In theory, I returned to Morocco from the United States in December to pursue a fellowship and take Arabic classes. In practice, though, I came back to the Moroccan capital of Rabat because of the cats. Whether dropping by the bank, shopping for groceries, strolling the marina, or walking to the mall, you will see cats wherever you go here. If you make the lucky mistake of carrying food with you, prepare to meet every feral cat in a five-mile radius. I, for one, often make several feline friends when I go to my favorite restaurant for French tacos in Rabat.
During my first trip to Morocco as a Fulbright Scholar in summer 2019, the Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange informed me and other members of my cohort about the ubiquity of cats in the kingdom. Many Moroccan families have a pet cat—if not several—and a number of restaurants here feed their leftovers to the feral cats prowling the streets. As a lover of cats, yet too lazy to adopt one of my own, I felt like I had found Heaven.
When the pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and my return to the United States last winter, I knew that I would miss the cats of Morocco. My inner scholar also wondered what made cats – not dogs or the terrifying monkeys that stalk the cedar forests surrounding the town of Ifrane in the Middle Atlas mountains – Moroccans’ pets of choice. The answer has to do with a mix of culture and religion.
In the seventh century, the Muslim prophet Mohammad told believers to protect all God’s creations and praised cats because of their cleanliness.
Muslims, who make up 99 percent of Moroccans, have a relationship with cats that extends back over a millennium. In the seventh century, the Muslim prophet Mohammad told believers to protect all God’s creations and praised cats because of their cleanliness. Under religious law, Muslims may perform pre-prayer ablutions with a bowl of water from which cats have drunk. The Prophet urged Muslims to avoid applying the same principle to dogs and pigs, which Islam considers impure.
In addition to this general guidance, the Muslim prophet Mohammad seemed to have a personal affinity for felines, stating, “Affection for cats is part of faith.” During the Battle of Uhud, he adopted a cat that he named Muezza. According to Muhammad al-Bukhari, a ninth-century scholar who compiled one of the two most authoritative collections of the Muslim prophet’s sayings, he even told a woman who caged and starved her cat that “her punishment on the Day of Judgement [would] be torture and Hell.” His example became part of Islamic culture for centuries to come.
Abu Hurairah, one of the first Muslim converts and among the Muslim prophet Mohammad’s most loyal followers, fast earned a reputation as Islam’s most famous lover of cats. In fact, his name means “father of a kitten.” In response to the question, “Is it permissible to have a cat in the house according to Islam and its teachings?” the often-controversial website Islam Question and Answer noted that Abu Hurairah got his intriguing name “because he used to love cats and keep them.”
The cat-friendly legacy of the Muslim prophet Mohammad and Abu Hurairah has spread to Morocco and across the Muslim world. “Like many countries in the Arab world, cats rule the streets of Morocco,” reflects American blogger Sarah Mamlet, who studied in Rabat in 2019. “They sit where they please in the middle of busy markets, they look both ways before crossing the road, and they have even taken over an entire garden in Rabat’s historic Kasbah of the Udayas.” Anecdotal evidence from countries throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds supports this conclusion.
Last year, a news agency affiliated with the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce ran the headline “Cats Dominate Arab Pet Products Market” as the advocacy group pressed the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries to import more goods for their felines from Brazil. The cats of Istanbul have their own award-winning documentary, Kedi, and a warlord in Syria got the nickname “Cat Colonel of Syria” for his habit of sheltering cats orphaned by the conflict there.
Since I returned to Rabat late last year for an Arabic program, I have observed this regional love of cats on a more personal level. One of my friends is studying business law so that she can open a cat café. Another collects donations online to fund urgent visits to the veterinarian for owners who struggle to afford them. The Association for the Defense of Animals and Nature (ADAN) runs a shelter for cats in the city, and the nonprofit Morocco Animal Aid performs a similar service for cats and dogs in the region around the southern city of Agadir.
The ubiquity of feral cats in Morocco has sometimes elicited criticism.
The ubiquity of feral cats in Morocco has sometimes elicited criticism. In 2019, Morocco World News published an op-ed under the headline “Morocco’s Street Cats Are Not Cute.” The article, by another American student who stayed in Rabat, highlighted several episodes of animal abuse in Morocco and lamented “the nagging issue of animal welfare in the country.”
Morocco has faced some challenges with animal welfare. In 2019, a man in the coastal city of Safi burned a shelter for cats, killing 25 of them. The next year, an unknown assailant killed six dogs housed by Morocco Animal Aid. Officials in Morocco, however, have taken pains to care for animals in the kingdom. After Morocco’s lockdown began last spring, police gave food to feral cats who used to depend on scraps from restaurants shuttered because of the pandemic. Police in Tangier also investigated complaints about a video showing animal cruelty in 2020.
As Morocco finds new ways to protect and celebrate cats, I have settled on the next aspect of my feline-themed journey here: going on a search for the sand cat, an adorable animal that inhabits the Moroccan desert. After all, we all need more cats in our lives.