Cemeteries and Faces

There are many faces in Cairo’s Christian cemeteries. After entering a small one in Mar Girgis (‘St. George’) the first I saw were those of three young men playing backgammon at the gate. They returned my greeting without looking up. Most of the tombs were large, free-standing structures with a family name. Here are the Nassifs.

They were ornamented with icons, real and fake flowers, statues with exposed hearts.

Names and dates on gravestones do little for my imagination. If I am to conjure some idea of who the deceased might have been I need at least a phrase about their life, or manner of death, to start me off, preferably something not entirely platitudinous. It is nice to know that they ‘were deeply loved’ or ‘granted mercy’ or ‘taken into angels’ care’; but it is far better to see their face. This has been an option amongst Egypt’s Copts for a very long time:

In that small cemetery, there were plenty of modern equivalents. Here is one of the Nassif’s:

There were also scholars and great beauties.

At the rear of the cemetery, there was a long mausoleum that took up most of its back wall.

Inside  were marble graves stacked from floor to ceiling, most of them originally from Europe. There were the Bernadis from Parma:

Here are the Kuhns, she originally from South Africa, he from Lindau, Bavaria.

There was also a candidate for one of the worst things it can say on your gravestone.

Though it is of course better to have a gravestone than not. A few of the graves lacked their fronts, most of which were empty.

However, there was one exception.

This gentleman was still wearing his socks and shoes.

Found #9

Found in the same photo album as #8. Relation unknown. Reason for inclusion: the remarkable pallor of the girl in the most probably fake ‘YvesSaintLaurent’ sweater, which doesn’t seem as dramatic at low res, but is, I assure you, worth clicking on the photos in order to truly appreciate its deathly quality.

Found #8

3 pictures from a photo album with a paisley cover. The sea is probably the Mediterranean, the country Greece, judging by other less-interesting pictures in the album. There’s something very appealing about the woman’s evident happiness in the third picture, that makes her seem younger than in the other two, where she seems alternately calm and defiant. As ever, one struggles to understand how/why these pictures (and the album in which they were contained)  ended up being thrown away, given that they seem to depict what was probably a good holiday. In the absence of any method of finding out, one can only wish her well.

An unremembered dream

I rarely remember my dreams. But I am assured that they still happen. Or at least the same patterns of electrical activity that correlate with waking reports of a dream. Though this is fine for my brain, it leaves me feeling a bit cheated. Thankfully I own a copy of The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic, which has many fine short pieces I can recite and pass off as my own whenever the conversation during the party/train ride/hostage situation turns the sad corner to ‘Dreams’. This is one of my current mainstays, which you may of course feel free to appropriate, should you also suffer from the same deficit, and are at a different party or bank to myself.

My thumb is embarking on a great adventure.

“Don’t go, please,” say the fingers. They try to hold

him down. Here comes a black limousine with a

veiled woman in the back seat, but no one at the

wheel. When it stops, she takes a pair of gold

scissors out of her purse and snips the thumb off.

We are off to Chicago with her using the bloody

stump of my thumb to paint her lips.

Street Scene, Urumqi, 1957

Urumqi's Nan-Men (south gate) in 1910


Richard Hughes was a journalist who spent most of his life as a correspondent in Asia for  The Times, The Economist, and the Far Eastern Economic Review. During World War 2 he was thought by some to be a spy, and possibly a double agent. Given these suspicions, it is unsurprising that he ended up being fictionalised twice: Ian Fleming based the character of Dikko Henderson in You Only Live Twice on him; in John Le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy he appears as Craw. This is his from book Foreign Devil, a memoir. I quote this because a) it suggests how relations (not to say manners) have worsened in the city known as ‘beautiful pastureland’ and b) I have a weakness for this kind of prose.

It happened in ‘The Street of the Grey-Eyed Men’ during the tranquil noontime traffic ‘rush’. The inexpert Chinese driver of a bus loudly tooted his horn and frightened a nervous, highstepping white mare, ridden by a tough Kazakh tribesman. The horse reared, neighing, and fell. The horseman skillfully sprang clear, raised and soothed the mare, handed the reins with a bow to the chairman of a council of dignified nomads seated in converse in the gutter, walked calmly over to the halted bus, and, with deliberation but no visible anger, fetched the apologetic driver a fearful backhand clout over the nose. He then remounted, saluted his quietly approving audience in the gutter, and rode off. The Chinese driver wiped his nose, bowed first to the seated gallery, arose, turned and bowed next to the amused but friendly passengers, and drove off, without tooting.

Urumqi's South Gate in the 1960's

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