KARACHI, May 5: For most of her life, Rachel Joseph has fought for a place that may as well not exist. At 89, frail and almost destitute, Joseph lives in Ramaswamy as the sole surviving custodian of the Jewish graveyard near Mewa Shah. She wants it to stay alive as a heritage site and perhaps as an emblem of empathy for her beleaguered community.
Buried under decades of neglect and untamed vegetation, the Bene Israel graveyard is fiercely guarded by Baloch squatters and is indeed a testimony to the city’s conflict with its past. To this day, it witnesses visitors who dare not disclose their identity. They come as either Parsis or Memons to remember a loved one.
“Rachel is still a regular,” says the Baloch family living there for the past 70 years. A former schoolteacher who later eked out a living by giving tuitions, Joseph has long claimed that she and her late brother were swindled by property dealers who promised them an apartment in a new building with space for a small synagogue. She has tried to move a court countless times but all attempts have met with apathy.
“Rachel was also the custodian of the synagogue and that is why she is fighting,” says the Baloch woman who sells rose petals at the gate of the Cutchi-Memon graveyard, adjacent to the Jewish burial ground.
The earliest graves here are from 1812 and 1814 with a vast majority from the 1950s. The last one to come here was Rachel’s brother, Ephraim Joseph Awaskar, who was buried in 1987 at 84. Rachel visits him and Yashua, who died in 1953, often. Although many graves have disappeared into the ground and wild shrubbery makes it impossible to walk the expanse, some regal tombs with lyrical epitaphs have survived and still dot the premises. A white marble one is particularly striking with a delicate marble mesh around it. A marble book forms its headstone with a prayer engraved in English and Hebrew. Another one is held by small Corinthian pillars in yellow stone with messages in Hebrew etched on all sides.
“A light from our house is gone/a voice we loved is stilled,” is an oft-repeated verse on many tombstones. Interestingly, it not only appears on Jewish sites of families such as Dighorker and Awaskar which spanned the 1800s to the 1950s, but also on the grave of a Mehdi Nassim who died in 1931 in London and his body was brought back to be buried here.
A large enclosure of yellow stone stands in a quiet corner, home to two enormous, elaborate sepulchres. Although the faded script is hard to decipher, there is little doubt that these belonged to nobility. Closer inspection reveals that one is the grave of Soloman David who died in March, 1902. He had built the Magain Shalome synagogue in Karachi and was the surveyor of the Karachi municipality.
His gravestone reads: “The widely known and highly respected Soloman David always sought welfare of the Jewish community and through his liberality erected at his own expense a handsome synagogue, Magain Shalome.”
Next to him lies his wife, Sheeoolabai, who died a year later in 1903.
The fierce keepers of the graveyard refuse to let anyone in as they fear that excessive exposure will rob them of their home. However, when caught off-guard the family had some interesting information. “A lot of people used to come in the ‘50s, wearing black suits, hats and with beards. There were quite a few Jews here but after General Ayub many left for London,” says the old lady who lives there with her family.
“A few come here even now but they are in Sindhi-Muslim, Khoja or Memon families. They married Muslims or went undercover as Parsis because they fear for their lives. There are about 10 Jewish families in all, scattered in areas like Ramaswamy, Soldier Bazaar, Ranchore Line,” she continued.
According to Aitken’s Gazetteer of the Province Of Sind, there were only 428 Jews enumerated in the census of 1901 and these were really all in Karachi. Many belonged to the Bene Israel community who observed Sephardic Jewish rites and are believed to have settled in India shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus.
Other research documents record about 2,500 Jews in Karachi with about 100 in Peshawar at the beginning of the 20th century. At the time of independence, many Jews migrated to India but about 2,000 stayed in Pakistan. Their first real exodus occurred soon after the creation of Israel which triggered many incidents of violence against Jews and the Karachi synagogue became a site of anti-Israel demonstrations. The majority of Jews who left Pakistan are said to have settled in Ramle, Israel, and have built a synagogue called Magain Shalome.
Arif Hassan, renowned architect and town-planner, believes that this was a highly prosperous and active community. “Families such as the Dulseys were very important as prominent educationists who moved to Israel. One of them was also in government service.”
Hassan also recalls that there were two famous Jewish cabaret artistes who performed at the Roma Shabana nightclub. “They were the Daniel sisters in the ‘70s and their names were Deborah and Suzie. One became a heroine in films and the other remained a dancer in clubs and films,” says Hassan.
Commenting on the state of the graveyard and the fact that most of Karachi is either in denial of its existence or oblivious to it, Hassan says that it is vital for it to become a protected area. “I have asked for it to be made heritage property. If that does not happen, it will be destroyed like the Hindu cremation ground where many samadhis of prominent Hindus have given way to the Lyari Expressway,” asserts Hassan who is working on a three-volume account of the city.
But the relevant government departments have no such plans. “No work is being done at the moment to make it a protected site. If this is done, it will be under the Special Preservation Act 1994 but we work mostly on cultural sites,” says Qasim Ali Qasim, head of Southern Circuit of the Archaeology Department.
However, Qasim believes that if an NGO adopts a monument or a site then his department would provide the necessary technical assistance required to preserve it.
The city’s intentional amnesia towards such a site raises many questions. What will it take to keep Rachel alive? A living monument to our collective denial, she has been deprived of her rights to a comfortable, safe life in her own country and in all these decades, not a single human rights organisation has come to her rescue. If this is the fate of an individual faulted for her religion, then can an old cemetery really become a true site of remembering?