In search of the Jews of Karachi

Published: February 3, 2011

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

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

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Reader Comments (50)

  • Abubakr
    Feb 6, 2011 - 6:16PM

    It is a story of cultural decay, greed and a ignorance of history. Recommend

  • Qureshi
    Feb 6, 2011 - 6:47PM

    Good read and am actually glad to see this article. Atleast some one can look beyond the slogans of yahoodi dushman-e-islam, yahoodi dushman-e-eman-o-watan.Recommend

  • Syed Hussein El-Edroos
    Feb 6, 2011 - 8:50PM

    An unusual but interesting read. Recommend

  • Ali Xaidi
    Feb 6, 2011 - 9:06PM

    Nonacceptance of Zionist Regime(Israel) doesn’t mean to kill Jews. But what to say about our Mullahcracy.Recommend

  • Alibaz
    Feb 6, 2011 - 9:14PM

    we are a pathethic people – islam respects all religions but we have dirty filthy animals in our country who have no toleranceRecommend

  • Feb 6, 2011 - 9:50PM

    muslim are even present in knesset.Recommend

  • Alam
    Feb 6, 2011 - 9:53PM

    There was a synagogue on Lawrence road (I dont know what it is called today). It was on a corner of Lawrence and another road that linked it to M A Jinnah road.Recommend

  • Akki(India)
    Feb 6, 2011 - 10:10PM

    When I saw the title I was scared.. Jews in an Islamic country = suicide. Smart ones, they got away in the 70s before fundamentalism institutionalized. Recommend

  • Hasan Z.
    Feb 7, 2011 - 12:57AM

    Among the prominent names from Karachi’s Jewish community also includes current Israeli PM Benjamin Natanyahu.

    I wonder why all comments are so negative … still with all odds Pakistan’s minority communities are in way better conditions then any other country in the world.

    We are home to nearly 8 different Christian sects and denominations incl. the two main Catholics & Protestants, Various Sikh & Hindu sects, Parsi / Majousi … and we have more Bahais in Pakistan then Iran (country of its origin).

    With your comments it seems we are all occupants of the same boat … be it Mullahs or non-mullahs. Recommend

  • Mubasher
    Feb 7, 2011 - 1:39AM

    @Alibaz: This link is especially for you my dear. Watch this and learn some lessons.

  • Iqbal + Khan
    Feb 7, 2011 - 2:36AM

    Instead of respecting Judaism as an Ibrahimic faith, we only spend energy to condemn and pray for the death and destruction of Jews. Are we really insane or stooges controlled by Mullah Brigade ???Recommend

  • Manuel
    Feb 7, 2011 - 3:12AM

    This article is long overdue. I am glad someone wrote about this. Karachi was once an ethnic melting pot for a myriad of cultures. Sadly it has succumbed to corruption at every level. I don’t think labeling anyone bad or good is a prudent approach, if we but realize what we have lost, then perhaps we may not repeat our mistakes henceforth… But as history itself is testament, our capacity to learn from it is negligible at best.

    Long live greed, long live pestilence… perhaps we are the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Perhaps it is man’s destiny to bring forth his own unraveling.Recommend

  • Revolution
    Feb 7, 2011 - 3:19AM

    interesting piece of information.Recommend

  • Preeto
    Feb 7, 2011 - 4:12AM

    Extremely insightful ! Its sad to see a city that was once so multicultural and historical to decay away because of apathy, corruption and intolerance. Recommend

  • Feb 7, 2011 - 10:04AM

    This is one really informative piece. Huma at her best again!Recommend

  • Raj
    Feb 7, 2011 - 10:32AM

    In search of Jews…please search the Jews after embracing the Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Ahmadiya first in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Tippu
    Feb 7, 2011 - 11:53AM

    Excellent article.

    I hope the people and government takes care of the graveyard and other jewish symbols. They are part of the culture. Also, israelis with pakistani background should be invited to visit pakistan and their old homes. Would do wonders for peace around the region.Recommend

  • Atif
    Feb 7, 2011 - 1:26PM

    Despite all this, non muslims in pakistan are leading a far better life than they do in india, e.g. muslims in indian gujrat and elsewhere, christians in india and specially mob attacks on muslims and christians, similarly they did with Sikhs in golden temple and still today, means we pakistanis are not only extremists but out blood brothers in india are far worse than us, needless to mention here that we share same grand parents and DNARecommend

  • Feb 7, 2011 - 2:34PM

    Israel has now become curse for every Jew in the world, no matter good or bad.Recommend

  • Farouk Khan
    Feb 7, 2011 - 4:20PM

    If I remember correctly, the synagogue was located, if you traveled from Golimar on the Lawrence Road towards Garden and crossed it and reached the area where the road from Jubilee cinema crossed the Lawrence road. Somewhere on the left was this synagogue.Recommend

  • fatima toosy
    Feb 7, 2011 - 6:04PM

    As a muslim we must learn to respect all religions,if we cant then simply we shudnt call ourselves muslims.because in Surah Baqarah, Allah Subhanotalah calls those “eeman wala”(muslims) who respect the the other divinve books (as an integral part of the muslim faith). I dont know why we have adapted the values which were never set by our guides.Recommend

  • Feb 7, 2011 - 6:14PM

    Blockquote Israel has now become curse for every Jew in the world, no matter good or bad

    You have noticed that us Jews often aren’t judged by our merits but on the basis of uninformed prejudice. You don’t think the same applies to Israel as well? What would the fate be of a pro-Zionist Pakistani in Karachi? How long could he live in the city without threat to his life, health, or property?Recommend

  • SUB
    Feb 7, 2011 - 6:52PM

    @Syed Arbab: You are right

    It would have been nice if Jews had not left this country for whatever reasons. Pakistan is for Pakistanis no matter what their beliefs are as long as they believe in existence and progress of this countryRecommend

  • Humayun
    Feb 7, 2011 - 7:42PM

    Interesting reading.
    Wonder why people are living the country? and who has hijack our country? Recommend

  • luckyfatima
    Feb 7, 2011 - 8:39PM

    Excellent article. I am a Muslim American, alhamdulillah, Muslim for 14 years, but my ethnic background is Eastern European-Jewish. I am always interested in learning about Jewish diasporic life, and I see the loss of cultural continuity in places where Jewish communities once thrived. My husband is Pakistani, and my mother-in-law in Karachi tells me that she has a friend who is an elderly Pakistani Jewish woman. This Jewish woman married a Muslim, but both she and her now deceased husband were very secular. As an octogenarian, she lights Jewish Sabbath candles. With the political situation as it is, for many years she has let people assume that she is an Anglo-Indian. It makes me especially sad to hear about her in this situation in her old age. Who would have known that the political atmosphere would evolve as such that one would have to hide Jewishness? It is a shame that for many Muslims, we cannot make the distinction between being anti-Zionist-against the Israeli apartheid regime and the occupation and destruction of Palestine and Palestinians, and being anti-Jewish. Be anti-Zionism, never anti-Jewish, anti-Hindu, anti-Christian, etc. Ideally, every Muslim majority country should be pluralist and welcoming of all. Recommend

  • sammy
    Feb 7, 2011 - 9:04PM

    how sad that people of faiths other then islam had to leave their country , pakistan should be for everyone . people let us show tolerance and respect for allRecommend

  • Feb 8, 2011 - 11:00AM

    @Akki(India) & Sammy: Your knowledge related to Karachi is just based on this article I guess, yes Jews are not anymore in Karachi, but people from other faith and from other ethnicity are still in Karachi and in huge numbers as I am a resident of Karachi.Recommend

  • Jamshed Manu
    Feb 8, 2011 - 12:50PM

    i saw a similar story on international agencies years ago about the graveyard. please get orginial ideasRecommend

  • Ahmed Baksh
    Feb 8, 2011 - 7:37PM

    Well i wish Jews stayed here… but day by day we are headed towards a sunni state and someday we would be thinking where have the others goneRecommend

  • Jawad Rehman
    Feb 8, 2011 - 11:00PM

    This story makes me sad. If we read the ‘Meesaq-e-Madinah’, we find out that our Holy Prophet (pbuh) included the Jews of Madinah in the community as part of ‘Ummah’, to set the example and standard of co-existence and tolerance. How far have we come from there to today’s Pakistan – the fortress of Islam. Unfortunately, looks like the doors of the fort only open outwards, we have stopped tolerating any diversity.
    Reminds me of the comment by the honorable law minister of Punjab commenting on Mr. Davis’ incident. He said on national TV that what was a ‘gora’ doing out on the street in Pakistan ! So, basically, the ‘foreigners’ and especially ‘goras’ have no right to be outside in Pakistan, confine them to the ghetto of ‘diplomatic enclave’. That gives new meanings to ‘the land of the pure’ ! Recommend

  • hopeless
    Feb 9, 2011 - 1:35AM

    There was once a thriving parsi community as well in Pakistan. Now its down to 2000-2500 parsis only. Most of them are old parsis who do not want to leave Pakistan. 10 years down the road with situation like this, we might be reading an article “In search of the Parsis of Karachi”Recommend

  • Farouk Khan
    Feb 9, 2011 - 11:09AM

    Parsis are an endangered species. Whether they have migrated due to economic reasons or political, one can debate. But one thing is certain, the pluralistic ethos of Karachi has changed from being a cosmopolitan pluralistic to overwhelming Indo-muslim. Even the ethnic Sindhis would feel alien in most areas of Karachi. Sad but true. Recommend

  • Muhammad
    Feb 9, 2011 - 6:52PM

    For those who consider jews , christians as INFIDELS and NON-BELEIVERS:
    See Quran 2:62, 2:112, 5:69, 3:113, 3:114, 3:115.Recommend

  • Fazal ur Rehman Afridi
    Feb 10, 2011 - 3:41AM

    Great effort Huma. 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. We need to rise above the small vested interest and should not politicise certain issues to grab power. Jews are made responsible for all the ills of this country by propagating conspiracy theories, which is wrong. These religious bigot have destroyed half of the country and are bent upon destroying the rest just to maintain their grip on power. The liberal middle claass needs to rise against these fanatics and work for a liberal and tolerant society. Live and let live should be our slogan.Recommend

  • Zahid Ali
    Feb 10, 2011 - 2:52PM

    Yes I remember it is Jameela StreetRecommend

  • Shayan
    Feb 10, 2011 - 7:15PM

    I understand how you may feel as you read this and the comments people make. I have also felt that way as I have read many articles and readers comments when reading about Islamic extremism.. In the same way I can guide you to documentaries where Armageddon is expected to be the final elimination of all Muslims, and most of us know about David Ben Gurion’s classic word on our country. That being said, this is a matter of opinion and a matter of faith.

    Pakistan is largely anti-zionist but you might appreciate the fact that a significant portion of our largely illiterate population understands the difference between orthodox, sephardic and ashkenazi Jews. Judaism is sort of a sister religion, but it is the differences created by those in power which separate humanity in general, so i do believe this is something which will persist till the end of time. Recommend

  • JihadBob
    Feb 12, 2011 - 2:34PM

    Typical liberal garbage….oooh we are such awful people…shame on all of us and especially Muslims for all the ills in the world. Parsi = good, Jew = good, Christian, Hindu, Bahai, Ahmadi all = good…but Muslim = bad and Pakistan = bad. Its always the same message delivered a thousand different articles that are written through the colored lens of authors who suffer from slavish inferiority complexes. So big whoop of the Jews left Karachi….what about the hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who’ve moved abroad because they don’t have opportunities here…..why doesn’t that concern you guys? It seems like the concerns of 96% of Muslim Pakistan are taboo in the eyes of ET but what does matter are the arts, minorities, foreign ngos, fashion, and all kinds of ideas that are of interest to a very limited few. Most abroad, or those who haven’t read ET frequently enough haven’t really seen the picture thoroughly..but those of us who are here and have seen enough know that this is a propaganda machine for liberal extremism. Recommend

  • waiting
    Feb 14, 2011 - 1:06PM
  • Shariff
    Feb 15, 2011 - 5:15PM

    Dont we have anything else to write on, trust me there are millions more issues in pakistan to write about.Recommend

  • kiwan
    Feb 19, 2011 - 12:37PM

    nice my be there is some Jews are there who knows ….but i read hazrat suleman (a.s) qissa in this there in israil why thy want to destroy masjed al aqsa bucz blow the masjed there is some majic book are there thy want to get those book …..and these people is going to destroy the world …………thy can communicate with shaetan (iblees) doing kabala magic …….plz every one read hazrat suleman (a.s) qissa ………

    thank you ……..Recommend

  • zain
    Mar 3, 2011 - 11:35PM

    Its an interesting topic not so usual. hating jews is not good. but they have most of the time deceived us. from the time of Muhammad(saw) until now. i hate jews who hate islam and muslims. but as a whole there may be some good jews and it is good to be nice with them.Recommend

  • DR
    Mar 5, 2011 - 2:02AM

    For God sakes, what about ethics in journalism? The author copied the entire article piece for word from the following website:

  • Muhammad Umer
    Mar 5, 2011 - 2:18PM

    “The author copied the entire article piece for word from the following website:”
    that was published on Feb 06-2011 and the one on this site was on site on FEB03-2011. Does it not seem to be other way round?Recommend

  • Ahmed
    Mar 20, 2011 - 5:51PM

    This article is just a waste of time. In a country of 180 million, where maximum number of jews at any point in time is reported to be around 2500 is absurd. There are many other cultures and communities which may need attention. Unless the author is trying to write for some foreign readers. Well, in that case, I cannot say anything…………………….Recommend

  • mk
    Mar 23, 2011 - 12:03AM

    Interesgting and informative article. In fact this past summer I had a chance to visit Isreal where I met many Pakistani Jews. They are doing well there but still miss Karachi. They have beautifull pictures of old Karachi.Recommend

  • Benson Davidson
    Mar 23, 2011 - 10:30PM

    I am a Jew who once lived in Pakistan. I did leave with my parents in 1968 and of course cannot even think of coming for a visit to see the places that I grew up until I was nearly 18.
    Although far from Pakistan for a really long time but still my favourite Cricket Team is Pakistan and only today saw the match between Pakistan and The WI where they gave a great performance and won by 10 wickets.
    Every time I hear a Pakistani player talk and the end of the match I think to myself of what would he say if he knew that there is a Jew somewhere who is still their fan.
    As a young boy I still do remember the Synagogue and the docks of Kemari where I spent my whole childhood.
    It is nice to read the articles from you guys and to see that they are not only fanatics in this world. Recommend

  • Muhammad Umer
    Mar 24, 2011 - 12:47PM

    @Benson Davidson:
    We are not all fanatics. THe only problem is that they outnumber by 1000 to one I would say. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. Many would post derogatory remarks in reply to your but remember this that there is one Muhammad Umer (me ) who really values and cherishes your thoughtfulness.

  • kiwan
    Mar 24, 2011 - 5:19PM

    Benson Davidson..

    hi how are you .. appreciated your though. Recommend

  • sk
    Mar 25, 2011 - 6:31AM

    Pakistan was created as a homeland for the Muslims of South Asia, and Israel was created as a homeland for Jews.

    Angry crowds in Pakistan speak of the Palestinians who were forced out by the creation of Israel, but what about the Sikhs and Hindus expelled during the creation of Pakistan?

    Pakistan was once a secular Muslim state. Today, both Israel and Pakistan are more religious places. Pakistan and Israel are both former British colonies.

    Indeed, so much in common. Perhaps it’s better to set aside the religious hate and recognize things we have in common.

    The Buddhist stupas, Anglican churches, Sikh gurdwaras are as much a part of Pakistan’s history as its mosques. Recommend

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