The following piece by New York-based novelist, essayist, and activist Nancy Kricorian will be published in the upcoming anthology This Is Not a Border: Reportage and Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature.
G tells me that a few months after the Israelis conquered East Jerusalem, he asked his father what he thought life would be like; would it be better or worse than under the Ottomans, the British, or the Jordanians, all of whom his father had known? The old man told him that only the week before, an American Jewish dentist had offered free dental care to all the kindergarten children at the Holy Translators School. They can’t be all bad, his father said, if they want to look after our children’s teeth.
Later G met the dentist himself, and thanked him for his good offices. Yes, the dentist said, there was some discussion in the upper echelons of the Israeli government about whether the Armenians had intermarried with the Arabs. I went, he said, to inspect the children’s teeth—you can tell from the jaw structure—and I was able to report that the Armenians were 100% pure.
B, a priest I meet at a church supper in Virginia during my book tour, tells me that when he was a seminarian in Jerusalem in the early 70’s, the Haredi Jews spat on the Armenian priests on a daily basis – and on the seminary students. He says: “One day I just got fed up with it. I called the other seminarians together—there were five of us—and we agreed that we’d undo our belts and keep the belts and our hands inside our cassocks. We walked out of the church and a man spat on us, and we pulled out our belts and gave him a thrashing. It might not have been the Christian thing to do, but I was young then and it was satisfying.
I say to B they still spit on the priests on a daily basis in the Armenian Quarter. Yes, he tells me, I know. I couldn’t stay there. I might have risen higher in the church if I had stayed, and the spitting I could have learned to tolerate, but watching the way they degraded the Palestinians was too much for me.
N says that everything is a problem in the Armenian Quarter. Getting a building permit is a problem. Having a regular travel document is a problem. Even finding a place to park your car is a problem.
The Patriarch signed a 99-year-lease with an Israeli company that wanted to build a parking lot on Armenian Patriarchate land, she says. They built the parking lot, and we could park there—although we had to pay more than the Israelis did. And then one day they decided it was a “Jews Only” parking lot, and we could no longer park there because we’re Armenian even though it was on land belonging to the Armenian Church.
N says, They don’t want us here, that’s clear. They want the churches, they want the houses, the land, and they want the money from the Christian pilgrims and tourists. I think ideally they would like all the Christians to disappear, and then Jews could dress up as Christians like characters in Disney World.
K’s family has been in Jerusalem for several generations. He outlines their entire trajectory—where his grandparents lived when they first arrived after the Genocide, where they took their children during the war in 1948, the house they returned to in 1950, how they managed in 1967, and how they live today with ever greater difficulty. K says, Just because I’m Armenian doesn’t mean that I’m treated differently from other Palestinians. I think of myself as a Palestinian who is an ethnic Armenian. We breathe the same tear gas.
It takes some prodding, but S, the owner of a ceramics shop, finally tells me what he thinks of the occupation. They are chopping us like salad, he says. Everyone who has any means is leaving. They are slicing us like salami. First Gaza, then the West Bank. We are only hoping the machine breaks down before they get to us.
The Palestine Festival of Literature was established in 2008 by authors Ahdaf Soueif, Brigid Keenan, Victoria Brittain, and Omar Robert Hamilton. Bringing writers to Palestine from all corners of the globe, it aimed to break the cultural siege imposed by the Israeli military occupation, to strengthen artistic links with the rest of the world, and to reaffirm, in the words of Edward Said, “the power of culture over the culture of power.”
Celebrating the tenth anniversary of PalFest, This Is Not a Border is a collection of essays, poems, and sketches from some of the world’s most distinguished artists, responding to their experiences at this unique festival. Both heartbreaking and hopeful, their gathered work is a testament to the power of literature to promote solidarity and hope in the most desperate of situations.