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Kevork Kahvedjian

Elia Photo Service, Old City Jerusalem

Kevork Kahvedjian

Kevork Kahvedjian is the owner of the Elia Photo Service in the Christian Quarter of Old Jerusalem. Kevork's father, Elia, was a survivor and refugee from the Armenian genocide or holocaust, the systematic killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during and just after World War I. Elia ended up in Nazareth and eventually Jerusalem where he became a professional photographer. He photographed the Old City of Jerusalem over many years and also travelled throughout the Levant with his camera. He left a photographic legacy of thousands of glass plate negatives which his son kevork is the custodian of today. They are a precious slice of Middle East visual history, which includes some of the first visual records of hummus being devoured by Arabs from 1925 and 1935. Many of the photographs are on view at the Elia Photo Service.

Trevor outside Elia Photo ServiceTrevor outside Elia Photo Service

the Interview

September 2011

Can you show me the photographs that your father took, of the hummus eaters, and explain who your father was, what he did, and how he'd come to take this photograph, as much as you know?

You see, my...we are Armenians. My father was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. At the age of five, he lost all his family. There were five brothers, three sisters, father, mother, uncles, aunts...160, all were perished, except him, and one sister he found after 18 years in Syria, Aleppo.

Palestinian Woman Palestinian Woman
Courtesy of Elia Photo Service Jerusalem

The rest were all massacred. Around one and a half million Armenians were massacred, during the Turkish genocide. After the genocide, he was all alone, so the American Missionaries, they collected 100,000 orphans, took them out of Turkey, and dispersed them all around the Middle East...Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq. That's why you see lots of Armenians in the Middle East.

My father was in the group that they brought to Nazareth. In Nazareth, you can say it's fate. One of his teachers in the orphanage was a photographer. So at a, a very early age, he was taking pictures. At the age of 16, they said, 'Okay, you're grown up. You have to leave the or-orphanage'. So he comes to Jerusalem, and starts working as a photographer.

Jaffa Jaffa
Courtesy of Elia Photo Service Jerusalem

He was doing well, that he...until 1948, he had three photographic shops on Jaffa Road. At the same time, although he was a professional photographer, it was his hobby to go around and take pictures of people, of places. So every weekend, he used to take the camera, and go around taking pictures.

In these pictures, I can say, you can see a picture of people eating hummus. So the way you can see these pictures, you can see they are not interested in my father at all. They are not...they are so much tranced in the hummus. It must be really delicious.

The way he is licking his fingers, or the one [laughs] over here...his mouth is full, and yet, he's dipping more. It has...it must have been really delicious hummus that he's eating.

Eating Hummus - 1935 Eating Hummus - 1935
Courtesy of Elia Photo Service Jerusalem

Do you know where that was taken?

This is in Jerusalem. Yes.

Can you tell me whether it's in the Old City of Jerusalem?

It 'is' in the Old City, yes. It 'is' in the Old City. The second one is in Jordan. It's in Zarqa, they call it. This, you can see it, it's near the Zarqa River. And again, they are so much tranced in the hummus. It must have been one of the most delicious meals in those days. It was really good.

Until today, I always say, hummus never changes. Eating hummus never changed. The way, you know...take the piece of pita, and you just dip it inside the hummus. It's delicious.

And do you like to eat hummus?

Of course. At least twice a week, I eat hummus, especially in the mornings, you know. Around 10, 11 o'clock.

You didn't tell me the date of this photo?

This is 1935. Yes, it is 1935, it has been taken. And this one, in 1925, it has been taken.

What do you think about hummus, the claims that it's an Israeli food, that it's a Palestinian food?

It is so delicious, that everybody tries to claim it for themselves. It's okay. As long as it's delicious, I don't care. I don't mind. This is it.

Jerusalem, Old City Jerusalem, Old City
Courtesy of Elia Photo Service Jerusalem

Did your father take a lot of photographs in Jerusalem? Was this his main area?

Yes. Around 3,000...all in all, around 3,000 and plus, negatives, we have. You see, he took these pictures, but he never bothered with them. 1948, because of the war, he took us to the Armenian Convent for security's sake. Luckily, he took these negatives with him, and put it in the attic.

It was 1987, my wife and I, we are looking through the attic, and find these boxes of negatives. So I asked him, 'What's this?' He said, 'Ah! Don't bother. These old negatives, we don't need them'. It's my income today.

Old City, Jerusalem Jerusalem, Old City
Courtesy of Elia Photo Service Jerusalem

So was he a hobby photographer or...?

He was a professional photographer, and yet he...he always used to tell me, 'If you take your hobby as your professional [sic], you will be successful'. He was successful, in his point of view.

I'm here because my father was a soldier in the Second World War in Palestine. Do you have any photographs of Australian soldiers?

Oh yes. We have...

Can you show me?

You see, my father was a photographer for the RAF. That's a surprise. You can see here, Australian soldiers, in 1943, at the gate of the Holy Sepulchre. Now, the same place, my son took, of the same regiment in 2010. You should see the difference. [laughs]

So these are Australian soldiers with Greek priests, yes.

And what's the reputation of Australian soldiers from that time?

Oh, it was always...you know, Australians were the ones who really fought their wars outside Australia. They were doing their, their dirty work for others in other places.

Here for example, you can see, First World War, again, Australian Soldiers. Here, 1917. This was the 6th Light Brigade. They were the ones who broke the Turkish lines at Beersheba.

Soldiers at Holy SepulchreAustralian Soldiers at Holy Sepulchre
Courtesy of Elia Photo Service Jerusalem

So why do you think hummus has become so popular with Israelis?

Because it's delicious. Everybody likes it. It's light. It's good for the stomach, everything, every kind of way. It's good.

Can you show me any other photographs of Jerusalem, from the time, that you think are really good examples of your father's work?

Oh, you can see, something like this. Streets of Jerusalem. That's the uniqueness of Jerusalem, you know. The arches, with its light, and shadow, and touch. It's so beautiful.

Here, for example, you again, you can see, you can see, the girl, she's afraid, but she's passing the donkey...going around the donkey.

Jerusalem, Old City Palestinian Woman
Courtesy of Elia Photo Service Jerusalem

Did your father love the Old City?

Very much. He always used to tell...God gave, you know, credit by giving him...bringing him to Jerusalem. That's it. This is in the Jewish quarter. He's a Yemenite Jew. You see, besides my father's pictures, we have a collection which goes way back to 1860 up to today, of other photographers also.

So, you, you can find every kind of picture, every kind of character, in our pictures. This, for example, it's in the Jewish quarter. He's a Yemenite Jew. How do we know he's a Yemenite? Because he's putting the tallit on one shoulder. And it must be Friday afternoon, because that's when they go to the Western Wall.

What period is that?

This is 1939.

Multi-faith "Christians, Muslims, Jews, everything"
Courtesy of Elia Photo Service Jerusalem

Did your father photograph all denominations?

Oh yes. Christians, Muslims, Jews, everything. We as an Armen-Armenian people, you know, it was for us, it was easier for us to go everywhere.

Have you experienced lots of conflict in the Old City, in your time here?

Well, it was 1948. It...I was three years old. I don't remember anything. '67, we were in the Old City, in the Armenian quarter, sitting in the bunker, eating, listening to the news. That's how it was like.

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