Abdulaziz Mulogala: We have been taking care of this [Jewish] cemetery for over 100 years
Abdulaziz Mulogala walks sure-footed on the dirt between the Jewish graves as he points to the carved Hebrew letters on the stones. A religious Muslim, he has walked these paths a hundred thousand times before. It was here he was born, here he played as a child, here his father was killed and here he and his wife raised their seven children. Mulogala is the caretaker for the Jewish cemetery of Herat, the western-most city of Afghanistan and the once vibrant center of Afghanistan’s Jewish community. His father did the job before him, as did his father before him. “We have been taking care of this cemetery for over 100 years,” said the 45-year-old Mulogala, who wears a torn cotton turban and an unkempt beard. And for the last 25 years he has received no wages.
The cemetery is located a few kilometers north of the city down a bumpy dirt road, past rows of narrow, one-story mud-brick warehouses filled with large, net sacks of onions and potatoes. On the right side of the road is Herat’s Muslim cemetery. It is strewn with gravestones, old and new, broken and whole. Rising gracefully from its center and high above the broken graves is Gazargah, the immense 15th-century shrine to the 11th-century, Herat-born Sufi Muslim poet and philosopher, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari. The recently restored building, decorated with turquoise and aqua colored tiles, lends some dignity to the dismal graveyard, which still has the carcass of a Soviet tank in its midst. It also makes a good landmark to find the Jewish cemetery, which is on the left side of the dirt road, almost directly opposite the mausoleum. Unlike the neighboring open Muslim cemetery, the soccer field-sized Jewish one is hard to identify because there is no sign marking the site and a two-meter high mud-brick wall surrounds it. The wall was built eight years ago, during the Taliban, with money from abroad, ostensibly from Jews. But the Taliban didn’t bother the cemetery, said Mulogala. It was the war with the Russians that destroyed most of the graves.
Inside the graveyard, dispersed among the weeds, are approximately 300 to 400 gravestones, some half-buried in the ground. Many more have been destroyed. Most of the damage was done long ago, when the mujahideen – fighters for Islam – launched a US-backed jihad on the Soviets, who invaded and occupied Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. The two neighboring cemeteries became the front for terrible battles. In an irony of history, the Muslim fighters hid among the Jewish graves while the Soviets – whose ideological forefather, Karl Marx, was a Jew – stationed themselves in the Muslim cemetery, from where they could hit the mujahideen. “The mujahideen were here shooting RPGs at the Soviets, who were over there,” said Mulogala, pointing past the wall to the Muslim cemetery. His father was killed one day in the crossfire, and the job was passed to him. The graves closest to the wall near the road are nothing but rubble. But many of those further away are still whole and the Hebrew words “Nitmana Poh” (Was Buried Here) can be seen on the top of the gravestones followed by the names of the deceased.
But the cemetery was not the only place important to the Jews of Herat that was affected by the fighting. The city’s Bazaar Iraq neighborhood, the center of Herati Jewish life, was in the area hit hardest by the fighting. Those violent clashes were the final straw for the last remaining Jews of Herat. Today, the former Jewish neighborhood remains one of the most colorful and bustling areas of the city. Its single main street is a busy, dusty thoroughfare filled with shoppers and craftsmen, rickshaws and motorcycles, Japanese vans and horse-pulled carts. It is lined with rug, tailor, and metalwork shops, whose owners turn down their radios at the sound of the call to prayer and close their shops on Fridays.