Grief-stricken and angry is how Pakistani Jew Fishel Benkhald describes he felt on hearing the news about Tuesday’s Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar, writes Suzanne Baum.
The murder of 141 people, the majority schoolchildren, left him “feeling sick to the stomach.
“My nerves were already heightened following the siege in Sydney so when I heard something so horrendous had happened so close to me I couldn’t believe it.
The 27-yes old, who was born in Karchi to a Jewish mother and Muslim father, happened to be visiting his hometown when he heard about the news on social media.
“When reports started to be posted on Pakistani news websites of heavy gunfire exchange between Pakistani Army and militants, my heart broke.
“I could imagine the little kids and young students scared and cold trying to make up what has befallen on them on this regular day of learning? When just a few hours ago their parents dressed them, fed them and gave last goodbye kisses with smiles.”
The school that was attacked is a very famous one in the province of Peshawar, according to Benkhald, who says as a nation Pakistan “loves their children and see education as a very important part of their lives.”
The Pakistani education system, he explains, can be divided into three categories, the formal education system being the largest catering to 75% of Pakistani students.
“In Pakistan, security is only for the rich schools and most of its security is from private sector society guards, who are posing as security giving a false sense of safety.
“The pay of such security guards from the private sector is less than the monthly fast food cost of most of the students they are posing to protect.
“The formal education being the largest is in constant tug of war between the religious extreme-right and the losing liberal-left. There are many reports and studies conducted on Pakistani education and findings are alarming.”
As well as personal reasons, Benkhald-who currently lives between Tunisia and Morocco-, has returned to Karachi to continue his efforts in cleaning the local Jewish cemetery. He is doing so as part of his efforts in chasing his mother’s Jewish roots.
“Mine is a very unusual story as I believe I am one of few that remain of once was a small but thriving Jewish community in this area.”
Having been born to a Jewish mother and Muslim father, Benkhald was registered as a Muslim but has always seen himself as Jewish, something he has until recently had to keep secret.
“Much of my childhood I recall my mother making us kosher food, observing Shabbat. The only religion which was observed at home while growing up was Judaism because of my mum, as my father was secular therefore he didn’t practice any religion nor object to anyone for practicing theirs.”
Estimated to have numbered about 2,500 people at the start of the 20th century, Pakistani Jewry consisted mainly of migrants from Iraq.
Benkhald’s family spent as much time abroad as possible to escape from oppressive Pakistan. His maternal grandparents were Iranian Bene Ephraim Jews who migrated from Yazd city of Iran to Karachi during the British Raj on India.
“My father was a mechanical engineer whose work ensured we spent long stints living in North Africa but after both my parents died by my 13th birthday, my life took a turn for the worse,” recalls Benkhald, who refuses to talk about this period of his life.
For now, as Benkhald continues to explore his Jewish roots, he is eager to encourage others to come forward and help him in his mission. However, he is fully aware that his circumstances and that of his homeland, are difficult.
“Pakistani society has developed a short term memory over passage of time and sadly I believe this horrendous act of evil on the school will be forgotten in two to four months as were other bomb blasts and atrocities by Taliban which are already reduced to a reference in our minds with very less emotional attachment.
“Pakistani state and its government itself lack the function of actability of past and the far future. “We have developed a habit of being a ‘Reactionary-Nation’ there is so much happening so fast that it is beyond our capability to see in the far future and make appropriate actions today.
“There is no doubt that scars of attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School will remain blood stained for a long time, but the question is that how much it can move us to make real consistent policy changes and persist on them?.”
Fishel Benkhald can be followed on Twitter ID ( Jew_Pakistani )