know.”
The cat has polished off last of the chili-tuna. She is looking a bit better already. Another cat—a bigger one—has come to check out the tuna plate and scares our kitty across the street.
“She will be ok,” the boy says in Arabic. “I see her here a lot.” His face is so serious for a guy this young. So much responsibility he has had to take one with his shoe-shine box, yet in this whole time he hasn’t tried to make a single sale.
He spots me and the woman pulling bills out of our wallets and shakes his head adamantly. The woman explains something to him in Arabic and he accepts our money.
“I told him that God is using us to reward him,” she says.
The woman heads down Joan D’Arc Street and I prepare to go in the opposite direction. I make eye contact with the boy and point to our cat, who is now finding a safe place under a car on the other side of the street. I tell him I’ll come by here tomorrow, if I can, and see how she is doing.
I wonder if I will see her.
I wonder if I will see him.