A portrait of Albert Aghazarian hangs behind him as he sits in his living room in a century-old house nestled in the Armenian Covenant in the Old City. It captures his strong profile, but tames his coiffure, which typically has a twisted piece of hair shooting sideways. In a somewhat Gothic fashion, the portrait schematizes his two passions: on a stormy hill perches Birzeit University and in a dark valley glimmers the Old City of Jerusalem. Albert, naturally, dominates them both. Albert, the “public relations man” at Birzeit, has been described by one admirer as an “impresario,” a role he relished when he headed the Palestinian press team at the Madrid peace conference where he pressed the Palestinian case with acumen and congeniality, aided by his first-name familiarity with about a thousand of the journalists there. Few will forget his hilarious encounter on CNN, when he trumped a bewildered Israeli with an offer to visit his home and eat gefilte fish, all the while managing to convey that who goes to whose house and eats whose food is not really the point.
As Albert tells yet one more fact-finding delegation a set piece or encounters an army patrol at Birzeit University with a stream of colloquial Hebrew, Palestinian onlookers sometimes sum up his success by saying that he is truly a qudsi — a real Old City Jerusalemite, implying an ability to hustle alien worlds or at least maneuver among them with a humorous verve.
Born in 1950, Albert’s youth spanned both Jordanian rule and Israeli occupation. His family history stretches back to Armenia, which his father’s family fled when his father was 11 years old. His father, with his two brothers, started several restaurants during the British Mandate, including the Piccadilly Cafe in the Mamilla Quarter, which featured singers from the Arab world and Europe. 1948 brought an end to their restaurant trade. One brother stayed in Jaffa, another fled to Amman and Albert’s father stayed in Jerusalem.
An Armenian Catholic, a minority within a minority, the family could not stay in the Armenian Convent where most Armenians weathered the siege of the Old City. Albert, however, answered with several decided “nos” when pressed on whether he suffered as a minority. It is hard to distinguish between his personal ability to adapt and his elated vision of the city which embodies the “pluralism of the Levant,” where communities do not dissolve but are affirmed. “We are all part of the Arab-Islamic framework,” he maintains. “Islam accepts all the prophets, including Alexander the Great!” For Albert, a personal key was obviously his love affair with the Arabic language — teachers’ praise and school prizes were showered on the “Armenian kid” — who relished the attention and kept on talking.
A historian, Albert sees the modern city with an ancient eye. Typically, his best exegesis comes in his famous Jerusalem tours, where Kaiser Wilhelm, Mamluks, pigeon roosts, Syriacs and sesame seed presses all mix together in a heady brew that is his personal Jerusalem. Yet he can sound a more sober note: “The city today is a product of immediate colonial interests, and the demographic changes that began with the various protege communities of the imperial powers are still at work today. The Law of Return in its essence began in 1860 when Jews, like other international communities, became proteges of Britain.”
Jerusalem is a city where people are carrying mirrors. Everyone holds a mirror in only one direction. It is a city of many realities: Every individual or community has a mirror of history, of cultural reality. As a true Jerusalemite, if I can call myself that, I hold my mirror, but I respect all the other mirrors. The problem is that the Israeli ruling establishment seeks to marginalize all mirrors except one — whatever Teddy Kollek says. Anyway, I don’t believe Jerusalem is a mosaic. You look at a mosaic but a mirror looks back at you. It’s more dynamic. There’s a dialectical relationship.
Jerusalem is a city of layers and of stories. I feel it’s more cosmopolitan than New York or Paris in its long interaction with the international community. It’s not a passive interaction: Strangers are visible here, it’s part of the Levantine nature of the city. We all know each other. It’s part of the way the city is constructed: You don’t drive, you walk, every day, familiar with each shop and corner. There is a core Jerusalem community, despite the thousands of faces, the tourists, pilgrims, fact-finders and settlers.
When I was young, the Christian Quarter, where we lived, was very quiet. With my friends, we would bicycle from beginning to end. Religious rituals were a part of life, forced on us in school and in the family. There was no way out. On Palm Sunday, we held the decorated palms and flowers and had our picture taken. The same rackety carnival was set up opposite Gethsemane for the Christian Feast of St. Mary, and opposite St. Anne’s Church for Muslim feasts. I went to both, with due warning from my family about the gypsies who ran the carnival. There is still a large gypsy community living in the Bab Hutta Quarter, but sadly, no carnival.
A moving experience in my childhood was the advent of pilgrims from Arab countries to Jerusalem, especially during Easter. After 1967, this connection was cut. These hordes of Arab worshipers maybe reminded our Christian clergy that their job had a spiritual dimension. These pilgrims — from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Sudan — were really pious! The thought passed through my mind: “There must be something important here.” And it all happened in spring, when everything was opening up and flowering.
During these seasons, the stores in the Christian Quarter would stay open until midnight. The Jordanian authorities had banned “unauthorized” persons from talking to foreigners. There was a fine — 1 dinar, 10 piasters. Never mind. We would begin to talk to people from the Casanova Hotel and finally take them the back way with us to the Atallah Shops on our street, where they would buy olive wood and souvenirs. It was a different world then, with nightlife and cafes.
I started working in a shop during summers when I was just a kid. I didn’t realize my father was paying the shopkeeper half of my 10 Jordanian dinar a month salary to encourage me. At 13, I began working in the gift shop of the Intercontinental Hotel, under one of the great Jerusalem merchants, Raja Tannous, who had dealt in antiquities and crafts for the last 40 years. Bishop Fulton Sheen was a regular customer. I wore a tie and a starched collar to work. What an ambience, it’s like it was 400 years ago. I was working when the first PLO conference was held in 1964.
Shopkeepers could make a lot of money from tourists in those days. There were lots of tricks to lure groups away from other shopkeepers. Maybe this is why many merchants finally moved to Bethlehem, to be safe from Jerusalem hustles. People treated foreigners well, maybe too well: “The shit of foreigners smelt like perfume.” The West was definitely overestimated. Our Jerusalem schools had wealthy pupils from all over the Arab world, because they were “foreign schools.” Whatever happened, Jerusalemites thought they were the center of the world.
I was just a kid, but it was a time of bustling political activity, particularly in 1957 with the Nabulsi government in Jordan. The Coptic Khan was a Communist Party center; I remember the shabab coming down and clashing with Bedouin soldiers. The head of the Communists, Yacoub Zayyadi, gave lectures there. He was a very distinguished person, known to have kept his clinic open for free treatment during the war. I also remember the Baathists recruiting us boy scouts at the Holy Sepulcher — church, politics, revolution, all in one package.
Politics came to me at school, from the other kids, more than at home. I went to the College de Freres, like my son, Arsan, today. Students were treated according to their family background: The first tier were Catholics from good families and the last were Muslims from screwed-up backgrounds, and everything in between. But among the kids, I really don”t remember distinctions.
Occasionally, soldiers would occupy our roof during troubles, like Israeli soldiers do today. But the occupation had a different character: Under Jordan, you went your way unless you were a political dissident. It was in your interest to be quiet — complaints were met with abuse. With Israel, whether or not you are involved, you get hurt. It also pays to scream your complaints as loud as possible. Expressions of devotion, however, are not repaid: Say “I love Israel,” and they say, “Okay, sell us your land.”
On Monday morning, the fifth of June, 1967, I had planned to go with five of my friends and volunteer for the Jordanian army. We were ready to sweep to Tel Aviv. But my father woke me up early to say “it’ war.” On Tuesday, I was upstairs and heard heavy steps in the street. I opened the door: It was my cousin from Amman, wearing a Jordanian army uniform. He had been given 40 days training and then put in Musrara, where his commander died two hours after the fighting started. He wanted to fight on, but he thought he would say goodbye to his relatives. We persuaded him to have a bath, some food and a nap. I can still smell his feet when he took off his boots. We hid his sword while he was sleeping. Later we had to hide it in the well. When he woke up, Jerusalem was occupied. Our first reaction was total shock: Let’s face it, we grew up with the mentality, “If every Arab spits, Israel will be drowned in the sea.”
From the minute the city opened, and even before, Israelis flooded the Old City, wave after wave, buying everything in sight. We turned our minds to making a bit of money. I set up a small stand and sold Tempo soft drinks in front of the College de Freres. For a period after the occupation, there was excitement and thrill of discovery. When I first walked to West Jerusalem, I was thrilled. Our Jerusalem was provincial; there, I saw new films, books, cafes. In 1969, however, my enjoyment halted. We were five teenagers leaving a movie at 11:30 at night, very happy, chattering in Arabic. Out of nowhere, an Israeli guy started hitting and kicking my friend. He was a madman. The police came. We were taken to the Moscobiyya [police station] and the madman went home in a police car.
Also after 1967, with the emergence of American Jewish consciousness, there was an unprecedented influx of American Jews. It was the age of flower power and sexual liberation. Jewish-American girls shacking up with Palestinian guys. Abu Shukri’s hummus, kanafa and an exotic companion — not a bad combination for both sides.
Many people in Jerusalem experienced this initial sense of discovery but, as the occupation entrenched itself, the sour taste was not far behind. I remember Madame Gaspard leading a rally in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for Palestinian detainees — 17,000 in 1968. As a student at Birzeit University in 1970 I went on hunger strike: I was thrown into the hospital for three months.
In 1973, things changed decisively and the resistance deepened. I had been at the American University of Beirut since 1971, taking over buildings and celebrating the Paris Commune. On my return, I decided to study Hebrew in an ulpan. This created my divorce with the Israeli establishment. I was the only gentile and, since I’m an extroverted Jerusalemite, I befriended lots of people over food, music and nargileh. But I kept my opinions to myself and listened.
Maybe Jerusalemites are too adaptable. In Washington I worked for rival Arab embassies. Any abusive experience can sharpen or weaken your humanity. The challenge is how you handle it. Today, many people in the Old City are facing a new fragmentation; the Christian community in particular is plagued with problems of identity. But isolation is not the answer. Every day, I discover a new dimension of the city. Our umbrella now is Palestinian; our framework is Arab-Islamic. I’m a historian. I know this could change in the future, but now the Palestinian component is the key to pluralism. The Zionist movement is out not just to marginalize the diversity of Jerusalem, but to eliminate it. I know they claim to love Jerusalem, but they are killing it with their love.