November 16, 2018

New pic for Karachi’s cool Yahudi past

In September 2005, Sam Ser of The Jerusalem Post wrote about a letter they had received by a man saying he was one of Pakistan’s last remaining Jews.

The letter, quoted by the Post, was emailed from Karachi by an Ishaac Moosa Akhir. It said: “I am a doctor at a local hospital in Karachi… My family background is Sephardic Jewish and I know approximately 10 Jewish families who have lived in Karachi since 200 years or so. Just last week was the bar mitzva of my son Dawod Akhir.”

(This para corrects an earlier date and details of the letter.)

Sam Ser wrote that Akhir wrote that he held prayer services in his home for the other Jews of Karachi. Although he and his fellow Jews there could practice their religion openly if they wished to, Akhir wrote, “We have loved the life of anonymity.”

The letter was picked up by a journalist here, Adil Najam, who wrote about it and Pakistan’s Jews (Caption: The Magen Shalom Synagogue was resurrected in spirit in Israel by the same  name in Ramle. Photo credit Nissim Moses for

This letter and the subsequent writings around it reminded Karachi of its Jewish past, which has been documented to a certain extent. Of course if you speak to some of the older journalists and writers, historians, they will tell you stories. But in general the average Karachi wallah did not much think about this part of our history. In my memory, this was the start of a consciousness of a past we had buried for a long time.

Caption: I took this photo at the Jewish Museum in London this July/Aug. It is of an Indian Jewish family, or members of the Bene Israel. It reminds me that they were, actually, just like me. 

Over the last decade, though, I have seen renewed intermittent interest in these stories. I think many people in Karachi are fascinated with its Jewish past. In fact, when I look at photos, I have to pinch myself and remind myself that Karachi's Jews were not the fair-skinned Jews I met at college in Montreal but the dark-skinned 'local' folks who came from India (before independence in 1947) or lived in Karachi before that.

Caption: I took this photo at the Jewish Museum of London where I was bowled over to find this silver symbol – the crescent and the moon, which is the central design of the Pakistani flag. I have yet to understand its Jewish significance, but what a find.

This Nov 2 and 3, 2013, we had a fantastic international Karachi conference in which Gul Hasan Kalmatti presented a paper on Karachi's Yahudi. I was terribly excited but later on, back at my newspaper, realised that his 'scholarship' wasn't as rigorous as I would have liked. Some parts were straight off Wikipedia. He gave me his paper, which I translated and reported nonetheless. Of course, it does give you a picture. This is the link to The Express Tribune “>link. Here is an earlier story my newspaper did which I have blogged about before: In Search of the Jews of Karachi by Huma Imtiaz You can gauge the interest in this part of Karachi's past by the fact that a group of youngsters staged a 20-minute “>link

I have been working on gathering the pieces to this puzzle for a while. Some research can't be shared here as I feel that parts of this history could come under attack from extremists in Karachi. Perhaps some secrets should just stay like that. But then, again, perhaps we will see a better day when the people of Karachi will be able to embrace their past no matter what God it believed in.