KARACHIWALA , A Subcontinent within a City – Part I

By Shahran Asim


Just recently , I had chance to review some interesting excerpts from a book titled “Karachiwala, A subcontinent within a City”.

Written by Rumana Hussain. Rumana, is well known art critic, who grew up in Karachi during the days when there was more tolerance and interaction among various communities. In writing this book she conducted 60+ interviews with the families of various communities.

The communities documented are quite a conglomeration and includes fisher folk, street children, the Sheedis, the Baloch, Sindhis, Pathans, Punjabis, Seraikis, Gujaratis, Hindu, Kathiawaris, Goans, Hyderabadi, Luckhavi, Bihari, Madrasi, Parsis, Ismaili, Agha Khani, Bahai, Bohra. The book is an appreciation of the rich diversity that a Cosmpolitan Karachi.

Rumana’s labour of love is spread over 330 colour pages, with over 600 images, including maps and diagrams which tell a parallel story of Karachi’s growth through the years, from a fishing outpost on the Arabian Sea in the 19th century to the mega-city it is today.

The book  is a remarkable effort by Rumana Hussain and this gives us think beyond the lines of lingiustic and ethnic bias and provides fresh perspective to see things especially in the current circumstances when ethnic tensions among various communities that constitute are quite high.

Ever heard of a jewish community of Karachi ?  In this post, I am sharing a very informative excerpt which discusses the history of the jewish community in Karachi and their contribution to the City.


The Jewish community of Karachi

“There are no Jews In Pakistan.”

“The last one died some years ago.”

This is what I kept hearing, as I asked myself if it could be true that there were, in fact, no longer any Jews in this city of 18 million. Having met dead ends in my search to locate a living member of this community, or a link to a past resident, I came across an article by David Horovitz titled “Because there are no Jews In Pakistan”. When I wrote to him, he offered to publish my enquiry in the Jerusalem Post.

In response to my letter, I heard from Zvia Epstein and Jonathan Marder (Israel),   the sisters Doreen Curran and Mary Keizer (Australia), and Jacky Fraser (Canada), each having a valuable connection, albeit at times indirect, with Karachi. With the information about her life in Karachi while Zvia lived here, and the activities of her community, and with photographs provided by her and by Doreen and Mary, I was able to put together this unique and last profile, of an entire community that no longer lives here, but has memorable roots in this city, and deserves the credit for a number of buildings most Karachiwalas should be proud of.



The Jewish Community:

Life in Karachi

As narrated by Zvia Epstein nee Benjamin (Israel)

I was born in Karachi to Bene Israel parents (who were also born there). My father, Aaron Sassoon Benjamin, was the Deputy Mechanical Engineer of the Port of Karachi, and we lived in a large house on the island of Manora where the dry docks were.  This house was on the grounds of the workshops—opposite the dry docks. We had a magical childhood, sheltered of course, but with fishing, swimming and visits to our beach house at Sandspit close by.

My younger sisters Abigail and Emma Benjamin (who both live in the UK today), and I all studied at the Karachi Grammar School. I completed my ‘O’ levels in 1957 and my ‘A’ levels in 1959. I graduated (BA) from the Central Government College for Women, obtained an MA from the University of Karachi, Department of English, and obtained a Law degree from the Sind Muslim Law College.

We believe my father suffered professionally from discrimination due to his faith. He remained Deputy Chief Engineer for several years while others, less qualified, were promoted.  The last of these was actually a German (who had served on a German U-boat). After he left, my father was finally promoted as the Chief Mechanical Engineer. We then moved to the KPT House on the mainland (in Keamari).  After he retired, he worked for a while as a port consultant in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Later, after I had left for the UK in 1964, the family moved to another house somewhere near the Gandhi Gardens. A large number of Jews lived in that area.

All these houses and servants came with the job. We went to school every day first by boat to the mainland, and then the school bus collected us (and the pilots’ children who lived on the other side of the island).  It was fun, but as a result of this, we were unable to take part in many extracurricular activities of the school.

When I was eighteen, a few young people and I got together and stood up for election to the committee of the Jewish Sports Club.  This committee did nothing except hold bingo nights and whist drives.  Once we were on it, we would put up shows and hold dances for every holy day. I usually wrote and directed the shows and handled all the events of the evening.  We had a lot of support from our parents who did not mind having costumes sewn for us, and did not complain even when they had to chaperone us every evening when we had rehearsals.  I must say that these evenings were a big hit, and I can proudly say that no one (not even the complaining old ladies of the community who used to gossip about us) missed a single function.

Most of the other (Jewish) people lived in the town, in the Saddar area, because they preferred to live near the synagogue so as to be able to walk to services (in the Jewish religion, it is forbidden to drive on the Sabbath and the Jewish community at that time was quite  religious). As people got more affluent, they moved out to the suburbs and came by car to the synagogue (we always had to). There were people who moved to the more posh housing estates outside of Karachi.  I had an uncle who worked for the PWD who lived in Sukkur in Sind. His was the only Jewish family there, and when his eldest daughter was eighteen, he sent her to live with us in Karachi so she could find a Jewish man to marry. She did, as she was extremely pretty. You must remember that they had arranged marriages then.

One of the reasons a lot of people moved away was because refugee camps were set up around the synagogue after 1947, and it was not quite safe for the young girls to walk around in that area alone. It was also because our ladies and all the other Begums used to wear a lot of jewellery!

I loved my life and childhood in Karachi and remember it fondly.  I remember going to the Central Government College for Women (CGCW). I went back later as a lecturer. My university days were also great. I had a lot of friends, at the College and at the University. I remember cutting classes so we could watch the cricket games. Of course, my friends were not Jewish and, sadly, I have lost touch with my best friend.  We kept our lives in different compartments, Jewish friends for Jewish occasions and others in school, college and university. We generally lived well. I went to the UK in 1964, where I met my first husband, Ronald Solomon, whose parents knew mine. He was born in Karachi, had lived in Calcutta and later moved with his family to the UK. My daughter was born there.  My parents sent my other siblings to the UK one by one: my brother went to Birmingham University to get a degree in Chemical Engineering. One other sister came to live with us and work in the UK.  My two younger sisters followed, one going to study Interior Design and the other to a boarding school.

My parents came to the UK for my younger sister’s wedding in 1969, and never went back. My father  died in 1986.

My husband, daughter and I migrated to Israel in 1970.  He had been offered a good job here, and we felt we wanted to be here. I began teaching in a local high school and carried on teaching. I was later appointed Inspector for English Studies in the central region of Israel, but continued teaching (my first love).  I retired in 2003, and now paint, embroider, lecture, go to lectures and plays, and have a very busy social life.  I got divorced and remarried in the middle of all this, and am divorced again. My daughter moved to California. I have three wonderful granddaughters. Sadly, none of my siblings lives here—just my mother, who is in a nursing home. She is eighty-eight years old and confined to a wheelchair. My brother lives in New Jersey; one of my sisters died in Montreal.

We have no relatives in Karachi, some in Bombay, but none in Pakistan. As a matter of interest, my father’s brother lived in Bombay and was the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Bombay Port Trust. Today his son, Norman Sassoon holds that post.

See Part 2 here

Comments are closed.