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Memories of Jewish India in Israel’s cassava crops

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Image source: www.haartez.com

Meir Eliahu opens the gates leading to the numerous hothouses in the fields of Moshav Shahar. To the right of the path is a field of turmeric plants with big shiny leaves; to the left, young ginger is growing; Indian okra and Thai black-eyed peas wind around poles between the furrows. Hanging from the green vines covering the hothouse ceiling beams are bitter gourds, resembling large cucumbers covered in tiny lumps, like a flock of exotic yellow-and-green birds. The plants have all been neatly set out by the diligent farmer, but as tropical plants are wont to do, they insist on transcending their boundaries, lending the place a somewhat wild and most beautiful air.
We keep going until we reach one of the cassava plots. Eliahu, who is not very tall, nearly disappears amid the high shrubs. The cassava roots will shortly reach their peak – the brown outer peel, covered with clumps of dirt, conceals another, delicate pink peel – and will be pulled from the earth. “It was a common food back in India,” says Eliahu, recalling his childhood there. “Even rice was too expensive sometimes, so we ate cassava twice a day – usually boiled into a mush with coconut milk and bananas.”
The tropical plant (also known as manioc or yuca) originated in South America, and the starch-rich root has been consumed by humans since prehistoric times. For thousands of years, it was a key dietary component in South and Central America, and by the 17th century, after European explorers came to the New World, it also found its way to Southeast Asia and India. Tapioca is about the only cassava root product that made its way into Western cuisines (tapioca beads are made from the liquid starch that remains after the cassava root is rinsed before being pounded and ground into flour), but in Asia and South America, it is used in many other ways as well.
Meir’s wife Esther, who was also born in India, is eager to demonstrate to visitors nearly all the ways in which cassava root can be adapted and cooked. The breakfast table in the couple’s modest home is soon piled with heaping platters of cassava chips, made from paper-thin slices of cassava deep-fried to perfection (these are totally addictive); fried cassava and vegetable patties; cassava with curry and mustard leaves; delectable cassava-flour crepes with various vegetarian fillings; and sautéed slivered cassava served with coconut milk and a variety of sweet fruits. As we dine, the couple speaks of fond memories of the Jewish community of Cochin. We drink 
delicious turmeric tea – Meir’s fingertips are stained yellow from the fresh root – and talk about the culinary culture of the old country.

The last optimist

 

Meir Eliahu was born in 1943 in Parur, a small town north of Cochin in southern India. His parents and their ancestors before them were farmers who cultivated rice, coconuts and bananas. Eliahu, the second of six children, came to Israel on his own in the mid-1950s. At first he lived in a school run by the Youth Aliya program, and when his family later made aliya, he joined them on Kibbutz Na’an. The family later moved to Moshav Shahar in the Lachish region.

“In the beginning, my parents worked at menial jobs 
offered by the Jewish Agency,” says Eliahu. “Later, they and other families from Cochin who came to the moshav were able to purchase, with the Jewish Agency’s assistance, 20-dunam plots. They grew cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans. There wasn’t such a big variety as there is today. Then they said there was a crop we could grow – gladioli. The moshav saw it was profitable, and almost all the families switched to growing flowers for the local market. When the price of gladioli fell, they said there was another new thing that would be profitable – growing roses for export. We had a month-long training course and then we started growing roses. That lasted for nine or 10 years, and when that business collapsed we switched to growing house plants.”
In the old days, farming know-how was passed down from father to son. In the modern world of sharp fluctuations in local and global markets, farmers in Israel and around the world have to change their specialty every few years. Eliahu: “The house plants lasted for almost 14 years, and then the Ministry of Agriculture came to us with a new proposal – go back to roses. Ten families on the moshav built big hothouses at a huge investment, and it was a tremendous disaster. Everybody else stopped doing it when the big crisis hit, and I was the last one left, until I finally gave in too.”
Michal chimes in: “My 
father was always the last optimist.” She is one of the Eliahu’s four daughters, and is now trying to help her parents sell their produce directly to restaurants and home consumers.
In one of the big hothouses that were built for growing 
roses, one of the other local farmers now grows edible orchids. Meir Eliahu has switched to growing ornamental plants. “It was going well until about two years ago, but then it fell apart due to the worldwide currency crisis and the entry of farmers from Africa into the field. I had to find something else in order to survive.”

Like many families of Indian background, the Eliahu family had always grown some of the herbs and vegetables from the old country in their home garden. Now they’re trying to make Asian vegetables – which have become more commonly known in Israel over the last few years – into their main source of income. “Five years ago, I started growing cassava, which I knew from India, on a small scale, along with other Asian vegetables and herbs. I prepare the saplings myself and acclimate the crops. It’s not always easy, because some of the tropical plants need a lot of water and aren’t originally suited to growing in Israel.” (“He’s a farmer in his soul,” says Michal, gazing lovingly at her father, who is no longer a young man but still goes out to work in the fields every morning).
The eight-dunam cassava plot will very soon yield its first commercial-scale crop. “South Americans and Indians know this plant, but the general public isn’t so familiar with it and doesn’t know what to do with it. I hope they’ll learn,” says Meir. When cassava season is over, the finger-like ginger and turmeric roots will come up out of the earth. Most of the ginger and turmeric sold in Israel is imported. Regulations require that these imported plants be dipped in chlorine to speed the preservation process, but over time, the roots naturally shrivel and lose some of their initial juiciness. There are some local growers, but on a tiny scale, and Eliahu also has just a couple of dunams for now – but if you are ever fortunate enough to taste the fresh roots, you’ll be on cloud nine. Eliahu has planted a few rows of other experimental crops, including colorful Asian and Indian black-eyed-peas, Thai eggplants, melons, soy broad beans and various herbs.

Credits: haaretz.com

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The Errant Son: Mir Murtaza And Al-Zulfiqar

Would the Bhutto charm, have worked on India? And had it been so, would the map of the Indian sub-continent today, have resembled the idea of a free market zone in South Asia, with porous borders?

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Mir Murtaza Bhutto with Shahnawaz Bhutto
Mir Murtaza Bhutto with Shahnawaz Bhutto
Tania Bhattacharya
Tania Bhattacharya

By: Tania Bhattacharya

India-Pakistan relations have hit a record low following the dastardly Pulwama Attack on a CRPF convoy in Indian administered Kashmir, on the 14th of February this year. Curiously, the Pakistan PM Imran Khan, made a statement a few days ago, endorsing the Indian PM Modi, and suggesting, that in case there was a re-election of the latter, the Kashmir issue may be finally resolved. This scenario is significant, given that both Imran and Modi, are perceived hardliners in their respective nations. As some South Asian policy watchers have noted, it is hawks like the two aforementioned heads of state, and not peaceniks, who are more likely to take large risks over bilateral issues involving the two neighbours, since if any of them is required to acquiesce, they cannot be labelled as anti-nationals. Peaceniks, their good intentions aside, are looked upon with suspicion in their countries, which accuse them of selling out.

 

These are the heady days of jingoist patriotism in South Asia, where Right Wing organizations seem to be faring much better than the other political alternatives; but there was a time not very long ago, when Southern Asia was in a sweet spot between Dictatorship and Democracy, where conducive factors facilitated the spectre of Left-Wing radicalism, in both India and Pakistan. Between the imprisonment of Pakistan’s democratically elected PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the mysterious plane crash that killed President Zia ul Haq in 1988, a shadowy entity by the name of Al-Zulfiqar had emerged out of the pale, and rocked the Zia dictatorship, with its nuisance value. What were the origins of Al Zulfiqar, and who, was its chief executive officer?

The PIA Hijack drama
The PIA Hijack drama

We must retrace our steps to the early 1970s, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the Pakistan president. His eldest son, and second-born, Mir Murtaza, would build a lavish tent on the sprawling lawns of 70 Clifton, the Bhutto residence at Karachi. Inside the private sanctuary he had made for himself, the young lad would read the influential works of prominent Marxist revolutionaries like Lenin, Mao, and Che Guevara. The walls of his tent would be adorned with posters of world-famous figures, who had adopted Marxist techniques and applied them to their personal agendas. Murtaza had become deeply involved with the guerrilla warfare ethos of Socialist insurgents and quickly became a role model for his younger male sibling, Shahnawaz, junior to him by four years.

 

Sensing that the wayward, and obstinate nature of the older Bhutto was getting him into trouble with his high school officials and law enforcement, Zulfiqar had insisted, that Murtaza abandon his tent, and his Leftist reactionary literature, to concentrate on his school syllabus, so that the straight and the narrow could produce results for the latter. As soon as it became possible, and after consulting his wife Nusrat Bhutto, the President had packed off his enfant terrible to study in the United States, and then to England, where he hoped, that a new environment would change him. It was here, that Murtaza shone. A thorough academic, he researched upon and produced a dissertation, concerning the consequences of India’s nuclear program, on Pakistan. He developed the reputation of being a cad, and somewhat of a lady’s man as well, during his student years in London, where he was a regular sighting at nightclubs, with one or the other pretty girl, on his arm.

 

His father, had made the issue of the ‘Muslim Bomb’ an international one, arguing, that since the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Marxist political spheres had their own, ultimate weapon of mass destruction, it was only fair that the Islamic world follow suit. Israel though not openly belligerent with the bomb, was suspected of being in possession of the technology to construct one, in 1966 itself. Moreover, it had refused to sign the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). Pakistan, under his leadership, he had sworn, would ‘gift’ the Muslim world with its first nuclear weapon. The president’s (and later, Prime Minister’s) son, would broach the topic on an academic level, and make its knowledge, widespread.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with his third wife Husna Sheikh
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with his third wife Husna Sheikh.

Murtaza was yet abroad, when his father, by the time, the democratically elected Prime Minister of his country, was toppled in mid-1977, in a military coup, headed by General Zia ul Haq, who until the event, had been Zulfiqar’s handpicked Chief of the Pakistan Armed Forces; and a man, that the confident, and arrogant premier, termed his ‘monkey general’. In a letter, handwritten to her brother, Benazir had advised him to travel to the United States, to meet with American leadership, that were friendly with the Pakistan Peoples Party, to plead for assistance in toppling the dictatorship of Zia. Interestingly, she had told him to steer clear of a top Bhutto aide, Ghulam Mustafa Khar. This is testified by Lt. General Khalid Mahmud Arif in his book Working With Zia. Khar, an uncle of PPP ex-Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar (2008 – 2013), had been a confidante of Prime Minister Bhutto, who he faithfully plied to the home of Bhutto’s first, secret mistress, and then, legally married third wife, Husna Sheikh, on a daily basis.

 

From the United States, Mir Murtaza had decided that it was not judicious to return to a strife-ridden homeland, which was experiencing its umpteenth military rule. Instead, he had flown to Syria and then Libya, to garner support from Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi respectively. The Assads and Gaddafi were supportive of the Bhuttos. Zia to them, was an American puppet that had been installed as a means to an end, that too, through an undemocratic and unpopular regime change. It was in Syria occupied Lebanon, that Murtaza had begun building up a guerrilla outfit, which he named, the PLA (Pakistan Liberation Army). Members from the PPP back in Pakistan, were herded off to the Middle East, for rigorous guerrilla training, that was imparted by the Leftist PFLP (Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine). When Mir Murtaza deemed that the time was ripe for ambushing Zia’s men in positions of power; the trained militia of PLA flew to Afghanistan, where they continued further arms training, awaiting an opportune moment, to cross into their homeland, using the mountainous, and lawless tribal routes of northern Pakistan, which flanked the Durand Line.

 

While in Kabul, Murtaza Bhutto decided to rename his outfit Al-Zulfiqar Organization, or AZO. Shahnawaz, the younger son of the jailed premier, joined his older brother and was imparted training in guerrilla warfare, and violent Marxist insurrection. When not wielding guns in army fatigues, the young volunteers and the Bhutto brothers, would watch Bollywood flicks to kill time.

 

Initially, all Shahnawaz wished to do, was to open a tourist agency in Pakistan, and live quietly with the Afghan object of his affections. But the restless circumstances that engulfed the young man, forced him to join Al-Zulfiqar, all the more so, as it had his older brother at its helm; a man he had much admired from the days of his youth.

 

One of the first acts of the AZO, was to try to blow up Zia-ul-Haq’s plane with a missile, from an Islamabad rooftop. It did not produce the desired result. Next, was the hijack of a PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) flight. It was flown to Kabul, where the hijackers stated that the plane and its passengers would only be released if ninety-one political prisoners from the PPP, were set free from incarceration in Pakistan. Zia’s response initially, was a “No”. But once it became eminent, that there were no international mediators to take on the case on behalf of Pakistan; especially once Assad and Gaddafi explained the dilemma to General Zia, the latter was forced to rethink his stand. By then, AZO had reduced the demand from ninety-one prisoners, to some fifty-four of them. The Pakistan general was forced to comply with Murtaza’s bargain, as it released the PPP detainees from various gaols in the country, who were then swapped for the PIA plane and its passengers.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with Indira Gandhi and Benazir
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with Indira Gandhi and Benazir.

The mastermind of the hijack, was a seamlessly trained Salamullah Tipu, who was seen waving his gun in the air triumphantly from the door of the airplane, after throwing down the bloodied and dead corpse, of one Major Tariq Rahim on the tarmac. Rahim was a close aide of the Zia administration. While Tipu took the blame upon himself, and the PPP back in Karachi, led by Benazir and her mother Nusrat, denied any knowledge or existence of the AZO, Mir Murtaza Bhutto continued to avoid Pakistani authorities, was never caught on camera during the hijack episode, and was declared a wanted criminal by the Pak judiciary, in absentia.

 

In his biography of the older Bhutto scion, The Terrorist Prince: Life And Death Of Murtaza Bhutto, author, student activist, and political henchman Raja Anwar, notes, that a paranoid Murtaza had ordered for the assassination of anyone who he feared would challenge his methods as head of AZO. A sizeable number of its members were apprehended from their homes, murdered, and dumped in shallow ditches. The same author states, how he himself, Shahnawaz, Mir Murtaza, and some other workers of Al-Zulfiqar, had received lodging, food, money, and military training, in New Delhi. The government of Indira Gandhi, a Centre-Left political organization in India that is recognized as the Indian National Congress, had housed and funded the Bhutto revolutionaries and their fighters, with an eye on ending the rule of the hated Zia. In the late 1980s, when Murtaza had made a stopover at Delhi, during one of his journeys abroad, he had personally met Rajiv, son of Indira, and her successor as the next premier of India, with a large, and impressive bouquet of flowers.

The AZO leaders and members resided in the outskirts of India’s capital, and led well-oiled, luxurious lives, while simultaneously receiving training to destabilize the regime of Zia ul Haq. In this duration, the Bhutto brothers had come close to the Nehru-Gandhi clan of India, and according to a number of verified reports, may have worked as R&AW (Research & Analysis Wing, India’s topmost espionage and intelligence agency) informants for a period of time. A common agenda; that of toppling the American-installed, Islamist, and regressive regime of Zia, being the binding force.

Benazir Bhutto with Rajiv Gandhi
Benazir Bhutto with Rajiv Gandhi

Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988. The ensuing elections found the PPP, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s political outfit, sweep the polls in Pakistan. Benazir went on to become the Islamic world’s very first woman head of state. Eventually she and Murtaza would have a falling out, with the latter going on to form his own faction of the PPP; the PPP(SB), where SB stood for ‘Shaheed Bhutto’. Unlike his sister’s rule, which can be described as opportunistic and inept, Mir Murtaza Bhutto remained a ‘Peoples Man’. He shunned unnecessary displays of wealth, and was always accessible to the blue-collar cadre base of the PPP(SB). The tussle between him and his sister may have continued on its logical course with a positive outcome for whoever was Destiny’s Chosen One; but for the tragedy that shook the Bhutto dynasty on the evening of the 20th of September 1996. The founder of Al-Zulfiqar was returning home from a political meeting, with his bodyguards and workers, when police opened fire on his cavalcade, right outside his home in Karachi. In the ensuing encounter, a number of his men were killed, while he himself was seriously wounded. A few hours later, the oldest of ZAB’s offspring, the man who was slated to succeed him, died from blood loss and a deliberate attempt to deny him medical attention.

 

Fatima Bhutto, an author, a poet, and an activist in her own right, is the daughter of Mir Murtaza. In her book Songs Of Blood And Sword, she puts the blame of her father’s death, squarely on her uncle, Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of Benazir Bhutto. Whereas in her interviews, Benazir had maintained, that Murtaza was murdered by anti-Bhutto elements within the Pakistan military. She herself would be silenced a decade later, by shady forces lurking within her country’s power corridors. The Bhutto saga brings to mind Salman Rushdie’s novel, Shame, which is a Roman e clef on Pakistan’s most powerful political family.

Nusrat Bhutto, Fatima Bhutto, and her father Mir Murtaza
Nusrat Bhutto, Fatima Bhutto, and her father Mir Murtaza.

Well-wishers of the PPP and people in India who would want Indo-Pak relations to improve, cannot help but wonder, what a future with Mir Murtaza in it, would have beckoned for bilateral ties between the two fraught neighbours.

Also Read: How To Deal With A Jealous Partner?

Would the Bhutto charm, have worked on India? And had it been so, would the map of the Indian sub-continent today, have resembled the idea of a free market zone in South Asia, with porous borders? After all, Benazir had alluded to it in an interview on the Pak TV show ‘Jawaab Deyh’.

 

Mir Murtaza Bhutto’s brutal life and demise, brings to mind the oft-quoted adage: Those Who Live By The Sword, Must Also Die By It.

Tania is a freelance writer with a masters in defence and strategic studies, who has a wide range of interests.