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Cat Fight

Ravenswood Manor watches as a missing pet and a neighbor's confession escalate into charges of dishonesty, cruelty, and racism.



By Mike Sula

When his cat didn't come home at the usual time the morning of June 20 Bara Sarraj was only slightly worried. Arroudea, a white-and-brown tom, was born a stray in the streets of a Saudi Arabian resort town before Bara's brother A.B. brought him home to Ravenswood Manor last summer. Bara hoped the cat could take care of itself.

Nestled against the west bank of the river between Montrose and Lawrence, Ravenswood Manor is like a sylvan suburb on the north side. Its quiet streets, protected by the gentle curves of the river and regulated by a battery of stop signs, discourage through traffic and lend the area a bucolic feel rare on the city's bustling grid. Multiunit buildings ring the perimeter, but single-family homes with carefully tended gardens and lawns dominate. Certain blocks dead-end at the shady riverbank, where canoes and rowboats hug residents' docks, completing the illusion of a countrified oasis.

A.B. Sarraj, an ER physician and internal medicine specialist at Rush Medical College, fled the repressive Assad dictatorship in Syria some 15 years ago. While he completed his studies, his mother, Najah, and his sister, Sara, a dentist, moved here to join him. In 1995 they bought a small house at the corner of Leland and Manor. Bara came from Syria a year later. Though Sara was friendly with a next-door neighbor, the Sarrajes mostly kept to themselves.

By the second day of the cat's absence, they began to grow more concerned. "He used to come in, go out, then come back, to eat, to sleep," says Bara, a 36-year-old biology student at UIC. "My mother told me there is something wrong. I said maybe he will come. So we waited. The next morning I went to the university and coming back in the evening, we knew at that time the cat was gone."

The next day Bara made a sign showing a photo of Arroudea curled up in a box over the Sarrajes' phone number and address. He stuffed copies in all their neighbors' mailboxes along Leland and Giddings. Two days later A.B. saw a teenage girl drop something into his mailbox. Inside he found a five-page handwritten letter signed by someone named Nancy Melvin.

"Dear Neighbor," it began, "I'm terribly sorry to say that I did not know you were taking care of this cat which acted like a stray on the block. It caused fights late at night with my cats and my neighbors' cats and I began to keep something to throw at them to break up the fight on my windowsill each night so we could get some sleep. A cat fight every night was very disturbing." The letter went on to recite a litany of other grievances: the cat had been spraying her doors, digging up her garden, eating her pet rabbits' food, and "terrorizing the kids." Melvin explained that she "took advantage of a chance to remove what I thought was a public nuisance" by trapping the cat and releasing it "in the park, far enough from my garden and pets and children that I could hope for no more interrupted nights and scared children and dug up gardens and foodless bunny pens, [and] sprayed back and front doors that had to be washed every morning.

"Now that I got the picture of the cat I thought was a useless stray and find out that you were thinking it was yours I am very sorry." Melvin offered to help look for the cat, or to help find a kitten to replace it. But she made some requests in the event the cat was found: "Its aggressive and dangerous behavior makes it a threat to the rest of your neighbors so perhaps if you do find it and successfully carry it home, perhaps you could keep it inside" and "the neighbors on the block would probably pay to have it fixed if $ is a problem for you." The letter concluded: "Hopefully the white and ginger tom in the picture is happily finding new territory to conquer and it seems to have excellent scavenging skills, so I'm sure it's not hungry."

What particularly galled the Sarrajes about the letter was Melvin's use of the word "terrorize." "This word is not used in a vacuum," says Bara. "All the media about the Middle East is 'Terrorist, terrorist, terrorist.' She cannot say I am a terrorist, so she will say your cat is a terrorist. We have a lot of noisy cats around us. Why me? Why my cat?"

The Sarrajes had only heard that Arroudea was causing problems for neighbors once before. Three weeks earlier Bara and Sara were startled by the sound of their other cat, Catty, scrapping with an intruding black feline in the garden. "Arroudea intervened to defend his brother," says Bara. "Arroudea was shouting at the other cat. Screaming. They were running. So we followed them to the end of this street. A number of our neighbors got out at the end of the alley and one of them said, 'This cat should be shot.' I told them, 'This is our cat.' They said it should be neutered. I said that this wasn't the solution because our other cat is neutered and he is still unhappy with other cats coming in the garden. But my last sentence was 'We will consider this.' But when I went back I thought, 'How rude they were.' This is the first time we met our neighbors and they said that this cat should be shot."

When A.B. first read Melvin's letter he was relieved, figuring now he'd learn where to look for the cat. Melvin had included her phone number but he didn't call immediately. His mother was being naturalized and this was the day she'd take the oath of citizenship. "At first I thought 'That's it. The cat is found,'" he says. "It wasn't until later that I thought, 'Wow, that is a really nasty letter.'"

That afternoon A.B. called the Melvins and spoke to Nancy's husband, Tom. Nancy was at work, he said, and wouldn't be home until five. A.B. called at five and then again at six. Still not reaching Nancy, he walked down the block and knocked on the Melvins' door. "Her husband talked to me," says A.B. "He told me his wife left the cat in Humboldt Park. I was so furious. I told him, 'How come you could do this?' He said, 'Because other neighbors talked to you about it and you didn't take care of this problem, so we had to do something about it.' I said, 'In addition to what your wife says, you knew that it is my cat.' He said, 'I don't know what my wife put in her letter.'"

Humboldt Park is nearly four miles south of the Manor. Horner Park, on the other hand, is a few blocks south, and starting two blocks north, a two-mile string of parks runs along the river. There's also a forest preserve two miles to the northwest. A.B. demanded to know why Melvin had driven so far away. "He told me she was on her way to church."

That night the Sarrajes mounted an intensive search, staying out in Humboldt Park till 3 AM. "It is not a safe area," says Bara. "Full of gangs and prostitutes." They returned the next day. "I had exams and quizzes but I did no studying. We surveyed the whole park. We left a lot of posters, but there was no result." They checked shelters, placed a classified ad, called veterinarians, and enlisted the help of homeless people and gangbangers hanging out in the park. A.B. went to the police station twice but he says they refused to file a report because Melvin had apologized in her letter.

The Sarrajes took the catnapping personally. As the days passed they began posting flyers bearing photos, poems, and recriminations on their front gate. They also hung several For Sale by Owner signs. "My name is Arroudea," one flyer said. "I am [a] one and a half year-old cat...I had a wonderful home and family, then cruel racism eventually reached me when one of the cruel, heartless neighbour[s] kidnapped me and dumped me into a terrible faraway place." A photo captioned "Harmony" showed Arroudea and Catty cuddling together on a sofa. Another photo, dated 1996, featured a wayward house rabbit that the Sarrajes say was Melvin's, sitting contentedly in their garden. It was captioned: "Dear Bunny, You are bothersome but innocent. More than welcome." An unsigned poem reads, "We have taller buildings, but shorter tempers; wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints.... We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor."

Word got around the block pretty quickly. Some neighbors approached the Sarrajes, upset that Melvin's letter might have been understood to speak for the entire block, and they joined in the search for Arroudea. A few of them spoke with Melvin and learned the precise location where she left the cat, but Bara says it was 12 days before he heard from her himself. That morning Sara ran into Melvin in the alley. They got into an argument across the Melvins' back fence. It concluded when Sara suggested the two sides meet in court. Afterward, Bara says, Tom Melvin came over to "try to appease us," and was then followed by Nancy.

"When I asked her, 'Why didn't you respond to us when we asked you to go with us?' She said, 'I am so busy. I have three jobs.' I asked her, 'Is it better to spend your time in one hour writing a five-page letter when you can come to us and say it in five minutes? We will not intimidate you. We are not terrorists.'" Melvin and the Sarrajes drove down to Humboldt Park in separate cars but found no sign of Arroudea.

The Sarrajes' house is in the heart of the Manor on a shady block of large houses and green lawns that ends at the riverbank. A.B. says he noticed how "white" the neighborhood was when Sara found the house, "but I thought it was OK. For me, home is just like to fill up gas when you take your car to the gas station. You come home, rest, you keep going. I haven't had a vacation in ten years. I never stopped. You keep going, because you have to prove yourself all the time."

He says he never had much time to meet the neighbors and didn't find the atmosphere very chummy anyway. One day last November another brother, visiting from Schaumburg, parked his car in the alley behind the garage and later found two notes left on the windshield. "You are blocking the alley!" said one. "This is not your private parking lot!" Its author had left his name and address. The other, written anonymously, said, "Shit-for-brains--Do not block the alley. Next time we will call the police to tow."

"You can talk to us and tell us that it is wrong to leave your car in the alley," says Bara. "We felt that day that it was not a very friendly environment, but we decided to forget it."

Last summer A.B. was working for two months at a hospital in Saudi Arabia. He spied Arroudea at a bus stop in a commercial district in the town of Taif. "I saw the cat and was saddened to see that he had two tails," says A.B. "His leg dragged behind his tail. I was surprised because most cats run away from people. This one was coming toward people. So I talked to him and he came and talked to me, looked at me, and said, 'I want food.' So I carried him and he didn't mind. Wow, I thought, this guy is unusual. When you are a stranger this kind of friendship is very welcome." The two started off in search of some chow, but the stray got nervous and squirmed away when A.B. carried him too far from his turf. A.B. told the story to an American nurse he knew--a guy who had already taken in a half dozen strays--and was surprised to find the cat lounging on a pillow in the nurse's room a week later. When A.B.'s contract was up he was easily persuaded to take the animal back to the States.

Bara has a photo album full of pictures documenting Arroudea's progression from a scrawny starveling with a bum leg to a robust tomcat, lolling on a cushion in the front window. Najah, weeping, picks at bits of Arroudea's fur that still cling to the cushion. She points to Catty sleeping in the garden. "Other cat very sad," she says. "Sleeps all the time."

There is no exact translation from Arabic for the name Arroudea. "It means someone who is energized all the time," says A.B. "Doesn't take anything lying down. Spirited. Always upbeat. Nothing gets to him. No matter what. Doesn't get depressed. Every time I came back from work at midnight, I'd see him waiting for me and talking to me. I walked with him many times in the street here. When he sees me he gets more courage and he follows me. He comes up and he talks to me." A.B. says he took the cat to a vet for shots and an X ray, but there didn't appear to be anything wrong with Arroudea's lame leg. "He preferred to run because he could hide his limping," he says.

A.B. thought only briefly about neutering Arroudea before rejecting the idea. "First of all, I thought, it is not natural," he says. "When he was created, I thought, God knew what he was doing, and you should not change what he did. Our other cat was in too much trouble and wounded too much, so someone told us to neuter him and he will not go out too often. So we did that, and the cat didn't go out too often, but he became depressed and thick. He gained too much weight."

Bara likens the climate to the one they left behind in Syria: "We thought we had escaped those dictators there, but actually there are still some dictatorial mentalities just a few feet from us."

"What happened to the cat just reminded us of the whole struggle of our life," says A.B., who though apolitical had once been arbitrarily arrested and thrown in jail in Syria. "I know some people don't take this seriously. But for me it is a very serious matter. When that woman said this cat should be shot, I didn't take it seriously. Now the cat is gone. Next time, when they shoot you, you say I should have done something about it. I learned this from the Jewish community. After you lose six million people in the gas chamber you've got to be sensitive."

Nancy Melvin lives down the block from the Sarrajes with her husband, two children, two cats, a dog, and a rabbit. On Saturday afternoons in the summer a parade of people stream through her garden into her garage, which serves as a drop-off point for an organic vegetable delivery service. "I am the locus for many different communities," she says. "One of them is food." Melvin also teaches knitting classes to children at the Waldorf School and to home school groups. She sings in her church choir, and she does the books for her husband's painting studio. The Melvins have lived in their house for 15 years and maintain close friendships with other neighbors. Several families, including the Melvins, have even cut gates into their back fences so their children and animals can travel easily between the yards.

Melvin says her garage, which she leaves open, is a magnet for animals who want to take shelter and she's taken in plenty of strays herself. She first noticed the "kinda gimpy" tom last winter, when it started hanging around. "It seemed like it was living in my garage," she says. "Then it started spraying my doors, and every day we'd go out with vinegar and water and wash the doors down. Otherwise the house reeked of piss." Melvin says the cat regularly instigated nighttime brawls with other neighborhood cats, often right under her bedroom window. She began to keep a bucket of water on the windowsill and would dump it on the combatants to silence the caterwauling. Then the cat broke into the cage under her porch and started eating her rabbits' food. The rabbits were so scared, she said, that they dug out of the cage and escaped.

"The few times I cornered it in the garage or around the back porch, it would leap at us with all its claws out and actually leap right at your face," she says. "We were talking about it a lot with a lot of people and we were really losing our patience with figuring out what to do about it. We figured it was a completely feral cat because we couldn't in any way touch it. I don't think we made a mistake too much with identifying the nature of the problem. What wasn't evident to us at all was that this cat was connected to anybody."

Melvin admits she had some indication that someone was responsible for the cat. She recalls walking up on a sidewalk conversation between her neighbors Linda Kagan and Chris Payne and some people she had never met. "I thought, 'Oh, neighbors I don't know very well.' So I went over and I heard Linda say, 'Well if you don't do something about it we're gonna shoot it.' Something to that effect. And then I heard [Payne] say, 'Or at least get it fixed.' And I realized, 'Oh, they're talking about the cat.' And then the man mumbled something quiet under his breath and he shook his shoulders and made this rather no-like gesture and the sister said, 'Oh, this neighborhood was too quiet anyway' or something like that." Melvin says the strangers walked off and Kagan and Payne told her, "These people said they were feeding the cat but they weren't going to have it fixed, apparently because it gave a little spice to the neighborhood. So we just wrote them off. We had an indication that they were feeding the cat, but we didn't get any other connection."

Melvin's neighbor Denise Bonesteel had called the Anti-Cruelty Society twice to see about sending someone out to help trap the cat, but no one ever showed up. "My other neighbors were at one point talking about poisoning the cat," says Melvin. "Taking some really good sleeping pills that someone had and making a nice intense mixture in some cat food and making sure all of our cats were in. Well, there was the problem--coordinating the entire block to make sure all of our cats were in so that none of the domestic cats would eat it. And I didn't want to do that because I'm too soft. So I thought, 'I'm gonna save this cat's life because it's gonna wind up getting poisoned if we go on much longer like this.'"

A few days earlier Melvin had borrowed an animal trap from Donna Tickman, a neighbor on Giddings who had raccoons in her attic. (In fact, trapping is something of a neighborhood sport; another resident is currently using Tickman's trap to catch some pesky beavers that are foraging up from the river.) Melvin says she intended to trap one of her fugitive rabbits, which was decimating the basil crop in another neighbor's garden. "I couldn't keep it in the pen," she says. "It was digging its way out. So I baited it for my bunny, got the bunny, and took it across the river and let it go by the waterworks plant. There's a huge park over there.

"It was at that point, after I dealt with my own rabbit, I was feeling very virtuous and civic-minded and I thought, 'Well, hey, now that I've rid the neighborhood of one scourge, I'll just put what a cat would like to eat in here and see if it doesn't do itself in.'" The afternoon of Saturday, June 19, Melvin set the trap with some chicken in her garden. Her own cat fell for it, but she saw no sign of her nemesis until the following morning as she was rushing to get ready for church. She heard the trap door slap shut and saw that she'd got her feline. "I didn't want to leave it in the cage until I could come back because the services are long. So we just threw it in the back of the car with us. I didn't want to go to Anti-Cruelty because I knew they were just going to kill it." The Melvins were heading south, to Ukrainian Village, "so I thought, 'I'm going to take it to the biggest park I can think of.' We were passing right by Humboldt Park, so we opened the car back up and put the cage right near the edge of the park where we could just swing the car over. We got back into the car, leaned out the window with a broom and sprung it open. The cat made a beeline for the bushes and the lake near the field house. I thought, 'That cat is fine.' What does an unneutered male cat want? Lots of territory to conquer. I mean, those garbage cans were going to be full of picnics for the next four months."

Melvin says that week she attended a singing workshop during the day and choir rehearsal at night so she left the house at seven every morning and didn't return until midnight. "I didn't think much of it," she says. "We were all so relieved the cat was gone. We were sleeping through the night for the first time in about six months. I thought, 'Great. Happy cat. Happy neighborhood.' And I was really surprised when I got this photograph. I thought, 'God, all the kids know that we trapped the cat.' The first thing that my son did the moment the cat walked in the trap was call everybody on the block and say, 'We got him! We got him! We got him!' The kids were so excited. So I figured, the kids know. If I just keep my mouth shut, which is a lovely temptation, the kids are going to wind up spilling the beans, and then it's gonna be on the kids' heads that they gave away some secret. And I didn't want to do that to the kids. And I couldn't live with it myself. Even if I could try to shut up for a while, my conscience was going to get me. Besides, I thought I did the cat a good deed."

After returning home late Wednesday night, Melvin sat down and penned her confession. "I just thought I should tell them everything I thought," she says. "And then I threw the letter through their slot the next morning and had a really busy week.

"But I guess they felt like I didn't communicate with them right away. I'm sorry about that. That probably would have helped, I suppose. But it wasn't something I was able to do that week and they just flipped." Melvin says she thinks her husband spoke to the Sarrajes that week and gave them directions. She does remember talking about the cat at the neighborhood block party that weekend and giving specific directions to the spot where she had left it to two neighbors, who ran an ad hoc diplomatic mission between the Sarrajes and the party.

She also remembers the encounter with Sara Sarraj over her back gate. "She was so mad she was shaking," says Melvin. "And there was nothing I could say to make her feel better. She shook her finger at me and said, 'My mother has health problems and if anything happens to her it's your fault.' I thought, 'Oh great, lay that one on me.' And then she said, 'You are doing this to us because we are not Americans.' I thought, 'My gosh, this person has really figured out the victim trip really well.' I mean, excuse me. I grew up in the family of a professional diplomat. I don't carry that kind of prejudice. We were in Norway, Germany, New Delhi; my sister grew up with a lot of Saudi Arabian kids who were very rich. I said to her, 'I didn't know you weren't American.' She said, 'Oh yes, we are Saudi Arabian.' And I thought, 'Wow, unlike any of the Saudi Arabians I know.' I know a different echelon of Saudi society, I guess."

Melvin says she went to see the Sarrajes, who are actually Syrian, at the first break in her schedule. She isn't sure when that was but thinks it could have been a week or two after she took the cat. She offered to drive them to the park. "They wouldn't ride in the car with me," she says. "They were really prickly. So I drove and got out of the car and showed them where I dropped the cat off and where it had run to, exactly the way I told the neighbors." That was the last contact she had with the Sarrajes for about a month and a half.

"I still think it was a stray," she says. "I think it's a whole story. I really don't believe them at all because of the amount of time that cat spent at my house. They must have been feeding it and they must have gotten very attached to it. But all this stuff about it being their cat is very tenuous."

Since the trip to the park, she says, "we've had this drama with the signs. It's been a parade of visible mourning. It's pretty painful for me. Every now and then I get the courage to go by there and read it. It's real vehement. It turns my stomach. I guess they felt they had to be real public with their feelings because maybe they didn't feel acknowledged in their grief. But it's uncomfortable to be called a perpetrator of ethnic slander.

"There's an aspect of it that's actually fascinating if one removes oneself from the situation. I mean the flow of signs out there has been alternately sort of appalling and hysterically funny. What's not funny is that they're really upset. I guess the ultimate irony is I was saving the cat's life and then someone accuses me of murder. It just goes to show that people really see the world differently, don't they?"

Neighborhood reaction to the catnapping and its fallout has been far from united. Some have tried to mediate. Some feel caught in the middle. Others have chosen sides. All agree that the situation could have been handled better.

"That cat was Sid Vicious," says Denise Bonesteel. "A community nuisance. Some people might have known it was theirs, but we didn't all communicate as a neighborhood. I felt bad. Nancy felt bad. We all felt really bad. But they just pushed it to a level that I started losing sympathy. This is a block where there really isn't a registered Republican. We are very broad-minded people."

"It's like if a member of a minority group is wronged, they'll often cry racism as a reason, when that isn't a reason," says her husband, Michael. "There might be any number of reasons but because they're a minority there's a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude to that kind of stuff."

"If you have a problem you go and talk to your neighbors," said one resident who didn't want to be named. "We feel that if they were a white family, this would not have happened. I think whenever people are different, people for some reason just find a hard time going to talk to them. They would not have done this to us."

Chris Payne, who told the Sarrajes to neuter their cat, says he chased it off his porch several times. He took his own cat to the vet twice to care for scratches and an infected eye and ear that he thinks resulted from fights with the Sarrajes' cat. "I discussed the aggressive nature of the cat and how I thought having the cat fixed would calm it down some," he says. "But the owner was not receptive to the idea. Linda said something to the effect of, 'Oh, someone ought to get a BB gun and shoot at it.'"

"I don't have a BB gun," says Linda Kagan, who lives a few houses down and also happens to be Melvin's lawyer. "I didn't mean shoot to kill. Shoot to maim. Get that cat out of the neighborhood. I was voicing my frustration. This was the feline equivalent of a pit bull."

But Payne also said that the cat's home was common knowledge. "Oh, I think everybody in the neighborhood knew who owned the cat. I think it was just knowledge. I mean, I don't know for sure that Nancy knew who owned the cat."

But Donna Tickman knew who owned the cat and she says she thinks Melvin knew too. A few months before Arroudea's disappearance Tickman saw the cat sitting on the Sarrajes' porch while walking her dog. "I asked A.B. if this was their cat and he said it was and I asked him about the leg and why it was limping and stuff. It was just a very short conversation and I let people know that if they were having problems they should probably go talk to them." Tickman did lend Melvin her trap, but she thought it was just to catch rabbits. "I thought she was joking when she said, 'Maybe I'll use that trap to catch that darn cat.' I said if you have a problem with the cat you need to talk to the owners."

"It's entirely possible that we discussed the fact that they fed the cat," Melvin says. "And if that's all it takes to establish ownership then I suppose I was a part owner too."

"This has caused a lot of friction in the neighborhood," another neighbor said anonymously. "There's two camps now and people aren't talking and are angry at one another."

The Sarrajes are still searching Humboldt Park but don't hold out much hope of finding Arroudea. They are considering taking legal action against Melvin. The Anti-Cruelty Society put A.B in touch with Kimberly Cromer, an insurance defense lawyer who does pro bono work for the Animal League Defense Fund. Last week Cromer called Melvin. "I told her in the future I would ask that if she does trap these animals to please contact animal control, contact the police, contact the Anti-Cruelty Society. Any number of organizations would assist her in picking up an animal. A.B. seems like a genuine person in that he was taking care of this animal. But what if it was diseased? Now what has she done? She's potentially infected another area of the city. That's why we have animal control. And it's free. It scares me to think that there are so many people out there today who are so uneducated on animal control."

Cromer says the Sarrajes have a pretty good civil case against Melvin but that they shouldn't expect to recover much in damages. "Unfortunately, the law in Illinois holds that pets are property. I would be surprised if it goes much over $1,000. I asked A.B. to sit down and ask himself if taking this to trial, whether he wins or loses, is what's gonna close this for him. I told him to take some time and think about it."

After Melvin spoke with Cromer she took her video camera down the block and spent a few minutes taping the Sarrajes' front gate. Arroudea's picture is still taped up, flanked by two flyers that say, "How mean to say this angel should be shot. How mean to kill him three weeks later. How mean to dictate your will on what's not yours."

"We've gone to another level," says Melvin. "I wanted it to be documented in case they take it all down and burn it." Bara called Melvin after he spotted her videotaping the gate. "I told her not to waste her film," he says. "I told her I would make her copies."

The Sarrajes say they're serious about getting out of Ravenswood Manor (maybe to Orland Park, "because the houses are far apart"). "We feel that it is unsafe," says Bara. "If my cat is unsafe, I feel unsafe." They've received calls from people interested in the house, but Bara suspects these callers think the family is desperate to sell and are hoping to get a bargain.

As for Melvin, she just wishes they could all get along. "If I'm guilty of anything," she says, "it's trying very hard to let all of this take its course without getting too worked up about it. Let the neighborhood breathe easy again and try to live together and understand. I mean, I understand where they're coming from. I understand them. I forgive them. And I pray for them every day that they'll get over this horrible loss that they feel."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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