Raising Cats in Gaza: A Pet Store Owner's Lament

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Abigail Hauslohner for TIME

Hassan al-Draimli is very into cats.

That much is clear when the 50-year-old owner of Gaza City's oldest pet store holds up a particularly fluffy kitten. "This is one of the cats we breed here. It's a Siamese mixed with a Persian," he says proudly. "Siamese cats are known for their intelligence. They are the smartest of cats. Whereas Persians have the most beautiful fur."

Though rare cats are his passion, Draimli says, pets in general have always been close to his heart. And he enjoys watching TV channels like Animal Planet to learn new techniques for caring for his animals, which also include birds and fish.

When Draimli opened Birds and Fish World in the 1980s, he says, "People weren't all that interested in cats." It took a few years, he says, to convince his neighbors in the Gaza Strip — home to 1.5 million people, the majority of whom are refugees — that the animals make worthy household companions.

Now, 25 years later, they're as popular as can be. "People like cats because they are easy to keep," he says. "Maybe in America or other countries, you can have dogs because you have big houses. But in Gaza we have small apartments, so we can't keep such animals."

Draimli says his shop is the biggest cat, fish and bird supplier in all of Gaza, and that just about any Himalayan, Persian or Siamese in the coastal enclave can be traced back to him and his neatly kept log book. But his business is also a story of unlikely survival. While pet food is not among the items blocked by the Israelis from entering Gaza, it is expensive getting Meow Mix into the territory. Gazans must improvise on pet food. "These goods are luxury items," he says, standing before a wall of mostly empty fish tanks. "People need political and financial stability before they can afford to buy a cat, a fish tank, or even a bird."

Finding that stability can be tough in a territory where 85% of the population depends on humanitarian aid to survive. Through his quarter-century in business, Draimli has watched the Gaza Strip transition through intermittent periods of war, Israeli occupation, and political unrest. Its latest phase — the Israeli blockade, which has been in place since Islamist Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 — has been the hardest.

The blockade drove most of Gaza's economy, including parts of Draimli's pet business, underground. "Now we bring things like bird cages through the [smuggling] tunnels [on Gaza's border with Egypt]," he says, adding that they are no longer allowed to import the cages from Israel. "The price in Egypt is cheaper than it is in Israel. But the problem is that we have to pay $50 for each container to bring them through the tunnel. So we can't make any money."

Last winter's war with Israel, which the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) says cost the Palestinian economy an estimated $4 billion in economic losses, slowed Draimli's business even more. On a recent weekday afternoon, hours passed before a single customer showed up. But even after the war, he says, some Gazans have continued to find a need for his luxury goods. "The desire to have pets grew in Gaza after the Israeli invasion, because the children were constantly afraid," he says. "So every family that could came to buy a cat or bird for their children to comfort them."

But it will take real peace, Palestinian unity, and a natural economic climate, he says, for his business to flourish the way it once did. "I used to have 200 to 300 customers a day. If you had come in before, I wouldn't have been free to talk to you."