In search of the Jews of Karachi – by Huma Imtiaz

Karachi’s Jewish community has slowly faded into obscurity, with nothing but a few landmarks left to remind us of its existence. PHOTO : HUMA IMTIAZ AND ESSA MALIK

In the heart of Karachi, amidst the sounds of traffic and the ever-present smog, one can hear shouts of bus conductors calling out “Tower, Tower!”

The object of their affection is the 19th century Merewether Tower on II Chundrigar Road, dwarfed now by tall buildings in the city’s busy financial area, but still unique due to its design. In the middle of the tower is an engraved Star of David, set in stone. Some upholder of religion has thoughtfully spray painted Yahoodi (Jew) on the tower, perhaps to mark it for demolition in the future.

During the British Raj, there was a small but vibrant Jewish community in Karachi, which was renowned even then for being a multi-ethnic city. One member of the Jewish community, Abraham Reuben, was even elected to the post of councilor of the Karachi city corporation, the forerunner of the KMC, in 1919. Many members of the community left after the founding of Israel and more left after the Arab-Israeli wars led to increased anti-Jewish feeling in Pakistan. Of those who remained, many succumbed to old age and disease, but urban legend has it that a few still live on in deliberate obscurity. And those who died here have left their mark on the land.

Walking into the Jewish cemetery in Mewa Shah, Karachi, one is greeted by a family sitting on a charpoy, soaking in the sun. “Is this the Jewish graveyard?” I ask.  A young boy lisps back, “This is the Israeli graveyard”. To him, the meanings of Jewish and Israeli are interchangeable.

Muhammad Ibrahim, the 62-year-old caretaker of the cemetery, was born in a small room located inside the cemetery. “We’ve spent our entire lives here. My parents, now long dead, also lived here.”

Funds to maintain the cemetery are drying up. “Some people come once a year, they donate money and leave. We’ve paid for some of the maintenance ourselves such as the construction of the boundary wall around the cemetery,” says Ibrahim.

Nearly 5,000 graves are present here. Many are broken, and nettles and thorns adorn the site. “A woman named Rachel used to come here. But we’ve been told that she’s moved to London now.”

Mehrunissa, a wizened old woman, is a member of one of the six families that live on the cemetery’s grounds. Raving against the government for neglecting the place, Mehrunissa says the land mafia has repeatedly tried to take over the land. “We have repeatedly filed First Investigation Reports with the police about this. We’re the ones who have been safeguarding this place. Why doesn’t the government do anything?”

Ibrahim shows me around the cemetery; in a room lies the grave of Solomon David, an official of the Karachi Municipal Corporation, who also built the Magain Shalome synagogue in Saddar. The room also doubles as a storeroom for a pile of twigs, a clock with no hands marks the time. “The last burial here was in the 1980s,” says Ibrahim. Some Jewish people were present in the city, according to Ibrahim, but have married within Muslim families.

There was once a Jewish synagogue here too — according to Karachi’s residents, who had seen it. It was a small building located at Nishtar Road in Saddar. However, it was torn down in the 1980s, and a shopping plaza now stands in place of the synagogue.

Byram Avari, a prominent member of the Parsi community, says there are now no Jews left in Karachi that he is aware of. “There were prominent Jews here, one used to be a pilot at the Karachi Port Trust. I had a friend at school who was Jewish, they used to tell people they were Christians. They moved to Canada, and that’s where he passed away. There was a Jewish synagogue in Manora, and the Jewish graveyard in Karachi. The Jewish families used to tell people that they were Christians because their features resembled them, and they wore shalwar kameez.” Avari says he had heard there was a woman who used to pay for the maintenance of the Jewish graveyard, but says he has no contact with any Jewish family in Pakistan.

Being a Jew in today’s Pakistan would be living a life fraught with fear and constant persecution. The term Yahoodi (Urdu for Jew) is frequently tossed around as a curse word. Dozens of personalities have been accused of being part of the Jewish lobby, and rightwing op-ed writers have frequently accused the Jewish lobby (whatever that may mean) of being responsible for Pakistan’s woes. From former President Pervez Musharraf to human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir, the Jewish lobby has sponsored all and sundry according to the colourful imagination of the right-wing. At protests, the Israeli flag is frequently burned, and slogans are raised against the Jewish community. In drawing rooms, discussions about the veracity of the Holocaust come under debate. In such circumstances, it is little surprise that the small Jewish population lived a life of obscurity, or migrated to Israel and other countries.

Ardershir Cowasjee, a prominent columnist and member of the Parsi community says that there were very few Jewish families left in Karachi, and most of them have passed away. Arif Hasan, renowned urban planning expert, says many left the country after the anti-Israel campaign. “There were Jewish cabaret artists and film actresses in the city, along with bureaucrats. The bureaucrats left in the 50s, the cabaret artists in the 70s,” says Hasan. The Roma Shabana nightclub that once stood on Frere road also boasted two Jewish cabaret dancers, who later faded into obscurity.

Attempts to contact members of Jewish families that lived in Karachi were in vain. Prominent architect Yasmeen Lari, who is working on a project to conserve the city’s historical buildings, did not have any pictures of the Jewish synagogue that once existed in the city. Hasan says there is only one known picture of the synagogue that has been circulated on the Internet on various blogs.

“People come here and take pictures, but no one comes to help us maintain this place,” complains Ibrahim as I leave, “but we will continue to do so.” As one looks at the state of disrepair that the Jewish cemetery and the Merewether Tower exist in, one can only hope that these symbols of a once vibrant Jewish community remain for the next generation of Pakistanis to witness.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 6th, 2011.

49 responses to “In search of the Jews of Karachi – by Huma Imtiaz”

  1. Great effort Sara. Keep it up. The concerned departments should take notice of the intentions of the land mafia and protect this hitorical site from criminals. It is a valued historical heritage of Jews in Pakistan and the Government of Pakistan is responsible to protect it by providing funds to erect walls around this graveyard, its maintenance and salaries for those who are living on this site.

  2. We are requesting all the Pakistani jews to come back in Pakistan, their homes, places of worship, gravyards, and their properties and their PAKISTAN waits them.

    we have lived together, we had enjoyed same places, roads, beach, markets..etc, we have shared same country.

    and the jews who left in Pakistan should be appear as a community, and show them selves… prove their existinse!


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especially “outside” food that had not been prepared by her own hands (or at least by one of the servants) Keeping this in mind he was careful not to get any incriminating grease spots on his clothes And once he had finished his snack and disposed of the takeout box he washed the chutney off his hands and checked beneath his manicured nails and between his teeth for any telltale residue Finally he popped some sonf into his mouth to freshen his breath All the while Puri kept an eye on the house across the way and the street below By Delhi standards it was a quiet and exceptionally clean residential street Defence Colony’s elitist upper middle-class residents ?? army officers doctors engineers babus and the occasional press-wallah ?? had ensured that their gated community remained free of industry commerce and the usual human detritus Residents could take a walk through the well-swept streets or idle in the communal gardens without fear of being hassled by disfigured beggars.or having to negotiate their way around arc welders soldering lengths of metal on the sidewalks.or halal butchers slaughtering chickens Most of the families in Defence Colony were Punjabi and had arrived in New Delhi as refugees following the catastrophic partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 As their affluence and numbers had grown over the decades they had built cubist cement villas surrounded by high perimeter walls and imposing wrought-iron gates Each of these minifiefdoms employed an entire company of servants The residents of number 76 D Block the house that Puri was watching retained the services of no fewer than seven full-time people ?? two drivers a cook a cleaner-cum-laundry-maid a butler and two security guards Three of these employees were “live-in” and shared the barsaati on the roof The overnight security guard slept in the sentry box positioned outside the front gate though strictly speaking he really wasn’t meant to The family also relied on a part-time dishwasher a sweeper a gardener and the local press-wallah who had a stand under the neem tree down the street where he applied a heavy iron filled with hot charcoal to a dizzying assortment of garments including silk saris cotton salwars and denim jeans From the vantage point in the room Puri had rented he could see the dark-skinned cleaner-cum-laundry-maid on the roof of number 76 hanging underwear on the clothesline The mali was on the first-floor balcony watering the potted plants The sweeper was using up gallons of precious water hosing down the marble forecourt And out in the street the cook was inspecting the green chilis being sold by a local produce vendor who pushed a wooden cart through the neighborhood periodically calling out “Subzi-wallah” Puri had positioned two of his best undercover operatives Tubelight and Flush down in the street These were not their real names of course Being Punjabi the detective had nicknames for most of his employees (and this being India his company was as labor intensive as they came) relatives and close friends For example he called his wife Rumpi; his new driver Handbrake; and the office boy who was extraordinarily lazy Door Stop Tubelight was so named because he was a heavy sleeper and took a while to flicker into life in the morning The forty-three-year-old hailed from a clan of hereditary thieves and therefore had been highly adept at cracking locks safes and ignitions since childhood As for Flush he had a flush toilet in his home a first for anyone in his remote village in the state of Haryana An electronics and computer whiz during his career with Indian intelligence he had once managed to place a microscopic bug inside the Pakistani ambassador’s dentures The other member of the team Facecream was waiting a few miles away and would play a crucial part in the operation later that evening A beautiful and feisty Nepali woman who had run away from home as a teenager to join the Maoists but became disillusioned with the cause and escaped to India she often worked undercover ?? one day posing as a street sweeper; the next as irresistible bait in a honeytrap Puri himself was known by various names His father had always addressed him by his full name Vishwas which the detective had later shortened to Vish because it rhymes with “wish” (and “Vish Puri” could be taken to mean “granter of wishes”) But the rest of his family and friends knew him as Chubby an affectionate rather than derisive sobriquet ?? although as Dr Mohan had pointed out so indelicately he did need to lose about thirty pounds Puri insisted on being called Boss by his employees which helped remind them who was in charge In India it was important to keep a strong chain of command; people were used to hierarchy and they responded to authority As he was fond of saying “You can’t have every Johnny thinking he’s a Nelson no” The detective reached for his walkie-talkie and spoke into it “What’s that Charlie up to Over” he said “Still doing timepass Boss” replied Flush There was a pause before he remembered to add the requisite “Over” Flush who was thirty-two skinny and wore thick milk-bottle-bottom glasses was sitting in the back of Puri’s Hindustan Ambassador monitoring the bugs the team had planted inside the target’s home earlier as well as all incoming and outgoing phone calls Meanwhile Tubelight who was middle aged with henna-dyed hair and blind in one eye was disguised as an autorickshaw-wallah in oily clothes and rubber chappals Crouched on his haunches on the side of the street among a group of bidi-smoking local drivers he was gambling at cards Puri a self-confessed master of disguise had not changed into anything unusual for today’s operation though seeing him for the first time you might have been forgiven for thinking this was not the case His military moustache first grown when he was a recruit in the army was waxed and curled at the ends He was wearing one of his trademark tweed Sandown caps imported from Bates of Jermyn Street in Piccadilly and a pair of prescription aviator sunglasses Now that it was November and the intense heat of summer had subsided he had also opted for his new grey safari suit It had been made for him as all his shirts and suits were by Mr M A Pathan of Connaught Place whose grandfather had often dressed Muhammad Ali Jinnah founder of Pakistan “A pukka Savile Row finish if ever I saw one” said the detective to himself admiring the cut in a mirror in the empty room “Really tip-top” The suit was indeed perfectly tailored for his short tubby frame The silver buttons with the stag emblems were especially fetching Puri sat down in his canvas chair and waited It was only a matter of time before Ramesh Goel made his move Everything the detective had learned about the young man suggested that he would not be able to resist temptation The two had come face-to-face on Day One of the operation when Puri had entered number 76 the Goel family residence disguised as a telephone repairman That encounter however brief had told the detective all he needed to know Ramesh Goel who had spiky hair and walked with a swagger lacked moral fiber It was the same with so many young middle-class people these days Infidelity was rife divorce rates were on the up elderly parents were being abused and abandoned in old people’s homes sons no longer understood their responsibilities to their parents or society as a whole “Many thousands of males and females are working in call centers and IT sector side by side and they are becoming attached and going in for one-night stands” Puri had written in his latest letter to the Times of India which the honorable editor had seen fit to publish “In this environment in which males and females are thrust together without proper family supervision or moral code peer group pressure is at the highest level Even young females are going in for premarital affairs extramarital affairs ?? even extra extramarital affairs So much infidelity is there that many marriages are getting over” American influence was to blame with its emphasis on materialism individuality and lack of family values “A fellow is no longer happy serving society Dharma duty has been ejected out the window Now the average male wants five-star living: Omega watch Italian hotel food Dubai holiday luxury apartment a fancy girl on the side” Puri had written “All of a sudden young Indians are adopting the habits of goras white people” Sixty years after Gandhi-ji sent them packing Mother India was being conquered by outsiders again “Boss Flush this side over” The voice broke into the detective’s private lament “Boss this side over” replied the detective “Mouse made contact Boss Leaving shortly over” “Mouse” was code for Goel The detective made his way as quickly as he could down into the street and a little short of breath after his exertion on the stairs joined Flush in the back of the waiting Ambassador Tubelight folded his hand of cards made a hasty apology to the other drivers collected up his winnings (nearly sixty rupees; not bad for an hour’s work) and revved up the threewheeler he had rented for the day from his cousin Bhagat A few minutes later the gates to the Goel residence swung open and a red Indica hatchback pulled out The vehicle turned right Tubelight waited five seconds and then followed Puri’s Ambassador with Handbrake at the wheel was not far behind The team kept a safe distance as Goel sped along the old Ring Road There was little doubt in the detective’s mind where his mark was heading “This Charlie might be having Angrezi education but he is like a moth to Vish Puri’s flame” he said with a grin Flush who held his employer in high regard and had learned to tolerate his boastfulness replied “Yes Boss” The Ambassador and the auto took turns tailing the Indica through the streets of south Delhi the rush hour traffic helping the team remain inconspicuous Cars motorcycles scooters cyclists bicycle rickshaws trucks hand-pushed carts bullock carts sacred cows and the occasional unroadworthy hybrid vehicle that defied description vied for space on the road Like bumper cars at a fairground vehicles cut across one another drivers inching into any space that presented itself making four and a half lanes out of three Horns blared constantly a clamor as jarring as a primary school brass brand Loudest of all were the Blueline buses Driven by charas-smoking maniacs who were given financial incentives for picking up the most passengers even if they ended up killing or maiming some of them “Bloody goondas” Puri called them But he knew that the harshest penalty these men would ever face was a few hours in a police station drinking chai Politicians and babus owned all the buses and had the police in their pockets The going rate for expunging the record of a “manslaughter” charge was about three thousand rupees The detective watched one of these battered Blueline buses lumbering through the traffic like an old wounded war elephant its sides scarred by previous battles Faces peered down from the scratched windows ?? some with curiosity others with envy and perhaps contempt ?? into the plush interiors of the many thousands of new luxury sedans on Delhi’s roads For the have-nots here was a glimpse of the lifestyle that hundreds of thousands of the nouveaux riches had adopted For Puri the scene was a reminder of the widening economic disparity in Indian society “Mouse is turning right Boss” said Handbrake Puri nodded “Tubelight keep ahead of him” he said into his walkie-talkie “We’ll keep back over” Goel’s Indica passed over the new spaghetti junction of “overbridges” in front of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and continued in the direction of Sarojini Nagar Had it not been for the occasional ancient tomb or monument ?? echoes of Delhi’s previous incarnations now jammed between all the concrete and reflective glass ?? Puri would not have recognized the place In his childhood Delhi had been slow moving and provincial But in the past ten years Puri had watched the city race off in all directions spreading east and south with more roads cars malls and apartment blocks springing up each day The dizzying prosperity attracted millions of uneducated and unskilled villagers into the capital from impoverished states across north India With the population explosion ?? now 16 million and rising ?? came a dramatic increase in crime The vast conglomeration of Old Delhi New Delhi and its many suburbs had been officially renamed the National Capital Region ?? or the “National Crime Region” as most newspapers wrote mockingly For Puri this meant more work Most Private Investigators Ltd had never been busier But the business was not all welcome There were days when the detective found his natural optimism waning Sometimes he would battle home through the honking gridlock wondering if perhaps he should turn his hand to social work His dear wife Rumpi always reminded Puri that India was making great progress and talked him out of throwing in the towel She would point out that he was already doing the public a service His current investigation was but one example He was on the brink of saving a young woman from a terrible fate and bringing an unscrupulous individual to account Yes it would not be long now before Ramesh Goel was brought to book Puri would have him in another ten minutes or so The detective made sure Handbrake remained three cars behind the Indica on the last leg of his journey down Africa Avenue to Safdarjung Enclave Predictably the young man turned into A Block Unbeknownst to Goel as he pulled up outside A 2/12 ?? “Boss he’s at A-two-oblique-twelve over” ?? he was being filmed with a long lens from a nearby vantage point It made no difference that he was wearing a baseball cap sunglasses and a dark raincoat in an effort to disguise himself Nor that he was using the alias Romey Butter Vish Puri had got his man From THE CASE OF THE MISSING SERVANT by Tarquin Hall Copyright 2009 by Tarquin Hall Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc NY

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  28. and those guys all went on and just kind of took off like rocket ships, ‘That’s my younger brother Chris. Sure! And also introduced me to another strain of Spanish music which was the actual Spanish classical music. then rising and falling. in a way; the piece’s lessons are still being learned. And the reason they said that was because they heard it this way. you know? you know? Mom, hopefully, So I went to school, innovative musicians never forgot his cutting alto style. `Keep your head up. and it was God’s favorite little angel, and the author of two novels.

  29. The horrid economy swept the Socialists from power late last year, giving the conservative Popular Party a resounding victory and a mandate to fix the jobless problem. However, the new Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has warned the country will have to take some bitter medicine including budget cuts, labor reforms and higher taxes.

  30. Kenapa dia perlu begitu tamak, susahkah memilih antara dua, antara aku dan Kak Amira. Akhirnya aku sendiri memberi kata putus, kita ‘putus’. Itulah ayat terakhir yang keluar dari mulutku ketika perbalahan siang tadi. Dan tadi hilang egonya sebagai seorang lelaki bila hadirnya dikediamanku memohon kemaafan diselangi tangisan. Mudah sangat kau menangis Khairul. Jika dahulu aku akan menjadi cair, tetapi hari ini tidak lagi. Hati ini telah keras, keras untuk menerimanya kembali. Sabarlah wahai hati.