Bashayer Arif had a serious fear of cats up until a few years ago. The Emirati author, whose children's book The Secret Life of Dubai's Street Cats was published in February, would refuse to pet them and would even change her path if she spotted one on the street. She found their movements shadowy and their eyes menacing.
But one night in 2015, an Arabian mau tottered into the garden of Arif's family house in Jumeirah. "He looked so fragile and innocent," she tells The National. "He looked like he needed some care and looking after, so I left him saucers of food and water, but from a safe distance."
The frail mau returned night after night and Arif left food and water, hurrying back inside the house to watch the cat through the window as it lapped up the contents of each saucer.
She named the cat Salem, after the talking American shorthair in the 1996 sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
After a few nights of leaving it saucers of food and water, Arif came upon the cat in daylight. He was, she discovered, badly wounded and in need of medical attention. A few hours later, Arif and her sister managed to put the cat into a neighbour's pet carrier and take it to a veterinary clinic.
"My heart just went out to him," Arif says. "The whole time in the car he just kept yelling and yelling. When we got to the clinic and released him from the carrier, I remember the look of fear in his eyes. Pure fear. And it shook me."
The veterinarian found Salem was suffering from myriad health issues, the most serious of which was an old injury to his tongue that had rendered the cat unable to groom himself or eat properly.
"I needed to find him a home, but I knew that it was going to be challenging, as much for his health problems as the fact that he's a black cat. A lot of people don't like black cats and don't like to keep strays."
A year later, Arif managed to find a home for Salem – in the Netherlands. "It took a long time," she says. "Somehow this woman from the Netherlands heard about him and reached out, wanting to adopt him. She was an animal lover and had several cats already. So I filed the paperwork, got Salem the animal passport and he went off to the Netherlands."
However, Arif says she often thinks about how Salem affected her life. The two spent more than a year together. She kept Salem at her grandparents' house, visiting daily. She joined online cat communities to try and find him a good home and read blogs about cat care and articles about the Arabian mau. Arif's fear of cats eventually vanished, and in its place grew a protective empathy for the animals.
It is this transformative experience that inspired Arif to write The Secret Life of Dubai's Street Cats. She hopes it will trigger an interest in the Arabian mau, even in her non-cat-loving readers.
“After I rescued Salem I learnt a lot about cats and the Arabian mau,” she says. “Before meeting him, I used to call them stray cats. I didn’t know they were native to our land.”
None of the cats in Arif's children's book are directly based on Salem, she says. But he was integral in changing her opinion of cats, especially the Arabian mau, the shorthair species native to the Arabian Peninsula.
Many around the country encounter the Arabian mau on a daily basis. They can be spotted curled up under parked cars, prancing in or out of rubbish bins or scrutinising passers-by in UAE streets, where grocery stores usually have saucers of food and water set out for them by the door. Arif says she wants readers of her book to see the species for what it is: majestic, misunderstood and neglected.
"They're just seen as pests," she says. "Nobody thinks of them as animals that belong here and deserve a space here. That made me really sad because a lot of people are on the lookout for Persians and Scottish folds and all these exotic breeds. But they fail to see how kind these Arabian maus are. I got to know so many and they are so dynamic, so fun. They're great with adults and children. And would make for great pets."
Published by The Dreamwork Collective, The Secret Life of Dubai's Street Cats revolves around an Arabian mau named Sharpclaw, a feisty natural-born leader who spends her days with her best friends Twitch and Blacktail, napping in the sun and meowing at people who feed her. The trio's peace in the neighbourhood comes under threat when a new domestic cat, Killtooth, moves in.
The neighbourhood is never explicitly named in the book, but between Arif's writing and Eilis Boyle's illustrations, the setting in the first portion of the book seems to mirror the suburbs of Jumeirah.
Arif says she was careful not to clearly say where in Dubai the events are taking place.
“For me personally, I imagine the story takes place in Jumeirah before moving towards Satwa and Safa Park,” she says. “But it would be more fun for readers to imagine the locations in their own way. It could be Karama or Mirdif.”
Arif now looks after three cats, one of which is a mixed Arabian mau she mistakenly calls Sharpclaw from time to time. Looking back, she says she often can't believe how her feelings towards cats transformed, owing to her relationship with Salem, and how that transformation inspired her to write a book.
“I had a personal experience that just changed everything for me,” she says. “I rescued a street cat.”