Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Ben Cluse

Istanbul is a city I’d describe as angular. The Bosphorus is the river carving through the city, splitting Asia from Europe, East from West. Thus, the shore on either side inclines dramatically. The Mediterranean houses, in their brightly coloured box-style, cluster together and roll up the hills, so much so that getting around requires climbing a great amount of stairs and inclining streets, leaving the locals with what must be Herculean aerobic abilities. Houses are packed in tighter than New York, and the streets move around in a maze of furiously packed old concrete boxes.

    We find ourselves trudging up a street, red-faced and sweat-soaked from the heat. We’re staying with a relative, my partner’s cousin, James, an Australian who teaches English in Istanbul and, curiously, loves the city with a passion. He talks fervently about the place while leading his tired guests around the brick streets, forever up and up in this suffocating heat.

    As we near his house (we hope), we pass a curious set of concrete steps. While concrete steps aren’t an unusual sight in Istanbul, this one turns our heads, as we find it littered with perhaps close to thirty stray cats. James is so used to the sight, he almost walks us right by them, so lost is he in telling the history of the Ottoman Empire. But at seeing the cats, we grab for the camera, and stop and fawn.

    “The strays are a common sight in Istanbul,” James tells us, “you’ll see them literally everywhere.” The cats patter about the steps as cats do, leaping up and down with natural grace, and athletic certainty. The kittens are more active and curious than the adults, climbing and jumping with newborn energy. The adults sleep or at least recline, blinking tiredly in the late afternoon haze.
    “They don’t seem afraid of us.” I observe, as a black and white cat curls past my ankles.
    “They’re so used to people. The Turks feed them even though they’re stray, so they don’t really become feral.” As we speak we’re interrupted by a bitter hiss, as one cat fends off the advances of three others. It’s all just normal cat behaviour, though, as these tiny creatures deal with the common life-melodrama of sexual desire.

  There are at least another twenty or so strays residing around James’ house. There are three tiny kittens seeking cover under the overgrown geraniums that flower either side of the path leading to his apartment building. We find another adult sleeping in a flowerpot hanging from the front window of the apartment foyer. Across the road is a mosque, which eventually comes to wake me ritually at 5 a.m. every morning. In the grounds of the mosque another ten or so homeless felines have made their home.
    During our stay, we find them in the strangest of places; nestled between old pots at a stall in the markets, on low rooves as we walk to dinner, and even sleeping under the table at an outdoor restaurant. They’re like a feature of the city, accidental in design like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but welcome, accepted and even revered.
    “I don’t know why, but the Turks seem to love the cats,” comments James over a Doner Kebab one evening. Another history lesson thus begins. James tells us that in 1911, all of Istanbul’s stray dogs were rounded up by the governor and sent to the island of Sivriada to starve. Shortly after, an earthquake hit Istanbul, which was seen as a symbol of God’s anger, following which all the dogs were retrieved. “The guilt from this act still haunts the Turks today,” observes James. So perhaps the polite Turkish treatment of the stray cats is a sort of symbolic attempt at reconciliation.
    The cats make Istanbul feel truly alive. Movement occurs in the corners of your eyes, plodding and sublime. Any normal street, awning or marketplace can have a dimension of life to it, as these moggies move like living statues. 
    James has rescued one particular cat from the streets, and named him Kebap, which is the Turkish word for Kebab. Really, Kebap is one of the lucky few, a domesticated cat who’ll live beyond the two or three year lifespan of his unfortunate street brethren. Kebap is a playful ginger and white cat, thin and fit, but also baring the scars of street fights with the slicker, tougher strays of the neighbourhood. It’s an amazing paradox; the street cats are tougher in nature, finding ways and means of surviving the seasons and the competition around them, and yet, they will live much shorter lives than their more pampered domesticated versions. We ponder this comparison, very briefly, before Kebap shoots across the wooden floor, under the rug, in pursuit of an imaginary mouse. This entertains us no end, and our philosophising is quickly forgotten.

    As the sun sets over Istanbul, casting the minaret towers of the mosques over the city skyline in perfect silhouette, we head out for dinner. An old Turkish woman is at the concrete steps now, syringing milk and vitamins into each and every cat she can get a hold of. James tells us she’s there every night, pumping these cats with the possibility of another day of life. Just because Istanbul is their city, and the locals accept their presence, it doesn’t mean the cats aren’t doing it hard. Their casual demeanour might suggest otherwise, but that’s their nature, despite the obvious disadvantage of street life.
As we walk back to James’ place, the trek now is downhill, an easy relief as the evening breeze rolls in off the Bosphorus. As we reach the apartment, the three kittens seem to have disappeared from their usual position, reminding us that, while Istanbul may be the city of cats, it doesn’t mean it’s an easy life for them.