The lost Jewish history of Rawalpindi

Published: February 23, 2016
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This stunning building, once used as a synagogue and assembly hall, is now in shambles. PHOTO: SAIF TAHIR

While roaming the streets of Babu Mohallah, one singles out this old yellow building with its distinct features. The abundance of old and new buildings of Nishtar Street fails to overshadow the tall, three story building with peculiar texture and strong colonial features. What makes this old yellowish facade even more intriguing is the Star of David’s situated on its top that have survived almost a century despite the predisposed hatred and revulsion. The building, former coal centre and the present Rehman Manzil, is the only intact Jewish architecture in Rawalpindi. 

Rawalpindi, a 1000 BC historical city, General Headquarters of Pakistan Army and the twin city of Islamabad has a lot more to tell than its bureaucratic ties and military tales.

Babu Mohallah is one of the oldest neighbourhoods and business hubs of the city. Known today as Asia’s leading car parts market, its rich and diverse cultural heritage makes it deceptively fascinating. On one side stands the grand Bohra Mosque with a thriving Bohra community. Right next to it you’ll find an old Victorian church and a Hindu temple right in the back street. The Jewish building on Nishtar Street lies in the middle.

Photo: Saif Tahir

Compared to other colonial and pre-partition buildings in the area, the exterior of this building indicates that it has been maintained. Along with the David stars that smile proudly at onlookers, the building is adorned with bat wings (symbolising good luck) along with the iconic Masonic compass symbols embellishing the doors. The building resembles a synagogue in India that was constructed by the Jews from Iraq and Iran in the late 1800s. The affluence and grandeur of a wealthy class is quite marked and parallel in the two infrastructures.

The history of Jews in Rawalpindi dates back to 1839 when many Jewish families from Mashhad fled to save themselves from the persecutions and settled in various parts of subcontinent including Peshawar and Rawalpindi. Since they were traders, Babu Mohallah (at that time a business centre) in a location close to the railway station, urged them to settle within this area. According to 1901 census and Rawalpindi Gazette, Mashhadi Jews were a thriving tribe of Rawalpindi. However, after partition, many families migrated to Bombay and the rest left gradually in the late 60s. At present, the word ‘Jews’ is only limited to an old British administrative gazette in TMA building opposite Gordon College which is not open to the general public and academics.

This stunning building, once used as a synagogue and assembly hall, is now in shambles. It is occupied by three families who refuse to talk to visitors and discourage them looking inside. The locals say this area used to comprise of other such buildings; they were either demolished or renovated to curb the identity and with the passage of time new plazas and multi-story residential buildings took their place. A similar building still exists in Ahata Mitho Khan which used to have the same carvings and David stars but was recently renovated and converted into a spare part market – Khan Market.

Despite some articles on the Jews that reside in Karachi and a slight mention of Mashhadi Jews, there’s apparently no information on Rawalpindi Jews, their life styles and worship. The area, being in close proximity to the GHQ and religious sites, is also quite socially sensitive. The locals are resilient in talking about the community – some because of hatred, and some because of fear. This act of defiance doesn’t just lie among the locals, but is also rooted within the government. While wandering among the streets, you will be stopped and questioned by officials. The locals also resist talking about the history and shed very limited information. However, an old resident who was born in the neighbourhood in the late 30s said something astonishing,

“There were Jews living in the city till late 90’s. Although the family moved to some other city, they still come and visit these streets.”

Most of us are practically unaware of the fact that Jews were once an active part of our community and even now continue to reside in this country. In 2013, the electoral list exhibited an astonishing number of 809 people who declared themselves as Jews. Pakistan, a non-Arab country that was never technically in war against the Jewish state, is one of its staunch opponents. There are a number of Jewish families living in Tel Aviv who distinguish themselves as Pakistani. Despite undeclared defense ties and cooperation, our hostility towards the Jews is virulent; our dislike is evident in just our attitude towards their infrastructure (which is just as integral to our own history!).

These buildings are rich with history, lineage and culture. We have a duty to preserve it for generations to follow rather than treating them the way we treat our minorities, as a British journalist aptly put it,

“To be a Jew is to be a scapegoat – as unnerving an experience in Pakistan.”

Saif Tahir

Saif Tahir

A passionate photographer, traveler and faculty member in Humanities and Social Sciences, Bahria University Islamabad

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Amina

    Thank you for highlighting this. Sadly we are a people in denial of our history and culture. Maybe one day we Pakistanis will happily co exist no matter what our ethnicity, or religious background. Recommend

  • Vishwaroopam

    All religions of world coexisted in India because of majority Hindus.Now most of the parsis and jews have left pakistanRecommend

  • wb

    Moral of the story. Nobody can live in peace with Muslims. And that includes Muslims also.Recommend

  • Altaf Khan

    Do you think an ordinary pakistani would be able to distinguish between a jew and a zionist?Recommend

  • Khan

    Sorry, but they are not Muslims who hurt others, don’t follow the teachings of Holy Quran. They are aliens, who are unaware of Islam, yet they call themselves Muslims and those are mere rhetorics = Our present Sectarian Society(Shia, Sunni, Wahabi, salafi).Recommend

  • necromancer

    Yes and most of Indian Jews have also left for Israel. Just to keep you updated.Recommend

  • Lotus

    There was a Jew grave yard in front of the Radio Pakistan building on M A Jinnah road.Then some one built a building on top of the graves,without dismantling these.I had seen people going to these graves for religious reasons,I was myself only a little boy so did not comprehend all of it.Jews were also in Afghanistan and in NWFP (KPK) region in even after partition of Indo Pak.Now only memories remain of those peaceful days,but only lasting in this generation,then it will be all lost to history books.Recommend

  • Lotus

    Clarification:Commercial /shopping cum residential building in front of old Radio Pakistan Building on Old Bunder Road ,now M A Jinnah Road,Karachi.Recommend

  • Ali Khan

    The ‘Star of David’ that is mentioned, was a common adornment on buildings in Rawalpindi. That star alone does not make a building a Jewish place. The Rawalpindi Railway Station had many such stars. Many houses had them. The Swastika was also common. That does not make a building a Nazi head quarters. There should be documentary or anecdotal evidence in order to confirm. This could very well be accurateRecommend

  • Waseem Bahadur

    unfortunately some of our major cities Rawalpindi, Lahore, Peshawar, Karachi and others lost their history with time due to lack of interest of the authorities. Countries are promoting their histories through preserving and opening them for public and create an economic activity. These places should be restored and preserved. Their old muhalas are great attraction.Recommend

  • Sabih Nawab

    you are referring to Iqbal Center where there is a famous Methai Shop Dilpasand now. There was also a Jewish/Parsi’s Theosophical Hall right across Radio Pakistan.Recommend