Armenian Ceramics in Jerusalem: Take Care Not to Add Fuel to the Anti-Israel Fire
It made me sad to find reason to write a political piece that hones in on small details in a fascinating book telling the life story of David Ohannessian, the man who colourfully tiled the Old City of Jerusalem and established the traditional Armenian hand painted ceramics industry in Israel. These small details, however, raised my hackles as an Israeli. First let me briefly describe the book and then share with you my concerns and then an interesting outcome.
Feast of Ashes
The book is called Feast of Ashes: The Life and Art of David Ohannessian, and it was published in 2019. For over a decade, Flutist Sato Moughalian collected her extended family’s collections of letters, diaries and stories about her grandfather as a tribute to him and his art, and as part of her own venture into connecting with her roots and her identity.
Moughalian puts Ohannessian’s life journey within the historical contexts in which he found himself, beginning with his childhood in a small town in Anatolia, under the Ottoman Empire. We can almost sense what it was like to live there.
Ohannessian’s father died when he was 14 and he sold eggs in the market in Istanbul to support his family. While there, he was exposed to the ancient tradition of ceramic tile-making that continued to flourish. Determined to learn the art, he later apprenticed in traditional Armenian ceramics in the town, Kütahya, a renowned center for Ottoman ceramics. By the age of 23 he had opened up his own studio and was finally allowed to marry the woman he had loved since they were both very young.
He was talented, not only in ceramic arts but also in business management and marketing. It was here that he was commissioned by Sir Mark Sykes to make the tiles to renovate the Sykes home in the UK that had been gutted by fire. This was a fortuitous connection that would prove invaluable in coming years.
Ohannessian’s success grew against a backdrop of growing unrest in the Ottoman Empire. The Armenians were targeted by the Ottomans as traitors. He and his family remarkably survived the deportation marches during which many died. Ohannessian himself was arrested and sentenced to death and forced to convert to Islam, an act that was incredibly traumatic for him. He also survived a bout with typhus. With his wife and three small children he found himself first in Aleppo, Syria and then in 1918, with the help of Sir Mark Sykes, in the Old City of Jerusalem after the Ottomans were gone and it was under the auspices of the British Mandate of Palestine.
Arriving with nothing, he was commissioned to apply his art to the restoration of monuments and religious sites, such as the Dome of the Rock. He established a factory and shop on Via Dolorosa in the Old City, training orphan children in the art so that they would have a skill with which to earn a living. The family grew to seven children and lived on Bethlehem Street along with other well-to-do non-Jewish residents of the city.
In 1948, the Ohannessians found themselves once more in a war-zone. They were on neither side yet they were surrounded by bombings and shootings. Looking for safety, they left Palestine and members of the family found themselves in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Yerevan. David Ohannessian died in Beirut 1953. After the war, the family home was located in the State of Israel and the ceramics workshop in the Old City was under Jordanian occupation.
You can read the preface to Moughalian’s book online here. I found it much more moving re-reading it after having completed the book and even more so after having spoken with the author herself.
I know almost nothing about Armenia and I was pleased to find that an Armenian news site, The Armenian Weekly, validated Moughalian’s historical account of the time in which her grandfather lived.
Details of Contention
This well researched book that combines historical context, technical explanations relevant to the transfer of traditional tile-making from Armenian geological conditions to those in Israel, and touching family stories is, however, marred for me by three small points that may or may not indicate a bias against Israel. Even if they do not originate in anti-Israeli stance, small errors or points taken out of context are often used in the propaganda war being waged against the Jewish state. I admit I am particularly sensitive to this given my interactions with those who blame Israel for all that is wrong in our small corner of the globe.
Since Israel is not the subject of the book, it is not surprising that reviewers did not mention them, but neither did the Israeli journalist reviewing the book in the Times of Israel who may be expected to notice such things.
Particularly disturbing to me was a video interview in a Center for Armenian Studies zoom session with the book’s author. While introducing Moughalian, in listing the historical contexts under which Ohannessian lived, Center Director Melanie Tanielian described the rise of new nations in the Middle East and then called the establishment of Israel, “the 1948 Naqba” without naming Israel at all (at about 3.30 minutes). Since Moughalian did not correct her on this, I was left wondering if she agreed with this omission. I wondered, as well, if Moughalian sees herself as a Palestinian refugee since, in her book, she refers to her family as Palestinian:
Tavit, Victoria, Fimi and Garo, among the seven hundred and fifty thousand Palestinians dislocated by the hostilities, were now stateless. [page 242]
And while looking for work in Cairo, Fimi:
. . . learned that as a Palestinian refugee she was considered, at best, second choice. [page 246]
I really do not understand why Moughalian refers to her family members as Palestinian refugees. True, they could have registered with UNRWA, the UN body uniquely responsible for Palestinian refugees, since the UN classified Palestinian refugees as all those who lived in Mandatory Palestine for just two years prior to 1948 – and all their descendants, that is, including Sato. Her grandparents left Jerusalem in 1948, 30 years after having arrived there as refugees from Anatolia in 1918. I wondered how considering her family as Palestinian rather than twice-displaced Armenian refugees could be related in any way to her quest for connecting with her Armenian identity. A bit more on this in the next section.
A misleading detail, my second bone of contention, is related to something I do not fault her on. Moughalian mentions the commonly believed myth that the British proposed “Palestine” to both the Jews and the Arabs. The McMahan letter leading to such a claim is the subject of dispute and the dispute has been made public by Professor Isaiah Friedman. He devoted an entire book to describing the background to this misunderstanding, one that was based on historian Arnold J. Toynbee’s claim that Israel is a twice-promised land. Some will choose to accept Toynbee’s version of the letter and others Friedman’s.
What is not under dispute is the misperception that the Arabs in the Levant helped the British fight the Ottomans, removing the yoke of the Ottoman Empire from their shoulders. Helping Britain was supposedly the condition for being rewarded with “Palestine”. However, only the tribes in the Hejaz fought the Ottomans in the south (with the help of Lawrence of Arabia). In the Levant, the Arabs were loyal to the Ottomans (see here as well) and understood that Sharif Hussein sought to replace the Ottoman Caliphate with one with him at the head, something the bulk of the Arab tribes opposed. Friedman suggests that, since the allies defeated the Ottomans and the Arabs received independent states the great majority of them did not seek, they are in debt to the British and not the other way around. But this issue is not one of which many people are really aware. I think it is important to call attention to the dispute and not perpetuate the idea that the British promised the land to the Arabs unconditionally and then betrayed them.
The third and last point that I found disturbing is in the last chapter of her book:
She [Ohannessian’s eldest daughter Sirapi] also steered the litigation the Ohannessian family pursued in Israeli courts to reclaim possession of the workshop on the Via Dolorosa after squatters broke in around 1959 and appropriated the premises and all the contents. [page 262]
The discerning reader will recognize the fact that in 1959 the Old City of Jerusalem was under Jordanian occupation so theoretically the family could have tried to regain their property by suing a Jordanian court at that time. It seems they did not. The book makes no mention of the Jordanian occupation lasting from 1948 to 1967, thus leaving the naive reader to believe that Israel is at fault for what happened to her grandfather’s property in the Old City in 1959. Israeli courts could help redress the situation only after they regained control over the Old City in 1967.
A Personal Conversation with Sato Moughalian
I was not sure what kind of reception I would receive if I sought a comment from Moughalian regarding the first and last points. I tested the waters first by sending her an email asking for more information about the result of the case against the squatters. She wrote back and explained that the family sought to regain possession of her grandfather’s workshop via the Israeli courts because that was the relevant authority at the time; I wish she had made this clear in her book to alleviate the impression it makes of Israel being at fault. The family won the case; however, in spite of their efforts, they were never able to evict the squatters. She preferred not to discuss this topic further with me as it is a painful issue for her and her family.
It reminds me of the recent case in which the Israeli court recognized the Jewish ownership of properties in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood (Shimon HaTzadik in the original Hebrew), a case that Hamas used as an excuse for shooting missiles at Israel and that saw loud protests that were reported around the world. Were the Ohannessian case to have been covered by the media would that also have resulted in outbreaks of violence? In both instances, the properties were taken over by squatters during the Jordanian occupation of Jerusalem. Would there have been an international outcry against returning stolen property to Armenian non-Jews as there was regarding Jewish owners?
Palestinian Refugees? Really?
In any case, from her warm response to my email, I was emboldened and sent her the entire first draft of this article for her to check for misunderstandings.
Moughalian kindly corrected my misconceptions and I incorporated her corrections in the body of my article. But one thing that needs special attention is the issue of referring to her family as Palestinian. I cannot read ‘Palestinian’ without associating it with today’s Palestinian regime, Israel’s enemy bent on our destruction. When we began discussing this topic, Sato referred to her family as Palestinian as she had in the book and I felt my back go up. Usually being pro-Palestinian (which is what I heard) is to be anti-Israeli. But as we talked further, I finally understood that she was referring to ‘Palestinian’ in the sense that it meant before 1948: the Palestine that included Jews as well. My in-laws were Palestinians, for example. Those who lived in Mandatory Palestine had a passport issued by the British Mandate and in that sense they were Palestinians.
For Armenian refugees who had barely escaped the genocide and finally walked on land no longer controlled by the Ottoman Empire, Palestine was a refuge offering relief from unbelievable horrors. Sato explained to me that they developed a deep attachment to THAT Palestine. And THAT Palestine, I finally understood, does not mean today’s Palestine.
I admit that it was a relief to me to understand this. I also admit that references in the book to her family as Palestinians affected my ability to fully focus on her story. I must get the book back from my friend and read it again now that the emotional charge has been neutralized. And I still wonder why she refers to her family as Palestinian, rather than as twice-displaced Armenian, refugees
Armenian Ceramics in the Old City Today
Enamoured of the Armenian ceramics I found in the Old City from the time I first came to Israel fifty years ago, I had always wondered about the story behind them. Having read this book makes each ceramic piece I own even more valuable to me because I now know the history of the artists who created them and their descendants, some of whom continue to do so.
I asked Moughalian if any of her relatives in Israel continue in the ceramics arts and it turns out they do not. But she gave a recommendation for anyone who is interested in authentic Armenian ceramics being produced today in the Old City.
The current ceramics family with whom I am closest are the Karakashians, whose shop is on Greek Orthodox Patriarchate St in the Old City. My grandfather brought them and the Balians to Jerusalem from Kutahya in the autumn of 1919. . . . Both families maintain workshops–the Balians on Nablus Road–as well as the Antreassians, Sandrounis, and Vic Lepejian. All their workshops are well worth a visit!
And her book is definitely worth getting hold of.