The stunning memoir of a Muslim teen struggling to survive the Bosnian genocide--and the stray cat who protected her family through it all.
Amra was a teen in Bihac, Bosnia, when her friend said they couldn’t speak anymore because Amra was Muslim. Then refugees from other cities started arriving, fleeing Serbian persecution. When Serbian tanks rolled into Bihac, the life she knew disappeared—right as a stray cat followed her home. Her family didn’t have the money to keep a pet, but after the cat seemed to save her brother, how could they turn it away? Saving a life one time could be a coincidence, but then it happened again—and Amra and her family wondered just what this cat was.
This is the story of a teen who, even in the brutality of war, never wavered in her determination to obtain education, maintain friendships, and even find a first love—and the cat that provided comfort, and maybe even served as a guardian spirit, in the darkest of times.
Amra Sabic-El-Rayess is from Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is an ethnic cleansing survivor. She emigrated to the United States in 1996. She earned a BA in Economics from Brown University and two Masters degrees and a Doctorate from Columbia University. Currently she is a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College with research focus on how and why societies fall apart and what role education can play in rebuilding decimated countries. She has published numerous articles and research papers on education-related issues and has lectured around the world.
Bosnia 1992 to 1995. The genocide began in 1992. No reason other than racism and the fear of other religions. The Serbians hated the Muslims. Just as in America, many whites hate nonwhites. I was once told by a so-called Christian that I should ignore the racism in our Club. No one is perfect, and my need for perfection in people was not being loving. It was then thrown into my face some more. “As if you are perfect,” she stated. It is not about perfection; it is about love, loving your neighbor, causing no harm. It is about the very core of Christianity. Racism causes harm even though it is in words only. Words lead to violence. I never said those words to her, because I am not a quick thinker. I didn’t have them in my mind. I just quit the Club, but it took me a few times, always thinking that no one else would have a racist comment to say. Ending her friendship took a while, too, because she was persistent. I often felt stalked by her and her pleads.
I picked up this book thinking that it was a bout a cat. I didn’t read it for months because I thought that it would not be a great read. Not all animal stories are. I just didn’t read the entire title. That is a long story. Also, this book is classified as a teenage book. No, it isn’t. The author is a fantastic writer. The book is a page turner.
It is a story about a 16-year-old girl named Amra and her family. It is a story about war and survival. It is a story of courage, of hope, of despair, and of course it is a story about a cat, Amra’s cat that she never named but just called her “Cat.” This would be “Maci” in her own language. Pronounced “Moo-see.”
Maci followed her home one day, and at first her parents would not allow her to keep the cat, but Maci prevailed, and when it was believed that she had saved Amra’s brother, they allowed Maci to stay, for now Maci was special.
The Serbs and the Muslims lived peacefully together or so it seemed. Amra was a Muslim, and even had a Serbian friend, that is, until the day that her friend said that they could no longer hang out together. Then one day when Amra went to school, the Serbian children never showed up. A Muslim teacher came into the classroom and told the children to go home, that the Serbs have left, and the military is on its way.
How anyone can survive in all this fear,the bombing, snipers, and little food, is beyond me. Of course, many did not survive. At first, Amra and her family moved into a neighbor’s cellar, leaving Maci at home to survive on her own. Still Amra’s dad would chance going home to feed her, and then they all chanced going home and stayed, even after some missals tore apar their house.
Maci plays a major part in this story, and I came to love her and the family, and I worried about them all. Then at the end of the book, I cried, and I realize that this book will stay with me for a long time.
This book is an incredible account of genocide that took place during the early 1990s in Bosnia.
Amra was 16 when the war started; while I was only 8 at the time, the events and experiences she documents closely parallel my own during the 1100+ day siege on our home town Bihać. Amra captures how quickly friends turned into enemies, allowing centuries long hatred and prejudice against the Muslim population to lead to the worst genocide on the European continent since WWII. On the first day of war, under heavy bombardment, I vividly remember asking my mom why the Serbs were bombing us. She said “it’s because you are Muslim.” Growing up in secular post-communist Yugoslavia, I didn’t even know what being a Muslim is, but here I was being killed for it.
Reading this book made me relive many of the events I witnessed first hand. Almost every day, someone I knew or our family knew would be killed. As Amra notes, a good day was when a family acquaintance died, and a bad day was when it was a close relative or a friend. I remember, after a while, you were just glad it wasn’t your nuclear family. To this day, following more than 3 years of no electricity or running water and being under constant bombardment and fear of sniper fire, the last day of war was the happiest day of my life.
In today’s context, Amra’s story serves as a cautionary tale on America’s own issues with racism and hate and how destructive this can be to a society. As my 6-year old daughter and I were laying these badges out for the picture, it was an opportunity to teach her about hate and about love, and how crucial is to never judge people by things they had no say in, whether it’s their place of birth, skin color, religion, sexual orientation, or any other reason.
This book will sit with me for awhile. I read it as covid-19 continues to spread across the U.S. It offered so much perspective. Our nation is being asked to stay in, limit our socialization, and wear a mask to stop the spread of the virus. These are transitions we must make, but they are little in comparison to what Amra had to face in a war torn country. Yet, the author's letter at the end says she wrote it during the start of covid-19, and she felt sorry for all of us as she understood how hard these transitions can be, hiding out in a neighbor's basement for days and having her school life disrupted and stopped suddenly.
Amra's story is well-crafted and gives us a firsthand account of life in a bombed out city. Her book teaches empathy. Her interactions with people as she grows up and survives so much detail the mix of characters and emotions we face in difficult times. As we are seeing in the U.S. now with Black Lives Matter protests, opinions of all kinds are popping up, there are opportunists who loot or damage property, but there are also activists fighting for an end to police brutality and community helpers who are cleaning up and providing food/shelter/donations. We are in this strange parallel. We are not facing missiles and bombs as Amra and her family were, but we're in the middle of deciding who we will be as a country in the future. It's clear she hopes that by sharing her story people will learn about and CARE about social justice issues like genocide, racism, religious persecution, and violence against women.
This book is a great read for young people. I think it would help many who have faced the loss of something due to covid or otherwise. And it's an intentional and true story that would crossover well for adults too.
Beautifully written and moving. Framing the story around her cat Maci (Bosnian for cat) that was her emotional guide throughout the war while she was a teenager will really resonate with the teen audience. She doesn't shy away from the true horrors and brutality trying to survive during a war/genocide and I appreciate that she was so vulnerable and honest to share her personal experiences. Front and back matter give context to the Bosnian war and her writing process. A unique perspective on a conflict and human experience that I learned more about and know readers will as well.
Sturdy memoir of a teenage girl living in Bosnian Muslim during the troubles there. Billed as a YA book, but I liked it just fine. The cat makes it an even better read. The fellow cat serfs will enjoy it. She helped to explain what happened during the war and gave me a better understanding of it. Displaying courage, kindness, and endurance, she makes for an appealing and sympathetic character.
“Maybe bad people never believe they are bad,' I venture. 'While good people are always questioning their goodness. Maybe that's what keeps them good—the constant questioning.”
What happens when friends and neighbors become enemies?
A memoir...Bosnia, 1990's...Amra is a terrific student, on her way to college, when her best friend, a Serb, pulls away, and suddenly disappears, along with all other Servs in their town. Serbs got notice that Bihac, their home town, and all of Bosnia, will be the target of bombing and snipers and war. Why? Because those left are Muslims.
Sabic-El-Rayess is careful to control her younger self's knowledge of politics, so she knows very little. Her father used to be a respected professional, her mom a teacher. But schools close...government jobs dry up. And children die.
Into this world of uncertainty saunters a calico cat who seems to distract Amra's brother just long enough to avoid being killed by a bomb. Amra's parents want nothing to do with a cat, a maci, but Maci worms her way into the house, into Amra's room, onto Amra's bed...as cats do.
It really does seem like Maci the Calico is a guardian angel, and even when she's sent away, she returns.
This story is timely right now, as Ukraine is facing an invasion...eastern Europe struggles with boundaries, with ethnicities, with histories, with family relationships...and one tiny family just trying to survive until tomorrow...
In the Epilogue, Sabic-El-Rayess tells us her two daughters, US citizens, since the family now lives here, asks her if the aftermath of 9/11 will lead to their family being targeted like her Bosnian family was. Another timely reminder...we keep falling into the same hate traps...what will it take?
Everyone should read this and teens should study it in school. I don't read any nonfiction and I am so glad I picked this up.
Amra is 16 when the Serbs invade her hometown of Bihac, Bosnia in 1992 and her life changes forever. Her and her family's story of survival is so heartbreaking and yet so inspiring. Maci becomes a good luck charm for the Sabic family and a token of hope for the whole town throughout the war.
I was just a baby when the Bosnian genocide occurred and I either was not taught about it or was not taught it well in school because I had no idea this happened and that it happened so recently. As someone whose ancestors survived the Armenian genocide, a horrific moment in time that many still believe did not happen and do not acknowledge to this day, I was appalled that I had not heard of what happened in Bosnia from 1991-1995. I blame the public school system for picking and choosing what events in history are deemed essential to learn. Cultural hate has been around forever and it needs to stop. We must adapt communal empathy for those around us in order for all biases to be overcome.
I am not sure I wanted to read this book right now given the situation in Ukraine and the simmering tensions in Bosnia but I am glad I did. The book is well written, compelling, and thought provoking. Amra is a 16 year old Bosniak girl whose only concern is making sure her first slumber party goes well. Soon after, the Bosnian War arrives in her city of Bihac when she notices the first refugees arrive and with them a small cat that latches herself onto Amra, who actually fears “anything with claws”. The cat, however, is determined to become part of her life and Amra soon falls in love along with her family. They call the cat Maci, which is the Bosnian word for cat. While Maci is an important character, the book focuses on Amra’s relationship with her family as they try to survive the siege of their city. You will journey with Amra as she tries to carve out some normalcy in her life by attending school when she can, spending time with friends, and falling in love. She assists her parents as they try to make ends meet while her father struggles with health. All the while Maci is an endearing presence throughout even saving Amra and her brother Dino from potential death.
The book is Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess memoir and it deals with several themes. One that stands out to me is Amra’s questioning about why this is happening when there is little difference between her friends who represent all ethnicities until the war begins and she loses her best friend who happens to be a Bosnian Serb. Amra’s father is a kind and gentle man, something that becomes a liability during the war. And Maci represents the undying love and devotion she shows to Amra and her whole family throughout the war. I encourage you to read the Acknowledgements section, and the final two sections that describe the situation in Bosnia Herzegovina today and a brief section describing her writing the book.
When I was more than half-way done with the book, I learned it falls within the young adult genre but it really didn’t matter to me as the book is excellent.
Absolutely beautiful and Absolutely devastating. I grew up reading stories from the holocaust but never about the wars in the former Yugoslavia. I feel like I learned a lot.
What stuck me most about this memoir is the extent to which people will do what they can to have some semblance of normal life even in war. While there is a lot if terrifying descriptions of violence, there are so many scenes at school, visiting friends, seeing family, planting gardens, swimming, falling in love, playing with your family kittie.
Definitely recommended especially if you knew as little as I did about details of the war, though it was going on while I was growing up. Be ready for descriptions of wartime violence, and sexual violence (this part is not as detailed, but still it's quite shocking). This book is marketed to teens but I imagine many teens may not be ready to read these descriptions. Definitely recommended for adults!
This was one of the most powerful books I have ever read. The writing was so simple and easy to read yet every single world was powerful. I found myself at the verge of tears while reading this, knowing that this genocide did happen and more continue today. I’m so glad I picked up this book, it opened my eyes to so many things. Bravo!
breaking stereotypes and awakening to hard truths about things happening in today's world. books are my resource, and i'm so grateful for amazing, strong, and talented authors like this one for sharing their story 🙌. i applaud you!
amra is a herione. a brilliant student, tall, beautiful, and muslim. she is resilient and so, so brave. living in bosnia, (a country i have barely even heard of, tbh) she lives through war, hate, threats, and so much more. why? because she was born muslim. oh stereotypes and hatred. they do so much damage to innocent and beautiful souls!!
i loved this book. it was not an easy read, but it opened my eyes and i enjoyed the story as well. so inspiring 💛
this story is a memoir. written by a gifted writer. she doesn't shy away from the horrors of war, though, so be prepared. but know there is light as well as dark! romance, happy family, school, etc :) cw/tw: death, bombs, starvation, mentions/closely attempted rape, war camps, ...
>> read as an ebook. 3.5 stars but i feel like ebooks are always a little worse than actual books so...
This is an incredible memoir about Amra's experiences living under siege in Bihac during the Balkan War of 1992-1995. It was an amazing insight into the hardship and heartbreak of war. Maci, the cat that Amra and her family adopted was such a beautiful soul and helped give Amra hope and fight for life, when it seemed that none was to be found. The writing was beautiful and evocative. I keep seeing Maci in my mind's eye.
I also have to say that the cover was absolutely stunning and I loved the use of the image in the novel to bookmark different time frames.
Amra wrote this book as a resource for young people to learn about the perils of hatred and discrimination and there are resources provided to support educators in that aim, or for readers to learn more about the war.
I also have to say it's a thrill to have read a book by another Amra.
A wrenching, yet life affirming true story of a bright Muslim girl whose world is decimated by the horrors of the Bosnian conflict yet finds ways to get an education and live helped her family and friends and a small cat named Maci. Her resilence is extraordinary. Don't miss the afterward where she discusses and compares the disruptions of her youth to what is happening now with the pandemic. Thanks to netgalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read the book in exchange for an honest review.
This books has definitely set the bar high for books I am going to read in 2023! Amra Sabic-El-Rayess crafted a powerful retelling of the truth she lived as a teen during the Bosnian war. This book has been on my to read list since it came out and I started following her when i was working at Columbia—her LinkedIn posts were always little reminders to read it! Well I finally did and this book was beyond my wildest expectations. The epilogue turned me into a little puddle of tears. With the finishing of this book the importance of her work seems now more paramount with the Ukrainian conflict having its own parallels to the conflict she survived.
A very emotional and moving memoir of the author’s experience in 1990s Bosnia during the war. This is definitely written for a younger audience, so both young adults and adult readers would benefit from reading it. Even though it’s YA, there is realistic (but not overly graphic) content, which helps to convey the danger that the author and her family lived through. But ultimately this is a book about hope and perseverance.
The Cat I Never Named by Amra Sabic El-Rayes is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. I’m still processing my thoughts, and it has taken me four separate attempts to write this review. Let me preface: I am a big cat lover, so the title caught my attention. The cover art is beautiful with the calico kitty draped on the girl’s shoulder, and I knew I had to check it out. Then, I read the excerpt and learned it was a true story of surviving ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. It was a piece of history I didn’t know much about coupled with a cat featurette… So basically, it was 100% up my alley. And I devoured it.
The Cat I Never Named is an exceptional memoir that reads like a fast-paced novel. Amra was a teenager living in Bosnia when Serbian tanks rolled in and the genocide of Bosnian Muslims began. Amra tells of her survival with her family for four years in the city of Bihac, completely cut off from the rest of the world, fighting starvation, bombings, snipers, illness, harsh winters… and the little stray cat that helped them through all of it.
This book kind of wrecked me, if I’m honest. I was thinking about it even when I wasn’t reading it. Let me try to offer some of the reasons I found this book entirely exceptional:
Amra and her family are inspiring. Their devotion to one another is moving. Their desire to do good and see the good in others even in the worst of times is admirable. They strive to be honest, diligent, hard working people, and to be friends to those around them. Amra is intelligent and pursues knowledge and her education even in the midst of the war. It is ultimately one of the things that saves her life and brings her to the United States at the end of the war. I was grieving with her when she grieved and rejoicing with her when she had a brief moment of joy, love, or happiness. The writing is phenomenal. Amra is gifted at storytelling and incredibly smart indeed. She phrased things in ways that made everything clear and easy to understand, painted vivid pictures, and truly brought her circumstances and experience to life. She debated hard questions and dealt with difficult topics. She experienced horrific things firsthand and doesn’t shy away from what that was like. Her writing style is easy to read but also artistic, mature, and elegant. I really enjoyed her style and the novel-like flow of the memoir.
Now, I know I’m a cat person, but the storyline with the stray (Maci)… It got to me. It just did. I feel like Amra completely encapsulated the wonderful (at times quirky) qualities of cats and what makes them special to people. The way she described Maci and her actions (even her movements) were perfect. I could picture her clearly and was reminded of my own kitty. It was heartwarming to say the very least the way Maci involved herself with Amra’s family and provided joy and comfort in the darkest days of their lives. At first, I thought this would be a rather superficial piece of the story, but it ended up being a very weighty and important piece of Amra’s life during the war. It was really beautiful.
The history/historical aspect was so interesting. Dark moments in history are gripping to me; I think this is largely because I just can’t wrap my head around how people can do these things to other people. There is so much evil in the world. And I truly believe we must learn from history in an attempt to not repeat the same mistakes again! So learning about the Bosnian War and the genocide of the Bosnian Muslims was another reason I enjoyed the book, and I found myself trying to learn more about it after reading it.
Basically, I liked everything about this book; and I feel like I haven’t scratched the surface of why I loved it so much. I cannot recommend it enough. Haunting, sobering, inspiring, interesting, heart-warming and heart-wrenching both, The Cat I Never Named is a must-read. I am grateful to the author for sharing her and Maci’s story with us.
This is one of the most important books I've ever read.
I can't say I knew much about the atrocities that occured in Bosnia just a few years before I was born. It was never taught in my schools (possibly just mentioned in passing while we studied the Holocaust). It is deeply upsetting that I didn't know much at all about this, especially when it all occurred recently. Amra was 16 in 1992, when the Yugoslav Wars came to her home city of Bihać.
The brutal realities of war are blatant in this book. I wasn't expecting the risk of r*pe to be so blatantly addressed in the opening chapter in a "YA" book. War and l ethnic cleansing aren't shied away from.
It's very well written. Its a good starting point for education about the war and genocide. I found myself researching places and events every time I put the book down.
There is a lot of hope and love throughout. Maci, the stray cat that Amra adopts as the war begins, is a constant reminder of the good in the world. She is gentle, loyal, and loving. She reminds them every day to keep living.
This was a reminder to not take life and opportunities for granted. Unfortunately,
Read this book.
Content Warnings: war, war crimes, starvation, genocide, violence, death, child death, animal death, human cruelty, islamaphobia, racism, rape (mentioned)
Extremely important book by an author who lived and survived a horrific moment in history. I can't even imagine having to try to live under those conditions. I appreciate her message of rising above the hate and encouraging others to end the hate worldwide.
I am so thankful for books like this one that introduce young people--especially young, sheltered Americans--to the rest of the world. In El-Rayess's case, The Cat I Never Named tells the story of the Bosnian War and Genocide of the early- to mid-1990s. (American adults, this may be a place for you to start as well if you, like me, aren't as familiar with this history as you should be.)
This is Amra Sabic-El-Rayess's memoir of she and her family's unlikely survival in Bihac, Bosnia via devotion to family; faltering, but never failing hope; and the world's most amazing cat. El-Sullivan reminds the reader that teenagers come-of-age even when a war happening. Yes, they suffer terrible loss and tragedy, but they also get in snowball fights, fight with their parents, and fall in love. It's this part of El-Rayess's story with which teenagers (read, mid- to older teenagers) will connect, but the ever-present war will also have readers asking questions about a history with which they are likely unfamiliar. Anything that sparks curiosity in young people--or ANY people--is a winner in this teacher's book.
To target young adults, El-Rayess has censored some of the worst of the atrocities, as well as her own post-traumatic stress, but she also doesn't allow the reader to forget war is all around her. Her diabetic, malnourished tata (father) is enlisted to dig trenches though it nearly kills him; children playing in the street are killed in a bombing attack after two weeks of sheltering in a basement; Amra comes dangerously close to being raped by Serbian soldiers. The mere mention of "rape camps" leaves the reader cold.
And then there's Maci (the Bosnian word for "cat"). She is the family's unlikely "guardian angel" and beacon of hope when it seems there is none to be found. Maci doesn't dominate the story, which was a wise choice on El-Sullivan's part, but when she does appear, expect comfort, miracles, and love.
“The heavy snow that blankets the earth and surrounding hills looks so clean, so innocent. You might think the war had never happened. But I know the snow hides bombed buildings and cratered roads. It covers mass graves. There is blood in the earth, beneath all that frozen beauty. You can hide the past, cover it up with snow or lies or years, but those who were there do not forget.”
“The Cat I Never Named” is a beautifully written tale of heartache, human brutality, human hope, love, resilience, and education under the shadow of genocidal rule. I am familiar with the tragedies in Bosnia only from clinically removed political nonfiction (such as Madeleine Albright’s memoir); this is the first true account I have read of the events that took place there. With the help of a cat that seems to be almost mythical in its ability to protect and comfort, Amra navigates burgeoning womanhood juxtaposed with the increasing chokehold of a regime bent on eradicating her “kind” (Bosnian Muslim). The story is engrossing, painful, dark, and bright all at once.
I’m happy to have read this and humbled that Sabic-El-Rayess shared this with the world. Much of the majesty of the book is captured in this quote -
“Here I am a hardworking, commendable student who does everything right. In another country I will be a despised refugee, someone’s stereotype.”
That’s the core of the MANY reasons why stories like Amras are important, even though the Amras of the world shouldn’t owe us a tapestry of their pain just to be seen as human.
Read this. Feel it. And hope that we all have a “Maci” looking after us in our times of need.
Beginning in 1992 at the start of the Bosnian War, this story centers around teenager Amra as she and her Muslim family and friends fight to survive for 3 years in Bihac, Bosnia. When Maci (Mah-See), a stray cat follows Amra home one day and refuses to leave, the family takes her in. Maci becomes a type of guardian/ saving-grace to them; multiple times Maci saves members of the family.
This biographical young adult book was an emotional read and I would suggest it to teens and adults who are interested in war-time accounts, fictionalized biographies (biographies that read like fiction), and animal lovers.
Although Amra is never raped, there is fear of rape, bombings (also mentionings of bodies in the aftermath of bombings) and gun violence. So not something I would readily recommend to Middle schoolers.
As someone who can handle pretty much anything, I know my weak spots are stories involving children and animals, especially cats. I knew going in this was going to destroy me. And it did. But it is a very important story that I think should be taught in schools. It's a story of genocide, of struggle and human survival. Wonderfully written and heart tugging, I finished in just a couple sittings, needing time to ready myself for the next chapters. Glorious book that should be on everyone's list.
I was just totally drawn in to this beautiful, heartbreaking memoir. Bosnian Muslim Amra was age 16 when her home city of Bihac was surrounded and attacked by the Serbian army. An abandoned cat worms his way into her heart and brings her family hope and love during the brutal years that follow. The story is so well told and has some of everything - starvation, desperation, young love, resilience, resourcefulness, despair, hate, overwhelming love, sweetness, sadness. I’ve already recommended ot many times and will continue to do so.
This book took me a while to read not because it wasn’t good. Quite the opposite. It has so much raw emotion and details of horrific tragedies about a war I didn’t even know happened that I needed to give myself periodic breaks. I truly appreciated the author’s note at the end where she connects many of her experiences with teens of today dealing with Covid and the rising racial tensions especially in the US. This is not a light, quick read, but it’s one I found extremely important and rewarding. Plus, I may even give cats a chance after reading about the cat Maci lol!