I sometimes wonder if Tunis is wholly a city of human beings. Plenty of people live here – Tunis has, according to its Wikipedia entry, some 2,412,500 folk living in its metropolitan area – but, when I’m in a slightly paranoid mood, I suspect that only half of the city belongs to humanity.
The other half of the city belongs to another dominant species: cats.
In Tunis, you see them everywhere – cats of all ages, sizes and colours and cats exhibiting many different degrees of grooming and hygiene. (The scruffy ones, though, definitely outnumber the upmarket ones). They roam the streets, lurk on the street-corners, skulk beneath parked cars and do loud, unspeakable things to each other during the night.
When I’m in a really paranoid mood, I imagine that behind the shutters of rundown buildings and amid the shrubbery of overgrown gardens (where, invariably, they retreat when people approach them), they have their own, parallel cat city – cat shops, cat bars, cat restaurants, cat boarding houses, cat gambling dens…
It’s obvious how the huge cat population survives. Tunis’s human citizens put their rubbish out on the streets every day and, although collection trucks come around every night, as do cart-pushing rag-and-bone men, this rubbish is less-than-comprehensively gathered up. As a result, Tunis’s streets always contain plenty of trash and the city’s scavenging felines have a field-day with it.
Needless to say, things get especially bad – or especially good if you’re a cat – whenever the rubbish collectors go on strike. Bagfuls of domestic waste quickly pile up, are ripped open and have their contents scattered. Outside the shops and cafes, black bin-bags are eviscerated with even messier results. By the time the cats have finished, long tatty trails of garbage run alongside every kerb, through every gutter.
Before I arrived in Tunis, I’d regarded myself as being a cat person rather than a dog person. Not that I disliked dogs – apart from those tiny, cranky, yapping poodles and Chihuahuas loved by old ladies and Mickey Rourke, I thought dogs were amiable, good-natured things. But at the end of the day they seemed a little too daft, slobbery and lacking in social skills. Cats, on the other hand, I’d always thought were extremely smart and cool.
To use one of those strange musical metaphors that I’m fond of, if dogs were musicians, they’d probably play in a gormless, shambolic glam-rock or retro-guitar band like Status Quo, Slade or Oasis. But if cats were musicians, they’d probably be members of a chic, arty outfit like Roxy Music, Kraftwerk or Suede. Indeed, it once occurred to me that ‘the Cats of Tunis’ would make a brilliant name for some avant-garde indie-rock band.
However, one morning shortly after my arrival in Tunis, I left my home to go jogging. I was trotting along a side street whose pavement, at its mid-point, was almost blocked by a large, sprawling heap of garbage. As I skirted the heap, a cat shot out in front of me, from under a rubbish-bag that it’d been in the process of clawing open.
I tripped over the cat and landed on a pane of glass that’d been left on the pavement on the far side of the garbage. Having been on the pavement for some time, the pane was broken into several fragments, and my right hand came down on the edge of the biggest fragment. I ended up with a long and bloody wound along the base of my thumb and I spent the remainder of the morning with my right hand painfully immersed in a bowl of Dettol.
So now, I’m not so enamoured with the feline species – and I’m even less enamoured with the cats of Tunis. In fact, it wouldn’t bother me if the city authorities decided to take action against the creatures. I wouldn’t care if Tunis employed a Cat Catcher, styled on the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, who patrolled the streets in a black horse-drawn coach with barred windows, dressed in a scary black cloak and top hat. Unlike the Child Catcher, however, the Cat Catcher could be armed with state-of-the-art equipment, such as tasers, pepper sprays, water cannons and plastic bullets. Not so much Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as kitty kitty bang bang.
Incidentally, if you’re not a cat lover, you might enjoy reading the following article, written by Rod Liddle for the Spectator magazine in 2009. It deals with a well-publicised cat-related incident in Bristol, England. A beloved pet cat called Wilbur strayed one day into a neighbour’s garden in search of prey… Only to become prey himself.