"In 1915, at the age of five, my father lost all 116 of his family members."
Location: Elia Photo, Al-Khanka Street, Old City, Jerusalem
The encounter: Kevork has a photography shop in Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. I had already been drawn to the store some years ago, when I noticed the beautiful black-and-white photos of Jerusalem displayed in the window. I love looking at old photographs of places I know: I’m always moved when I peek into the past and find I can connect it to the present. This time, I went in to buy the book of prints that I had noticed a few years ago. When I chatted with Kevork, we soon discovered that an Armenian friend of mine in the US, a colleague of my husband, had been a classmate of Kevork’s son.
What are you doing here right now?
This is my photography shop. It has existed in this spot since 1949, but my father already started doing photography in 1924. We are the oldest operating photography shop in Jerusalem.
Can you tell me a bit about your family?
I got married in 1969. The beautiful lady in this photo is my wife. We have three children: a boy, a girl, and a boy. And we have five grandchildren. My younger son and my daughter are in the United States. He is in Washington D.C. and my daughter lives in Chicago. My daughter used to work at the American consulate and met her husband there. My son married an American as well. My older son still lives in Jerusalem. He won’t leave. He loves this city as much as I. He works with me in the store. We are three generations of photographers.
Where is your family from?
My father was a survivor of the Armenian genocide. In 1915, at the age of five, he lost all 116 of his family members. Turkey massacred one-and-a-half million Armenians. When the war was over, American missionaries collected over 100,000 Armenian orphans. They took them out of Turkey and scattered them all over the Middle East. My father was in a group of orphans that was placed in an orphanage in Nazareth.
One of the teachers in the orphanage was a photographer. So my father, at the age of fourteen, was using a camera and taking pictures. When he was sixteen, he was told he was an adult and had to leave the orphanage. He and some other Armenian orphans moved to Jerusalem, to the Armenian convent [in the Old City of Jerusalem]. The convent gave them room and board. That’s when my father started working as a photographer. Soon, he was so successful that he had three photography shops on Jaffa Road.
In 1935, when he was twenty-five years old, my father received a notice that they thought they had found one of his older sisters in Aleppo. Back then, there were committees that tried to reunite Armenian families.
My father went to Syria to meet this woman who was thought to be his sister. When they met, she said: “If you are my brother, you should have a scar on your forehead." She remembered that when he was little, he had fallen and hit his head on the edge of a stair. She pulled back his hair and there was the scar!
In Aleppo, my father met my mother. Her family was originally from the city of Urfa [in Turkey], but they had fled to Aleppo during the genocide. She came to Jerusalem with my father when they got married.
Before the war, we lived in west Jerusalem, in Musrara. During of the War of Independence, my father took us to the Armenian convent because it was the safest place and then, when the war ended, we found ourselves on the Jordanian side of the border. I was three years old at that time, so I have no memories of living in the western part of the city. My father opened this store in the Old City when he found he couldn't return to his stores on Jaffa road.
My father was very busy at his shop. His personal photography was just a hobby. He’d go around, take pictures, develop the rolls, and then put them aside, because he didn’t have time to print them. In 1987, my wife and I were cleaning out the attic and found all these boxes full of negatives. Today, this is my business: I stopped everything to print all the negatives.
How do you describe your religious or national identity?
I am Armenian. I was born in Palestine, I grew up under Jordanian rule, and now I live under Israel and have an Israeli passport. So, I am everything! It’s not good. A person should belong to one place and have one nationality. But I would say Jerusalem is my home. It is a beautiful city: it has so many cultures, so many languages, so many political problems, and so many headaches! And with all that, I love it!
What are your hopes and expectations for the future of this land?
I don’t expect anything anymore. I used to be optimistic, but now I’m becoming pessimistic. Unfortunately, the extremists on both sides are getting the upper hand.
At one time there used to be over 14,000 Armenians in Jerusalem. Today, we’re less than 1000. Everybody is moving away: to the US, Canada... mainly to English-speaking countries. My children now live in the US, and I don’t think they’ll move back.