Posted by Mahim Maher
The Thar desert is about six hours by road from Karachi. The water here is completely unfit for human consumption because it has too much fluoride and arsenic. In fact, the levels are between 4,000 to 5,000 ppm, which is well above the WHO standard. I will be able to comment more on this a little later. But I wanted to share a photo I took of a hut outside Mithi town. A non-profit called the Sukaar Foundation is doing some good work there helping villagers harvest or collect and store rainwater for the dry season. The water they get from the wells is hard. I’ll post more later.
11.22.13 at 11:32 pm | Salvaging a missed music day
11.9.13 at 9:43 pm | As told to me by an old colleague and reporter. . .
11.5.13 at 11:10 pm | Some reading resources
10.16.13 at 7:54 am | Eid Mubarak everyone
10.11.13 at 12:58 am | Her versus Them versus Us
10.6.13 at 6:30 am | Never a dull day in the newsroom - my personal. . .
March 10, 2011 | 1:20 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
The grammar may be off, but it makes sense: What goes of my father. This is the literal translation of an Urdu saying, ‘Mere baap ka kya jata he’. In American it turns into: I don’t give a shit.
We speak English in Pakistan, not just because it’s become a global language that no country has been able to avoid, but also because of our British masters who ruled the Indian subcontinent for 200 years. Anyone interested in brown sahibs and coolies, dysentery and howdahs can read ‘Plain Tales from the Raj’ by Charles Allen.
People in Pakistan’s major cities, Karachi, Quetta, Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar, Hyderabad, Faisalabad, Multan, Sukkur among others will understand if you speak to them in English. I was once happily surprised to meet a five year old boy in a bus, entering Karachi from a long journey from Peshawar to flee the army’s fighting from the Taliban, who proudly that, “I study at Ghazali Public School.” In fact, most of the young men and women in Peshawar speak excellent English because the province has a strong schooling system.
When I was in Canada, the US and Australia most people would comment on how good my English was. I’ve had a really privileged upbringing and education, but pretty much anyone who’s been to school will be able to manage in English in Pakistan. We have a huge secondhand book market across the country and young people buy everything from Enid Blyton to Nancy Drew, the Silhouette Sensations, Sweet Valley High, Jackie Collins, Sidney Sheldon, Marx, Samuel P Huntington, Edward Said, Karen Armstrong, GQ, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, all the classics such as War and Peace and Sons and Lovers. Heck, I just picked up a second hand copy for $2 of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying the other day.
More than that, the English language script is used by Pakistanis in newspapers (Dawn, The News, The Express Tribune, Pakistan Today, Newsweek, Herald, Newsline, She, Women’s Own, The Friday Times), on television (BBC, CNN, al Jazeera, Express 24/7, Dawn News), on Facebook, YouTube, in advertising, while text messaging, on store fronts (Delhi Sweets, Baloch Ice-cream, Gul Ahmed home and ideas, McDonalds, New Quetta Hotel). All government correspondence is in English.
In fact, we have our own particular Minglish, or variations. We have our own use of the suffix “ify”, as if terrify. We use the verbs “ratta” and turn it into “rattofy” to talk about learning by rote.
We’ve created the word “upgradation”, which I will eternally be editing out of copy at the newspaper. We’ve stopped using the pure Urdu words for “bus”, “glass” and “jug”. I’m not sure we even have a word for “orgasm” in Urdu. We call diabetes “shoogur” (sugar).
Perhaps my favourite word is “suicider”, a pure creation by the crime reporters I’ve worked with. They call suicide bombers, suiciders and pronounce is ‘soos-cider’. It makes perfect sense grammatically, bank, banker, clean, cleaner, drive, driver, suicide, suicider.
We have speedy dumpers run kids over. We have ‘no any’ people attending the function for the upgradation of the basic health unit. People hold up play cards at poRtests. We take the train at the tayshun. We hop onto the moat-cycle. And I just came across Yale Professor Sara Suleri’s ‘no dort’ for no doubt in her stellar ‘Meatless Days’ novel, which I personally think is the best fiction to come out of Pakistan ever.
My father, a surgeon, is called ‘daak saaab’ for doctor sahib. We enter the backsides of buildings. We call Brazilian waxes ‘deep waxing’.
We love acronyms. Oh my God, do Pakistanis love them. The TPO (town police officers), the SHOs (station house officers), the PC1s, the DCOs, the KESC, the Wapda, the CCPOs, the KDA, the KATI, the PMDC, the APTMA, the PkSF, the MQM, the MQM-H, the Tehreek-e-Nifaz e Shariat-e Muhammadi (TNSM).
A hot chick will be “tight”. We ‘marofy’ dates. We have Christian wistian, date-shate, talk-shawk, video-shideo, car-waar, phone-shone, Taliban-waliban. We want Green Cards to go to Amreeka, Ing-lend, Aastralia.
Ok. Making fun of the accent aside, Pakistanis don’t ride on donkeys and live in trees. We keep a keen watch on international developments via the media. Go to any roadside tea stall and talk to labourers and construction workers who can’t read and they will have a fair idea of what is happening politically, what is the latest thing Obama said and how much trouble Pakistan is in.
At the other end of the spectrum we have a slim but vibrant arts scene with musicians keeping alive the traditional classical music of tabla, sitar and qawwali in places like Toronto (Farid Ayaz and Company). Our designers like Noor Jehan Bilgrami make exquisite cloth with the indigenous indigo that the Japanese love. Our novelists like Mohammad Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes) and Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), have won international acclaim. Type in Pakistan on Google Scholar and you will see millions of published papers.
We watch every Hollywood release, even the crappy ‘Season of Witches’ is playing at the Atrium cinema. We love House and Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives and the Billy and the Sundance Kid.
They love AJ as they call her here, Angelina Jolie. We all know about Michael Jackson and Madonna. Our radio shows play Ella and PJ Harvey. It’s hard to escape American culture exports with the Internet these days. And thanks to Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and George Bush, every Pakistani has an opinion on America and its foreign policy.
So, while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you apply for a tourist visa to Pakistan just yet, there’s plenty of literature, film and music out there to enjoy that will give you a pretty good picture of the land of Pak.
March 9, 2011 | 11:56 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
Pakistanis love conspiracy theories. They call it the “foreign hand” meddling in their affairs. Some people call it the “hidden hand”. The American devil is behind the corruption of our youth that is addicted to MTV and Cheetos, and Israel and India are ganging up against us on our borders. The Americans only want to be friends because they want our nukes. Raymond Davis is a CIA operative, (perhaps yes), and he was also the chief of Blackwater and XE and was also in bed with the Russians.
When Arab states began to topple, el Baradei’s arrival in Egypt prompted my father to quip: “How come he came at this time. The Americans must be behind it. He worked at the UN after all.”
Who killed Benazir Bhutto is another favourite one. People love to hold forth on how their information is most correct. “Who stood to benefit the most,” they ask. When I pooh-pooh their answers, they call me naïive. “Don’t you know what the game is,” they ask. “You’re supposed to be a big journalist.” When I ask them to prove their point they just refer to more drawing-room conversations or something they heard on a talk show. Pakistani television has exploded with talking heads because the media has just discovered this format. Dr Shahid Masood was a hot favourite. These days there are screaming matches on Jasmeen Manzoor’s show, Mehr Bokhari’s show and then there are the evangelists like Zaid Hamid.
By far, the favourite conspiracy is the Hollywood one that Jews own the media and the world and the entire global banking system and CNN and Fox News. They own Coca Cola, so you’d better drink Pepsi.
I fear that the average illiterate Pakistani, who has never met a Jew in their life, or been affected by the actions of one, would most likely be swayed by anti-Semitic arguments whether in the mosque or drawing room. I also fear that there are educated Pakistanis, who trawl YouTube and read the international newspapers, but do not take a nuanced view to complex issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict. It disturbs me that people wholly unrelated to this issue claim to speak for it and the people involved.
I remember being horrified while teaching an A’ Level grade 12 class English with one student standing up to extol Hitler’s actions. My personal opinion aside, I did not want a 16-year-old boy to be so rigid in his opinion without having done his research. It later turned out that he had been to a mosque where he had met some angry young men.
While going through the website, I found a YouTube video of a man called Pir Saqib Shaami, who I am unfamiliar with. Here is a rough translation of what he said in Urdu: [Classical] Jews believe that Dajjal’s sultanate, the greater Israel, will be formed from Egypt to Iraq… all seven countries will become a Jewish state. They believe they need to work on this fast as they think they only have 200 years to do this. [before the end of the world].
It was thus with much relief that I read the third part of a series my newspaper did on the topic. It was the brainchild of The Express Tribune’s magazine editor Zarrar Khuhro. I’ve taken the liberty of putting some choice excerpts here, but the full text is available at http://tribune.com.pk/story/113104/will-the-real-zionists-please-stand-up/.
“If I had a hundred rupees for every time I’ve heard the term ‘Zionist’ or ‘Zionist conspiracy’ used in everyday conversation, newspaper articles or political speeches I’d be a rich man. But despite the term’s widespread use it is bandied about little understanding of its meaning, origin or implications. In fact, the words ‘Jewish’, ‘Israeli’ and ‘Zionist’ are used interchangeably. Let’s try to clarify this a bit: Judaism is a religion, Israel is a state and Zionism is an ideology.”
Khuhro goes on to trace Zionism’s roots from 19th century Europe, to the1896 publication of a book titled Der Juddenstaadt (the Jewish state). It author was an Austro-Hungarian journalist named Theodor Herzl. “Herzl, who spoke no Hebrew and had little understanding of Jewish culture, was so removed from the religious aspects of Zionism that he even proposed Argentina and Uganda as proposed sites for the new Jewish homeland, and once even proposed mass conversion to Catholicism as a remedy to European anti-Semitism.”
Khuhro cautions that, “Not all Jews are Zionists, but interestingly, not all Zionists are Jews either. It was the so-called ‘British Zionists’, who were in fact mostly Christian, who actually played the largest role in the creation of the state of Israel, and their motivation ranged from religious prophecy to imperial ambition.” He explains Lord Balfour’s contribution etc. etc.
And I could not agree with Khuhro more when he wraps up with this: “[J]ust as we condemn attempts to depict all Muslims as terrorists, we should also take care not to paint all Jews, or even all Israelis, as Zionists. To do so only plays into the hands of those who claim to be representatives of an entire religion…”
March 8, 2011 | 12:22 am
Posted by Mahim Maher
I always wanted to be Jewish, mostly because of the literature I discovered in my teenage years – The Diary of Anne Frank, the ten-part Meryl Streep series Holocaust, Isaac Babel’s ‘How it was done in Odessa’. Later, I came to love certain poets and writers such as Leonard Cohen, Mordechai Richler (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Barney’s Version). And then there were friends like Herky Halpert, a bagel-baking Grateful Dead fan in Montreal who introduced me to Steppenwolf. And then there was Yiddish, gelt, verklempt, mensches, spiels. Later, I discovered on the upper end of Montreal’s Ave. du Parc the Chassidic Jews. The women who all seemed to have the same brown bob cut, which later turned out to be wigs, their blue serge skirts, the blue prams, the long black coats. Schwartz’s sandwiches.
This branched off into a fascination with the genetics of the Indian sub-continent simply because I feel history and science can often teach us that we have more in common with our “enemies” than we would care to face. Anti-Semitism is fairly widespread in Pakistan, but recently the weekly magazine T’s editor Zarrar Khuhro at my newspaper The Express Tribune commissioned three pieces as part of the cover story looking at our Jewish ‘heritage’.
Our newsroom’s Pashto-speaking assistant news-editor Naveed Hussain, who hails from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (the North-West Frontier Province), wrote a stellar piece, asking the question: Could one of Israel’s lost tribes have settled in modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan? He took a look at tribal culture to reveal some intriguing links. I have taken the liberty of pasting the text in this blog. But I would urge readers to go to the tribune.com.pk website and go to the magazine section for the article ‘Blood Ties’ for the full experience. (http://tribune.com.pk/story/113111/taming-afghanistan-blood-ties/)
This is the full text of the article published February 3, 2011:
Every superpower, in its heyday, has been lured into Afghanistan, the landlocked country ravaged by military adventurers and civil wars. It is hard to say what lures them to this land, but no conqueror has managed to tame the unruly, fiercely-independent martial tribes of Afghans. Some have had to retreat in humiliation while others are “bled to death.” The Afghans, Pakhtuns or Pathans are an ancient people and, if one is to believe their own claim, they are as old as humanity itself. Rough estimates put their population at around 18 million, with the majority of them living in southern and eastern Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan. This makes them perhaps the largest living tribal society in the world, one that still cherishes the customs enshrined in its Pakhtunwali or tribal code.
The origin of the Afghans has puzzled ethnologists, historians and scholars for some time. Reason: the Afghans are distinct both in complexion and in character traits from other groups in the region, such as the Turks, the Mongolians, the Persians, or the Indo-Iranians. Also, in a region where countless nations and peoples have come and gone, it’s difficult to trace their descent. Nonetheless, two theories about their origin are referred to most often: while one establishes their Aryan ancestry, the other, more intriguing theory, traces them as Israelites.
Among the Afghans a widespread oral tradition says that their origin is from the Benjamin tribe of the family of the biblical King Saul. Afghana, a grandson of Saul, was raised by King David and remained in the royal palace during the reign of Solomon too. About 400 years later, in the days of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezer, the Afghana family fled to Gur (Ghor province in present Afghanistan).
Sir William Jones, English philologist and scholar of ancient India, also subscribes to this theory. According to him, after the death of King Saul, Nebuchadnezer captured Palestine, and the children of Israel, including Afghana, fled Palestine and settled in Kohistan-i-Ghor, Koh-i-Feroz, Koh-i-Khorasan, Kandhar and Kabul.
Shahid Orakzai, a senior lawyer at the Supreme Court of Pakistan, has come up with a unique evidence to claim Semitic origin. “The Pashtu word ‘Orak’ means ‘lost’ and ‘zai’ can be translated as ‘tribe’,” he says about the Orakzai tribe of the Afghans, to which he himself belongs.
Now the question arises, how did these Jewish people convert to Islam? Namiatullah Haravi, the first historian to have penned down Afghan genealogies during the era of Mughal Emperor Jehangir, has the answer. The descendents of Afghana were 10, writes Haravi in his book Makhzan-i-Afghani (Origin of the Afghans). One of them strayed into Mecca where he met Khalid bin Walid, the fabled Islamic general who also belonged to the Benjamin tribe of Israelites. He invited his Afghan kinsmen settled in Ghor to embrace the new faith. Led by Kais (a descendent of King Saul in 37th generation), a delegation met the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and converted to Islam.
Olaf Caro, the British governor of what is now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and tribal areas, also refers to this event in his book, The Pathan. “The Prophet (PBUH) gave Kais the name of Abdur Rashid and predicted that God would make his issue so numerous that they would outlive all other people, and their attachment to the faith would in strength be like constructing a ship which seamen call ‘Bathan’. On this account he conferred upon Abdur Rashid the title of Bathan (the ‘b’ converted to ‘p’ later on).”
Tradition says that Kais married Sara, daughter of Khalid bin Walid and Kais’s three sons – Saraban, Bithan and Ghurghustan – are the ancestors of the various Afghan tribes.
Most Afghans believe in this theory. And they have carefully preserved family trees on their relationship to Israelites. The names of their tribes speak for themselves: the tribe of Harabni is the tribe of Reuben, the Shinwari is Shimeon, the Levani – Levi, Daftani – Naftali, Jaji – Gad, Ashuri – Asher, Afridi – Ephraim, and so on. Interestingly, some of these tribes use Hebrew pronunciation for their names, like Yusufzais, sons of Prophet Joseph, use the Hebrew pronunciation of Aesop instead of the Quranic ‘Yusuf’ or biblical ‘Joseph’.
Weighing the Evidence
Some scholars, however, believe the idea of the Afghans’ Semitic origin was encouraged by their tight tribal structure, their stark code of behaviour, their strikingly Semitic features, their bearded patriarchal appearance, and their predilection for biblical names.
“They (genealogies of the Afghans) were first set down by Persian-speaking chroniclers at the court of Mughal emperors in the early part of the 17th century. The sophisticated Mughal historians, possibly impressed by the same outward signs of Semitic connections that misled the British two hundred years later, apparently made up the descent of the border tribes from the mythical Kais and improvised a connection for Kais with Saul of Israel,” writes James W Spain, US diplomat and scholar, in his book The Way of The Pathans.
But perhaps the theory about the Semitic origin of the Afghans cannot be rejected only because their genealogies were created in the 17th century. Take the Yusufzais, the most blue-blooded of all Pathans - their chronicles are ancient, going back well beyond the Mughal era.
Apart from that, the Afghans to this day maintain Jewish customs preserved from the recesses of their past, notwithstanding their conversion to Islam long ago. Jewish scholars A Avihail and A Brin, in their book Lost Tribes from Assyria, have listed some of the most common customs, which include sidelocks, skullcaps, circumcision within eight days, Talith (prayer shawl), women’s customs (immersion in springs), honouring the father (the son stands up when father arrives), Levirate marriage (marrying a brother’s widow), forbidden foods (horse and camel: while most Muslims sacrifice camels on Eid ul Azha, the Pathans never do so), the code of revenge, the Hebrew amulet (Kamia), blood on the threshold (when a Pathan’s house is built, the blood of a sacrificial animal is smeared on the doorposts and on the gate), and the Star of David symbol is found on every house in Pathan localities.
But Dr Sayed Wiqar Ali Shah, Professor of History at South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Germany, says that similar customs are not enough to prove that Afghans have Jewish origins. “The resemblance of names between the Jews and the Afghans was probably the result of Arab influences in the subcontinent,” he says. “The Holy Prophet (PBUH) himself adopted many customs from the Jews living around him.”
At the same time it is important to note that in a region inhabited by countless nations only the Pathans follow Jewish customs. Why do only the Pathans, from around 21 nations in Afghanistan, look clearly Semitic? Their countenance is lighter than that of other peoples, their noses are long and some of their tribes have blue eyes, particularly the Yusufzais.
“The Pathans’ ancient code of hospitality, Pakhtunwali, by which generosity and protection of guests are paramount, is sufficient proof for some of their Jewish affiliation,” says Shalwa Weil of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in her research published some time ago in the Jerusalem Post.
While many scholars are keen to attribute Aryan ancestry to the Pathans, I find it interesting that so many Pathans cling to the ‘Lost Tribe’ theory despite the wave of Islamic extremism and anti-Jewish feeling that is sweeping across the Afghan heartlands. In my eyes, this only strengthens the case of those who believe in a Semitic origin for the Pathans.
The legend of the lost tribes
According to Jewish lore, the ten lost tribes of Israel refer to the ten tribes that formed the Kingdom of Judah and then vanished from Biblical accounts after the kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians around 723 BC.
Proving the link
A few years ago, media reports claimed that genetic testing aimed at proving the link between Pakhtuns and the tribes of Israel was underway in Israel. However, when The Express Tribune contacted Professor Karl Skorecki, the Israeli geneticist reportedly conducting the study, he claimed such a study would be impossible without obtaining extensive samples from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas; something he says is unlikely at this stage.
So-called lost tribes across the globe
In the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur live a 7,000-strong community called the Bnei Menashe (sons of Manasseh). They claim descent from the Lost Israeli tribe of Manasseh which was exiled by the Assyrians in 723 BC. To this date they still maintain Jewish customs and rituals.
BBC has reported that scientists have proven a genetic link between Semites and the Lemba tribe of Zimbabwe and South Africa. The BBC says that the 80,000 Lemba tribe members abstain from eating pork, wear yarmulke-like skull caps, conduct ritual animal slaughter, and even put a Star of David on their gravestones.
March 5, 2011 | 2:08 pm
Posted by Mahim Maher
I wonder what God/YWH/Allah will say on the Day of Judgment about the mess we’ve made on earth. I met a Christian friend at a dinner tonight who told me he was upset that there hadn’t been enough protests from his people over the killing of a Christian legislator this week. The cabinet member Shahbaz Bhatti was the only Christian member of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s team and a vocal critic of the misuse of our blasphemy laws. He was shot on his way to work. (For anyone interested in background, I’d recommend the BBC website’s Q&A on blasphemy laws in Pakistan).
Months earlier the governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was shot dead by his own security guard. He too had been a critic of the misuse the laws. Many Muslims believe that you should be put to death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The Christians in Karachi have yet to really come out on the streets and tell the world that they won’t stand for such brazen acts of violence. “The bishops are scared about leaving their compounds because they think they will be shot as well,” Kamran said.
As I write this, a 17-year-old boy sleeps in Karachi’s Central Jail. Last year, during his high school exams he wrote some sentences in anger while answering his Physics and Islamic Studies papers. The examining board reported him to the police and registered a blasphemy case against him. No lawyer is willing to defend him. His family has packed up and vanished. For that matter, I have heard that judges aren’t willing to tackle such sensitive cases.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Most of the people accused of blasphemy are poor Christians. Kamran told me that the Catholics and Protestants aren’t united enough to protest against Bhatti’s killing. It made me think about the Shias and Sunnis – another sectarian divide.
I try to keep up my reading of the Quran. I’ve been searching for answers. I read the Muhammad Asad translation and commentary. Asad was a Jew from Austria who adopted the Arabic life and converted to Islam. His father was a rabbi, and Asad had a good understanding of Hebrew. His classical Arabic was excellent and in his exegisis of the Quran, I believe, he presents a carefully cross referenced and nuanced explanation of the text, with special emphasis on the different traditions and thus the most accurate interpretation of the diction or word choice.
In one surah I found the translation that there should be no sects but if there are, then leave them be and God will in God’s own time explain matters to them. When I read this, I wished that the Shias and Sunnis had paid more attention to this and left each other alone. I wished that the Protestants and Catholics had come together.
Perhaps these are simple thoughts, not very sophisticated reasoning. But I do know that aside from the people who hold extremist views, most Pakistanis wish there were peace. Less fighting, less killing. Less blood shed. It seems to have been the only thing we’ve known for a decade now. In fact, while reading ‘Sectarian War’ by Khaled Ahmed, a well-respected analyst, I was surprised that the killings started barely ten years ago. It feels like a lifetime.
And thus, we’re in a mess. Pakistan’s security and law and order conditions are abysmal, not just for international visitors but for Pakistanis themselves. We haven’t been able to take a proper decision on a law, as a result of which people are taking it into their own hands. No one is convicted.
Member of the National Assembly Sherry Rehman had tried to table a bill for amendments in the blasphemy law, but I believe the government withdrew it. I fear for her life now.
We must cut a sorry figure to the rest of the world. A country that has been ruled by military dictators for half of its life. A country whose birthrate outstrips its growth rate. A place with the lowest tax-to-GDP ratio. You can’t say the word Pakistani without instantly thinking al Qaeda and Taliban. It’s a mess.
My father says that God punishes people by giving them shitty leaders. I’m not so sure if that is the way the system works. But I wonder what God thinks of us, the way the Israel-Palestine problem has simmered for decades, the way we treat the planet. I believe in judgment day. I would rather believe in it than go through this life thinking that some people will get away with murder.
March 2, 2011 | 10:50 pm
Posted by Mahim Maher
I wanted to bring to the Jewish diaspora’s notice that funds for the upkeep of the Jewish cemetery in Karachi, Pakistan are drying up. While there are no Jews left in Pakistan, which is probably a good thing given that extremists just gunned down a Christian minister on Wednesday, March 2, the remains of those who lived here survive. A freelance journalist Huma Imtiaz wrote about the Bani Israel graveyard for the Sunday magazine T of my newspaper, The Express Tribune, that is published locally with the global edition of The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune. You can read the series on our website http://tribune.com.pk but for everyone’s convenience I’ve pasted it down below. Our magazine editor Zarrar Khuhro commissioned the three-part piece.
Land of the Lost
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 [rope bed], 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.