Christians of the Holy Land: Between the Hammer and the Anvil
By Maria Senchukova
Gavriil Nalbandian lives in Jerusalem. By day he paints icons in a small apartment by the Monastery of the Holy Archangels in the Old City, two steps away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. At night he returns home, to his wife and children. There is nothing unusual in this lifestyle, but among the pilgrims and the local clergy Gavrill and his family have become a kind of celebrities.
A few years ago, on the eve of the Dormition of the Theotokos a procession went from the Holy Sepulchre to the tomb of the Theotokos. Among the crowd of pilgrims was a student from the Sechenov Medical Academy, Daria Kozlova, and, as they say in the old books, it was pleasing to God that she meet a young man in a choir robe, singing the stichera for the feast in the procession. That was Gavriil.
Now they have two charming sons, in whom is mingled Arab, Russian, and Armenian blood. On the surface, they do not resemble any one people and from birth they have heard a number of different languages.
Gavriil himself comes from a mixed family—his father is Armenian and his mother is an Orthodox Arab. The combination is unusual for us, but here it is not uncommon. Gavriil’s own choice appears exceptional: baptized in the Armenian Apostolic Church, he consciously adopted Orthodoxy and entered the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem.
The Miracle of the Icon
He bears an Armenian name. As of recently, he possesses Israeli nationality. He prays in Greek. With his parents, he speaks Arabic and with his children and wife, Russian. He hangs a Russian flag in his car and is thinking about moving to Russia.
For many years, Gavriil—at first single and then with his wife and oldest son—lived in his workshop. But with two children in 15 square meters including the kitchen and bathroom, it was already cramped. Now Gavriil only works here, doing metalwork and painting and restoring icons.
In the workshop it smells of wood and paint. Along the walls there are icons, and there are portraits of the current patriarchs Theophilos of Jerusalem and Kyrill of Moscow and the previous patriarchs Diodore of Jerusalem and Alexei of Moscow.
Gavriil labors below the face of the Savior. I sit beside him and watch.
--Is it really so well-preserved? He shows an icon of Saints Cosmas and Damian that is cracked with age.
I nod approvingly—the better part of my knowledge of art is not enough.
The iconographer smiles mischievously and tells his secret:
--In fact, it is a forgery. A pastiche. Only the board is old. I painted it myself.
--Do you make your work materials yourself?
--No. I order the paints in Greece and Russia. I know the method for making them. Unfortunately, there is no time for making the paints myself. I buy the boards, but I prepare them myself. Oak is the best of all, but oak is expensive. Now I paint on walnut.
--Where did you learn iconography?
--At first with my father, from the age of 11, starting in 1986. In 1997 I was sent by the Patriarchate of Jerusalem to study on Athos and then in Thessaloniki. After that, once I was married, I studied for a year in Moscow, in Saint Tikhon University.
--You learned Russian there?
--I started studying Russian even earlier, in Bethlehem, in annual Russian courses. After studying for two months, I knew the grammar and wrote, but it was not enough practice. But then I married Daria, and the practice appeared.
--Do you usually work to order, or by the call of the heart?
--To order, but also by the call of the heart. This is also an icon.
--Who are your main customers?
--All kinds of people. I work in churches and monasteries. For example, I painted the Church of Saint Gregory in Ramla and the icons there are mine. I worked at the order of the former hegumen of the Tomb of the Theotokos.
The Russian Ambassador (we are often in communication) ordered four icons: for himself, Medvedev, Lavrov, and, it seems, Putin.
Sometimes, I paint as a present. A few years ago, I painted an icon of Saint Alexei of Russia especially for Patriarch Alexei. Patriarch Kyrill is coming on an official visit. If it is possible, I will try to also paint something for him.
The Path to Orthodoxy
--In what faith were you brought up?
--My mother would take my brothers and me to the Orthodox church, but I was baptized in the Armenian Church because my father belongs to them and my parents’ home is located by an Armenian monastery. It is assumed here that one baptizes and raises a child in the father’s confession.
A mixed marriage here is something ordinary. Almost no one understands theological differences and those rare people who do understand do not think about it. My father, for example, is very serious about the faith and about dogmatic theology… but he tries to forget about it.
--Why did you decide to go over to the Greeks?
--I read the holy fathers. I thought. I wanted to become a monk. I wanted to enter the Lavra of Saint Savva. But that did not come about (again Gavriil smiles widely) since I got married.
But such a moment was decisive. I vacillated for a long time. I read the holy fathers over and over again. I did not yet have confidence. Then I started to pray to God, “If the truth is in Orthodoxy, give me a sign so that I will have confidence within myself that I am not mistaken.” In 1992 I was with friends in Ramallah. There they told me that there was a myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos. I went to venerate it, and I saw that it was my icon. And I understood that that was God’s sign.
My father also paints icons. He also taught me. (In fact, the Armenians are iconoclastic, but there is a strong Greek influence). He is a very strongly-believing person. He prays very much, but he does not have wonder-working icons. It is because he is a heretic (in the basic, churchly understanding of the term), but I am not.
--How did your father respond to your decision to change confessions?
--For a long time he resented it. Up to now, he considers me a traitor. He says that understanding theology is not our affair. The important thing is to believe that Christ came to save us and the rest is not important.
--Among the Orthodox is there also such a naïve theology?
In different ways. The Greeks, the majority of whom are more or less educated clergy, are well-versed in theology.
As for the Arabs, I can give an example. Many Orthodox Arab children go to Catholic schools. There they have to go to the Catholic church or else there are big conflicts. Theology is not anything for anyone. In one day they can go to both the Catholic and the Orthodox church. They think it is even necessary to do this—you receive more blessings.
--How did they Greeks accept you?
--Very well. They taught me the Greek language and Byzantine music. I did what I wanted to do. I had an excellent relationship with the former patriarch Diodore. The former Patriarch Irenaeus helped me very much—it was through him that I obtained this workshop.
Between Israel and Palestine
--So you speak several languages fluently: Arabic, Armenian, Greek Russian, Hebrew…
--No, Hebrew not fluently. I studied Hebrew in order to obtain Israeli citizenship. It was necessary for me in order to travel easily. Then we went to Russia and I forgot a lot of it. But I speak it alright.
--Tell me, how do Palestinian citizens travel? Since they can never leave through Israel…
--For ten years now they cannot. They travel through Jordan—there are no borders between Palestine and Jordan. Before, there had been an airport in Gaza but they bombed it a long time ago.
--Do the Arabs who live in Israel, such as your mother, have a citizenship status? Does she not want to live in Palestine, in her country?
--It is all the same to those like my mother. She was born in Beit Sahour. She got married in Jerusalem. She does not think about politics. All her family members live in Palestine and she can go and visit them—she has a Jordanian passport.
Palestinians are worse off. Some of them have an entry permit into Israel three or four times a year, for holidays. There are people who live in Bethlehem who have not been to Jerusalem for twenty years, even though it is fifteen minutes away.
Before, it was easier. If there was a marriage between an Israeli citizen and a Palestinian, the Palestinian received a residency permit for Israel. Now that is not possible.
Christians between the Hammer and the Anvil
--How are the relations between Christians and Muslims in Palestine?
--Very tense. The Muslims consider us to be pagans. I do not want to generalize—We rented a house in an Arab neighborhood and with our neighbors, wonderful people, we visit each other and have very warm relations. But if there is an Islamic government, we cannot live here.
--But does Israel protect the Christians?
--Up to a point. You know, this is how cats play with mice. If there is here Israel without Palestine, it would be the end for us. We are not necessary for them. Here they will build a purely European state. If there is an Islamic Palestine without Israel, this would also be the end for us. They will just destroy us.
--But there are many examples of coexistence. In Hebron, for example, there is a Muslim population, all the women are veiled, but it is calm there.
--In Hebron there are very many radically-minded Muslims. There are simply no Christians there. This is why it is calm. There is only a Russian monastery and the locals think that the Russians are only there temporarily.
The most offensive thing is that no one is concerned with the Christians’ problems. Do many people know what is happening in Gaza? A few times they have burned churches and killed Christians. They prohibit the Orthodox Arab women from going out with their heads uncovered.
There is a Christian bookstore in Gaza. They went to its owner and said, “Either you close this shop or we kill you.” He responded, “No, I will not close it. We are Christians and we live here just like you.” They cut off his head on the spot. Did any of the media talk about this?
Even in Bethlehem (!) you cannot eat and drink in public during Ramadan—they will beat you for it.
Beside Bethlehem is the Monastery of Saint Theodosius. The abbot was beaten several times and they tried to drive him out of these places. He remains there. If only there was someone to intervene! The Palestinian Authority takes no action. Understand it as you like.
When there were hostilities between Israel and Palestine, they fought like this: they would go into Christian homes and from there they would shell Jewish neighborhoods. Of course, the Israeli soldiers would respond by shelling the Christian homes. They also do not care about the Christians.
From the Jewish side, the treatment is no better.
When I had only just met Daria, we went to a Romanian monastery. To get there, you have to go through an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. When a child saw us there, he noticed Daria’s cross and started throwing rocks at us. I myself did nothing.
Everyone has heard about the murders of Archimandrite Philoumenos and Matushka Anastasia.
The Christians here are not a political force. For this reason no media report about our problems. No one is interested in us. Here there are religious fanatics of all stripes, and we are between them, like being between a hammer and an anvil.