City Landmark – Faces of Israeli Backpackers, Faruk Leather Shop
The souvenirs of the travellers.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The shop is empty. The same shop is also full. It is full of Israelis. Theirs faces are everywhere. Hundreds of passport-sized photos are spread across a large desk on the shop’s cash counter, protected by a glass top. Dozens of handwritten messages in Hebrew are plastered on the shop’s walls.
Faruk Leather Shop in Paharganj’s Main Bazar is crammed with jackets and bags. It is also a shrine to what Paharganj was in the BC era (before Covid). Before the pandemic changed the world, Delhi’s budget hotel district teemed with international backpackers.
Almost every shop’s banner was multilingual – in English, German, French, Italian and many other languages, including Hebrew. Over the past couple of decades, visitors from Israel became one of the dominant groups of backpackers in Paharganj. So much so that the restaurants here started serving “Israeli thaali.” During the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, every Main Bazar guest house would install “Happy Hanukkah” lamps in the lobby to make the Israelis feel at home.
The pandemic blew away the backpacker’s civilisation. You no longer find Israeli thaali in Paharganj. You no longer see the Israelis.
Except for this leather shop, founded in 1988 by Faruk Ahmad, a native of Srinagar in Kashmir. “Israeli tourists started arriving in India in great numbers from 1991 onwards, and many of them would come to us for jackets and bags,” says Shahid Husain, the founder’s grandson.
This afternoon, he is manning the shop with the genial Alam Khan. They show a large laminated photograph hanging on the wall. It is that of Israeli actor Rona-Lee Shim’on – Nurit in the hit Netflix series Fauda – standing in this showroom. “She visited us some years back,” says Mr Alam.
Gesturing towards the handwritten Hebrew placards pasted on the wall, Mr Hussain says they are messages of recommendation for the shop, contributed by Israeli shoppers. There is also a logic behind the hundreds of photos on the desk, he says. “Israeli backpackers would leave their photos here so that their friends in Israel who might come later to India, and to our shop, might see these photos and feel connected.”
Many of those friends indeed would turn up. And they, in turn, would leave behind their photos for another set of friends. The coronavirus has disrupted this flow, Mr Hussain observes, saying, “No Israeli tourist has turned up since the pandemic.”
For now, the shop is steeped in silence. And these mute photos appear like a memorial to an age that has passed.
Faces of another time