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KT in Israel: Meet the Arab caretaker of largest Jewish cemetery

Anjana Sankar /Jerusalem
anjana@khaleejtimes.com Filed on November 29, 2020 | Last updated on March 19, 2021 at 01.13 pm
Photo: Juidin Bernard/ Khaleej Times

'I grew up here with my father. I used to accompany him to the graveyard'


Ibrahim Sayyed, 59, lives among the dead of Jerusalem. He is the Muslim caretaker of the world’s largest Jewish cemetery located atop the Mount of Olives. The sprawling stretch of land peppered with tombstones — both new and dating back to hundreds of years — and directly overlooking Kidron valley and the Old city with its holy sites, is where Sayyed spends most part of his day.

He belongs to the Arab minority among Israeli citizens, and is the third-generation of caretakers for the Jewish cemetery. Jews were burying their dead since 3,000 years, and still continue the practice. “I have been taking care of the graveyard for more than 40 years now. I took over the mantle from my father and grandfather,” Sayyed told Khaleej Times.

Though, there is no official data on the number of tombs, it is estimated to be anything between 60,000 and 150,000 tombs from various periods in history.

“I grew up here with my father. I used to accompany him to the graveyard. So, I am proud to continue his work,” said Sayyed who is married and with six grown up children. They are aged between 24 and 32.

On a typical day, Sayyed starts his work from 7am till 2pm. “But when you are serving the dead, there is no fixed time. A death can happen anytime and I am on call 24/7,” says Sayyed.

According to Jewish beliefs, it is forbidden to leave the deceased unburied overnight and the deceased must be buried immediately after passing.

“People ask me whether I like doing this job and I tell them I am proud to serve the dead. It is a privilege and I do it happily.”

He says the tension between Muslims and Jews do not affect him. “Nothing is perfect in the world. I do my job and I hope for peace.”

In 2010, a new website was launched to keep a digital record of the tombs. It helps surfers to search for their loved one with names and date on the tomb. But Sayyed says he can locate tombs in the graveyard more accurately than a computer. “I know each and every one of these tombs by name. Families from different parts of the world come here often to look for family member who passed away years ago. And if they tell me the name, I know where they are resting in peace,” says Sayyad.

But after his time, Sayyad says none among his six children is interested in continuing the family tradition. “Two of my children are working as school teachers, one is a bus driver and others are all well employed. They are not interested in taking care of the graves. But I am happy to do this as long as I am alive,” said Sayyad.

anjana@khaleejtimes.com

author

Anjana Sankar

Anjana Sankar is a UAE-based journalist chasing global stories of conflict, migration and human rights. She has reported from the frontlines of the wars in Yemen and Syria and has extensively written on the refugee crisis in Bangladesh, Iraq and Europe. From interviewing Daesh militants to embedding with the UAE army in Yemen, and covering earthquakes, floods, terrorist attacks and elections, she has come out scathe-free from the most dangerous conflict zones of the world. Riding on over 14 years of experience, Anjana currently is an Assistant Editor with Khaleej Times and leads the reporting team. She often speaks about women empowerment on her Facebook page that has 40,000 plus followers.





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