Whether by coincidence or design (probably the latter), Jerusalem’s YMCA building is currently showing an exhibition of exquisite Armenian ceramic work produced by one of the many workshops situated in the Old City. No mention is made of the slaughter of over a million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire exactly one hundred years ago, whether it is defined as genocide or not. Whatever term one uses, it was undoubtedly one of the major tragedies of the twentieth century, and there is enough documentary evidence to substantiate the accusations of the horrors that took place, presaging the mass murders that were perpetrated thirty years later during the Holocaust.
In 1933, after undertaking extensive research on the subject, the German-Austrian writer Franz Werfel published his novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, describing the efforts of a small community of Armenians in a village in what is now southern Turkey, to stave off their deportation. The book, which was translated into many languages, was instrumental in engendering widespread awareness of the events surrounding the massacre of the Armenians. Werfel is also distinguished for becoming Alma Mahler’s third husband.
More recently, in 2004 Louis de Bernières published his novel Birds Without Wings, which deals with the same subject, describing the harmonious coexistence of Muslims and Armenians in the far reaches of the Ottoman Empire prior to the expulsion and slaughter of the Armenians.
In a plaque alongside the YMCA exhibition the owner of the ceramics workshop, describes the age-old artistic tradition involving the intricate decoration of ceramic tiles and other objects by the Armenian community, a tradition that has been maintained and taken to Jerusalem and elsewhere by the Armenian diaspora.
Armenians have been living in Jerusalem since the fourth century, when they first adopted Christianity. Their brand of Christianity is akin to the Greek and Russian Orthodox versions, but separate from them, with its own church and patriarchate. The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian. The Armenian part is allied with the Christian one and is built around its central church, the Church of St. James. Some of their beautifully-decorated tiles even adorn my kitchen and bathrooms.
Armenians are scattered all over the world, and have made a marked contribution to the art and culture of their host countries. Thus, for example, famous Armenians include composer Aram Kachaturian, who was domiciled in Russia, American singer Kathy Berberian, the painter Arshile Gorky (born Vostanik Adoian) who had a seminal influence on Abstract Expressionism in America, to where he had emigrated, prominent American writer William Saroyan, not forgetting, of course, the contemporary ‘celebrities’ and media personalities, the three Kardashian sisters, Kim, Kourtney and Khloe, who are the subjects and objects of a TV series (which I don’t watch) focusing on their activities and relationships. In fact, they recently visited Israel in order to baptize their baby daughter in the Church of St. James in Jerusalem, occasioning the media stir that usually accompanies visits to this country by media personalities of one kind or another.
Israel’s government has dithered consistently between demonstrating sympathy for the suffering of the Armenians as a people and reluctance to define it as a genocide, largely for reasons of political prudence. What is to be gained by currying favour with the current Turkish leader, who does not display much sympathy for Israel or Jews, is not clear to me, but I suppose some Israeli diplomat or politician somewhere knows the reason why.
But then I suppose it’s only to be expected that diplomats and politicians will generally prefer to avoid calling a spade a spade, even – or even especially – when the question is a clear-cut one of displaying moral fibre.