HARKING BACK: ‘White’ and ‘black’ Jews who decided to stay back

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Sep 20, 2015

It might seem strange in these trying times to suggest that in the land of Pakistan we have always had a small, very small, Jewish population. This was truer of Karachi, though Lahore also had its share of Jews. Today their number you can count on your fingers.

The very few that remain after 1947 are very poor Jews, a surprising condition for this sturdy group of people. They live in obscurity in our city, more so in the walled city of Lahore. During a research exercise I was going through official figures issued by the Government of Pakistan for the 2013 elections, and was pleased to know that it showed 809 adult Jews enrolled in the last election.

As a researcher dedicated to researching Lahore in particular, and Punjab in general, let me tell you that I have visited a few in Lahore. Only six such families live inside the walled city, they are two ‘white Baghdadi Jews’ and four ‘black Cochin Jews’. Their total number stands at 32 humans, and very fine humans at that. In this piece let us explore the Jews of the sub-continent, and of Lahore in particular. I will also briefly describe a visit I paid them a few months ago.

The very first Jews to land in the sub-continent was almost 2,000 years ago, much before Christianity, or even Islam, came to the sub-continent. The immediate reason for the first wave of Jews to head to the sub-continent was certainly not discrimination which they definitely faced at the hands of rising papal power in Turkey, Greece and Italy and also the nearby lands of Europe. Large Jewish populations existed in Ethiopia (romantically called the 10th lost tribe of Israel) and were known as diamond and gold traders. It was trade that brought them to our coasts.

They often visited the Malabar Coast to trade and started settling there. They were locally referred to as ‘black Arabs’ and are today known as the ‘Cochin Jews’ of Kerala. They traditionally traded with Arabs till the British banned them from leaving in their own ships for Arab lands.

The second wave of Jews to come to the sub-continent landed near Mumbai, and they were basically Jews escaping the Inquisition of Spain and Europe. In their escape the Muslims of Morocco, as well as Arab traders along the Indian coast, assisted them on their journey.

Many of these ‘second wave’ Jews landed at different places, but mostly on the coast of Maharashtra. Some of them even landed in the fishing village of Karachi. They were called Bene Israel, and they were the first to move upland to Lahore. This second wave were ‘white’ Jews, which given their origin is understandable. In history they are referred to as Bene Israel. Branches of these Bene Israel moved as far as the hills of Mizoram. With time they started to speak local languages, but follow their own religious rituals.

During events triggered by the Goan Inquisition of 1560, a very large number of Cochin Jews migrated to other port cities, some going to Sri Lanka and others moving to the fishing village of Karachi, from where they traded with Oman and other Arabian ports. With time they settled down as rich traders and money lenders, and their wealth was a source of attraction to Jews all over the world.

The third wave of Jews came to the sub-continent because of the persecution they faced in Russia and Europe and were forced to move, in their thousands, to what was called the ‘Balkan Corridor’, whose eastern edge touched Turkey. It is a fact that the Muslims of Ottoman Turkey assisted these European Jews to flee to Western Europe, America and even British India. These Jews came by land via Baghdad, and moved along the coast to Karachi. Hence they are called Baghdadi Jews. A lot of them settled in Iran, Afghanistan and Punjab. Some of them even settled in Waziristan and, as British records state, were referred to in despatches as ‘Pathan Jews’. It were these Baghdadi Jews, along with the Bene Israel, that came to Lahore and more so Karachi, where before 1947 they lived in large numbers. In the riots of Partition almost all of them left for India, and some for Europe, and then on to Israel.

But then a lot of them did stay back, more so in Karachi. But then Lahore also had their fair share of them. My visit to six such families inside the walled city was purely coincidental. I was searching for the river boats traders of Khziri Gate when an old trader pointed out to Jew river traders. He said their poor off-shoots still live in a lane inside the city. I took exact location and walked there.

As I entered the ‘gali’, a very narrow one at that, the second house had a six-star mark on the doorway, with a sign in a strange language on top. To the ordinary city dweller it is a Hindu mark left over from pre-Partition days. But then on closer examination I could make it to be Hebrew. A knock at the door had an old woman in a cotton sari emerge. When I told her I was a journalist she froze. But then she was very welcoming and as we conversed her son came home from his small shop inside Shahalami Bazaar. He was wearing a small head cap, almost like what most mullahs, mostly what tribal Pathans wear. It was a typical Jewish compromise. He was worried, but on my assurance he told me a most delightful story of their history in Lahore.

In this piece I will not use any of their names, more so for their safety. But then it is impossible to make them out from local Pathans and Afghans who now inhabit the walled city. That they acknowledged that they were Jews was enough for me. They also pointed out to very poor Cochin Jews who live in virtual slums of Lohari Gate, and work as labourers. They are seen, without exception, as poor Christians. I suppose in that lies their safety.

But then think of it that Lahore has as of today only 21 Parsis, almost all of whom live in one compound in Gulberg. In the same way the Anglo-Indians of Garhi Shahu, former railway employees and the off-spring of European-Indian origin, have left Lahore and now exist in very small numbers. The Jews have all fled save for invisible sprinklings here and there. With time the colourful rosary that was Lahore has beads of the same colour. For better, or for worse, piety has no shades.


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