Observing Passover as the Last Jew in Pakistan

04/01/2015 09:20 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015
Fishel Benkhald

I am a 27-year-old Jew living in Pakistan.

It's a statement that has elicited shock, warnings, threats and intense curiosity ever since I moved from Morocco to Karachi, the country's largest city in the homeland of my parents.

I understand the questions. I've faced them all myself leading up my decision to make my home here.

That Pakistan isn't friendly toward Jews won't surprise anyone. Anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment is rampant. I'm the only openly Jewish person here that I know. I'm sure there must be others in hiding, passing as Zoroastrian, Muslims and other faiths. They're on my mind as we enter Passover, when we commemorate the ancient Israelites' freedom from slavery in Egypt.

"Pakistani Purim isn't possible but I'm glad I can do Pakistani Passover."

It was one of the thoughts I had to myself last June while leaving Jorf Lasfar, the port city where I worked in western Morocco, my home country for most of my life after my birth in Pakistan. I was traveling to Saudi Arabia to bid farewell to my coworkers at the headquarters of the construction company where I was a construction planning engineer. You see, drinking alcohol, a Jewish ritual obligation on Purim, is illegal for nearly everyone in Pakistan. Non-Muslims can obtain permits to purchase it at the rare luxury hotel or in the few government-certified liquor stores, but the legal hoops and potential harassment aren't worth the trouble. Yet, the foods of the Passover seder are much easier to find.

I'm Pakistani and Jewish, though my family had become estranged from the land because of its faith, while the faith itself -- a small but well-known historic community in Karachi -- long ago became a strange, dangerous thing itself in the land of my ancestors.

Flying over Karachi last year, looking at land my mother Sindh province, I couldn't help to say to myself "مونجو سندھ." In the Sindhi language, it means "My (lovely) Sindh."

I had returned.

One of the gravestones at Karachi's Jewish cemetery.

My city, Karachi, once had a thriving Jewish community of about 1,500 people. They were a mix, many of them being Bene Israel Jews who had migrated from Mumbai, India, where a Jewish community still exists today. Among Pakistan's Jews were my Persian Jewish maternal grandparents, who left the central Iranian city of Yazd to have a better life in Karachi during the British Raj. They stayed after the creation of an independent Islamic Pakistan 1947, with my maternal grandfather working as a merchant who bought bulk goods and resold them in the rural areas and smaller cities outside Karachi.

Around the same time, with the creation of a new Muslim state and an independent, mostly Hindu India bringing about one of the largest global mass migrations of Hindus and Muslims across their borders, the climate for Karachi's Jews grew worse. The small but well-established community had a synagogue, a Jewish graveyard, a Young Man's Jewish Association, the Karachi Bene Israel Relief Fund, and the Karachi Jewish Syndicate charity. One by one, as families left, grew old or went into hiding, the institutions ceased to exist.

My maternal grandparents assimilated by hiding their Jewishness because of increasing anti-Semitism and mob attacks, especially after the establishment of Israel -- Pakistan has never recognized it as a legitimate state -- and the Arab-Israeli wars that followed. The pre-partition Indus Valley pluralism of my Sindh changed for the good of the Muslim masses, bad for the non-Muslims and ugly for the Jews. When citizen registration started, my maternal grandparents registered their only child as a Muslim Pakistani girl.

My mom grew up secretly Jewish. She fell in love with and married my father, a secular-minded, non-observant Muslim man who loved and cherished her regardless of her religion. Living in Saudi Arabia with my father, who worked in construction, she moved to Pakistan to be near relatives who could help care for her child as she gave birth to me. This is how my Jewish soul got packaged into a Muslim Pakistani identity. We soon moved back to Saudi Arabia to be with my father, and I lived in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as we followed his projects. I was raised by Pakistanis in the Arab world, but whether or not I am a Muslim from Islamic point of view or Jewish under Jewish law, I have chosen Judaism.

After arriving in Karachi last year with part of my intention being to restore Karachi's decrepit old Jewish cemetery that was overgrown with vegetation, fear started to creep into my enthusiasm. I pushed myself to overcome it. I believe in the right to freedom of religion, and I went to the office of Pakistan's National Database and Registration Authority, commonly referred to as NADRA, to follow up on an unanswered request to change my registered religion from Muslim to Jewish. There, an official told me that, as per policy, changing my religion from Islam to any other faith would not be allowed. Only non-Muslims are allowed to change their registered religion -- to Islam -- he said.

When I asked why there was this double standard, he looked at me quietly for a few seconds and asked me, "Are you a Qadiani?" The derogatory word is frequently used to talk about Ahmadiyya Muslims. He repeated his bureaucratic statement and shooed me away. This is how my Pakistani ID says I am a Muslim named Faisal, my birth name. In my eyes, I'm Fishel the Jew.

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, Fishel Benkhald stood with a "Je Suis Juif" sign at Do Talwar, a major landmark and traffic circle in Karachi.

I wish I could single handedly change things. I can't, but at least I can take baby steps. One is trying to clean and preserve the derelict old Jewish cemetery in Karachi. That's why my plan for the second Seder on Passover is to have it there and invite any two Sindh province residents, regardless of their religion and creed. (I'd invite more than two, but space and food is limited).

Dear Pakistanis, consider this an open invitation to join me for the Passover Seder in a country that sadly is forgetting its Jewish past.

There are other difficulties before that dinner happens. I need to find a bakery that can prepare matzo so I have unleavened bread, otherwise I'll have to just use regular crackers. There's plenty of radish or lettuce for the maror. For the charoset, I'll finely grate apples and peanuts because it goes well with taste of parsley used for karpas. The beitzah, or boiled egg, reminds me of something my mom used to say: "When the world boils you, you become harder, keeping firm on your true path." It's easy to find lamb shankbone for the beitzah (Halal, of course). For reasons I mentioned already, I'll use grape juice instead of wine.

I hope that by observing Passover and persistently lighting Shabbat candles, I can shed some light on Pakistan's tolerant and welcoming past and ignite hope for its future.

Maybe, one Passover in the distant future, the Jews of Pakistan will be free.