Amra Sabic-El-Rayess Felt Empowered Writing ‘The Cat I Never Named,’ Despite ‘Emotional Whirlpool Of Memories’

Amra Sabic-El-Rayess poses for a photograph
Courtesy Photo

Amra Sabic-El-Rayess is a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, a university where she has earned two Masters degrees and a Doctorate. Prior to that, she earned her B.A. in economics from another prestigious Ivy League school, Brown University. Before college, Sabic-El-Rayess spent her teenage years with the expectation that she would be killed simply for who she was as those she loved died around the time of the Bosnian War.

Sabic-El-Rayess grew up in the city of Bihać where she was a talented volleyball player and accomplished student in math and physics. That became irrelevant following the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992, leading to wars across the region and her hometown spending years under siege by Serbian forces. As a Bosnian Muslim, she and those around her were targeted for genocide by Serbian nationalists and would face unimaginable brutality with a death toll estimated to be in the thousands.

In her new book The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival, Sabic-El-Rayess revisits that dark moment of history and describes what she witnessed firsthand. From the eyes of a teenage girl, readers see dreams crushed in the face of a hatred beyond understanding. They also see resilience in the face of hopelessness and a shared humanity that saw Sabic-El-Rayess given a second chance at life in the United States. With the world appearing more polarized than ever before, her work offers a stark reminder of what division can become.

The Cat I Never Named cover
  Courtesy Photo

Terrence Smith: Let’s start with the significance of the title, ‘The Cat I Never Named.’ What is the story behind that cat and why was it not named?

Amra Sabic-El-Rayess: That’s a great way to start. I’ll begin by saying that this is a memoir, this is my life story that captures years during the genocide against Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks. The entire conflict was centered on the idea of eliminating Muslims as an ethnic group. As the war began, the Serb Army which was persecuting Muslims, was essentially pushing refugees into a couple of cities that eventually became besieged and continued to be bombed for the next four years. One of those cities was my city or hometown of Bihać.

Just before the siege began, refugees were coming into the city from surrounding villages in fear of the Serb and Serbian army executing and raping them. On one day, with many refugees, my father and I encountered this cat. We called her Maci, maci means kitty in Bosnian, when we initially met her. She followed us home, and she refused to leave us. At the beginning of the war, we couldn’t afford a pet and we certainly didn’t know if we were going to survive. It was just too much to be thinking not only of our own survival, but adding to it concerns about someone else’s survival, even if it was a beautiful kitty. But Maci didn’t care. She wanted to be part of our family, so she adopted herself into our family and played a decisive role in helping us survive.

Given that in a war one is always focused on the primacy of survival, we never got around to or thought about giving her a proper name even though she played a crucial role in our physical and emotional survival. At the beginning of the war, we were in the basement of a neighbor’s house for a couple of days, anticipating bombing and killing and the Serb army coming into the city. There was a moment when my brother and I, without our parents’ approval, escaped the basement and went back to our house to see Maci. We encountered four of our friends, four girlfriends of mine, one of them I was very close with. But in the moment when we met, Maci was nowhere to be found. So my brother and I went in two different directions to look for her. As we left our friends, a bomb hit and killed them. My brother Dino and I survived. This was the first time we realized that Maci saved us, and she continued to play that kind of guardian angel role throughout the war. The title of my book honors her as a savior who we initially saw as a stranger that adopted herself into our family and became an important member of our family during the war. There is a powerful symbolism in that message alone.

TS: How difficult was it writing and describing what you experienced? Has writing this book helped you heal from what you witnessed and endured?

AS: The years that I waited to write this story are a reflection of how difficult it is to be in that space and to go back to those memories and remember the scents, the scenes and the details of violence, trauma and pain. For instance, one day my mother and I were so desperate to get food that we crossed the enemy line and went through the minefield to try and buy food from Serbs, who were killing us. We were entirely at their mercy, but we also wanted to survive. One of the Serb soldiers attempted to attack me, and that moment in particular is a very painful memory for me. I still remember the alcoholic stench of him and will never forget his face. Going back to those memories is always difficult, but the reality of being a genocide survivor is that they live in me and with me and they never really left. The resilience of a genocide survivor is captured in one’s ability to find a way to live with that painful past.

So, in many ways it was not difficult to write this story in terms of remembering the details, remembering the scenes, being able to put it on paper. What was difficult and really terrifying for me was not knowing whether I would be able to pull myself out of that emotional whirlpool of memories. In the moments when I had to dig deep emotionally, I did have
nightmares and tears often filled the pages as I wrote certain chapters. At the same time, writing a story like this was incredibly empowering for me. I grew up in the former Yugoslavia in a system where I was born hated as a Bosnian Muslim. I was never represented in the educational system. I was a volleyball player and one of the top math and physics students in Bosnia during the war, but none of that mattered. I grew up never reading a story that had a Muslim girl’s name in it. I grew up never solving a math problem with a Muslim child’s name in it. So I knew that I was being told through my own schooling that I am somehow lesser and not worthy of a sense of belonging and equality in that system.

Writing ‘The Cat I Never Named’ allowed me to feel that I finally owned my own voice. The process of memorializing my experience reminded me that I was no longer that silent voiceless girl who was not represented in her own society. And
that aspect of the writing process was incredibly empowering. I often say that The Cat I Never Named is not only a book for me – this is a voice that I never had.

TS: You were 16 when the Bosnian War began; how do you think your age shaped your experience of these events and, conversely, how did these events shape your adolescence, a time when people are figuring out their own identities?

AS: I probably became who I would have never been if it were not for the war. The kind of war that happened in Bosnia wasn’t simply two parties disagreeing on a political issue or policy. It was war by Serbia’s army, helped by some, not all Serbs in Bosnia, that was intent on eradicating my very existence and everyone who was born Muslim. That awareness that I was so deeply hated for existing was extremely painful. In ‘The Cat I Never Named,’ I capture a lot of that emotional journey, the disappointments and moments of depression that were triggered by loss or the realization of how viscerally hated I was. That certainly shaped who I am and continues to shape what I do today. Those are intrinsically related – who I am personally and professionally. I became a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Education, Health and Psychology because I deeply care about educating others on how far hatred can go. My career is centered on speaking against discrimination, exclusion, othering, and radicalization. This semester, I am teaching a course on radicalization in education. So, everything that I do today has been shaped and influenced by being a genocide survivor as an experience that changed the trajectory of my life.

TS: You arrived in the United States in 1996. Tell me about your journey and how did you adapt to such a different situation after going through so much?

AS: During the war, I realized, and I think a lot of Americans can relate to this feeling, that I couldn’t stop genocide and change what was happening to me. I couldn’t stop people from hating me, I couldn’t stop people from killing me, but
I also decided I couldn’t just sit and wait for the end to come.

I was certainly convinced that my life would end. It felt as if I stood in a quickly moving line for execution. The question wasn’t if I would be killed but how and when I would be eradicated. But, there was also a beautiful moment in my life when I realized that even if couldn’t control forces external to me that I could control was what internal to me. I could better myself, I could learn, I could take action within what was possible at that moment. So I decided to learn English. I didn’t know if I would ever come to use it in my life, but I found my dad’s old dictionary in the attic that he used as a college student and memorized every word in it.

I also focused on studying mathematics and physics, doing all I could to master certain subjects on my own, asking everyone for books that they had. I tried to work on my own self-education and self-improvement that many teens, kids and parents can relate to during this pandemic.

I decided to help local doctors and nurses to immunize children. We would travel to the frontlines to locate children. In the process, I met two psychologists, who at the time worked for the International Rescue Committee, a large non-governmental organization that works around the world. They wanted to survey the condition of schools and students during the war in my besieged city. I took them around to different schools and I introduced them to some of my own teachers. One of my teachers said to them, ‘Look, you are not going to save all of us. We are going to die here. But, at least save this one child, save Amra.’ That’s what they did. They went back to New York City for a board meeting by the IRC to present the conditions in Bosnia. One of the board members stood up and said, ‘Is there a life I could save?’ His name is David Pincus. They gave him my documents, and he made it his mission to bring me to the United States. I originally came on January 17, 1996, after surviving nearly four years of genocide, constant bombings, and starvation. I was in absolute shock that I was even given a second chance at life.

Amra Sabic-El-Rayess poses for a photograph.
  Courtesy Image

TS: One noticeable theme of the Bosnian War and Yugoslav Wars, in general, was that Yugoslavia appeared to be a multicultural, relatively prosperous country in the years before and such violence seemed unimaginable until it occurred. Looking back, what signs did you see of what was to come in Bosnia and are there any similarities you see in the United States or other parts of the world today?

AS: I do see a lot of similarities. A couple of years ago, my younger daughter Dinah, who was then a third grader who still loves science, seahorses, and who is gifted in math came home and asked me what would happen to her and Jannah, her older sister, if I and her Dad were rounded up and taken away as Muslims. Would they be left alone? That was a question that jolted me, that made me realize that if a third-grader born and raised in New York City is feeling this way and feeling this sense of insecurity about the future because of her background, that there were other teens and adults in the United States sharing similar concerns. That was the moment when I realized that as a genocide survivor I had to share my story – a story that warns against hate and othering, but also inspires the kind of America that I met when I came to the United States.

I came in January of 1996. Many people I loved and grew up with were killed and taken away from me simply because of who they were. I was 20 in 1996 and the war started when I was only 16. The best years of my life were stolen from me. As I stood in the immigration line, I was scared of all men in uniform. Just seeing immigration officers was terrifying. Men in uniforms to me meant rape and killing at the time. There was a moment when it was my turn to be interviewed by the immigration officer. Holding on to the immigration counter, I stood while shaking and sweating. The officer had a very serious face while he took a long time to look through my documents. I thought he was going to send me back, that I wouldn’t enter the United States. Instead, he reached out with his hand, slightly touched my hand with his fingertips, gave me back my passport and said, ‘Ma’am, welcome to the United States of America. I am sorry for what happened to you. You are safe now.’ That was a moment that redefined my belief in our shared humanity. That is the moment that I wanted to remind Americans of with ‘The Cat I Never Named,’ particularly now as we all find ourselves in this divided, polarized country that many of us no longer recognize.

The US today is a country that reminds me in many ways of the former Yugoslavia. I certainly was discriminated against and marginalized, but never did I imagine that an army that used to represent the Yugoslav National Army would turn into an army of Serbs, and that the people that were supposed to defend me would start to simply execute me. Hate happens through and is enabled by the narratives of those in power. Several years before the war, Slobodan Milošević, the leader of Serbia who initiated the war in Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia, advocated for that narrative of hatred. He labeled Muslims an ethnic impurity in Europe, as people who needed to be eradicated so that Greater Serbia – an ethnically pure nation could be formed. I never believed that this was possible until it happened, until I lived it. Not to say that the equivalent events will occur in the United States, but I do see our country going down the wrong path. The othering and hatred and inability to even have a conversation or sit at the dinner table if we have different political views continues to concern me.

I hope that my book reminds all of us today of our shared humanity and our shared responsibility to do what we can to come together. And telling stories like ‘The Cat I Never Named’ is essential to building social cohesion, particularly at this time when America feels deeply divided.

TS: The critical reception seems overwhelmingly positive; how does that make you feel?

AS: I never really thought about the reception to my book when I was writing it. I wrote The Cat I Never Named because I had this urge and almost a sense of panic that I had to share my story with Americans as a warning and as an inspiration, that we can come together. Never once did I think about what the book critics would say about my work, but I do certainly feel emotional when I read their reviews and see the extent to which they recognize the educational value and purpose of my story. My story has been called “extraordinary”, “unforgettable”, “a must-read nonfiction book”, and I am grateful for and humbled by those reviews. But, I have to say that I am most touched when I hear from an average reader. I have been getting so many incredible letters and emails and messages on social media.

A lot of messages I have gotten come from moms and dads who say their teen wanted to read this book, so they decided to check it out by reading the first few pages after dinner. And then they found themselves binge reading it and felt inspired to reach out to me at three in the morning. Some know nothing about Bosnia, but find so many similarities in the emotions that they or their children are going through. I am thankful that so many who are writing to me are connecting to my story in their authentic way and recognizing themselves or people around them in my story of resilience and survival. And that was precisely the purpose of writing ‘The Cat I Never Named’ – to bring us closer together.

I’ve also gotten emails from several American soldiers who have been deployed around the world, some have served in Bosnia. One of them, a pilot, said to me, ‘I was deployed in Bosnia and I only wish I read your story earlier. It made me cry throughout. Not only because of your story, but it made me think about the things I had done before retiring.’ He had been wondering if he had a purpose in life, but realized that in the case of Bosnia, NATO intervention ended the genocide and he shared with me that reading my story made him: ‘understand that my purpose was in saving lives like yours, Amra.’

In so many unexpected ways people are seeing themselves in my story of resilience, love, survival and hope, and that is incredibly meaningful. I’m humbled and grateful for it.