Walking in Cemeteries: Fes

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The white-washed tombstones gleamed against the steep green hill, inviting us to climb up and share their view. But the graves were set close together, and in the narrow spaces of earth between them, purple thistles with spiny stems flourished. Dina and I had no choice but to step on the flat tops of the tombs, and the sharp edges of the thistle leaves scraped our bare ankles.

Wherever I go, I try to walk in a cemetery. The departed are good company, and in crowded cities they often have valuable amenities to share—open sky, benches, beds of blooming flowers. The cemetery on the hill outside the old city of Fes offered a rare vista of the medina and its walls.

We were settled comfortably a little more than halfway up the hill near a grave enclosed in an iron “cage” when a man entered the cemetery and climbed toward us.  Middle-aged, well-dressed, he wore glasses and carried a small camera. His expression was serious. We both felt slightly apprehensive. Perhaps he intended to upbraid us for using someone’s resting place as a park bench.

But just below us, he stopped, leaned on a gravestone, and commiserated matter-of-factly about the thistles. “It’s overgrown because it has been closed for years,” he explained, “although you can still be buried here if you own a plot.” He looked out at the hillside. “It’s not the responsibility of the families to clean the graves,” he added. “It’s the city that should do something.” He gestured to the top of the hill. “I am trying to get up there. My mother is buried there. My whole family, in fact.”

He told us he was a Fassi, a native of Fes, but worked as a socio-economist in Larache, a port city near Tanger. Although his father had moved in with a sister in the Ville Nouvelle, they held on to their old house in the medina. It was still completely furnished, and when they gathered for family visits, they stayed there.

Below us, near the entrance, men were replastering a little square house with a pointed roof—an entrance gate or a tool shed, perhaps. No, the tomb of a saint. The little building was the tomb of Saint Lissane Eddine Ibnou Al Khatib, he said. A Fassi poet, physician, and theologian. “And philosopher,” he added, seeing me take out my notebook. “Be sure to write philospher.” Lissane Eddine means literally “tongue of the religion.”

He pointed out the nearest gate in the ancient wall. “The government calls this gate, Bab el Sharia,” he said. “The Gate of Religious Law. But no one here calls it that. We Fassis call it Bab el Mahrouck. The Gate of the Burning. This is where they used to put people to death by burning them alive. And decapitate them, too!”

In response to my question about funerals, he replied that he had recently buried someone close and told us about the prayer a person should say when death was approaching, the washing of the body, the prayers at the mosque and then at the cemetery, the dried figs and bread the family hands out at the cemetery, the honey and butter they serve at the house to those who come to give condolences. When I asked about the women, he said that only men came to the burial. The women came to the cemetery on the third day to say prayers. The name for this ritual comes from the Arabic verb “to separate.”

“Do you picture your family in Paradise?” I asked.

“Of course,” he answered without hesitation. And then glancing up at the top of the hill, “Yes, they are certainly in Paradise.

“You know that the Koran,” he said quietly, “gives images of Paradise from the dreams of desert nomads. The Koran speaks of water, women, fruit, and green vegetation. But,” he added softly but firmly, “Islam was made for everyone and for all time. Paradise is presented in the Koran as the dreams of men—men living a hard life in the desert. I am educated, but observant, a believer. Yes, Sufi.” He paused and then went on. “In the Koran, there are phrases for another era and phrases for all time. We must distinguish between them.

“For example, the Koran says the sun moves across the sky. Now we understand that the entire galaxy is moving. Since Galileo we have understood this. Man is swimming in the sky, and around us, everything moves, everything turns.”

When I thanked him for his explanations, he gestured dismissively back toward the medina. “The guides—they have memorized some facts. They point out the architecture. But this is not what matters. What matters, and this they do not understand…what matters most are ideas.”

And with that he asked to take our photograph. Dina laughed about someone wanting to photograph us for a change as we posed, smiling. We didn’t ask his name, nor did he ask ours. After we said good-bye,  he resumed his climb through the purple thistles toward his mother’s grave.

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One Response to “Walking in Cemeteries: Fes”

  1. dinagudym Says:

    we were so goth:))

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