By Clarice Connors
Damascus, SYRIA – In the middle of a cobblestone courtyard, a tanned man in a khaki vest and rolled-up green pants tilts his head to the sky and shouts “Ai! Ai! Ai!”
He is shuffling around a roped-off section in front of the Umayyad Mosque. The yellow tape forms a hexagon-shaped area and a cluster of people gather around its edges. He is shouting in the direction of the the great stone wall entrance – which is a resting place for thousands of pigeons.
The man grabs a bag of seed from a pile that is balancing on top of a plastic red crate and scatters it. The huge mass of cooing birds takes flight. Gray, speckled, and white-splotched pigeons swoop down over the crowd, some making crash landings or circling amid the air traffic. They all squeeze themselves into the small area and peck furiously at the seed.
According to Reymond Piter, 34, the owner of Surya, a hand-crafted scarf and bag shop located just down a pathway from the courtyard, the bird feeding practice has been going on for about seven years at the gateway to the hectic and massive market in downtown Damascus.
“Some people feed the birds, and tourists do too,” Piter said of the small fee a tourist can pay to dump seed on the cobblestone area. He takes a moment to think and sips his yellow tea. “It’s because we care, because we love natural life and it is all around us.”
Piter is referring to the general care for animals that is obvious within Syrian culture. A turn down any street or alley reveals small bowls of water or morsels of food left out for stray cats, which number in the thousands in this country. And, as a result, the cats look healthy and scamper around, keeping to themselves instead of scrounging around doorsteps and garbage cans.
Many Muslims reference the Qur’an as providing some guidelines regarding treatment of animals. People are encouraged to serve as guardians for God’s creatures while on Earth. The Prophet Muhammad gives many examples of proper and improper treatment of animals. He said that a man who treats his horse well will be protected from poverty. Another example says that God views it as an act of charity when a Muslim plants seed and an animal or bird eats from what it yields.
At the other end of the spectrum, a Muslim is not to abuse an animal or tie it up and neglect it.
“It is for Allah,” said Dikran Yalkzian, 50, an antique silver merchant in the Damascus market. “It is a good deed, and it is public for people to see.”
Yalkzian points a ringed finger to the streaked window of his tiny shop. “See, it is right in the courtyard in front of the mosque.” Yalkzian is referencing the bird feeding which occurs many times throughout each day. He can hear the man outside, calling to the flock.
“Putting food out for cats is not so public. It is a nice thing to do,” Yalkzian said. “We take care of our animals. They are God’s creatures and maybe they cannot help themselves.”
The same sentiment is shared outside of the marketplace, in office buildings. Rula Karahamd, 24, a public relations specialist working at the Syrian Arab Association for SOS Children’s Villages, sees her peers making an effort every day to care for homeless animals.
“In my office, there is always some guy taking care of the stray animals,” she said. “He puts out milk and always feeds them. They [cats] come to the door and we take pity on them.”
Karahamd indicates that though many of these caring actions are done out of kindness, largely they are done because the Prophet Muhammad instructed it.
“There is a Prophet saying that there was a man who once kicked a cat and he went to hell,” Karahamd said. Despite the consequences of such an action, she makes it clear that caring for animals is not a particular duty for which one feels obligated. It is the idea of pity – pity for a creature that does not have the abilities that humans do to care for themselves.
Piter describes it as a kind of gracious exchange.
“It is like if a man’s son is good or he is successful,” he said. “He might bring his son to church and give the church money. Some people feed the animals instead. If we see a small cat in the way [on the street] we can put it on the corner. It is all we can do to keep it safe, something small.”