There are two or three Jewish cemeteries in Alexandria: Cemetery 1 is located in Shatby, not far away from the iconic building of the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina. I met my guide in front of the library and we walked to the cemetery. It is the same location I visited last year. The gate was open, we entered and the guard was there siting on an aged chair. Unlike last year, this year he was indifferent towards our presence. In our previous visit in 2015, he was enthusiastic to show us around and to demonstrate his knowledge of the history of the vast amount of graves. This year, however, he barely moved of his chair or even took off his headphones. Once he started speaking, it was quite obvious that he is totally stoned, he was speaking slowly and not exactly comprehensible. We asked if we could look around and he said he doesn’t mind as long as we don’t take photos. We gave him assurances and marched deep into the interior of the cemetery.
The majority of the graves are identifiable with names, dates, and symbols engraved on them and some of the dates go back to the 1800s, the most recent dates are in the 1980s. In our earlier conversation with the guard, I asked if he knows how many graves are in here? And what is the date of the most recent burial? The guard said he couldn’t estimate how many graves are in there, he just kept saying, “They are many, quite many.”
The doorman’s wife joined the conversation and said, “When Abdel Nasser came to power, he wanted to remove the Jewish cemetery, after all, this soil is Egyptian.” My friend answered, “And so are the dead.” She realized that her comment was inappropriate, and tried to make it up to us by mentioning names of whom she thinks were “good” Jews. I don’t think the guard’s wife was able to determine if we are one of them or one of the distant other (from Israel). My friend and I look Egyptian, and yet, our behavior is not that of local journalists. We were not interested in the sensational stories they offered of Jews as enemies or nationalists. We were interested in what the graves can tell us, what the stones, the tombs, the soil, the trees, and the silence reveal. It was a blessing that the guard was uninterested in us, all I needed from him was to leave us alone.
What is striking about the cemetery is the absence of numerous of graves that used to be here. Every now and then we would come across the trace of an open grave without a corpse. When asked about that, the guard explained that a lot of families have returned to claim their dead and to move them to Israel or Europe. It seems that even the dead were forced into exile. It is important to note that the guard’s information is totally unreliable. He is a resident of the cemetery as has him family for generations and probably for generations to come. But if we are to entertain his theory, although I can understand relatives’ concerns about the ability to visit their deceased family members, it is unsettling to think of the juxtaposition of the right of the dead to determine to what soil do they belong with their families desire to keep them sacred. Most likely the deterioration of some graves is due to natural decay and neglect. The political climate in Egypt has affected the status of the Jewish cemetery. The location used to be livelier. According to the guard’s testimony, before the 2011 revolution many visitors came every year to visit family graves along with tourists who used to come to visit the cemetery. Now, here, even we are tourists of the dead. (https://www.lonelyplanet.com/egypt/mediterranean-coast/alexandria/sights/cemeteries-memorials-tombs/jewish-cemetery)