Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Jewish Cemetery in Port Said

We were walking aimlessly around the town, an urban maze tucked up into a nook where the Mediterranean meets the Suez Canal. Neither the town, nor the Canal existed in Biblical times, though had the Jews been able to curve north and walk the isthmus of Suez, they would never have needed the Red Sea to part for them. Today, they would definitely need that divine event, for the Suez Canal totally cuts the mainland of Egypt off from Sinai, from Asia, and from Israel. 

Jews began to settle in Port Said in the 1850’s. Around the turn of the last century there were a few hundred of them. Despite several attacks on synagogues, their numbers grew to as many as 800 in the 1940’s, some Greek,  some Yemeni, some Egyptian. According to the Jewish historical society in Egypt, Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria in the 1930’s made their way to Shanghai when they could not find visas to the Americas. They embarked for China by ship, and stopped in Port Said along the way. The Port Said Jews set up an apartment, a relief society of sorts, and collected clothes, medicine, food, and toys for them. 

Then in 1956, Israeli troops attack the Canal, backed by England and France. A battle of words broke out between British and Egyptian newspapers over whether or not the Jews of Egypt would be protected. Port Said's Jews were the most vulnerable, for they risked attack from both Israel and the local population. Although Nasser loudly proclaimed that Egyptian Jews would be not be kicked out, many arrived in New York with horror stories of having their shops closed down and being arrested and barely getting out with their lives, or at least, their dignity (“We were placed fifty to sixty in a room not larger than three yards by three yards, packed like sardines. That morning food was thrown at us, one bread, uneatable, and a tin of filthy white cheese with vermin in it”).

Today, the remnants of the Jewish community in Port Said only exist as apparitions, and only if you know where to look. A friend who spent years researching the history of the city for her dissertation told me that sandwiched between the Christian and Muslim cemeteries one could still find a Jewish cemetery. “But you can’t go in,” she told me over coffee one day several weeks ago.

“Why? Because of security?”

“No- I mean, it’s physically impossible. It’s like a jungle.”

Several weeks later, I was spending the day with my friend Ahmed, taking a long walk around the beach after buying tickets for what he breathlessly described as the “First house music party, ever, in Port Said. Nothing this fun ever happens here.” Several blocks down from the Hotel, the mostly empty Grand Albatross (I say mostly because there were about twenty elementary school-aged kids dancing at the KFC out front with a raggedy Mickey Mouse), we came upon an empty beach, totally deserted in winter. Ahmed pointed to graffiti, which read “Irdaha ala ochtick,” roughly “Accept this for your sister.” Someone, Ahmed explained, was reminding young men taking their girlfriends to the deserted beach—to do things that young couples do at deserted beaches—that if it was their own sister, they would not approve those things being done. We didn’t see any couples.

Behind the beach stood a long, high wall, stretching for maybe half a mile, with gates every sixty feet. We made our way over and peered into the gates, one by one, as if inspecting paintings at a museum. The first gate was closed, but through the iron bars we saw a long stretch of perfectly smooth, bright green lawn, with rows and rows of identical rectangular tombstones all spaced out with dizzying perfection. This was a British and French cemetery from the two world wars, where soldiers killed during the North African campaigns were buried. Ahmed exclaimed, "Wow. I had no idea this was here!"

The second gate was a Catholic plot, for the many British and French who worked for the Suez Canal or lived out their lives trading goods here. It was reasonably well kept-up, a bit overgrown. The Orthodox plot—same story. Then, the Muslim section, much bigger, with many men, women, and children going in and out to visit big, chipped mausoleums and solemn granite tombs among tall trees.

Finally, several gates past the soldiers, we saw a wooden pair of doors, bulging out past the stone wall slightly under the weight of something we could not see. Approaching closer, we were greeted by a nearly opaque tangle of small branches. My professor friend had not exaggerated. The wooden doors might be easily forced open, but past them was a thick snarl of millions of small branches, so tightly packed for hundreds of feet by the stone wall that one could only imagine trying to swim through them, getting scratched all the way and maybe bitten by whatever might be living in this ocean of thin, contorted limbs.

There were no markers. We could only guess that this was the Jewish cemetery. 

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