Photo: James Tressler.


Zehra was known in her neighborhood as the cat lady.

Every Istanbul neighborhood has a cat lady and in Sultantepe it was Zehra. She was in her early sixties, short, stout, and soft-spoken. Her husband, a civil servant, had died a few years before. So she lived alone in their one bedroom flat, an old building overlooking the Bosphorus.

Every morning and evening, Zehra would make the rounds in the streets of Sultantepe. She carried a plastic Migros bag filled with cat food that she bought at a local pet shop. She fed the cats clustered around the stairwells that went down the hill to the iskele, and also distributed some of the food near the mosques, and anywhere else the street cats were known to congregate.

When she wasn’t performing this daily ritual, Zehra mostly stayed at home – with her cats. Nobody knew for sure, but it was estimated that she had at least a dozen living in her flat, maybe more. She was a very private woman (always polite, always ready with a “Kolay gelsen!” or “Iyi akşamlar!” in a sweet, nearly whispered voice), so people only knew her as the “cat lady.”

Neighbors complained from time to time about the smell of cat piss emanating from the flat, but that’s how neighbors are. “What do you want? She’s a lonely old lady!” sympathizers said in her defense. Since the street cats are generally well-regarded in Istanbul, seen as almost essential to the city’s aesthetic, a sort of feline over-soul, cat ladies like Zehra are also generally seen as kindred spirits – a bit eccentric, possibly a little mad – but harmless.

Of course, no one knows just how many street cats there are in Istanbul. In Sultantepe alone, the number and variety of cats changes constantly. Every day familiar faces would disappear, replaced by new inquisitive ones; stern, whiskered cat faces, playful faces, smoky-mustachioed faces, ominous black faces, wise, soulful cat faces, and so on. So if a cat disappeared, you didn’t usually give it much thought. There were always new ones.

But when a cat lady goes missing, then you notice. Which is what happened sometime this past winter.

“Wonder where Zehra’s been?”

“Yeah, now that you mention it –”

“Haven’t seen her for awhile!”

“Where is ol’ Zehra keeping herself?”

These were the idle thoughts of the neighbors, the people returning from work in the evenings. It is not known what the street cats thought of “ol’ Zehra” and her whereabouts. Perhaps they missed the sprinkles of cat food, but there is always something for the street cats. If nothing else, they can dumpster dive for bits of discarded fish bones or supper leftovers.

Nobody knew much about the cat lady Zehra either, except that she was a widow, that she lived in the old apartment, and that she usually bought a lottery ticket in the mornings (who doesn’t?). Since none of the neighbors really knew Zehra intimately (everyone is so busy!), it didn’t occur to anyone to actually go and check up on her. At least until one morning, the next door neighbor noticed an odor coming from the apartment. As I said, odors coming from Zehra’s flat were not that unusual. But this particular odor was really bad, like something rotting.

Nobody knew any relative to contact, so presently a call was put in to the building supervisor’s office. “Nobody has seen her?” the supervisor asked, again and again to the neighbors, who all shook their heads bewilderedly, with growing curiosity. Finally, the owner of the building was contacted. This took some doing, as the owner was living in Los Angeles. Since there were no extra keys around, the owner gave his consent over the phone for the supervisor to have the door opened by a locksmith.

Upon entry, the foul smell was unbelievable, almost vomit-inducing. It was a mixture of cat piss, poop, something like ammonia, combined with a putrid sweet stench. The smell knocked you back so that for a moment, you didn’t notice the cats. The cats (reports later counted at least thirty) were of all ages and sizes, including a new litter of kittens.

And once you got through the stench, and the arresting site of so many cats, you at last arrived at a truly appalling site. The corpse of the late Zehra lay on the sofa, bloated and half eaten. It seems that the body had been there for several days, and the unfed cats had started to dine on their benevolent owner. Police were called in, and they did just a brief, cursory investigation. Such things were not so uncommon, they reassured the horrified neighbors.

A bottle of prescription pills containing anti-depressants was found on the coffee table, and a report later concluded that the cause of death was accidental overdose.

“Allah! Allah!” was the shocked emotional consensus.

“Poor woman! How horrible! Yani, can you imagine – ?”

Further attempts were made to find relatives, but a search of the apartment revealed nothing – no children, so relatives nearby, no one. Finally, the Los Angeles owner flew in and began the process of clean up. The body by then had already been taken to the morgue. But there were the cats, my God! What was to be done with all of them?

The neighbors helped. Brooms, other household objects were brandished (the neighbors were half terrified of the cats, to be honest. Perhaps they feared they too would be devoured!). But the cats were soon routed. One by one, they scattered – hissing, mewing, yowling – and they scurried and scampered out the door and disappeared into the streets. Some of them were rounded up by the local belediye and taken away to a shelter.

The flat cleared of cats at last, there remained Zehra’s belongings – just some old furniture, kitchen stuff. Tons of cat food, newspapers, not to mention all of the stinking litterboxes.

And, most curiously, a drawer near the kitchen sink that was full of old lottery tickets. Why would anybody keep them around? What use were they?

The Los Angeles owner, whose name was Husseyin, shook his head. Sometimes in America, he grew nostalgic about Istanbul. But things like this he didn’t miss. He could sell the flat, cut his losses and go back to California. But in today’s market, who would buy it? There were already too many flats on the market. And how would he get rid of the smell? The whole place would need to be overhauled – new carpets, a paint job, the whole works.

“At least the cat lady paid her rent regularly,” Husseyin said to himself, sighing. But thinking of her brought back the smell of cat piss and shit and dead bodies. Allah! Allah! What a mess!

“Maybe I should be the one buying lottery tickets,” Husseyin said aloud.


Perhaps you have the impression that Husseyin was a hard-hearted man, your typical absentee landlord, gone off to America and glad to be quit of his home country.

Actually, he wasn’t a bad guy. At 38, Husseyin did not actually own the flat, not legally. It belonged to his mother Beyza Hanım. Like Zehra, Beyza was a widow. She lived in an apartment in Suadiye, along the coastal road. The father had made a good living in the construction sector, and made some shrewd investments back in the 1990s, bought the house in Sultangazi (where Husseyin was raised), then moved to the Suadiye house for retirement.

Husseyin graduated from the well-known Istanbul Technical University with an engineering degree, but then decided he didn’t care for engineering. After his father died suddenly of a heart attack, an uncle offered him a job managing his Turkish restaurant in L.A., so Husseyin jumped at the chance. As far as the Sultangazi apartment went, the old woman Zehra paid the monthly rent into the family bank account each month, and there was a building supervisor to handle day-to-day problems – dealing with the bodies of dead tenants was an exception, of course.

When Husseyin left the apartment that evening, he went to see his mother in Suadiye. She was watching the news on TV when he arrived.

“Have you seen this?” Beyza exclaimed.

“What is it, anne?” Husseyin was not in the mood for another one of his mother’s dramatic episodes. She always got excited by the news.

The news was showing graphic images of the refugees. Thousands of refugees had been allowed to cross the border into Europe, a result of the recent fighting in Idlib.

“It’s horrible! Look!” The TV was showing some people firing gun shots at the refugees at the border near Edirne. Other footage showed Greek coast guard trying to sink boats filled with refugees. Still more footage showed the refugees living in scattered camps, mothers clinging to children, weeping in front of the cameras.

“Oh! Oh! It’s too much. The children! Oh” His mother went on and on.

“Yes, it is terrible, anne. But what can we expect? Should we expect Europe to just open their arms to more of them? Not everyone can live in Holland, my dear.”

“No, but they should not have to live like that, son! Allah! Allah!”

It was really a tiresome topic. They had been over it before. Things like this got him depressed. This was why he hated coming back to Turkey. The same old problems as when he left ten years before. Nothing changes.

While the news droned on, they had dinner in the kitchen. His mother had prepared köfte. They talked about the situation at the Sultangazi apartment. “That poor woman!” cried Beyza. “Tsk! Tsk! Tsk! I always knew she would end up just a crazy old cat lady. We should have checked on her more often.”

“You’re right, anne. But what can we do?” Really, what could anyone do?

In the morning, Husseyin got up early and went over to the Sultangazi apartment. The workers were already there, some locally hired Syrians who worked cheaply and very efficiently. Within a few hours, they had torn out and replaced the carpets, thrown on a fresh layer of white paint, and given the place a thorough wipe down. Husseyin paid them, even included a tip and a lunch of simit, cheese and hot tea, before sending them on their way.

Not a trace remained of the old cat lady. Or the smell. Husseyin gave the apartment a walk-through, listening with satisfaction to the clean echo of his footsteps on the tiled floor of the kitchen. He had grown up in this apartment. Out in the small garden they had used to have barbecues in the summer. Over the fence you could see the distant Bosphorous bridge, and beneath it a pale wisp of afternoon fog. Feelinig a little bit melancholy, Husseyin stood for a minute looking out at the bridge, then returned to the apartment, locked up and left.

Back in Suadiye, there was nobody home. His mother often went shopping on Bağdat Caddesi in the afternoons, or to a hair appointment. But by six o’clock, he began to worry. She usually cooked dinner around this time. Where was she?

He dialed her number on his iPhone. No answer.

Anne, neredesen?” he texted. He waited for several minutes but the phone did not beep.

Several more hours passed. Husseyin kept calling and calling, but still there was no answer. His texts went unreplied to as well.

He was on the verge of phoning the police when suddenly he heard the keys in the front door. Beyza came in, carrying a bundle of blankets. She was flushed with excitement.

“Where the hell have you been, anne?” Husseyin was furious but relieved.

“Shhhh! You’ll wake him.” Beyza indicated the bundle.

“What is that?” Husseyin stepped closer. Beyza drew back the blanket. It was a sleeping infant, not more than a few months old.

“Whose baby is that? What on earth –” Husseyin was too stunned, or confused, to really make much sense of the situation.

“After watching the news last night, I just couldn’t bear to think of those children!” his mother cried. “I couldn’t sleep at all last night. So today I went to Edirne –”

“What? Are you telling me you kidnapped somebody’s baby, anne?”

“There were so many people, son! Oh, it was so terrible! You should have seen it! This boy’s mother had three children … and there were so many more … !”

Anne, you can’t just take somebody’s child! We will be arrested! This is insane! My God, what have you done! I can’t believe this is happening!”

Husseyin was really off his rocker. In the space of three days, his world had been sand blasted. Three days ago, he’d been in LA serving kebab. Now he had a dead cat lady and a mother who’d kidnapped some refugee’s baby and smuggled it back to Istanbul on his hands. Overcome by the preposterousness of it all – it was like some bad movie – it never occurred to him to ask his mother exactly how she had pulled the bizarre caper off. Just thinking of it made his whole body hurt, his brain fevered, his soul shook.

What on earth was going on? What was he going to do? What was the law in these matters? Did kidnapping apply to refugees’ children? Were there exceptions in the event of a 10-year-long civil war? What kind of funeral should a cat lady have? Should cats be invited? Or merely cat lovers? Last but not least, what was he going to do about the flat?

These were questions that three days ago would never have occurred to him.

“Don’t wake the baby,” his mother said, waving for Husseyin to sit down on the sofa. “Oh, look! Isn’t he sweet! Canim benim! My darling! Maybe we could name him Mustafa, after your father!”

What would his father say? What would the police say? Or the neighbors, for that matter? How was he going to explain the sudden arrival of a baby?

“We could tell them the truth!” his mother said, anticipating his thoughts. “Well, couldn’t we? Are we to just let them die in the streets, unwanted, all alone, like that poor cat lady? Well?”

“Be quiet, anne. Please be quiet.” Husseyin closed his eyes, and tried to think. But he couldn’t think, it was as though his brain had shut down. When he opened his eyes, his mother Beyza was putting the child in his arms. The sleeping infant resembled a turtle for some reason. It was warm, and nearly motionless, as it slept in Husseyin’s arms. Old Turtlehead, he thought. Tired old turtle. That would be a good nickname for him, Turtle.

“Don’t wake him,” his mother whispered. “Ah, canim!”

It was after midnight. There were still things to be done about the Sultangazi apartment, and there had to be some way to notify the cat lady’s relatives. There had to be somebody. And maybe he could contact the belidiye regarding the baby. Maybe he could make up something, some strange story. Or just have his mother committed. Right now, he was very tired and very confused. He handed the baby back to his mother.

“I’m going to bed, anne. We’ll figure this out in the morning.”

He went to bed, but for a long time couldn’t sleep. Vaguely, he thought of just leaving in the morning, booking a flight back to LA. Just get on the plane and never look back. After all, these were not his problems, he thought. Really, they were not. Not anymore.

Just then he heard the sound of crying in the next room, followed by “shh-shh” soothing sounds from his mother. He wondered who the child belonged to. How would they ever locate the parent? Maybe the parents were already somewhere in Greece or elsewhere in Europe. Maybe they were dead. Well, the child couldn’t stay here. That was impossible.

Husseyin, unable to sleep, got up and lit a cigarette. Opening the window he looked out at the wet, wintry streets. A handful of street cats were perched on the terrace, huddled together to keep warm.

No, these were not his problems, Husseyin thought again. Really, they were not.


James Tressler is a writer and teacher living in Üsküdar.