Saida, Lebanon – Carefully picking a path through the thistles and mounds of disturbed soil, Nagi Zeidan leads the way past tombstones in varying states of decrepitude covered in a script rarely seen in Lebanon: Hebrew.
“The oldest one I have found is this one from 1853, for a girl who died aged 12,” explains Zeidan, a Christian Lebanese historian writing a book on the Jews of Lebanon.
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He pauses at a raised concrete tomb with holes in it. “Her brother was buried next to her when he died much later.”
This is just one of hundreds of untold stories buried in Saida’s rundown Jewish cemetery, a site that holds roughly 310 tombs scattered over some 20,000 square metres.
Located on Saida’s periphery, the cemetery is next to a slaughterhouse and an enormous dump, infusing it with the stench of rotting carcasses and refuse.
The thistle-covered ground lends a wild air to the cemetery, while the gate is surrounded by dirty, matted balls of discarded sheep’s wool. But, for the first time in decades, the cemetery actually has a gate – and it is now attached to a wall that, after two years of work, finally runs all the way around the site.
“This is not being done by the municipality,” said Zeidan, who has been using birth and death archives to research Lebanon’s Jewish community since 1995. “This is paid for by one man from the Jewish community here, and I have been sent to oversee it.”
The man funding the renovations of the cemetery, who wished to remain anonymous, lives in New York but is originally Lebanese.
Zeidan did not know how much money he had spent or was planning to spend on the renovations, and the donor declined Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the project.
However, Zeidan said that he and the donor were committed to cleaning up the cemetery, and have already conducted the laborious process of numbering and documenting each grave.
“He wants to fix all the stones on the tombs,” Zeidan explained, pointing to an engraved slab that was partly removed from its tomb. “And he wants to clean up the ground to make it like a garden.”
Zeidan’s research indicates that the cemetery first fell into decline during the early years of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), when fighting gripped the area.
The cemetery was renovated to some extent by the Israeli army when it occupied vast swaths of Lebanon in 1982. But it was heavily vandalised by locals after Israeli forces retreated in 1985, with many of the engraved gravestones completely removed from the tomb tops.
By then, however, the previously small but significant community of Jews in Saida, which Zeidan dates back to the 10th century AD, had dwindled to nothing.
The Montefiore Census – a survey of the Jewish inhabitants of the region compiled by Sir Moses Montefiore – found 150 families residing in Saida in 1839, and 171 in 1866. According to Lebanon’s only national census, conducted in 1932, around 3,500 Jews were living in the country at that time, with just under 400 of those living in Saida, Zeidan said.
By the beginning of the civil war, according to Zeidan’s research, there were just 40 Jewish families left in the southern city, and all of them left Saida during the war, with the last burial in the cemetery dated 1985.
Unlike in Beirut, where roughly 200 Jewish Lebanese people reside, no one from the community remains in Saida – although there is still a small synagogue that has been turned into a home.
Still, as one of only three Jewish cemeteries in Lebanon – the one in Beirut is in a much better condition, while the one in Tripoli has been built over – Lebanese of all religions agree that fixing the site in Saida is necessary.
“It’s important,” said Bassem al-Hout, a Muslim lawyer who is the administrative head of the country’s Jewish community. “It’s very old and very big. There is a lot of work to be done.”
For Mohammad Seoudi, Saida’s Muslim mayor, giving permission for the renovations was a no-brainer.
“It is a request from the Jewish community to make the cemetery look better,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is their property and I have to respect their demand.”
The recent renovation of Beirut’s Maghen Abraham Synagogue was another project undertaken to restore some of the Jewish community’s roots in Lebanon, with plans also under way to renovate other such buildings in the country.
“Nobody opposed this permission,” Seoudi said, noting it was important to conserve such heritage sites.
Nevertheless, Zeidan and his team are not taking any chances.
A plaque in Hebrew that previously marked the entrance to the cemetery has been taken down, and there are no plans to put it back up.
Zeidan said it was put up by the Israeli army to commemorate their renovations in the early 1980s, something he and the anonymous donor consider unnecessarily provocative.
“We have had no problems so far,” he says, looking out over the rock and brambles covering the cemetery. “But we have also been very discreet. This is how we work.”