Armenian Jerusalem
a pride of kaghakatsi boys
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 ancestors of the kaghakatsi Armenians who settled in Jerusalem,

selecting the southwest corner of its Old City for their domicile,

adapted with ease and harmony to the new way of life.   From distant

homes in a mountainous homeland, they brought with them a rich and

varied cornucopia they bequeathed to the "bantoukhd" (an expatriate

but also implying someone who has been forced to leave home and is

yearning to return) generations that came after them.

               That   was   the   legacy   my   mother   and   grandmother   left   me.   It   has   always   been   in   the bosom of the women that our culture and heritage have most securely been preserved.             Alas,   most   of   that   exquisite   legacy   is   lost   to   us   -   perhaps,   some   ancient   records     cataloguing   these   do   linger   in   some   obscure   library,   waiting   to   be   discovered   and explored.                Perhaps,   they   are   gone   forever.   Or   are   waiting   for   a   Howard   Carter   to   chance   upon them and uncover them.                Inevitably,   the Armenians   adopted   many   of   the   local   customs   and   traditions,   in   their turn,   enriching   the   prevalent   culture,   whether   it   was   Turkish,   Arab   or   Jewish,   with   their   own   unique imprint.                But   Arabic   has,   de   jure,   exerted   a   predominant   infulence   on   the   Armenians   (as   well   as   the   other non-Muslim   communitities   of   Jerusalem),   most   notably   during   the   British   Mandate   and   later   the Jordanian administration of the city.                Because   of   a   native   propensity   for   and   alacrity   for   languages, Armenians   were   quick   to   learn Arabic (as   they   would   later   Hebrew)   and   adapt   to   the   new   culture,   huge   segments   of   which   they   incorporated into their own traditions.               Armenians   not   only   adopted   they   also   adapted   their   new   acquisitions.   The   kaghakatsi   couched   the Arabic   they   spoke   in   a   coccoon   of   its   own,   sprinkling   in   a   varied   mixture   of Armenian   or   Turkish   words to   give   it   more   individualistic   spice.   Is   it   any   wonder   then   that   some   of   the Arabic   phrases   they   coined were almost incomprehensible to the Arab man in the street?                Among   the   picturesque   and   intriguing   new   modes   of   expression   that   appealed   to   them   most   was the   facile   tendency   of   the   Arab   to   punctuate   his   expositions   with   the   great   variety   of   "amthal" (proverbs   or   sayings)   that   his   people   had   at   their   disposal,   some   of   them   inherited   from   the   Jahiliya (pre-Islamic) era.                This   ancient   lore   contained   gems   of   wisdom   treasured   by   our   forefathers   because   they   illuminated and inspired their actions, thought and speech.                Some   of   these   gems   were   handed   down   the   generations   and   became   part   of   the   kaghakatsi   culture. And as the kaghakatsi integrated into the indigenous fabric of the city, the local coloring rubbed on.                The   Armenian   the   kaghakatsis   spoke   soon   fell   prey   to   native   language   interference,   and   in   recent times,   Arabic   literally   became   the   lingua   franca   of   the   Armenian   Quarter   of   Jerusalem.   Arabic,   an extremely   rich   language   noted   for   its   mellifluous   felicity   and   affinity   to   poetry,   infiltrated   into   all aspects    of    everyday    life,    including    everyday    vernacular,    with    prayers    and    proverbs    the    most vulnerable.                These   gems   provide   an   intimate   peek   into   the   epitome   of   the   kaghakatsi   way   of   thinking   and acting, his aspirations and dreams, and his humor.                The   jokes   remain   coarse   and   the   sayings   have   a   tedious   tendency   to   hover   around   the   lower extremities   -   an   unhelpful   person   is   so   disgustful,   he/she   would   not   even   be   willing   to   "piss   on   a wounded finger" (and alleviate someone's pain, or give someone a hand).                Particular   rancor   is   reserved   for   the   conceited   who   is   likened   to   an   early   morning   bowel   deposit that, because it is the day's first emanation and therefore fresh, squats arrogantly in the bowl.                The   miser   gets   his   comeuppance   too:   "He   inserts   his   finger   in   his   anus,   and   smells   it.   .   .   "   as   if   to make   sure   that   he   has   not   lost,   missed   or   dropped   anything   valuable   (and   thus   become   poorer)   (by mistake).                Should   he   feel   the   need   to   break   wind,   foremost   in   his   mind   would   be   the   thought,   "the   heck   with it, I'd rather the fart betrayed me and embarrassed me rather than burst me."                And   if   a   person   is   surly   and   grouchy,   then   his   face   would   not   smile   even   at   the   sight   of   a   freshly baked ragheef , the wafer thin pita that is the staple bread in the Middle East.               The   useless   or   purposeless   comings   and   goings   of   a   person   are   likened   to   the   swinging   testicles   of   a person sifting sand.                But   the Arab,   whose   poetry   is   a   musical   embodiment   of   the   whole   range   of   human   sentiment,   both sacred and profane, also concedes that life can be both precious and meaningless.                " Yom   'assal,   yom   bassal, "   one   day   you   may   dine   on   honey,   the   next   on   onions,   a   reflection   on   the vagaries of life.                But   he   would   prefer   life   to   death:   "' isheh   qadar   wa   la   nomeh   taHt   al   Hajar, "   (let   me   have   life,   even though sordid, sooner than sleep under a headstone).                And   Abul   Nawwas,   that   notorious   poet   of   profanity,      goes   so   far   as   to   say,   "If   I   live,   fine,   if   I   don't live,   ' la   teezy, '"   loosely,   "I   would   smack   my   posterior,"   a   common   gesture   of   insouciance   or   defiance among Arabs.                The   Old   City   Jerusalemite   is   a   pragmatist   of   sorts.   If   there   are   any   taps   to   fix   in   your   home,   or   a broken   window   to   repair,   you're   better   off   calling   a   plumber   or   a   glazier,   because   you   are   definitely going to make a mess of it.                "You   are   better   off   giving   your   dough   to   the   baker   ( farran)   to   bake,   even   if   he   eats   half   of   it," because   that   is   his   trade   and   he   knows   what   he   is   doing.   The   reference   is   to   an   unwritten   law   that stipulates that any dough or pastry taken to a bakery will attract a "tithe."                Or,   " illi   mish   karo,   ya   naro ",   if   plumbing   or   carpentry   is   not   your   trade,   then   you   bungle   (burn)   the job.                  Little   has   changed   over   the   years   in   the   character   of   the   Old   City's   Armenian   denizens.   The domination   of   neither   Ottoman,   nor   British,   Arab,   or   Jewish   overlords   has   had   any   perceptible   effect on   him.   Fiercely   independent,   the   Armenian   of   Jerusalem   remains   a   social,   friendly,   hospitable   and generous soul, a little given to exaggeration no doubt, but one who knows how to share.                Before   you   move   into   a   house,   you   are   advised   to   check   out   your   neighbors   first   because   they   will be   closer   to   you   than   your   own   brother.   They   are   the   ones   you   turn   to   when   you   are   in   trouble.   They are the ones you break bread and drink coffee with.                In   Middle   Eastern   tradition,   a   good   neighbor   is   worth   his/her   weight   in   gold.   Is   it   any   wonder   then that   the   people   of   the   Middle   East   take   the   Prophet's   injunction,   "look   after   your   neighbor,   even   unto the seventh one" to heart?                This   is   the   culture   that   begat   Hatem   al   Tai,   the   legendary Arab   chieftain   who   felt   no   compunctions about   sacrificing   his   finest   steed   to   feed   a   guest   when   he   ran   out   of   other   offerings.   When   you   break bread   with   an Arab,   you   become   a   valued   guest   and   no   harm   should   befall   you   whenever   you   are   under his   roof.   Another   famous   saying,   this   one   from   Egypt,   carves   this   out   in   stone:   "We   have   eaten   break and salt together." That cements our friendship.                Blessings,   proverbs   and   poetry   illuminate   the   soul   of   the   Armenian   of   Jerusalemite.   Add   to   that filial   piety.   Perhaps,   modern   mores,   spurred   by   insipid   examples   from   the   West,   have   infected   current generations   with   the   dubious   virtues   of   permissiveness,   but   there   was   a   time   not   long   ago,   when   no son or daughter would cross a threshold without kissing the hand of the elders inside.                The   gesture   would   automatically   prompt   a   suitable   blessing.   My   grandfather's   favorite   was:   "May the earth you touch be transmuted into gold."                My   mother   would   remind   me,   " Rida   al   abb   min   al   rabb ,"      a   father's   blessing   is   akin   to   the   blessing bestowed   upon   you   by   the   Lord. As   is   common   in Arabic,   a   word   will   have   more   meanings   embedded   in it   than   its   counterpart   in   any   other   language   -   and   "rida"   would   also   imply   acceptance,   gratification, satisfaction for acceptable or expected conduct. Carob juice vendor               The Arabic   language   is   perhaps   one   of   the   world's   most   picturesque. And   musical. The   vocabulary   is intensely   rich   and   variegated.   For   instance,   there   are   close   to   50   definitions   for   a   lion,   tracing   its birth,   growth,   physical   attributes,   sex,   habits,   and   so   on. And   when   an Arab   wants   to   utter   a   proverb, he invariably chooses one with a poetic rhyme.               Thus,   " yom   'assal   yom   bassal "   and   others   that   are   a   challenge   to   utter   for   a   non-native   speaker.   Like this,   " el   mat'ouss   mat'ouss,   wa   laww   'alla'ou   'ala   teezoh   fanoos ."   Which   translates   as:   if   you   are unlucky, you will remain unlucky, even if they hang a lantern on your backside.                Children   have   always   been   spoiled   rotten,   a   preoccupation   prevalent   among   Jerusalem   society. And no   matter   where   the   Jerusalem   Armenian   is   domiciled,   he/she   will   hold   that   as   a   prerogative.   But, make   no   mistake,   if   a   child   crosses   the   line,   a   very   wide   one   true,   but   nevertheless,   quite   clear,   the consequences for the child can be dire.                " Al   banat   ham   lal   mamat ,"   girls/daughters   will   always   be   a   worry/problem,   until   the   day   of   death (the proverb does not specify whose death, the child's or the parent's).             This   saying   probably   harks   back   to   the   practice   of   female   infanticide   during   the   pre-Islamic   Arab dark   age,   Al   Jahiliya,   (literally,   the   era   of   ignorance).   Like   a   desert   khamseen,   Islam   wiped   out   this horrible   custom   of   burying   newly   born   daughters   alive   for   fear   of   letting   them   fall   captive   to   raiding parties.    This    was    one    of    the    worst    Jahiliya    abominations    that    Mohammed    promptly    abolished. Subsequently,   Islam   endowed   females   with   privileges   they   had   never   dreamed   of   enjoying   before. Among   them,   the   provision   of   a   prenuptial   dowry   by   a   prospective   groom   and   the   laying   aside   of   a special sum at the disposal of his wife should he decide to divorce her later.                    But   though   the   concept   of   leaving   home   at   18   is   totally   alien,   "there   will   come   a   day,   when   your child   will   depart   and   not   come   back,   will   eat   and   not   be   sated,   and   you   will   call   him/her,   but   he/she will not respond."                Family   ties   are   sacrosanct,   because   "blood   will   never   turn   to   water."   I   and   my   brother   will   stand   up to   up   against   my   cousin,   but   when   a   stranger   threatens   us,   then   I   and   my   cousin   will   join   forces   to fight   him.   But   then   again,   if   a   stranger   marries   my   mother,   then   he   becomes   my   uncle!   And   is therefore accorded due respect!                The Arab's   profound   inner   sense   of   pride   makes   it   difficult   for   him   to   poke   fun   at   himself,   or   enjoy being   made   an   object   of   laughter.   On   the   other   hand,   he   likes   nothing   better   than   to   poke   fun   at others,   particularly   those   less   fortunate. And   his   satire   can   sometimes   prove   devastating   to   the   victim: pre-Islamic   Arab   literature   is   rife   with   such   instances.   In   one   particular   case,   during   "Jahiliya"   era,   an entire   tribe   found   it   expedient   to   relocate   elsewhere   after   being   satirized   as   being   as   tall   as   mules, and dreaming dreams of birds:  " tool al bighali, wa ahlam al 'asafeeri. "          The   Arab   is   a   pragmatist   of   sorts.   If   there   are   any   taps   to   fix   in   your   home,   or   a   broken   window   to repair,   you're   better   off   calling   a   plumber   or   a   glazier,   because   you   are   definitely   going   to   make   a   mess of it.                " A'ti   khubzak   lal   farran   wa   laww   akal   noussoh :"   you   are   better   off   giving   your   dough   to   the   baker   to bake,   even   if   he   eats   half   of   it,   because   that   is   his   trade   and   he   knows   what   he   is   doing. The   reference is to an unwritten law that stipulates that any dough or pastry taken to a bakery will attract a "tithe."                Here,   in   this   compilation   of   wisdom   sayings,   is   an   intimate   peek   into   the   epitome   of   the   Kaghakatzi way of thinking and acting, his aspirations and dreams, and his humor. We have opted not to reproduce them   in   Classical   Arabic   for   the   simple   reason   that   these   utterings   are   in   the   local   Jerusalem   Arabic vernacular and that is a far cry from the formal language.                Little   has   changed   in   the   character   of   the   host   Arab   whose   musings   have   impacted   so   heavily   on Kaghakatzi   culture.   Some   of   his   mores   disappeared   in   the   sweeping   wake   of   the   reforming   new monotheistic   religion,   Islam,   but   the   core   has   remained   unchanged.   The   Arab   remains   a   social, friendly,   hospitable   and   generous   soul,   a   little   given   to   exaggeration   no   doubt,   but   one   who   knows   how to share.             Among   this   ancient   lore   are   the   gems   of   wisdom   our   forefathers   treasured.   Sayings   and   proverbs they lived by and that illuminated and inspired their actions, thought and speech.
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