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Purrfect for Persians: Tehran's 'meowseum'

Welcome to Tehran's "meowseum", a privately funded exhibition space in the Iranian capital where some 30 felines roam freely alongside human visitors
— Tehran (AFP)

Sprawled nonchalantly across the doorstep, a large tomcat welcomes visitors to Tehran's cat museum and cafe, a curious establishment where some 30 friendly felines roam freely throughout the exhibition space.

Shahrzad, Farrokh, Shapoor and Shirin are among the real stars of this attraction in a small two-storey building in the centre of the Iranian capital.

Director Hossein HamlehDari says that when it first opened in 2020 it was named the "meowseum".

It is a place where visitors and cats coexist peacefully in the exhibition rooms and on the cafe terrace.

The privately funded museum's faded walls feature reproductions of paintings, photos, caricatures and even stamps celebrating the cat from countries as diverse as Iran, South Korea, Guinea and Ukraine.

The galleries feature reproductions of paintings, photos, caricatures and even stamps celebrating the cat from countries across the world

Most visitors come here seeking to interact and play with the adopted cats, which hail from a wide variety of breeds.

Among them are several Persians, known for their long hair and placid character, a breed which originated in Iran and neighbouring Turkey.

"I love cats, so I really like this place and its friendly atmosphere," says Mina, a 21-year-old student cuddling a soft brown-coated tomcat.

Her friend Mohammad, 20, says he too is fond of animals as pets, and has decided "to buy a cat" in the coming weeks.

"When people come here and meet Farrokh, a cat that was born blind but is still very agile, they realise cats are also citizens of this city and can coexist with residents," HamlehDari says.

The animals' reputation in Iran has suffered knocks in the past because of the large number of strays in big cities, Tehran in particular.

But the resident cats are the main attaction in a country where they have been valued pets for centuries

But unlike dogs, cats have been valued pets in Iran for centuries.

"They are represented in many works of art, in particular Persian miniatures," HamlehDari says.

He cites the example of Babri ("tigerish") Khan, the famous pet cat of Naser al-Din Shah of the Qajar dynasty, who reigned over the country from 1848 to 1896.

And all Iranians are familiar with the fable "Masnavi of Mush-O Gorbeh" ("The Mouse and the Cat"), a political satire by the 14th century poet Obeid Zakani.

It has become fashionable among wealthy Iranians in recent times to own a dog, preferably a small pedigree breed.

A Persian, among the cats that call the "meowseum" home, takes a break from the attention

But this trend is not entirely welcomed by religious conservatives and some officials who point out that in Islam dogs are considered impure.

In 2021, a bill that would have outlawed pets because of their "harmful" nature caused an outcry.

But nothing has been heard since about this potential catastrophe -- a clear signal from Iran's pro-pet lobby that they won't take things lion down.