Caught in the middle in Jerusalem

By Heather R Hughes

JERUSALEM, Oct. 19 — Business isn’t what it used to be on 14 Nablus Road. Three weeks ago, before the deadly violence erupted between Israelis and Palestinians, The Palestinian Pottery was a bustling shop where customers took special care to keep from bumping into each other and the delicate bowls and vases lining the walls and shelves. Today, it’s quiet and empty. Few people dare to risk a shopping trip in East Jerusalem these days.

THE RENEWED VIOLENCE and the strain it has put on business has proprietor Neshan Balian honestly thinking about packing up and leaving town. “I hope not to leave,” he says, “but the next few weeks are critical. If things get really bad I’m not going to stay and risk the lives of my three children.”
If he does leave, he takes a tradition with him.

In 1917, the British government brought the Balian family to Jerusalem from Turkey to renovate the ceramic tiles of the Dome of the Rock, a site holy to Muslims that also is revered by Jews because they believe it to be part of the Temple Mount. Since 1922, the Armenian clan has been creating original, hand-painted ceramics and selling them to customers from around the world. Some of their most beautiful handiwork has been displayed in museums.
Israelis comprise about 70 percent of The Palestinian Pottery’s clientele. Among them was the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and current Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The remaining 30 percent include savvy tourists, expatriate residents and diplomats.
Balian doesn’t believe that Israelis are boycotting the store, but he does think they are afraid. “There is no stone wall separating East and West Jerusalem,” he noted, “but there is a mental wall that is much higher and stronger than any physical one.”
Physical impediments do exist, though. Some of Balian’s 15 employees cannot get to work because of road closures. For the employees who do make it to work, Balian ends shifts early so they can get home safely. The shop needs between $500 and $750 per day in revenue to keep it and its pottery factory running. Since the clashes began on Sept. 28, the store has been averaging a fraction of that, in the region of $50 to $75 per day.

Balian says the 1967 and 1973 wars were the worst times he’s seen, but he ranks the current violence as the lowest point in terms of “lost hope.” “This is the first time we are seeing such deep hatred from both sides. It is obvious that Israelis hate Palestinians, and it is obvious that Palestinians hate Israelis,” he says.
The store hasn’t been harassed yet, but there have been some violent incidents nearby. A few years ago, settlers demonstrating in East Jerusalem saw the sign “Palestinian Pottery” and broke in through the windows. Balian says the name of his shop could very well pose new problems but insists he’s not going to change it.
“Among some Israelis, we’re known as ‘The Armenian Pottery.’ It’s easier that way,” he says. But, he adds, when his family came to this land it was called Palestine.
As an Armenian Christian running a business in Palestinian East Jerusalem, Balian is caught in the middle of the conflict. He has long-standing friendships with Israelis and Palestinians and tries hard not to take sides.
But this time, he says, staying neutral is a difficult task. In Balian’s opinion, too many Israelis “see Palestinians as animals,” and he believes that Israel must come to terms with the resentment felt by Palestinians after more than 50 years of occupation. He believes that until the hatred between the two is extinguished there will be no peace.
For now, Balian says he will take his losses and hope that one day soon Israelis will return to his shop. “Will they come back?” he asked. “That is a serious question.”
Heather R. Hughes is a free-lance writer based in Israel.