Armenian Jerusalem
This project has been supported by the Gulbenkian philanthropic Foundation, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and members of the worldwide Armenian community. Reproductions of the genealogical documents [domar’s] are courtesy Photo Garo, Jerusalem. Copyright © 2007 Arthur Hagopian

 The 777 Thai Airways took off from Sydney more than a

quarter of an hour late, but the crew made up for it with an

abundance of solicitous courtesy and exemplary service.   It

would be a 9-hour flight to Bangkok and then another grueling

11 hours aboard an El Al 767 bound for Tel Aviv.   For the first

time in 15 years, I was returning to Jerusalem, the city of my

birth, on an odyssey fraught with expectation and a modicum

of trepidation.

        It would be a journey of rediscovery and reacquaintance.       I   dislike   flying,   but   the   offer   made   to   me   by   a   North   American   film company—to   go   to   Jerusalem   and   act   as   an   advisor,   guide,   and   consultant   to the producer—was one I could not refuse.     “I’ll take a knockout pill and sleep throughout the flight,” I said.       With   this   thought   to   buttress   me,   and   some   Zen   training   to   boost   my courage, I got aboard the plane.       Thankfully,   air   turbulence   put   on   a   desultory   performance,   and   I   managed   to   put   up   with   the   occasional buffeting   of   the   aircraft.   There   was   even   no   need   for   a   sleeping   tablet:   The   laptop   kept   me   occupied   for   a few   hours   and   the   fine   in-flight   collection   of   new   videos   helped   while   away   the   time.   The   landing,   which   I had thought of as a dreaded passage to purgatory, was smooth, as if choreographed by a maestro. The Old City from the Mount of Olives.       I   was   travelling   on   my   Australian   passport   but   as   I   handed   it   to   border   control   at   the   Tel   Aviv   airport,   the word “Jerusalem” seemed to jump out of the page, piquing the interest of the Israeli officer on duty.     “You are a Sabra?” he asked with a broad smile, using the popular appellation for native Jews.     His fingers were flying over the computer.     “Actually, I am not Jewish,” I told him.     His fingers paused for a minute, and a frown creased his face.       “Please   to   wait,”   he   told   me,   motioning   me   aside,   as   other   passengers   streamed   by. Their   passports   hardly merited more than a cursory inspection.         I   had   heard   of   instances   of   returning   non-Jewish   Jerusalemites,   who   had   obtained   foreign   citizenship, being   subjected   to   what   amounted   to   the   third-degree   upon   arrival   at   Israeli   ports   of   entry.   There   had   even been reports of people being forced to give up their Israeli IDs in order to enter or leave the country.     But I had a different agenda.     “Is there a problem?” I asked.     “No problem. Just one minute.”     It was taking longer than that.       “Look,”   I   said.   “I   am   a   foreign   correspondent.   I   have   been   invited   here   as   an   advisor   on   a   feature   film about   Jerusalem   which   will   be   made   by   a   North   American   company.   I   have   a   meeting   in   an   hour’s   time   with the producers. I need to be there.”     “Wait please,” he said again.       “I   cannot   wait,”   I   countered.   “If   there   is   a   problem,   take   it   up   with   the   Government   Press   Office   [GPO].   I am supposed to be driving to Jerusalem now. You’re going to make me late.”    The   GPO,   an   adjunct   of   the   Prime   Minister’s   office,   was   the   official   body   catering   to   the   foreign   press   corps in Israel.     “Just one moment, please.” He picked up his phone.       I   flipped   open   my   mobile   and   started   to   make   some   calls   of   my   own—to   the   producers   to   explain   the   delay and to old contacts within the GPO and other governmental departments.       I   raised   my   voice   to   make   a   point   and   noticed   the   officer   watching   me   intently.   Suddenly,   he   got   up   and hurried out. A few minutes later, I was called back to another office by a policewoman.     “Welcome to Israel,” she said with a coquettish smile, handing over my passport.       I   checked   the   pages.   They   had   issued   me   with   a   B2   tourist   visa,   valid   for   three   months.   I   wasn’t   staying that   long,   two   weeks   at   most.   Some   travelers,   particularly   those   who   later   intend   on   visiting   neighboring Arab   countries   or   places   not   friendly   to   Israel,   usually   ask   that   their   passports   not   be   stamped   to   avoid problems   at   border   crossings.   Instead,   they   are   issued   visas   on   a   separate   card   or   piece   of   paper,   as   there   is genuine   concern   that   the   imprint   of   an   Israeli   stamp   on   their   passports   would   automatically   bar   them   entry into Syria, Lebanon, Iran, or other blacklisted spots.     I thanked the girl and made my way out.       We   drove   to   Jerusalem   in   a   sherut,   a   shared   cab,   a   convenient   way   to   travel   if   you   do   not   mind   the runaround   and   hassle:   Each   passenger   has   to   be   dropped   off   at   his   destination   in   and   around   the   city   one   by one. You have to sit out your turn.       And   forget   about   road   courtesy.   It   has   been   said   that   Israelis   drive   their   cars   as   if   they   are   tanks,   to   the dismay   of   pedestrians   who   have   to   race   them   across   zebra   crossings.   Giving   way   seems   an   alien   imposition, blithely ignored.       The   driver   had   his   mobile   glued   to   his   ear   while   manipulating   his   car   with   his   left   hand,   signals   were neither used nor acknowledged, and he made lavish use of the horn to punctuate a point or argument.       Parking,   I   found   out,   is   one   luxury   that   is   almost   universally   denied   Jerusalem’s   hapless   motorists.   Old   City residents   in   particular   are   so   desperate   that   they   are   willing   to   pay   up   to   $100   a   month   for   a   spot—some   a brisk 10-minute walk from their homes.       On   both   sides   of   the   highway,   stunted   olive   trees   jutted   out   in   hesitant   exultation   over   scree   and   boulder as   they   sought   purchase   in   rocky   pastures,   while   occasional   patches   of   greenery   gave   promise   of   abundance in the politically troubled land of milk and honey.        My    fellow    passengers    were    a    loquacious    lot,    bubbling    with    excitement    at    the    prospect    of    seeing “Yerushalaym”—a few of them for the first time.       “I’ve   been   away   14   years,   and   have   come   back   to   recharge   my   batteries,”   one   religious   Jew   from Baltimore, Md., said, adjusting his black kippa (yarmulka).     As   we   neared   the   approaches   to   the   city,   an   unsettling   sight   greeted   us:   huge   furrows   in   the   road,   gouging out   a   path   for   a   proposed   railroad   that   would   serve   Jerusalem   and   outlying   suburbs.   It   was   an   eyesore   many people I talked to detested.       “This   is   madness,”   one   Israeli   later   commented   to   me.   “Who   needs   a   train   to   Pisgat   Ze’ev   or   French   Hill [two Jewish suburbs minutes away from the city center]?”     Many Arabs call it a desecration.     At   the   threshold   to   Jaffa   Gate,   a   new   tunnel   had   been   churned   out   of   the   earth   to   channel   traffic   around the Old City, but the hole is regarded as further perfidy by purists.       “Town   Hall   has   lost   its   senses,   piling   ugliness   upon   ugliness   on   our   beautiful   Jerusalem,”   mourned   an elderly Jew.       Inside   the   Old   City   itself,   however,   the   planners   had   kept   their   picks   and   shovels   under   wraps,   and desisted from tampering too noticeably with its ancient hallowedness.     The   sherut   crawled   up   Jaffa   Gate   and   as   it   disgorged   its   last   passenger,   I   was   struck   by   the   teeming   crowds of   tourists,   interspersed   by   the   pervading   presence   of   security   men   and   women,   bristling   with   full   riot equipment.   They   had   staked   claims   to   every   strategic   corner   or   road,   their   appearance   intended   to   be reassuring to visitors, but a cause of mute and bitter anguish for the city’s Arab citizens.       I   dumped   my   bags   in   the   private   apartment   I   had   rented   in   the   Christian   Quarter,   and   hurried   to   keep   my appointment with the film producers.