Hagopian: Jerusalem Odyssey: Part 1, The Return

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 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.

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.