Riyadh: Tuesday 13th November 2012
The only noise is the tapping of my keyboard and the prolonged Shh of the A/C unit. It is 3:00am and I can’t sleep. A few moments ago I stepped outside to see what the temperature was and to see if some fresh air helped. The compound is in darkness except for a solitary patio light that had been left on when its owner went to bed.
Cats rule the compound, for now.
One of them, which was a kitten when I arrived here and now has a kitten of her own, approached stealthily, emitting a dainty meow , as though out of manners; the equivalence of clearing your throat as you enter a room, to avoid surprising people by your sudden presence. Her white coat and black markings resemble a feline Frisian, earning her the moniker, Cow–Cat. She gently brushed my leg with her flank as though remembering at the last moment to do so.
There was no sign of her offspring, then there he was, a miniature fur-ball version of her, little bigger than my hand, dancing across the paving outside my house, in search of his mother.
I am not a cat lover, though I would not intentionally cause them harm. But this morning, I feel well disposed towards this little family. Their world is very small and while they perhaps don’t know it, their lives are entirely in the hands of others. During my time here there have been three cat culls, the choice of which cats survive and which perish being left in the hands of the compound’s residents. The day before the cull, we receive notices and are advised to keep cat’s we wish saved indoors for the day; the unspoken implication being that if it moves, and we see it, it will be toast.
And so it is that the genetic stock of the compounds cats is slowly modified, the scrawny, temperamentally feral and ugly, weeded out to make way for this master race of the cute and cuddly, malleable and docile.
I tend not to notice the cats until they are gone. Then suddenly I am aware of their absence as I walk to the exit of the compound in the morning. Where yesterday there had been periodic basking bodies or stalking hunters, now there is only their absence, as though the extermination squad left their shadows behind.
Cow-Cat has survived all these culls, I suspect as a result of her being among the more gentle and attractive of their breed. Now she gathers in her offspring, letting him (I assume it to be a boy for some reason) play at hunting, Calf-Cat springing from his hind legs and coming down on his front paws as though trapping prey. His gouache efforts, are lovingly supervised by his mother.
Yet it occurs to me that she is training him for the wrong game of survival. Far better to turn him into a preening dandy than prototype hunter.
His water is supplied each morning and evening by sprinklers embedded in the earth, while his meals, as far as I am aware, are supplied by the Filipina women who earn a living as baby sitters, cleaners and seamstresses to the compound. For Calf-Cat or his mother to live to a ripe old age, he has two basic options. He can either endear himself to a family to the extent that they give him a collar, taking him with them when they leave, or he can keep looking pretty enough to encourage people to save him come the annual cull. Hunting, as a skill is no more useful to him than it currently is to me.
Then again, perhaps his wee life will be better served by keeping himself busy. What more depressing prospect could there be than the realisation that your existence is entirely based upon your ability to charm a disinterested being, whose only interest is that you should look adorable? Faced with such a prospect, I might try to cultivate wider interests to keep myself sane.
And is my life really so different? I too am judged on a variety of levels that have nothing to do with either my interests, training or particular skill set. And just like Calf-Cat, my future is substantially at the behest of others, disinterested and disconnected from my own experience. For all I work toward the goals of personal fulfillment, financial independence and self-reliance, I am far from convinced that my own sweat and toil will have the deciding say in whether I attain those things. On the contrary, whether I have succeeded or failed in the past has broadly speaking been utterly irrelevant to the amount of work and effort I have devoted.
Very often I have simply been lucky.
And I share something else with the cats of this compound. Like them I am waiting. The rest of my year is marked by a series of milestones, some of them relating to my job, some relating to my income, some, merely anniversaries; my partners birthday, the third anniversary of my move to Riyadh, St. Andrew’s Day, Christmas, Hogmanay, my visa runs.
Elsewhere in other buildings, men I have never met are deciding where I will be in three months time, six months time, next November. Like the cats, I have to hope that they look kindly on my efforts, deem them worthy of consideration. And like the two cats now retiring together beneath the shadow of a staircase, there is the possibility too of a net descending and carting me off to oblivion.
For there are no certainties when you have nothing to do but wait for the dawn to break.