An electrician turned ambulance driver from Aleppo, Alaa Aljaleel decided to stay behind when war broke out in Syria, caring for the people and animals caught in the crossfire. While thousands were forced to flee, Alaa spent his days carrying out perilous rescue missions in his makeshift ambulance and building a sanctuary for the city's abandoned cats.
Speaking only Arabic, the Cat Man, Alaa, told Diana his story via over a hundred podcasts that he sent in reply to her questions.
“This is the first time a memoir about the war in Syria has appeared from a Syrian civilian who is still inside the country, and, as far as I have been able to establish, the first time a western Arabic-speaking woman has provided 'the voice' of an Arab man in this way,” comments Diana.
In setting up the cat sanctuary, Alaa created a place of tranquility for children living through the bombardment and a glimmer of hope for those watching in horror around the world.
“The BBC and other international media interviewed the Cat Man back in 2016, just weeks before his cat sanctuary was bombed and destroyed. Undeterred, he re-established it bigger and better as Ernesto's House, located outside Aleppo in an opposition area. The new sanctuary has a vet’s clinic attached and an orphanage and kindergarten where war-traumatised children can forget the fighting and enjoy 'pet therapy',” adds Diana.
As word of Alaa's courage and dedication spread, the kindness of strangers donating via social media from all round the world enabled him to feed thousands of local families and save hundreds of animals.
“Even under the relentless bombardment of his sanctuary and his neighbourhood,” she continues, “he never loses his sense of humour. It helps keep him sane in a crazy situation not of his making, so he’s got an extremist cat nicknamed ‘Al-Baghdadi’, a pair of cigarette-eating monkeys who are failing to mate and even a chicken that thinks it’s a cat. He wonders what the animals feel about this war, speculates about the role of religion in war and concludes that we humans can learn a great deal from the way the cats relate to each other.”
The Last Sanctuary in Aleppo is published by Headline on 7 March 2019.
Diana Darke (German and Philosophy/Arabic, 1974) is a cultural expert on the Middle East, Syria specialist and acclaimed author of My House in Damascus and The Merchant of Syria. After studying Arabic at Wadham, Diana worked for the British government and GCHQ, and lived in Syria, Egypt and with a Bedouin tribe. She is married to fellow Wadhamite and author John McHugo.