Hagopian: Jerusalem Odyssey: Part 1, The Return

Hagopian: Jerusalem Odyssey: Part 1, The Return

By Arthur Hagopian – on August 5, 2009

Arthur Hagopian, the former press officer of the Armenian Patriarchate
of Jerusalem, who currently lives in Australia, has just returned from
a short visit to the Old City after a 15-year hiatus. This is the
first in a series of articles he will be writing during his brief
sojourn there.

JERUSALEM. 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

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.

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

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

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

`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