Run the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the cemetary grounds have been kept for over five decades by Ibrahim, and now by his sons.
My reason for stopping by yesterday was to gather some information on gravestones for someone outside of Gaza. But actually, I just like the place, particularly Ibrahim. He’s a mixed bag: a grandfather, a philosopher, a host –100% Palestinian–, enthusiastic like a child, a teacher…
From the first visit, Ibrahim has extended an open welcome to visit the cemetary, which might seem a strange past-time but in a Strip deprived of life in so many respects, the cemetary with its flowers, shrubbery and trees is a haven of tranquility.
Upon stepping into the cemetary, the scent of mowed grass overwhelms, followed later on by the perfumes of different flowers and growths.
One of his grandson’s is pushing a mower, but when he sees me, he immediately waves me to the back, where the retired groundsman’s house is.
He comes out from behind those gorgeous stone walls, covered with vines and flowering plants, apologizing for his sleepy appearance.
“It’s a holiday today,” he says. “‘Eid,” surprising me: I’d thought ‘Eid ended on Monday. He explains that ‘Eid al Adha, the larger holiday, lasted up to 5 days.
“Anyway, I’m old and retired, you know. My son takes care of things now. But I still oversee things. 52 years I worked here.”
We walk through a gate, behind the walls, and see some of his many grandsons at work, potting plants for seedlings.
The beginnings of the cemetary’s varied flowers are sprouting in small pots.
Back in the grounds, we pass plants I recognize but can never name. Ibrahim knows them all, and later gives me a stack of magazines and books on horticulture, to broaden my knowledge.
Remembering my original reason in coming here, I ask about the damaged gravestones. “We don’t actually have a record of which were damaged, but all of those broken during the Israeli war on Gaza have been replaced.”
Again, it is amazing what strings and international pressure can accomplish: this cemetery has gleaming new white gravestones, and the actual damage done here was trifling in comparison to the ordinary cemetaries for Palestinians. Those graveyards were, throughout Gaza, targeted, shelled, and bulldozed. Just weeks earlier, I’d re-visited a Jabaliya cemetary, and finally seen the eastern cemetary, roughly 1 km from the border with Israel: there, Israeli bulldozers ate the walls surrounding a vast graveyard, mowed down gravestones, and destroyed a cistern on the grounds. Those gravestones remain toppled, fractured, desecrated, and hold no promise of being restored any time soon, along with the thousands of destroyed homes: cement, precious cement, is still banned from ravaged Gaza.
“I like to keep the place peaceful, for those at rest here and those who visit.”
He speaks again of the different soldiers buried here –christian, muslim, hindu, jewish –saying they’re all equally at rest.
“Why we humans spend so much time making wars, I don’t know,” he frowns. “Especially when there is so much illness and poverty in the world.”
We walk towards the back of the cemetary again.
“You can come here any time,” he says, telling me what I already know. “You are like my daughter now, you don’t need to worry.” Not that I ever had, except maybe wondering if I was taking up too much of his time.
During Ramadan, he’d insisted on bringing water and juice during the afternoon’s intense heat, although he was still fasting. On another visit, he’d repeated the gesture, this time showing me how to drive his maintenance golf-cart vehicle.
“Stay here,” he tells me, brings a chair, “read if you want.” After a morning of interviewing, I like the thought.
At this point he re-appears, first with a stack of gardening magazines, then with a tray: cold water and sweet tea.
“They’re old,” he apologizes for the magazines. “But we can’t get anything newer.” Although 2 years old, the magazines are as pristine as his cemetary grounds.
Minutes later, some of his grandsons and a girl of maybe 7 years come out from behind the wall and sprawl on the grass, breaking from their potting.
Baraa, the girl, has them rolling with laughter at her youthful antics. After a bit, and much prodding, she ventures over and blurts a “whats-your-name?” at me before running off.
They harvest some oranges from a tree on the grounds, and Baraa soon appears at my side with a peeled and quartered orange.
Ibrahim re-appears suddenly, and feigns gruffness as he scolds the boys to get back inside. But I’m pretty sure his eyes are twinkling. Pulling Baraa to his side, he brags about her, like any father or grandfather would.
“She’s very clever, you know. She’s good on computers. All my kids and their children are. I taught them,” he boasts, beaming.
I spend the rest of the afternoon photographing and enjoying the quiet.
Later, Ibrahim returns with cups of coffee for us all.
He settles down and shares some of his life experiences and philosophies, ending finally with an apology for speaking too much.
But no, he hasn’t spoken enough, he’s lived a lot and has much to share. A book’s worth.