Abed Sayd’s withered face speaks of his years spent in the hot Jerusalem sun, living there throughout British, Jordanian and Israeli rule. He spends his days near his home at the top of the Mount of Olives, a 3,000 year old cemetery where prophets and sages are said to be buried, meticulously tending the special section set aside for Hadassah members.
He unlocks the gate, walks with me inside and proudly points to the grave of his friend, Henrietta Szold, who founded Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, in 1912. He speaks fondly of his friend who died in 1945, clearly missing the times they shared. As she neared death, he promised her that he would always take care of those Hadassah graves. His tender loving care has not stopped since her death, including the years between when Israel became a state and the Six Day War in 1967.
“I promised her I’d take care of it,” he told me as he handed me his photo album of newspaper clippings and memorabilia which often feature a photo of himself with some Hadassah leader.
But it’s not just his hard work that makes Sayd such an important person here. Through his years, he has pretty much memorized all the names of the people buried here and the exact location of their final resting places. He even recognizes large chunks of broken stone and quickly knows what belongs to which grave.
He takes his vow to Szold seriously and it shows. The small Hadassah section stands in clear contrast to the rest of the cemetery, which is slowly coming back to life following its years of neglect under Jordanian rule.
Actually, it’s way more than neglect. During a two hour walk around the cemetery, it’s hard to miss all the cracked stones, missing chunks of graves and empty gaps where graves once laid. Rocks strewn everywhere are a testament to how many graves have been damaged. It was not uncommon, I was told, for an Arab setting up a home by the Mount of Olives to just remove graves, sending their stones down the hill and out of the way. Other graves have been damaged by years of neglect.
Hadassah clearly appreciates Sayd’s work, paying him and providing free health care at the nearby Hadassah Medical Center, which has an open door policy for all of Jerusalem’s populations. Let’s just hope they keep Sayd healthy for a long time to come.