Many of us are mourning the loss of the Palestinian historian Albert Aghazarian, a Jerusalem native long associated with Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah. I met him briefly but memorably in 2013, on my first trip to Palestine; he provided simultaneous translation of the three lectures I gave at Al Quds University on my first trip there in June of that year. The lectures were on Lockean political philosophy and its relevance to Palestine. Without him, there wouldn’t have been any lectures.
The sessions were each two to three hours long, all without breaks. I spoke in English; Albert translated simultaneously into Arabic; the audience asked questions in Arabic; he translated simultaneously into English; I answered in English; he translated simultaneously into Arabic. And so on, hour after hour.
He went non-stop, sweat pouring down his face, straining to keep up with my rapid-fire Jersey-inflected academese—and with the strenuous, sometimes exasperated comments I got back from the audience in streetwise Palestinian Arabic. I kept forgetting to slow down for him, and the audience cut him no slack at all, but he kept up with us no matter what and didn’t miss a word.
I learned more from the seven or eight hours I spent in that lecture hall—from Albert, from the audience, from the guns pointed at all of our heads, and from the ghosts of the martyrs who surrounded us—than I had from the decades I’d previously spent in libraries, seminar rooms, and conferences back home. It changed me forever, and Albert is part of that transformation, etched indelibly in my mind. If only I could repeat the experience. But there’s nothing like the first time.
My last memory of him came from a later trip. I was sitting in someone’s car in East Jerusalem, and we saw Albert walking down the street, or maybe waiting for the bus. We stopped and gave him a ride home. When I saw his house, I was struck by the fact that a man of his talents lived so simply and yet lived with the obvious grace and joy he brought to his life. I can still see him leaving the car and walking to his front door as we pulled away.
I was just a fleeting presence in his life. He can’t have known how powerful an impression he made on me.
When I hear people venting their spleens on Palestine, using their imagined idea of it as a punching bag for their hostilities, I think of him—his love of language, his erudition, his seemingly superhuman talents for translation. He lived in a world beyond rancor, a world devoted singlemindedly to the task of doing justice to foreign thoughts. When I think of him, I live, however briefly, in that same world—tranquil for a moment, yet conscious of a debt I can never repay.
A statement by Hanan Ashrawi, PLO Dept of Public Diplomacy and Policy.
An interview from This Week in Palestine, Nov. 2015.
Albert Aghazarian, Jamileh Freij, Majda Batsch, “Growing Up in Jerusalem,” Middle East Report 182 (May-June 1993) [requires JSTOR registration].