SRINAGAR, India – Down the road from the knot of houseboats floating in Srinagar’s Nigeen Lake, two Internet cafes are changing the script. To Hebrew, that is.
From Goa to Himachal Pradesh, Israeli backpackers are not an uncommon sight in India, but they’re also making their way to this Muslim-majority valley in the Himalayas.
A sandwich-board sign propped before New Net World features blue Hebrew letters on a computer keyboard. Inside, the young owner Tauqeer Ahmad explains that shortly after opening his shop a couple years ago, an increasing number of tourists began asking if he had Hebrew-language facilities. Seeing the business potential, a friend encouraged him to satisfy the demand.
Not knowing the language, Mr. Ahmad researched and downloaded Hebrew software and then affixed the alphabetic labels, key by key. The nine or so computers also have programs such as Microsoft Word equipped with Hebrew. Alongside, he provides printing and fax services, and a cooler stores ice cream for sale. During the peak tourism months in the summer and fall, the Internet café is aflutter in the early evening with Israeli visitors who mainly stay in the surrounding houseboats and hotels.
“They usually want Hebrew keyboards,” Mr. Ahmad said. “They will come here, otherwise they will not use the net.”
Israelis have been venturing into Kashmir at least since the 1980s, said Majeed Bhat, who has long worked in the tourism industry and helps run the next-door Dream Cafe, which also started up two years ago providing Hebrew services. “Even during the troubles, when nobody else came here they did,” Mr. Bhat said, referring to the hard-hit days of militancy and army crackdowns in the 1990s. “They never got scared. That surprised us.”
In the past half-decade, Mr. Bhat said he has noticed a trend with larger numbers of Israelis, especially the younger generation, traveling to Kashmir. It’s usually a stop on their route after journeying from Dharamsala and Ladakh.
Their travels come despite parallels drawn between uprisings here over recent years, typified by youth throwing stones at armed security forces, and the Palestinian resistance movements known as the intifada. The comparisons have come from intellectuals, commentators and from some local youngsters. (An appropriation of the term can be seen, for example, in the title of a collection of writings edited by Sanjay Kak and published last year by Penguin: “Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir.”)
The two side-by-side cafes are on the way to the white-domed Hazratbal shrine, revered by Kashmiri Muslims who believe a strand of the Prophet Muhammad’s hair is housed there. Mr. Bhat said they are the only outfits offering Hebrew-language devices in the area. “They were very much demanding it,” he said of the tourists.
For his part, Mr. Ahmad, the other cafe owner, said he’s had positive interactions with his clients, with no friction because of their Muslim and Jewish backgrounds. He still can’t speak or read Hebrew, but has managed to pick up a few words, including when customers tell him sababa—“Cool!”
Other links also exist. In lore, there are old claims that Kashmiris descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. The Ahmadiyya Muslim sect believes Jesus traveled east to preach to Jewish communities in Afghanistan and Kashmir and was buried in Srinagar. Some writers and historians have tried to suggest religious, cultural and linguistic connections. Even today, some here quip of what they see as curious coincidences, such as with the word koshur – used to identify someone or something as “Kashmiri” in Kashmiri – to kosher, the set of standards and laws in Judaism.
By Nafeesa Syeed
Cross-posted from INDIA REAL TIME