Against All Odds

Mahfooz Ahmad Khan is flanked by his two Jewish aunts, Khatoon (left) and Ghazala.  (Tazpit News Agency)
Mahfooz Ahmad Khan is flanked by his two Jewish aunts, Khatoon (left) and Ghazala.
(Tazpit News Agency)

It is the stuff from which films are made and novels are written. His absorbing story is such that it connects three continents, Asia, Europe and North America; five countries, India, Israel, Canada, United Kingdom and Pakistan; and two religious communities seen as natural adversaries today, the Jews and the Muslims.

Urdu poet and Hafiz-e-Qur’an (one who has memorized the entire Qur’an), Mahfooz Ahmad Khan “Soz Malihabadi” was absolutely ignorant of his Jewish maternal side until he received a letter, dated Oct. 16, 1995, from his London-based Jewish aunt, Khatoon. It came to his modest dwelling in Kakori in the Lucknow district.

She wrote, “I am very happy to know from my cousin David that he could find your address. … I and Ghazala [younger aunt] had a very hard life when my uncles and aunt sent us to Israel in 1956. The life was hard because I was only 17 years old and Ghazala was 11. We had no one in Israel — no parents, no brothers. … A person can write a tragic story about us. I lived in Israel from 1956 to 1965. It was a very hard country to live in at that time, though things are better now. … Ghazala got married in 1964. … In 1965, I immigrated to Toronto, Canada; lived there for one year, and again immigrated to London. … I tried to find your phone number from the international operator, but I was told that you are not listed in the phone book.”

Malihabadi had grown up hearing that his mother passed away when he was very young. The next letter from his aunt, dated Nov. 25, 1995, set him on the search for his mother, Rehana (nee Rahmah), who he discovered from the letter, was still alive and lived in the neighboring country, Pakistan.

“You asked me about your mother. … She is OK. Her husband died five years ago. She had a daughter, Raana, who expired in 1980; she was only 21 years old. Ranna died while giving birth to her fourth child. Your mother in Karachi has three grandchildren. She had a very tragic past; we will talk about it. I do not know how she survived all the difficulties. Anyway, we have to talk about so many things.”

Born in a Baghdadi Jewish family residence in Mumbai, Rehana married a young Pashtun named Maqbool Ahmad Khan in 1947. In 1950, their second child, Mahfooz Ahmad Khan, who later came to be known as Soz Malihabadi, was born to the couple. Soon Maqbool’s thriving business failed, reducing him to penny pinching and souring his relations with his wife, who aspired to be a film actress. In 1955, they got divorced, and Rehana married a Pakistani air force officer and moved to Pakistan, leaving behind her two little sons and two orphan younger sisters in her former husband Maqbool’s custody. In 1956, Malihabadi’s young orphan aunts, Khatoon and Ghazala, reached Israel under the Zionist program of youth aliyah emigration to Israel, aimed at the ingathering of Jewish exiles from around the world, while Soz with his father, moved to his ancestral village, midway between Malihabad and Kakori in Lucknow district.

When Malihabadi met his aunts in Mumbai after an epoch of 40 years, he inquired about his mother’s whereabouts, but strangely enough they refused to divulge it to him. Not losing hope, Malihabadi made a trip to Karachi, Pakistan, in search of his mother, but to no avail. The posture taken by his aunts absolutely disillusioned him; he severed all ties with them, and now he is in search of them, too — and his Jewish mother.

Navras Jaat Aafreedi is a scholar of Indo-Judaic Studies and an assistant professor of history at Gautam Buddha University, India. This column was originally published by Tazpit News Agency.

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