Gaza’s first cat cafe offers distraction for enclave’s residents

Gaza's first cat cafe offers distraction for enclave's residents

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The global cat cafe trend, where people pay to have coffee and hang out with cats, has finally come to the Gaza Strip.

The impoverished Palestinian enclave run by the Hamas terror group has been crippled by repeated rounds of conflict with Israel and a 17-year blockade by Israel and Egypt. Jerusalem says the blockade is necessary to limit terror groups’ ability to arm themselves for attacks on its citizenry.

Residents seeking to escape the territory’s troubles flocked on Thursday to the new Meow Cafe — Gaza City’s answer to the quirky concept tried successfully around the world.

The cafe’s founder, 52-year-old Naema Mabed, said she envisioned the spot as a unique escape from the pressures of life in Gaza — with its lack of recreational options, a youth unemployment rate of over 60% and frequent rounds of conflict with Israel since Hamas violently seized control of the Strip in 2007.

At the cozy hang-out, Mabed offers a modest drink service and encourages guests to head straight to the cat corner to pet and play with furry friends. The rules of entry are simple: Visitors must cover their shoes with plastic and wash their hands before cuddling the cats.

“I have spent my life raising cats, and they’re a source of joy and quiet, a release of pressures,” Mabed told The Associated Press, as cats roamed around her. She described feline communion as a “global anti-depressant.”

Her customers seem to agree. They looked exuberant as they played and lounged with the 10 cats in residence, including some named Tom, Dot, Simba, and Phoenix. Some guests were quiet as they soaked in the cats’ calming presence.

Palestinians gather for the opening ceremony of Meow Cafe in Gaza City, August 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

The cats are not up for adoption, says Mabed, who is strongly bonded to her feline friends.

“The feeling, honestly, is that you just come to feel the psychological comfort of the cats,” said 23-year-old Eman Omar, who had paid the entrance fee of 5 NIS ($1.30) to spend half an hour snuggling with cats. “Everything is beautiful!”

Experts said the cafe does far more than indulge the cat-crazed and give visitors a chance for a good selfie. Psychologist Bahzad al-Akhras said that in places like Gaza, such havens can serve as therapy for those scarred from the Strip’s devastating wars and other hardships.

A Palestinian child enjoys the company of a cat on the opening day of Meow Cafe, Gaza City, Thursday, Aug 17, 2023 (AP/Fatima Shbair)

“Any place that provides humans a kind of interaction with animals has a positive psychological impact,” al-Akhras said.

It wasn’t easy for Mabed to bring the cat cafe trend to Gaza. Opening a shop in the enclave presented a range of challenges — not only financial. The idea of paying to hang out with cats when stray cats roam free on Gaza City’s streets every day struck some residents as ridiculous.

But for cat lovers who face travel restrictions because of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade and might not experience the wildly popular trend elsewhere, the experience was pure bliss.

Palestinian children enjoy the company of cats on the opening day of Meow Cafe in Gaza City, Thursday, Aug 17, 2023 (AP/Fatima Shbair)

“If you’re a cat lover, this is your place,” Omar, the customer, said. “If you don’t love cats, you will feel the urge to love them.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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