Cat: Justine (Black domestic shorthair) – Seoul, South Korea – (Died Sep 1, 2018)
Justine — world traveler, namesake of a great novel and lover of plastic bags and toy mice — died Sept. 1 in Seoul. She was at least 12.
The cat, a black beauty with green eyes befitting of an Egyptian goddess, had used up most of her nine lives before coming to me and I only learned snippets about her past.
She was born in the stairwell of a Cairo apartment building, one of the hordes of strays that usually end up roaming the streets of Egypt’s dusty capital.
Justine was saved from life as a street cat by an American reporter living across the hall.
It was a mixed blessing. That reporter was traumatized after being kidnapped and returned to the United States, leaving Justine behind. The cat was passed around among war correspondents until she finally ended up in my care.
I took her in after moving to Cairo in 2010 following three years reporting for the AP in Baghdad. She had matted hair and spent a month under the bed. The only way to coax her out was tuna.
And so the spoiling began. Eventually she warmed up to me and her black coat became sleek again, although the claws still came out if anybody tried to pick her up.
Justine, named for the heroine in Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet,” was a patient companion as my life took some unexpected turns.
She survived the Egyptian revolution. I was on assignment in Baghdad when the protests that ousted Hosni Mubarak began on Jan. 25, 2011. Justine was left in the care of a fellow reporter who was visiting Cairo.
As chaos ensued, I spotted my cat-sitter’s byline in another city. I panicked as the Internet was cut off and I was unable to make sure the cat had food and water.
I was quickly called back to Cairo and was relieved to discover that the cat was fine, and oblivious to the clashes and bonfires outside.
A few years later I was selected for a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan. Justine was finally headed to America. But first I had to get her into the airline-approved Sherpa bag.
Getting through the airport was another challenge since security requires that pets be taken out of their carriers and carried through the metal detectors by hand.
The Egyptian security guard relented when I showed him the scratches on my arm from the fight to get her inside. The TSA agents on the other side of the Atlantic were not so accommodating, but we managed.
She was a surprisingly good traveler once we got on the plane, sitting quietly through the 11-hour flight to New York and the subsequent flight and drive to Ann Arbor.
The first stop was the pet store so I could buy a litter box and cat food for my otherwise empty new apartment. Furniture for myself came later.
Ann Arbor was a welcome respite for both us after years in the Middle East. I enjoyed a year of learning and meeting new people while Justine watched the birds and squirrels outside from her favorite perch on the kitchen table.
I decided not to return to AP after Ann Arbor. Instead I took a job as correspondent in South Korea for Stars and Stripes newspaper, beginning in April 2016.
That meant another epic battle to get Justine into the carrier and a nearly 14-hour flight from Detroit to Seoul. She was a trooper.
Justine took up new habits here. She was able to jump on the kitchen counters and became obsessed with licking water from the tap and a glass I kept full in my bedroom. She loved sliding on plastic bags and playing with cat-nip filled toy mice.
She’d also sit for hours staring out the window from the top of the sofa, though I’m not sure what she could see from our 35th floor apartment.
Justine was a fighter, but nothing could stop the tumor that was quietly growing inside her middle ear canal. I knew it was time to let her go when she climbed into her carrier with little resistance.
They wrapped the urn containing her ashes in plastic. She would have liked that.