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Chapter 5

Prayers for the Unhoneyed Present

Chapter 5 brings in some inconvenient eco-characters from the margins of the field records, where the ethnographer wearily kept them, into the thick of the messy, near-end ecology of the global present: the jinn and the Devil himself. Pairing together a local and Islamic eco-cosmology with expert discourses and policy statements on natural disaster, climate risks, and the resilient climate futures of Bosnia and the wider Balkan region, the chapter develops a proposition about occult and remedial practices (siḥr) that are used to manage a dawning era of extreme weather. Ultimately, it wonders about prayers, their appeal and their very possibility in our troubled world.

On cats’ purring

Pepe often sneaks into my library in the attic. While I struggled writing the manuscript over the last year, his quiet company was a welcome break from the punishing solitude that I need in order to produce texts.
His arrival is always announced by a muffled sigh that precedes the jump it takes to propel him up the steep ladder, which looks like a neck-breaking threshold to cross between the attic and the rest of the one-bedroom mountain house that my family noisily shares. He comes in, purrs a light greeting (when he feels like it) and then, typically, falls asleep on the heap of volumes that sculpt my reading list at the moment. Watching him at times, I feel a cross-species envy: a lucky being, books as his bedding, seeming so at ease in the world.

Shaykh Ayne, my Sufi guide to this ethnography, like the Sufi masters we read together, is often impressed by cats. Bediuazzman Said Nursi, a Sufi who has spent a good part of his life in political prisons through the turbulent history of early 20thcentury Turkey, seems to have felt about cats something close to what I just called “cross-species envy.” “What monsters,” he wrote that he thought to himself once, watching a cat’s leisurely affairs. What would be the point of this creature’s existence, he wondered disapprovingly--all it does is chase mice, play around, purr, eat, and sleep. He reports how later that night, however, in a truthful vision (ru’ya), the Divine Friend taught him a lesson: in the vision, a cat came to Nursi’s bed, curled up by his pillow, and started purring in his ear. Except that in the dream-vision he could hear the cat tongue translated into Arabic. The purring, he learned, was an invocation (dhikr). The cat, in fact, was chanting one of God’s gentle names: Ya Erḥamerrāḥīmīn, Erḥamerrāḥīmīn, Erḥamerrāḥīmīn (Oh, the Most Merciful One). He woke up with his mind changed about cats.

Shaykh Ayne tells me that the village houses in Western Bosnia, at the turn of the 20thcentury, had special holes cut into doors so that cats could come in and out of houses as they pleased. They slept at night by the hearth or the stove without being domesticated; at the sound of people’s footsteps, they fled through the door.  Cats would also always get the first serving of fresh milk, right after the cows had been milked; their dish stood at ready in the barns. By the time Shaykh Ayne was a boy, in the 1940s, village cats were mostly domesticated: the imamic household he grew up in “had” cats and he enjoyed petting them. Cats teach us about love and closeness and Divine Presence, he often says. “You see how a cat enjoys caresses, it twists its body with pleasure, it stretches out on the floor to get more attention, and shows all its softness and gladness (claws tucked in) but then, the very next moment, it has had enough--it bristles, shows its teeth at you, hissing. You could get a scratch. You might think, ‘how strange that this should happen: the same hand is stroking the cat in the same loving mood and yet everything has changed.’ It’s because nothing ever sits still. Hearts change all the time. They are held between God’s ‘Two Fingers,’ so He turns them now this way, now that. [The word for heart in Arabic, qalb, connotes turning, upturning, a change.] One must stay watchful.” If cats change towards us, though, they loyally keep God’s company. Their nature, unlike ours, isn’t forgetful (the root of the word for “human,” insan, Shaykh Ayne tells me, comes from nisyan, forgetfulness). “So who are you sitting with, when Pepe sleeps near by?” Shaykh Ayne asks me to contemplate. Perhaps cats’ unswerving presence with the Divine is what inspires so many Islamic stories of reverence and fondness for them. One such wisdom tale (hikaja) I heard from Shaykh Ayne tells how, once, a Sufi dervish sat still, immersed in prayers and invocations until he lost track of time. A call to prayer brought him out of his meditations. He stretched out his sore limbs and was going to get up and join the prayers at the mosque when he discovered that a cat had, in the meantime, fallen asleep at the corner of his coat. What was he to do? He called out for a pair of scissors and cut his coat free, without disturbing the feline’s sleep.

In keeping with the wisdom tale, I try not to bother Pepe but to read my way around his book-bed quietly.