My city earned a place in the history books when the first strike from a pickax was delivered to dig the Suez Canal. The city became famous not only among Egyptians, but also among foreigners, who started to arrive at it, wound up living in it, and eventually died in it. On the western side of the city, close to where the “beautiful” beach begins to stretch, one may bump into the fence of the old cemetery of Port Said. It is divided into different sections: one for the deceased who hailed from the Commonwealth, another for those who were Catholic, and yet another for those who were Orthodox Christians. Besides that, there are five sections for deceased Muslims. It has recently been expanded to include five new sections in the suburban slums of Abu Auf.
Upon accessing the foreigners section of the cemetery, I saw a heart-rending epitaph written on one of the tombstones. It read: “Dear son, rest in peace in this foreign land, which lies so far away from your loved ones who grieve for you.”
That is what the father of Sergeant J. R. Marchello, who shuffled off this mortal coil in World War II, had engraved on his son’s tombstone.
My fear of death and of being left all by my lonesome subsided when I took a few more steps into the cemetery. Instead, I started to understand the perks of moving into the realms of the decaying stiffs. The cemetery was a haven of peace and quiet amid the constant din made by the living. The cemetery’s lawn was carefully tended and roses sprouted up between the graves, which were also accurately aligned, as if they had been seeded there to relay a message of sweet-scented love to those soldiers who had lost their lives in the two world wars.
A small iron gate opened to another cemetery. I stepped inside, and as I was walking over to the keeper of the cemetery to salute him, my eyes fell on a derelict grave that bespoke the principle of transience. It was in the middle of the cemetery, give or take a few yards. One could tell that nobody had paid it a visit for ages. The foreigner’s family had either been devoured by the ground or had abandoned the city a long time ago and had never returned to it again.
The cemetery’s keeper was Muslim, albeit he had European features such as white skin and green eyes. He was sitting alone with his dog, which started baying at me when I approached.
The number of foreigners in the city has dwindled over the years. The last one the keeper buried was Monsieur Francois, who cashed in his chips just about a month ago. He was the last Maltese left in the city and had adamantly refused to go anywhere else.
The keeper has spent years sitting alone with his dog and the dead. Nary a soul visits the cemetery. All those inside have faded into oblivion.
Your eyes dwell on the old pictures of the departed. You then catch sight of the photo of a smiling girl who died around a century ago. Her dazzling smile lays bare how beguiling it can be to see time go by.
Written by Usama Kamal Abu Zeid.