Finding a decent cup of chai in Dubai isn’t as easy as one might think, so over the years I’ve compiled a mental map of places dotted around the city which serve cheap, strong, 100ml shots of the good brew. The number has dwindled over the years, with many of the cafes — usually attached to old petrol stations — being replaced by shiny new refurbished stations and their cookie-cutter MacDonalds and Burger Kings.
There’s a cafe in a far-flung corner of the city, almost out of it, which also serves a good, reliable shawerma and despite it being nowhere near my house, I end up there a couple of times a week, especially on weekends after a long drive.
It used to be next to a well-frequented petrol pump on a simple cross-roads, but a few years ago they tore up the entire intersection to make a new, super-twisty one, and the pump was shoved to an inaccessible corner. So now where it used to stand is an empty lot with scraps of insulation foam and destroyed cinder blocks, and ominous looking open holes in the ground. The cafe is thankfully not a part of the pump and has survived, its clientele now including several packs of young, uniformed sales assistants from stores in a nearby mall. Like me, they too come for the chai and the shawerma. Wedged between a highway intersection, a sprawling mixed-use development, a torn-down old building, and the desert, the cafe is somewhat typical of the state of things in Dubai now. Disparate elements suspended next to each other, not quite fitting together, but functioning.
But this story isn’t about the cafe and its mix of clientele, of Afghan big-rig truckers and Filipino store clerks, Chinese businessmen or Arabs in their super-tuned SUVS, or even of Malayali-Muslim young men serving a repertoire of chai, rotisserie chicken, zaatar tea, samosas and burgers. It’s about a cat.
Until the other day there were a couple of cats who hung around the cafe. One of them was a friendly girl with patches of several colours on her white fur. She would eat scraps of shawerma meat but little else, and didn’t mind being petted. The other was scared of everything and everyone and bolted at the first sign of movement towards it. There’s a couple more who range through the area, and all are sleek, thin, alley cats with wiry tails and keen eyes.
But the other day there was a new cat at the cafe. Grey in parts and on its striped tail, it stood silently at the edge of where the cafe met the ruins of the petrol pump, fur blowing in the chilll December wind. If the length and softness of the fur, and the bushiness of the tail wasn’t a giveaway, then the sheer wide-eyed innocence in its eyes was: This wasn’t a stray cat.
My father sat down on the kerb and petted it as we waited for our order, and it was not only willing but eager to receive, climbing halfway onto his leg soon after. I’ve seen this sort of thing before, and the story is usually the same: people live here for a while, get a pet, keep them fed in return for the company and the distraction, and then when they lose their job or get a better one elsewhere, look at the cost and hassle of taking their beloved feline or canine back with them, and then just let them go. Given the way jobs are dropping here, I expect to see a lot more pets on the streets in the next year.
Even a heartless, pet-averse person like me felt a little sorry for the cat. Half an urge crept up my spine, to just scoop the thing up, drop it in the car and take it home to something resembling its former life. But I didn’t, because I like animals far too much to put them in my dead, soulless apartment where the nearest tree is a block away.
Our sandwiches ready we left the cat there at the cafe and went home. I wondered if I’d ever see it again. Today I did. Still at the cafe, still welcome to my father stroking it. The other cats seem to have accepted it. When I lived in Oman a family of cats lived in our back yard, unoffical neighbours and a young boy’s companions and curiosities, if not pets. They were fiercely territorial, pouncing on anything feline entering the neighbourhood that wasn’t from there, house cats especially.
That the alley cats of the cafe had allowed the new house cat into their domain was a good thing. It had not been harmed or scratched, and seemed to be cheerful, if starved for the indulgent human attention that it must have got before. There were more than enough scraps to go around, I guess, and maybe, in cat terms, it got along with its new friends.
I wondered if, as a house cat, it had ever hunted for food. If it had ever caught so much as a locust, or been in any environment that wasn’t temperature controlled. As an alley cat, even an alley cat out here in the middle of nowhere, it might still get to do some of that. When I considered taking it back to my home I was looking at it as I might a lost child, a human child, unfamiliar with the ways of steet life. But this wasn’t a human, it was a cat, and who the hell am I to presume it needs a more human lifestyle?
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe tomorrow it’ll stray onto the highway and get flattened under a truck. Maybe there’s a little girl out there who’s wondering where her kitty went. Maybe it’ll have to fight and scratch and claw for its life with some other cat too. But I’m okay with that. It’s a cat. It’s living a cat’s life. I’ll just say hello once in a while and see how it’s doing.
It still looks a little out of place there, with its literally bright eyes and bushy tail. But like the arcane twists of the intersection, the spill of the desert, the cement-grey ruins of the once-relevant petrol pump, and the cafe with a light-up plastic palm tree on its roof and its eclectic menu and its even more eclectic clientele, it somehow looks like it belongs.