Miracles never cease:The struggle of the Karachi Jewish cemetery’s caretaker and Pakistan’s last self-declared Jew to save the cemetery has come to the attention of the Guardian, of all news media. Jon Boone writes:
A broken headstone in the Jewish cemetery, Karachi (Photo: Jon Boone/The Guardian)
There are few clues as to the identity of the last Pakistani Jew to
be buried in Karachi. A heart-shaped piece of marble set into a slab of
rough concrete in the city’s Jewish cemetery in February 1983 has none
of the detail or Hebrew script of the more elaborate tombs built a
century earlier, when Jews were a self-confident minority in a country
where they are now often demonised.
“In loving memory of darling sweet Dorothy, left me suddenly her soul
rest in peace,” is the extent of the inscription. It marks the end of a
Chand Arif, the cemetery’s self-appointed caretaker, remembers
Dorothy’s burial when he was a 13-year-old boy, but has no idea who she
was. He says the rundown graveyard, which has not been visited by
relatives of the dead for decades, is at risk of encroachment.
Encircling what is known locally as the “Israel compound” is the Mewa
Shah burial district that – in this sprawling megacity of 20 million –
is running out of space for the dead.
Arif, his extended family and several goats have been squatting on
the land for two generations. “There are people who want to come over
and make this a Muslim graveyard,” he said. “They tell us we will give
you money to give this area to us.”
In the 1950s there were regular burials and visitors, many of whom
came wearing black suits and hats to pay their respects. But their
numbers dwindled as Jews moved to India after the partition of the
subcontinent in 1947 into India and Pakistan. Later, many more went to
The first of several mob attacks on the city’s synagogue came in May
1948, following US recognition of the new Jewish state. Today,
conspiracy theorists are as likely to hold the “Jewish interest”
responsible for disasters as they are the US or India.
Some members of Karachi’s Jewish community had been brought to the
city by empire, but most were members of the Bene Israel community,
which claims to trace its roots in south Asia back almost 2,000 years.
It is thought there may still be a handful of Jews living in the
city, although many have married into non-Jewish families or pass as
Parsees or Christians.
Most of the roughly 300 surviving graves date from the mid-19th
century, with the grandest clustered in the early decades of the 20th
century. It was a high point for a small community in a fast-growing
port city that would later become Pakistan’s first capital.
Lengthy inscriptions mention professional designations such as “wharf
supervisor” and refer to the synagogues dotted around a city that now
has no places of Jewish worship.
In one corner a square sandstone building contains a grand
sarcophagus for the remains of Solomon David, who built the Magain
Shalome synagogue in the city died in 1902. One of the last remaining
Jews in the city agreed the synagogue could be replaced with a block of
flats in the 1980s, provided a small replacement was built, but the
developers reneged on the deal.
Despite the hostility to Jews in Pakistan, an engineer called Fishel Benkhald is happy to wear his religious affiliation on his sleeve.
Benkhald, the son of a Muslim father and Iranian Jewish mother, says
he grew up in Karachi respecting both religions and now considers
himself Jewish, even though his national ID card says otherwise. In an
antisemitic society, he is Pakistan’s sole self-declared Jew, and is
campaigning to preserve the cemetery. “I want the government to
recognise the Jews as a minority in Pakistan,” he said.