By Thomas Parker
He dragged his tall, thin body, languid from another day’s work at the site. Pushing open the gate, he heard a near-imperceptible cry for help through the gate’s creak. He glanced around, but could only see, to the right of the gate, the trash bags that had been left out to be collected. Squatting down, he started rummaging through the empty bottles and food scraps. Nestled into the corner of a cardboard box, it looked dirty, damp and malnourished—a kitten. It was shivering. He hoped the shivering was from the winter cold, and not from fear of him. As the kitten stared at him, it managed out one solitary pathetic meow.
“I can’t. But, come on don’t look at me like that. I really can’t.”
Muhammad sat down on the old concrete, muddying the backside of his jeans. He stared at it for a minute. It looked perplexed by the sudden entrance of daylight.
“If I didn’t give you refuge... I have enough I can’t forgive myself for already.”
He slowly reached to grab it. It attempted to nestle back down in between the bags of trash, but lacked the strength to do so. He lifted it out into the world of light, cradling it in his right arm between his biceps and forearm. He carried it through the front-yard into the two-story wooden house he shared with twenty-one other men. Twenty-one, give or take. It was impossible to keep count with all the constant comings and goings and he had given up trying to months ago.
He carried the kitten to the kitchen and put it down on the floor as he scavenged for something to feed it. Tuna! That would do the trick.
“Assalamu alaykum” said Abdulrahman, the most annoying one of the twenty-one, announcing his entrance.
“Wa alaykum assalam”
“Kardeş, ömür biter, iş bitmez”.
This was how Abdulrahman started all his conversations. He would randomly throw out some phrase or question that had no relation to anything in their immediate context. Then, he would eventually end the conversation abruptly by declaring that he was ending the conversation and promptly take his leave. He was universally found to be annoying, unbeknownst to him, which had less to do with his practicing Turkish in the safe environment of other Syrians than it did with his knack of always talking to you exactly when you didn’t want him to. Granted, Muhammad didn’t ever want him to. In fact, Abdulrahman was the only one that would still try, in vain, to converse with him. Abdulrahman had medium-length scrappy locks and a beard that was just as long. The equal amount of hair on both sides of his face gave it the appearance of a perfect circle.
“Shu? What are you on about?”
“Life ends, but work doesn’t. The Turks have the same proverb as us.”
“Beautiful. Wallah, our cultures share so much.”
A meow emerged from underneath the table and Abdulrahman bended down to peer underneath.
“Aha and what is this?”
“It was outside underneath the trash bags.”
“MashAllah, brother. Are you going to take care of it?”
He closed the drawer harder than he needed to. “I don’t know, Abdulrahman. Maybe.”
“MashAllah. Maybe this is a way for you to have your sins forgiven. You know like the story of the prostitute and the dog?”
“Yes Abdulrahman. I know the story.”
He, puffing out his chest and straightening his posture, usually as rounded as everything else about him, proceeded to tell it anyways. “There is a famous hadith, narrated by Abu Hurairah, with multiple versions. A dog was circling around a well and would have died from thirst. An Israelite prostitute drew water from the well using her shoe and saved its life. For this, all of her sins were forgiven. Imagine brother, all of her sins, all of them, her, a prostitute. Maybe, brother, this will be like the dog was for her, a gift from Allah subhanu wa talaa to forgive you of your sins.”
“InshaAllah. Ok, I will leave now.” He made off to leave, almost running.
“--A minute, Abdulrahman. Before you leave.”
“Do you know where the can opener is?”
“Did you check Haytham’s room? He probably forgot it there,” he said over his shoulder, as he ran away to the upstairs floor where he lived.
Haytham would take things from the kitchen to his room and forget them there, a habit not incredibly irritating in isolation, but unfortunately just one of many. And there it was. Muhammad retrieved it from the top of Haytham’s dresser and opened three cans of tuna. He put one aside for the kitten and divided it in two, saving the other half for later. For his own dinner, he embellished the tuna with half a can of corns and half a chopped onion, a couple strands of the chicken leftover from last night, black pepper and a bit of yoghurt. He put a pack of Indomie instant noodles on to boil. He picked up the kitten and sat it with its bowl next to him on the long divan chair.
The two of them sat in silence, the kitten’s slow, content lapping the only sound. The tuna wasn’t so bad as far as tuna goes, but he missed the exquisite homemade food they used to have in the house. They once had Osama, a professional chef, among them. Osama had this deal with four of the guys that he would cook for them if they’d buy whatever ingredients he ordered them to, wash the dishes afterwards, and pay him an amount that was very reasonable. Osama’s food was amazing. But he’d left five months ago. He was smart. He worked like a donkey for a year and would divide his money every month into sixths: One-sixth for himself to meagerly subsist, two-sixths for Europe and the rest for his family in Damascus. He was, mashAllah, a chef in Belgium now.
And now Muhammad and the others were just the leftovers in this “sakan shababi,” youth residence. The Turks in Fatih, the neighborhood with the highest percentage of Syrian mülteciler, refused to rent their apartments out except to families, so the young men who were unmarried or had left their wives behind lived in these houses. The municipality had started shutting the sakan shababi down, but theirs had managed to, as of yet, still slip through the cracks of the inefficient Turkish bureaucracy. They were waiting for the police to come knocking any day.
Hisham walked in and broke his silence. “Salam yaa akhi.”
Hisham slung the backpack that was like his fifth limb off of his shoulder onto the chair opposite them. The supervisor, not just of this house but of several of them all owned by the same Syrian fat-cat, Hisham spent his days running through Fatih solving this problem or that problem, speaking Turkish to this man or that one. A short, wiry man with a well-trimmed beard and glasses hiding the dark circles under his eyes, he looked like a man who at the same time inspired trust and a man burned out by the responsibility that that entailed. He stared at the kitten, which Muhammad had started giving tiny strands of the chicken to.
“Shu had? What is this?”
“A kitten, Einstein. When I came home from work I found it shivering underneath the trash bags.”
Hisham set his bag down on the opposite chair and reached into the refrigerator for the ayran he had stored away. “You planning to keep it around here?”
“I don’t know. I guess yeah. I mean, if I can.”
“MashAllah mashAllah, look at the Abu Hurairah. Tamam and where shall it shit?”
“I’ll set some newspaper in my room when I’m here at night and he can stay in the front yard in the day while I’m at work?”
He didn’t have a roommate to run it by. While most of the other rooms had three to six men in them, depending on the room’s size and the amount of bunk beds, he had the luxury of a room to himself. When he first came, they paired him with someone else, but that experiment ended quickly. The owner, for once put human over profit and made accommodations for his “situation” and allowed him to take the small room for himself at the discounted price of 400 lira.
Hisham shrugged his shoulders. “Mashi, fine by me. But it stays in your room. And if the owner complains, you have to get rid of him.”
“Tamam, thanks. You’re not usually so... compromising. What’s with you?”
“Ugh, I’m tired. I’m tired, Muhammad, of always taking care of others’ problems, never having time for my own. I’m gonna leave soon.”
“Where’ll you go?”
“I don’t know. To be honest, I shoulda went to Europe when I had the chance.” He threw an Indomie of his own on the stove. “Besides, this place’ll be closed in a few months. Yalla, make sure you’re ready when it does.”
Muhammad headed to his room, sliding open the plastic door. He laid down some newspaper and put the kitten down on top of a small pillow on the floor next to the mattress he slept on…
He woke up to the kitten licking the sweat off of his brow. It had been a week since he first gave the as-of-yet-named kitten refuge, a week since it had learned of his habit of night terrors, of the tears that would run down his face every night. The nights before, it had been ever more terrified than him, but this night it had woken him up, jumping on his chest. The night terrors were the only thing that let him keep the kitten. The yells and cries in his sleep were the only reason they let him have a room to himself in the first place. He started petting the kitten, running his hand in one stroke from the base of its neck to the tip of its tail.
“Every night, I see the same nightmare. You know, when they asked what is your greatest fear, I said, Allah forbid, for something to happen to Ameerah while she’s stuck in Syria. Ever since Momma told me on the phone, I can see it. I can see every last visual, every detail. Ameerah leaves home to see my family.” The kitten clumsily fell into the crevice of his left armpit and nestled its head on his shoulder. Muhammad lowered his voice till it was barely more than a whisper. “As she is almost back home, Assad’s snipers shoot her. They shoot her right outside the entrance of the building, twice. The first bullet goes clean through her head, killing her instantaneously.” He stopped petting the cat and let his arms fall into a cross. “The second goes into her seven-month’s pregnant belly, killing what was to be our second daughter. The bastards. The… the bastards spare my first. Alhamdullilah. But sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t a blessing, but a curse. Fatimah, she sits there, sits there by her dead mother for two hours, as the pool of blood stains the edge of her pink shorts, until his mother makes the trip over to take her back to his family’s home, the same one habibat qalbi had left just three hours before.”
Muhammad removed the kitten off of his chest. He turned his face towards the wall and sobbed. The kitten climbed back on the mattress and started licking the back of his neck. They continued that way, he wailing and the kitten licking him, trying to get his attention, for a couple minutes more. He eventually turned back over and let it climb onto his chest, where it curled up and fell back to sleep. He sat it in the dark and listened to Haytham chew on his sunflower seeds in the next room over. Haytham had recently added a new annoying habit to his repertoire. After returning from work at four, he would watch a Turkish soap opera, always about the Ottomans, sip tea and spit sunflower seeds for two hours until fajr, the dawn prayer.
“Maybe you will be the way for my sins to be forgiven.”
And he did have sins to be forgiven. He had stopped praying for some time now. Some mornings when a couple of the guys from the downstairs floor congregated to pray fajr, he’d still be awake. He would just sit and listen to them. It wasn’t necessarily that he didn’t believe. He didn’t know if he did. He was simply too tired to look deep down inside himself and ask if he still did or not. And he could not forgive himself for that and the longer he let it drag on, the more he had to forgive himself for and all the harder it become to do so. He, of course, still went to Friday prayers, but they were for the most part in Turkish, a language he could only understand snippets of, so they didn’t make much difference either way.
He gave the kitten a little pat on the head, a quick rub of the neck, and got up to change his shirt drenched in sweat. As he laid back down, he raised the volume of the Quran ever so slightly. Since the war began, he couldn’t fall asleep without it…
His phone switched from the Quranic recitation to his alarm. After listening to three songs from a Syrian metal-rock band and petting the kitten, he left for work.
He was tired of the job. It had already been a year and a half. At the time, he had needed it, or really any sort of job. Ibrahim from the house had helped him find it. Ibrahim was an architect and his company had happened to need another worker. One of his friends was currently exploring the possibility of getting him a job in the Grand Bazaar, selling Turkish delight to tourists. It would pay more and allow him to get his daughter over the border quicker. Besides, he would rather cut planks of Turkish delight than planks of Turkish wood…
Three weeks passed like this—everyday, the same routine. He’d come home and take the kitten in from the front yard, feed the both of them, go to bed, falling asleep to the recording of Quranic recitation, inevitably wake up in the night covered in sweat reliving the death of his wife and first child, with the kitten licking his face, listen for a bit to Haytham chewing on and then spitting out his sunflower seeds, fall back asleep, wake up at six and listen to the others pray fajr, before feeding the kitten again and going to work. Rinse, repeat. The only difference was the fat growing around the kitten’s ribs. No longer did Muhammad carry it everywhere.
One morning, Muhammad changed the routine ever so slightly. As he heard the guys pray fajr outside his door, he got up, made ablutions and joined them for the first time.
After the prayer, Abdulrahman reached over with a big round smile on his face and shook his hand. “Allah kabul etsin.”
“Mini wa minik salih al-aamal.” he said, giving the reply in Arabic.
After the morning prayer, Muhammad left to work with Ibrahim and Abdulrahman. He put the kitten in the front yard behind its favorite bush. As they crossed through the gate- it still creaking behind them, Ibrahim looked over at him.
“You know, Mr. Abu Hurairah, you speak more to that kitten than to us.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “You’re right. I do.” But maybe he had a point. Maybe he should try communicating more, even if just a bit.
Abdulrahman made an attempt at humor. “One month you haven’t given it a name. What? Are you going to wait another month? Yalla. Have you thought of something kardeş?”
“You know, I have actually.”
“La wallah? What are you going to name him?”
Thomas Parker is a Muslim-American poet, writer and translator from Texas. He, in addition to translating from Turkish and Arabic, also writes, mostly, but not exclusively, poetry in his native tongue of English. He is the co-founder and poetry editor of The Bosphorus Review of Books and is currently working very slowly on a debut novel.