Inside Gaza’s first Cat Cafe — a refuge for some, but unattainable for many – Mondoweiss

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It’s a perfect image straight out of a picture book: a group of kids are huddled around in a corner, cuddling and playing with different types of cats. The walls are lined with climbing shelves for the cats, and colorful swings for the children. It’s a cheerful atmosphere, and the excitement and happiness on the faces of the children light up the room. It’s a strange novelty for the strip — children paying money to play with cats — in a place like Gaza, which boasts a large population of street cats that can be found on almost every corner. But at the “Meow Cat Café” in Tal al-Hawa, west of Gaza City, these aren’t just ordinary street cats. 

A dozen perfectly manicured and uncommon breeds of felines roam around Meow Cafe. Though the cafe is a bit late to the global trend, which really kicked off in 2019, Meow Cafe resembles most cat cafes around the world. Families and their kids sit in a warm, cozy environment, while the kids play with the cats as other visitors sip on drinks and enjoy the wholesome view.  At Meow Café, playing with the cats comes with a price, of course. Visitors have to pay for their drinks if they want to watch from a distance, but if someone, including the kids, wants to cuddle or pet, they have to pay 10 Shekels ($2.67) per hour, per person. 

Most families in Gaza have an average of four to six children, meaning that, in theory, there’s a huge market for Meow Café. But in reality, for most families in Gaza, paying just over $2.50 for their kids to play with cats is far too expensive, as most people in Gaza live below the poverty line. 

For the café owner Naeema Mabed, 52, it’s not just about making a profit as a café. “I included cats in my café for people in order to help them to be happy and feel nice inside this place. I want to help them to forget about the troubles and crises they live through,” Mabed told Mondoweiss from inside the café.

A woman at the new "Meow Cat Cafe," standing beside three cats perched atop climbing ledges, Gaza, August 17, 2023.
The new “Meow Cat Cafe” in Gaza, August 17, 2023. (Photo: Omar Al-Dirawi/APA Images)

Mabed says her own personal experience with cats has brought her much enjoyment and relief over the years, and she wanted to be able to share the same experience with other cat lovers in Gaza. “I spent years caring for and raising cats,” she said. “They are a source of calm and joy, and many people love to spend time with them.” 

And Mabed is right, the people, particularly the children, love the cats. 

Inside the café, Sumayya Saed, 34, with her son Ali, 8, look around the café with smiles on their faces, as they notice all the cats around them. Sumayya lives in the same neighborhood as the café, just 100 meters away. She came to let her son enjoy playing after she heard about the café.

“It’s really nice to be here in such a place and watch your kid in extreme comfort and joy playing with lovely kittens,” she shared. 

But Sumayya admits that she could only afford to bring Ali alone, and had to leave his siblings back at home. “I brought one of my kids because it will be so expensive to bring all of the five kids and let them spend one hour and pay 10 Shekels for everyone,” Sumayya said. “I would rather get them a cat at home instead,”  she joked.  

Sumayya’s sentiments are shared by many Gazans, who have weighed in with their opinions on the cat café, which has gone viral on social media in Gaza in the days since it opened. The idea of paying money to hang out and play around with cats is a foreign concept to many Gazans and not something most people can get on board with, due to the difficult economic situation of most families. 

A barista at the new "Meow Cat Cafe" in Gaza, August 17, 2023.
A worker at the new “Meow Cat Cafe” in Gaza, August 17, 2023. (Photo: Omar Al-Dirawi/APA Images)

Families in the neighborhoods next door to Tal-Al-Hawa, like Al-Zayton and Al-Shuja’iyya east of Gaza, heard about the café and watched some photos and videos on social media. But most people won’t be able to enjoy the Meow Café beyond looking at it on social media. In Gaza, taking the family to a café or a restaurant is a luxury in and of itself for most people. 

Lina Ibrahim, 41, from Al-Zayton, declined her own son’s request to take him and his siblings to the café, which he desperately made after he saw some kids hugging the cats in some pictures on social media. While Ibrahim would have loved to oblige her son’s request, she says her primary responsibility is to spare her husband’s income in a way that allows her family to survive. 

 “It’s better for us to bring food to our home instead of going to a café or spending time with cats,” Ibrahim riffs sarcastically. “We have cats in the street and around the building, the kids can play with them all day for free.”

One week after opening of Meow Cat Café, the café announced on its Facebook page that the cats would be no longer offered for cuddling and playing with. The cats, the café wrote, were not eating, and had lost their passion for playing due to the exhaustion from humans.

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