Autobiography & Memoir
I should have named my beloved chunky black and white cat Neko (Japanese for cat), the romantic name 'Habibi', darling in Arabic. A word immortalised by the pop star Khalid. Neko was originally named Habibi by my dear friend, the late Dr Hani Alsaigh originally from Baghdad. I should have kept the original name but it didn't fit him visually so I thought at the time.
But what is the connection between them? Listen carefully and I will relate my lifelong connection with the cultured, clever but often misunderstood Iraqi Archeologist who never lived to see his lifelong dream - an Islamic museum in London.
Hani was born with a golden spoon in his mouth and rose to become the Curator of Roman Antiquities at the Baghdad museum when his father was assassinated by Saddam's henchmen and so he had to flee from the Baathist party. He told me how he was driven in a jeep by armed guards to an archeological site near the Syrian border and told to walk and keep on walking so he did not know if he would be shot or not. Somehow he made his way, through his cultural connections in archeology, museums, art and architecture, to London without funds.
He arrived in the 70s but we met at a dinner party in the early 80s through the muralist Edmund Caswell and shared a love of cats and Middle Eastern cuisine. Hani cooked well and enjoyed giving Salons in his Camberwell house adorned with busts from the bronze heads he cast for his wealthy Iraqi connections who commissioned him to create bronze busts but never paid him. Hani was too frightened to ask for a deposit before beginning the project. One did not in Arablandia at his level discuss vulgar things like money! And so he starved, the poor man. He gave wonderful intercultural Salons in his home without donations and so everyone took advantage. Then he would complain and moan to me on the phone. And when Hani talked, he talked. A soliloquy no less!
There was a big episode with his kitchen. The Irish cowboy builders quoted, he paid cash in advance and they ran off with the money and poor Hani was without a kitchen for a couple of years. He believed his sister had put a curse on him. If an Arab has a sister who announces she's coming to stay, that's it. You can't refuse. He hated her but she clung to her adored brother even more. He would phone me almost in tears. How to say no. He couldn't. Even without a kitchen she came from the Baghdad. Things did not make sense. I believe he was on an allowance from his wealthy family. A brother or cousin was mentioned from time to time. He loved having Jewish friends. 'We are all brothers and sisters!' he would say and laugh.
He became friendly with my husband and they shared a love of photography and was a welcome guest in our home cooking wondrous concoctions for us to savour bringing his own special secret spices.
He never married although he would show me photos of past blonde, very English girlfriends half his age. He was a revered lecturer of sculpture at Camberwell Art College. His little terraced house a stones throw away from his work. His white casts decorated the windowsills of his house looking like ornamental window boxes.
Then he went weird. Religious, in a word. Praying, facing Mecca, five times a day so it was never the right moment to call to have a long one way monologue.
We moved to Brighton. Hani moved too, into a house in Fulham alone with his three cats. I think the house was given to him by someone important. He spoke of Lord someone and Sir someone else. Very British names and his plans and dreams for an Islamic Foundation in London.
One day I received an invitation to his intimate birthday dinner party but in a local restaurant. Odd because he loved to cook for close friends. He looked exhausted and I fear he had cancer then. He wanted me there and said I could stay overnight. He gallantly came and picked me up from Victoria coach station. It was the last time I would ever see him.
I had an uncomfortable sleepless night on his sofa. When I came down for breakfast next morning, I saw two large ginger cats miaowing in unison and, in contrast, a striking black and white bruiser silently waiting for breakfast. Habibi, the outsider in Catlandia, squeaked excitedly when he saw me. We stared at each other and "spoke".
'Pick a cat. Take one back with you!' I was astonished. He insisted. Said he couldn't afford the jabs and Habibi was only nine months old. Not so when the vet in Brighton examined his teeth! I, without hesitation, claimed my new darling. The word Neko came to mind as I had had a Japanese girlfriend who was a sushi chef. Eico had taught me several words in Japanese, cat being number one. Kuma meaning bear, being number two. I was given a carrycot for Neko and had thus a new 'baby' who squeaked all the way back to Brighton.
Hani sadly passed away at only 61 in 2011 of cancer. A man highly regarded in art, restoration and archeological circles.
I am sure that something of Hani remains in his Habibi as he must have loved, stroked and fondled Neko as I do today, thinking of his past knowledgeable Master.
Written in Brighton in July 2016, having looked up Hani's accounts for The Islamic Centre in London with the erudite names of the Board members but showing only £4 in 2008 in the accounts!