Rare confluence of Muslim, Jewish cultures

Like all grandmothers, Sarah Cohen, in her nineties, dreams of attending the marriage of her ‘grandson’ Thoufeek Zakriya. She says she can die after seeing him happily married. To which Thoufeek, a chef in a five-star hotel in Bangalore, responds playfully: “I will not get married so soon, as I want you to live on.”

The banter, which fits into an orthodox family setting, is far from it, really! It bears testimony to a relationship that often outweighs blood ties and communal bonding that hinges on rigid exclusionism.

‘Sarah’s Hand Embroidery,’ a tiny souvenir shop in the alleyway to the synagogue in Jew Town, Mattancherry, and the adjoining residence of the Cohens, where Ms. Cohen, the oldest of the Mattancherry Jews, lives are home to a rare confluence of cultures and religions that are often seen as being at loggerheads with one another in the wider world.

Ms. Cohen’s doting ‘grandson,’ Thoufeek, is a Muslim youth from Fort Kochi — itself a cultural melting pot — with international standing in Hebrew calligraphy. He works assiduously to piece together a culture that is falling apart. To his Israeli admirers, Thoufeek is a Muslim sofer stam (Jewish scripture calligrapher).

But the first Muslim to win the affection of the Cohens was Thaha Ibrahim, a middle-school dropout who sought to make a fortune selling souvenir postcards to tourists arriving at Jew Street some 25 years ago.

“Once when a ship docked with tourists, I was left without any cards as the place where I had kept the cards had been locked. I felt miserable, but Jacob Cohen, Sarah aunty’s husband, took pity on me and permitted me to store them at his residence from the next day,” recalls Mr. Ibrahim, who has been looking after the ageing Ms. Cohen besides managing the household for nearly 13 years now, since the passing of Mr. Cohen. “They [the Cohens] are like parents to me, and have helped me build my life from scratch. It was uncle’s wish that I look after aunty after his death. Now my wife helps me by taking good care of her.”

A self-taught photographer, Mr. Ibrahim chronicles Jewish life in Mattancherry and makes arrangements for the conduct of religious observances like the Shabbat and festivals, as the thinning community now has just seven members from five families.

For Thoufeek, who made many sojourns to Mattancherry as a wide-eyed kid in school days, acceptance in the community happened by accident. He was at the synagogue sometime in 2005-06 when Joseph Hallegua led a group of tourists into it, one of them wondering aloud if the Torah had been kept upturned. Having picked up a bit of Hebrew out of interest, Thoufeek said there was nothing wrong with the way it was kept, which caught the attention of Joseph Hallegua. He introduced the Muslim boy to Samuel Hallegua, ‘Sammy’ to the neighbourhood, who mentored ThoufeekWith Sarah ‘aunty,’ however, it was a different story. “I just walked into her shop with my calligraphic work some four years ago and she was instantly impressed. She also introduced me to Thaha, a good friend now. Initially, she would address me as aasaane… [hey, man], which made way for my name eventually,” says Thoufeek.

The depth of the relationship is such that Ms. Cohen is the first person he visits on arrival in Kerala which makes his own grandmother grumble, in jest, about being ignored. A fourth member who adds to the religious diversity of the Cohen household is Seli, Ms. Cohen’s Christian help-cum-nurse for nine years.

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