The global cat cafe trend, where people pay to have coffee and hang out with cats, has arrived in Gaza.
In the impoverished Palestinian enclave run by Hamas and crippled by a 17-year blockade, residents seeking to escape the territory's troubles are flocking to the new Meow Cafe – Gaza city's answer to the quirky concept tried successfully around the world.
The cafe's founder Naema Mabed, 52, says she envisioned the spot as a unique escape from the pressures of life in Gaza – with its lack of recreational options, a youth unemployment rate of over 60 per cent and frequent rounds of conflict with Israel since Hamas seized control of the strip in 2007.
At the cozy hangout, Mabed offers a modest drink service and encourages guests to head straight to the cat corner to pet and play with the furry friends. The rules of entry are simple: Visitors must cover their shoes with plastic and wash their hands before cuddling the cats.
“I have spent my life raising cats, and they’re a source of joy and quiet, a release of pressures,” Mabed says as cats roam around her. She describes feline communion as a “global antidepressant.”
Her customers seem to agree. They look exuberant as they play and lounge with the 10 cats in residence, including some named Tom, Dot, Simba and Phoenix. Guests are quiet as they soak in the cats' calming presence.
The cats are not adoptable, says Mabed, who is strongly bonded to her feline friends.
“The feeling, honestly, is that you just come to feel the psychological comfort of the cats,” says Eman Omar, 23, who has paid the entrance fee of 5 Israeli shekels ($1.30) to spend half an hour snuggling with cats. “Everything is beautiful!”
Experts say the cafe does far more than indulge the cat-crazed and give visitors a chance for a good selfie. Psychologist Bahzad Al-Akhras says that in places like Gaza such havens can serve as therapy for those scarred from the strip's devastating wars and other hardships.
“Any place that provides humans a kind of interaction with animals has a positive psychological impact,” Al-Akhras says.
It wasn't easy for Mabed to bring the cat cafe trend to Gaza. Opening up shop in the enclave presented a range of challenges – not only financial. The idea of paying to hang out with cats when stray cats roam free on Gaza city's streets every day struck some residents as ridiculous.
But for cat-lovers who face travel restrictions because of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade and can't try out the wildly popular trend elsewhere, the experience is pure bliss.
“If you’re a cat lover, this is your place,” Omar, the customer, says. “If you don’t love cats, you will feel an urge to love them.”