Albert Aghazarian, an Armenian Palestinian Jerusalemite descended from survivors of the Armenian genocide, was a historian and a prolific professor. Often regarded by those who knew him as a walking encyclopedia of the Old City, he was committed to the diversity and pluralism of the city and regarded both as under attack by Israeli policies. He considered himself equally an Armenian and a Palestinian, but more than anything else a Jerusalemite; his oft-uttered assertion “My pulse beats with the city” seems equally plausible as a metaphor and as a statement of fact.
Family Origins and Birth
A century ago, Jerusalem and its pluralistic tradition of tolerance gave his ancestors, survivors of the Armenian genocide, a home.
Albert’s grandparents, the Aghazarians, settled in Jerusalem in 1919. The matriarch had managed to survive the Armenian genocide; her first husband and children were not as lucky. She remarried, and her daughter, Elise Tachjian, a seamstress, would eventually marry Arsen Aghazarian during the 1936 Revolt. Arsen opened a restaurant near Mamilla, until the 1948 War swept it away, like all Palestinian property in West Jerusalem.
He then managed a little grocery shop in the Old City in East Jerusalem. Elise started working in sewing at home, then opened her own shop at 8 al-Zahra Street; the first woman-owned business in East Jerusalem.
The Aghazarians had six children; the youngest, Albert, was born in 1950.1
Born two years after the establishment of Israel but 17 years before Israel occupied East Jerusalem where he lived, Albert Aghazarian had vivid memories of Jerusalem under Jordanian rule (1948–67) and then Israeli occupation (1967 onward).
Jerusalem had provided his family with a haven where they could lay down roots, and he would go on to become the city’s passionate ambassador.
Childhood and Education (1950–68)
Aghazarian was educated at the Collège des Frères. In describing his education, he noted that the Jerusalem schools, including his own, attracted rich students from all over the Arab world because they were foreign schools.
He excelled in Arabic, and his teachers frequently pointed this out to his classmates, perhaps to shame them at being surpassed by someone for whom Arabic was a second language.2 In high school, he would recite literature and imitate his teachers, to the point that he excelled in languages. His mastery of Arabic, English, and French would later be commented upon by fellow academics at Birzeit University. Growing up at home, he spoke both Armenian and Turkish. He learned Hebrew and some Spanish after graduating from high school.
The Jerusalem of Aghazarian’s youth shaped his worldview. Prior to 1967, pilgrims regularly visited Jerusalem from Arab countries, especially during Easter. As a student, he had part-time jobs (including selling gems at a souvenir shop), which brought him into contact with tourists (early exposure and informal training for the public relations role he would later assume). In this period, the Jordanian authorities were in town, yet in the background, there was still the influence of the English language of the British Mandate. Later on, he worked at Na’was Travel Agency and Ritz Hotel, at Al-Quds Arabic newspaper as assistant editor, and was then in charge of the foreign currency department at Barclays Discount Bank in East Jerusalem.
Whether Arab or Western, the tourists were unmistakably moved by walking the streets of the Old City, which gave Aghazarian an inkling of the city’s importance on a global scale.3 And then there was the whole political climate of the 1950s and 1960s, of which Arab nationalism (Nasserism) and Palestinian identity were part of the mix.
All of these were in the air, and they formed an essential part of his education: “Church, politics, revolution, all in one package.”4 The city was one in which a teenager working in the gift shop of the Intercontinental Hotel in the Mount of Olives could cross paths with political figures attending the first Palestinian National Council (PNC) in 1964, during which the decision was made to establish the Palestine Liberation Organization.
When the 1967 War broke out, he was out of the country in Beirut. According to his family, he paid triple the usual return fare to ensure he would make it back to Jerusalem. He was really worried about the possibility of being stranded outside Jerusalem.
In 1968, he enrolled in Birzeit College in Birzeit, outside Jerusalem near Ramallah, which was then a community college that offered a two-year associate degree. Years later, he described the institution that would be his academic home for the next two years:
In 1968, there were about 168 students total (freshmen and sophomores, arts and sciences), and in 1969, about 196. So it was like an extended family, and in fact it was the first setup when we could experience the multiplicity of Palestinians in terms of geography and class. We had students from Gaza and Nablus, it was a coeducational school, which added to the flavor of the place, and it focused on lots of cultural activities . . . and that gave a sense of belonging.5
At the time, the mood in the fledgling Palestinian higher educational institution was heady and full of possibility, as intellectuals from across Palestine and Jordan flocked to join the faculty. Birzeit represented a place where political exchange was possible and Palestinian identity was expressed across the spectrum of society. Those involved, including Aghazarian, believed they were incubating the future of Palestine.
In 1969, Aghazarian was one of many Birzeit College students who went on a hunger strike in solidarity with political prisoners in Israeli jails. The strikers sat in the village mosque; the fast ended five or six days later, when the mayors of Ramallah and Birzeit and some religious clerics led the strikers out of the mosque. For Aghazarian, however, the consequences were serious, and he had to be hospitalized at the time following bronchitis.6 The fate of political prisoners would be a focus of his professional career years later.
The education he received at Birzeit clearly went beyond the academic and shaped his sense of self. Decades later, he would recall those years: “The elders of Birzeit had a pan-Arab, pluralistic outlook. It had integrity. As an Armenian, I never felt that I was distant, that I didn’t belong. Their Arabism was never exclusivist.”7
Associate degree in hand, in 1970 he went on to complete his higher education at the American University of Beirut, and graduated two years later with a BA in political science. During that period, he made strong connections with key figures.
In 1979, he graduated with a master’s degree in Arab studies from the Center of Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. During his studies, he also worked at the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates as translator. Although his wife became pregnant in the US, he insisted that his children would be born in Jerusalem.
Professor and Director of the Public Relations Office
He returned to Birzeit (by then a four-year university) in 1979 and began the work that would consume him for the following decades. Aghazarian taught history and cultural studies, and by all accounts he was a brilliant lecturer who challenged dominant paradigms and seemed to embody the revolutionary spirit of the 1970s.8
But it is perhaps as the head of the Public Relations Office, a position he held from 1979 to 2002, that his name is most often associated. Nazmi Jubeh, history professor at Birzeit and also cofounder of Riwaq, a center for architectural conservation in the West Bank, would write that “Albert was tailor-made for public relations; he did not just fit right into it, but he expanded it beyond its limitations.”9
It is hard to discuss the history of Birzeit University during those years, and especially during the 1980s, without referring to Aghazarian and the battles he waged with the Israeli authorities on behalf of the university community. He called press conferences and raged when Israeli troops stormed the campus, killing and arresting students; he fought to get the closures lifted and to keep the university open. (By 1988, Israel had closed Birzeit University 14 times for weeks or a month at a time, but the 15th closure lasted for 51 months, until April 29, 1992.) He made sure that Birzeit had solidarity committees in various countries that would stand with the university when it was under attack, and in an account published by Birzeit University about its history, it was important to him to give credit to Israeli Jewish academics who stood by the university during its closure.10 A friend and colleague noted:
The most admirable trait about Albert was not just his liberal vision, but his reverence for the idea of diversity. I do not recall that he excluded anybody in the university based on their position or background; to the contrary he was unusually and remarkably tolerant. He had excellent social relationships, even with the most religiously or socially conservative persons in the university. His office soon turned into a PR training workshop, and he managed to recruit many students to work with him; many went on to become prominent journalists, authors, and writers, especially during the First Intifada.11
Meeting foreign leaders as well as culture producers (writers, including Russell Banks and Nobel laureates José Saramago of Portugal and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria; violinist Yehuda Menuhin), academics (physicist Paul Kessler), politicians (including Crown Prince Louis Philippe of Belgium, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and French socialist politician Claude Cheysson); giving tours; and traveling to meet with solidarity groups in foreign countries were all part of the job description, broadly defined, but it inevitably spilled into his personal life. Tours of the Old City easily ended in his home, where his wife, Madeleine Shemmesian, welcomed guests brought to her and provided meals on short notice. She anchored their three children when the demands of work required his absence from home.
The Madrid Peace Conference put him on an international stage. Together with many Birzeit University faculty, he was part of the Palestinian delegation; his job, appropriately enough, was to coordinate the Palestinian delegation’s media efforts along with Hanan Ashrawi. The job was tailor-made for him; not only did he speak several languages fluently, but he also had met many of the correspondents in Jerusalem and had a gift for remembering names and faces. Colleague and delegation member Penny Johnson said that he “headed the Palestinian press team at the Madrid peace conference where he pressed the Palestinian case with acumen and congeniality, aided by his first-name familiarity with about a thousand of the journalists there.”12
Later, he often referred to his role on the Palestinian media team during the Madrid Peace Conference as his finest moment.
In 2002, Israeli forces threw tear gas during a peaceful demonstration that Aghazarian had a leading role in to protect students’ freedom of education. This led to the deterioration of his health as inhaling tear gas almost got him killed. He resigned from Birzeit in that year, also due to difference of vision with the administration, and worked as a simultaneous interpreter. Aghazarian spoke Arabic, English, French, Armenian, Hebrew, Turkish, and Spanish, and he enjoyed the craft of translating the nuances and spirit of words. His children defined his approach to language: “He realizes that the art of communication is ultimately connected with the relations that are built around it—the person one is speaking to.”
A visiting academic, Irfan Khawaja, described how Aghazarian provided simultaneous translation services for three lectures he gave on political philosophy. He kept up, hour after hour, through the lecture and the question session that followed.
Awards and Recognition
Aghazarian inspired thousands of individuals and had an influential role in several institutions.13 He was part of the committee that established the Arab Thought Forum (al-Multaqa) and was member of its Advisory Board.
He was also board member of several important organizations, including Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture.
In 2006, Aghazarian was awarded a medal by King Albert II of Belgium in recognition of his efforts to raise international awareness on Jerusalem.
He was invited as distinguished speaker in several renowned conferences and events in different parts of the world. Aghazarian had various appearances on TV channels both locally and internationally. Many of the conferences, symposiums, and speaking tours he attended (mostly in Europe) were organized by UN entities, the World Council of Churches, the Society for Medical Aid, Friends of Birzeit University (FOBZU), the French-Arab Solidarity Society, Swiss-Palestinian Solidarity, the Lutheran Academy, and others. In 2002, he was part of the formal delegation in Amman at the Conference on Christians of Jerusalem, where he met with HM King Abdullah of Jordan. He also had an active role at the Conference on Jerusalem in Morocco in 2000, as well as three years before that at the Averroès Encounters in Marseille (in 1997). In 2000, he took part in the Peace Boat—a Japan-based international NGO working to promote peace, human rights, and sustainability—that had him visit China, Japan, Vietnam, India, Eritrea, and Egypt.
Aghazarian translated numerous books, studies, and publications, including Khalil Nakhleh’s Myth of Palestinian Development (into Arabic, published by Muwatin, 2004). He also was a feature writer of selective articles at the Daily Star in 2003, and contributed to Christian Voices from the Holy Land (with Afif Safieh in 1998, 1999, and 2000), as well as Die Jerusalem Frage (edited by Uri Avneri and Azmi Bishara) in 1996. Some of his contributions in conferences were published, such as Rencontres Averroès: La Méditerranée Entre Raison et Foi (Actes Sud, 1998). Prior to that, he had voiced concerns over the right to education in several Birzeit University publications, including “Students behind Bars” (1983 and 1985), “University under Occupation” (1984), and “The Criminalization of Education” (1989). He was also acknowledged as writer and translator to the Jerusalem Quarterly, for whom he had noted (in a 1993 interview) his anguished relationship to the exclusivist stance on Jerusalem:
Love Affair with Jerusalem
Aghazarian saw himself as part of the Arab-Islamic framework and described Jerusalem, a city that encompassed many communities, as a mirror, not a mosaic. A mosaic is passive, something observed; a mirror “looks back at you. It’s more dynamic. There’s a dialectical relationship.” He valued the diversity and pluralism of Jerusalem and saw Israeli policy as one determined to eliminate that diversity.15
Perhaps his relationship to the city is best summarized by fellow historian Jubeh:
He was fascinated—almost to the point of obsession—with the city’s ability to embrace contradictions, and to sit singularly on the “throne” of social and religious diversity. He considered Jerusalem to be a unique place, since no other city in the world included such a multitude of religious communities that managed, in one way or another, to coexist. I think he saw in old Jerusalem, prior to the Israeli occupation, a kind of utopia, and that is how he portrayed it. He genuinely believed in it; it was not simply good public relations. He used the principle of diversity to counter Israelization attempts over the city, to expand the circle of solidarity with Jerusalem. . . . Jerusalem for Albert was the community.16
Aghazarian died on January 30, 2020, after years of ill health. His coffin was draped with a Palestinian flag, and he was buried in Jerusalem, the city he loved and that he never stopped studying. He regarded himself as a free soul who belonged to Jerusalem.
His family made sure to fulfill his request that his tombstone include a phrase that, translated, says: “He no longer requires a passport.”
Aghazarian, Albert. “A Student in the Late Sixties.” In Birzeit University: The Story of a National Institution, edited by Ida Audeh (Birzeit: Birzeit University, 2010), 23.
Aghazarian, Albert. “Early Supporters.” In Birzeit University: The Story of a National Institution, edited by Ida Audeh (Birzeit: Birzeit University, 2010), 78.
“Albert Aghazarian.” This Week in Palestine. November 2015.
“Interview with Albert Aghazarian.” C-Span II. January 30, 1991.
Johnson, Marilyn. “Growing Up in Jerusalem: City of Mirrors.” Middle East Report 182 (May/June 1993).
Johnson, Penny. “‘My Pulse Beats with the City’: Remembering Albert Aghazarian (1950–2020).” Journal of Palestine Studies 49, no. 3 (2020).
Jubeh, Nazmi. “In Memory of Albert Aghazarian: The Alleys of Jerusalem Will Miss You.” Jerusalem Quarterly, no. 82 (Summer 2020).
Khawaja, Irfan. “Albert Aghazarian” [blog]. January 31, 2020.
Johnson, “Growing Up in Jerusalem.”
Penny Johnson, “‘My Pulse Beats with the City’: Remembering Albert Aghazarian (1950–2020),” Journal of Palestine Studies 49, no. 3 (2020).
Albert Aghazarian, “A Student in the Late Sixties,” in Birzeit University: The Story of a National Institution, ed. Ida Audeh (Birzeit: Birzeit University, 2010), 23.
Arda, Elise, and Arsen Aghazarian, interview and notes, August 2021.
Aghazarian, “A Student in the Late Sixties,” 23.
Nazmi Jubeh, “In Memory of Albert Aghazarian: The Alleys of Jerusalem Will Miss You,” Jerusalem Quarterly, no. 82 (Summer 2020). His daughter Arda met students he had taught decades earlier who fondly recalled his lectures.
Jubeh, “In Memory of Albert Aghazarian.”
Aghazarian, “Early Supporters,” in Birzeit University, 78.
Jubeh, “In Memory of Albert Aghazarian.”
Johnson, “‘My Pulse Beats with the City.’”
Information in this section comes from interviews with the Aghazarian family.
Johnson, “Growing Up in Jerusalem.”
Jubeh, “In Memory of Albert Aghazarian.”