Thursday, October 31, 2019

Pakistan: The Australian Consul-General's wife's tale

If you visit the Israeli town of Ramleh, you will find a synagogue built by Pakistani Jews. It is named Magen Shalom, after the synagogue in Karachi which no  longer exists. The Jews of Pakistan once numbered about 3,000, but the violent repercussions to the Arab-Israeli conflict have driven the community  away. (In addition, as the case of Asia Bibi has shown, Pakistan is hardly today a beacon of religious freedom.)  The following story is based on real events and centres around the Jews of Karachi, who were desperate to  cross the closed border with India in the 1970s. Wayne Croning has recreated the story in his own words...names are made up.

Hannah made the driver cover the number plates of the Mercedes, even made him remove the flag from the bonnet.  She got in front and gave him the address. Jamila Street, in the Ranchore.

Her husband David was posted to Karachi a few months previously,  as the Australian Consul-General. Hanna and their children arrived a few weeks later. They had been to several countries, including some in South America. The city reminded her of Bombay, where she and her family once lived.

Crowded, bustling, hot and humid. But she loved it. She loved the food, the people and the culture. The first thing she did on arriving at any new country was to look up the Jewish population; being Jewish herself. After a short search with help through a high ranking local official, she found to her amazement, that there was indeed a small but thriving Jewish community with a decent-sized synagogue in the commercial hub of the city.

 As they drove from Clifton to Saddar, they eventually got onto Bunder Road (M.A.Jinnah Road), and took a turn off this busy street.The street they were on now was narrow, but crowded with people, cars, rickshaws, motorcycles. The synagogue was not hard to find. A large stone and brick building soon appeared on their right. Above the steel gate, and on the building itself was a sign: 'Magain Shalome Synagogue’.

An early picture of the Magain Shalome synagogue, Karachi (Photo: Haroun Haidar blog)

 They pulled up to the side of the street and parked. Hannah got out, walked to the gate and was stopped by the chowkidar or watchman.

 “Who is it you wish to see?” he asked, in Urdu. Hannah had picked up a bit of Hindi after spending a few years in Bombay.“Rabbi sahib say milna chatha hoo.” (I would like to meet the Rabbi).

 He replied that this was Saturday and to come back in one hour. She waited in the car, and soon observed a number of people entering the premises. Men, women and children, families, all dressed for Shabbat, in their finest. They all appeared to be East Indian, but some of their features were a little different.

The gates were fully open now and she decided to walk in. The main door of the synagogue was made up of solid oak. She entered and was greeted by a high-ceilinged, cathedral-like room.and spacious, wooden benches flanked each side of a narrow aisle. Women on the left, men on the rght. Men wore kippot, women wore shawls around their head.

An elderly, bearded man stood to the side of the entrance on the inside, greeting everyone. He looked surprised when he saw Hannah.

Smiling, he introduced himself.“Hello and Shalom. I am Rabbi Simone Isaac. And you are...?"

 Hannah smiled back. “I am Hannah. She had covered her head with a silk scarf. After guiding her to a seat, the Rabbi went to the back of the building. Large chandeliers hung down, brightening up the space.

The Ark stood on a raised wooden pedestal in the middle of the wooden prayer platform. Torah scrolls were stored here. The Rabbi climbed the two stairs, removed one of the large scrolls, holding it high above his head with both hands.  He walked around the prayer platform, reciting prayers in Hebrew.

After the service ended, Hannah managed to meet the Rabbi again. She learned a lot after their hour -long conversation. Most of the Jews here were from the Bene Israel community, that originated on the South West coast of India, just South of Bombay. Some were Baghdadi Jews and a few had Afghani connections. Most of them spoke Marathi, Urdu and of course English. Many had left in 1948, one year after the Partition of India and the birth of a new nation: Israel. By the mid 1960’s the population had further dwindled. Most left for the UK, Israel and even India.

 This was now 1972, India and Pakistan had just gotten over a major war. The border was closed between the two countries.

 Hannah was seen regularly at the synagogue; attending Shabbat prayers, weddings and social events. She had even attended two funerals, where the dead were laid to rest at the Jewish cemetery not too far from the  synagogue. She got to know most of the families, made close friends with some of the women, hosting many parties and get-togethers at her home. Her own children also attended prayers at the synagogue every Saturday.  She would supply the community with Kosher wine, grape juice, etc., even medical supplies.

 As she grew closer to the community, and came to know several of them wanted to make ‘Aliyah’ to Israel, especially the younger generation, she devised a plan: Travel to Israel for Pakistanis was not allowed (passports were stamped as such).But many had immigrated to Israel via Iran and India.

 The bizarre idea came into her head one day.  She would drive with two or three Jews to Lahore and then drive across the border at Wagh, hiding them in the trunk of the same consular car.

“Are you insane?” her husband asked as she prepared for the trip. “What if you are caught? What if they are caught? Even if you do, what will happen to them in India? They could be arrested there!”

 Hannah smiled but said with confidence .“They will not stop a foreign consular car. I have made arrangements with the British Embassy in Delhi. They will be given British passports. The ones who want to immigrate to Israel can do so as well. There is a representative from Tel Aviv who will be in Bombay at the end of the year. They are inviting Indian Jews to immigrate to Israel.

 When the day arrived, Hannah and two young women and one man, got into the Mercedes and bid tearful goodbyes to relatives.

The long drive to Lahore took about two days, with stops along the way. Hannah also took the family pet dog along for the trip. The morning before crossing the border, she hid the two young women in the trunk of the car. The rear middle armrest was removed and a plastic pipe fitted to allow cool air from the air conditioner to reach them in the trunk. The young man was given a consular uniform with a badge and would act as the chauffeur.

They drove to the border. It was heavily guarded with signs posted along the fence. Guard dogs began barking at the car. The guards took a walk around and noticed Hannah’s dog in the back seat.  in Delhi.” she told them, holding out her passport.“This is my chauffeur and these are his papers”, she added, handing them his passport.

 After informing her that she would be allowed to cross, they refused to let the chauffeur through. She looked up at the guard, half annoyed. “I cannot drive! Do you want me to walk to Delhi?? ”He appeared confused for a second. After consulting with a senior official, he came back.“You can both go through, but at your own risk. We cannot be responsible for your safety, or the safety of the driver.” With that he handed back the papers, opened the gate and let them through.

 On the other side, she encountered similar problems. “I can’t walk to Delhi!” and an annoyed look finally got her through.

“I have to make this trip two or three times a year. Make a note of my name and my number plate,”she said, as they slowly drove away from the border.

 The two young women made it to the UK. The chauffeur had to return with her to Karachi, so as not to raise suspicion. She made several such trips back and forth. Things became more relaxed at the border crossing.The chauffeur made it out to Israel after the third border crossing.

Hardly any Jews remain in Karachi. Many of them married into other communities, changed their religion or just left for good.

 Many years later, a journalist interviewed the Karachi Jewish community who had settled in Israel in a place called Ramleh. They had set up a new synagogue and named it Magen Shalom after the one in Karachi.

When one elderly man was interviewed he had tears in his eyes.“I miss Karachi. I was born there, I miss the place dearly.What really hurts is that I can never go back for a visit. Never!”

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