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 besieged Gaza Strip.
In the impoverished Palestinian enclave run by the Hamas militant group and crippled by a 17-year blockade, 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.
The cats are not adoptable, 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 Israeli shekels ($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.
“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 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.
“If you’re a cat lover, this is your place,” Omar, the customer, said. “If you don’t love cats, you will feel an urge to love them.”