Footprints : In defiance of bigoted times

Published November 23, 2014
Meher Khatoon, the 90-year-old guardian of the Bene Israel graveyard in Mewa Shah Qabristan, Karachi.
—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Meher Khatoon, the 90-year-old guardian of the Bene Israel graveyard in Mewa Shah Qabristan, Karachi. —Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

Life may be in the hands of the Almighty, but the survival of these graves depends on the power of human hands. Resolute, strong pieces of stone art, they live on in majesty. The air here carries images of an ancient brotherhood, of a rarefied culture and of an era that lies slain.

The Bene Israel graveyard, a few yards from Baba Zaheen Shah Tajuddin’s revered mausoleum and in the heart of the massive Mewa Shah Qabristan in Karachi, bites back at the shifting fabric of our land in defiance of bigoted times.

I return to tread on its raw land of thick, thorny bushes beneath age-old neem trees after eight years. Recently Shama and Shahzad lost their lives to allegations of blasphemy, nine Hindu girls were forcibly converted with an Anjali becoming Salma at just 12 and a Hanuman temple near Hyderabad was desecrated in an arson attack.

However, despite a grim context and the knowledge that this antiquated burial ground will never know another funeral nor will a Jew walk through its gates, it is a moment of relief. Most graves are intact, resplendent in carved yellow stone or white marble; the keepers speak of some three Jewish families who have adopted local clans in various parts of Sindh; and Meher Khatoon, now 90 years of age, is still its most feisty guardian with the day job of a flower-seller at her stall outside the gate.

“I have been here for 80 years now. I came as an underage bride and saw hundreds of visitors; families paid us to look after memorials and all burial rituals were conducted here,” she says, pointing to a rugged, raised platform in the midst of imposing headstones.

“No one visits anymore except for some who are either curious or live abroad. People call them Israeli and not Jewish, especially with all the news of Israeli atrocities filtering in.”

Meher’s son, Chaand Lal, who lives in a small home that bears the Star of David on its facade, talks about helplessness in the face of greed and oppression. “Many want to erase this place as the last imprint of Judaism, to bury Muslims here and then the land mafia had designs on it but we managed to keep them at bay,” explains Lal.

He also remembers Rachael’s last visit to her brother’s grave before she left for London where she died a few years ago. “She was carried here in a chair; so old, frail and alone but sad to leave Pakistan. Rahmin also left without informing us,” are his heartbreaking memories.

There are close to 400 graves here, the last burial took place over 30 years ago and a decade before that a family exhumed the remains of their loved one for another burial in Canada, their new home. Also, it is not a mere myth that Jews have long lives — most tombstones mourn people who passed on in their late 80s, 90s and scores crossed a century, save for a few small markers such as the one for a ‘Baby Dan’.

All said and done, what remains here are perhaps the most lyrical of epitaphs drenched in emotion: Moses Soloman Mhedeker says, “Goodbye my children dear, you all little thought my time so near.”

Another plaque reads, ‘A voice we love is stilled’, as an intricate alabaster wreath frames the dying sun above it.

There is a beautiful raised plinth enclosed in a marble trellis with a curved bench facing an elaborate, alabaster sepulchre. Atop it is a white stone cut into an open book with verses of love for Gershone Solomon Oomerdakar, president of Magaine Shalome Synagogue, which was razed during the Ziaul Haq regime. This space, narrates the old keeper, was created by Oomerdakar’s wife who came to grieve often in 1930.

The denied necropolis is an over 300-year-old memorial to this country’s people. Therefore, such a glorious mark of bygone unity, craftsmanship and history must be saved from decay as a Unesco World Heritage Site, a last rite of a community lost forever.

Published in Dawn, November 23th , 2014

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