“The Cat Man of Aleppo”
Authors: Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha
Illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Price: $17.99 (Hardcover)
Usually in this space I review fiction and nonfiction for adults and occasionally books for young adults. But on rare occasion I have discussed children’s books. For example, I reviewed “The Cat’s Pajamas,” written and illustrated by Daniel Wallace, a whimsical book about the days long ago when cats used to wear clothes, and “Seeds of Freedom” by Hester Bass and E. B. Lewis, a book illustrating the peaceful integration in Huntsville, Alabama.
“The Cat Man of Aleppo” is another extraordinary book, admittedly not about Alabama but written by two Birmingham authors.
Irene Latham is one of Alabama’s foremost poets and the author of the novel “Leaving Gee’s Bend,” and many picture books for children.
Her co-author is Karim Shamsi-Basha, photographer, author, blogger, and an immigrant from Syria, who actually lived and studied in the historical city of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet, and for centuries a famously civilized place.
Aleppo is now undergoing daily destruction from the planes and artillery of the Syrian government and from the Russian Air Force.
“Cat Man” is a true story. The hero, the “Cat Man” of the title, is Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, an ambulance driver in Aleppo who sent his family to safety but refused to flee himself.
He remained in the city he loved, a city of “narrow alleys and covered bazaars,” filled with the people he loved, “gentle, polite and loving.”
Carrying on with his humanitarian work, Alaa is of course dismayed by the destruction and the human suffering but also comes to notice the many abandoned and starving cats, prowling for food.
We are told “The cats’ lonely, confused faces remind Alaa of he loved ones he has lost” so he determines to help.
At first, he brings the cats water and then, with his meager salary, he feeds two cats. Two become 12, then 20, then 50. With small donations from neighbors in Aleppo, neighbors who have barely enough to eat themselves, he gathers more resources. Alaa then goes online and there is a wonderful response from cat lovers everywhere—and they are everywhere!
Contributions pour in. He finds a building to house the cats and then other homeless animals. When people are forced to leave Aleppo, they bring their pets to Alaa.
There are dogs, birds, goats, monkeys, you name it. Alaa then builds a playground for children. With international support, he opens an orphanage to shelter small human animals.
This book is richly illustrated but describing the art is challenging. There are, first of all, more kinds of cats in shapes, sizes and colors than I had ever imagined. Alaa himself is shown as shortish, stocky, with a week’s growth of beard on a very kind face, definitely not a movie star. There are illustrations of Aleppo as it once appeared and several powerful scenes depicting the destruction of the city: injured civilians, burned out cars, collapsed buildings, rubble everywhere.
Veteran illustrator Yuko Shimizu has never been to Aleppo, but in a lengthy note describes her nine months of research, viewing videos and reading books about Aleppo and studying many photos of the city and its people. The faces she has created are composites, “not ‘real’ but also not ‘made up….’” She has been as accurate as possible on the details: hair styles, clothing, accessories. The combination of art and text has produced a powerful little book, a book to move cat lovers and humanitarians alike.
There is a web site for donations.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.