Bourj Hammoud fights the Armenian genocide by keeping identity
Beirut - One hundred years on, the memories of the mass killings and deportation of Armenians living on their ancestral land under Ottoman rule are still vivid in the neighbourhood of Bourj Hammoud, north of Beirut.
Most, if not all, of the Armenian inhabitants in the area are descendants of survivors of the Armenian genocide. Arpi Mangassarian, an architect and urbanist fights tears as she recalls how, in 1915, her grandmother Nazeli, then a young woman, had to abandon her mother to a sure death in the desert during their deportation. “Keep walking and don’t look back,” begged the older woman with bad legs who found herself helpless as the donkey on which she was riding fled. Mangassarian’s grandmother was never to see her mother again.
A few days later, she found herself facing a new terrible ordeal. She had to bury with her bare hands and a few handfuls of sand, Koharik, her 7-year-old daughter who died of exhaustion, a fate shared by many of the million or so Armenians deported on foot through the Syrian and Iraqi deserts by Ottoman soldiers riding horses.
Such heart-breaking stories can be heard in many streets, shops and workshops of Bourj Hammoud, the 2.5 sq. kilometre neighbourhood that came to existence in 1928 when prominent Armenian families bought empty land between the Beirut river and the Mediterranean coast and built homes and shops for the destitute survivors of the deportation.
Bourj Hammoud is, in fact, made up of many Armenian neighbourhoods named after villages in Eastern Anatolia or elsewhere such as New Sis, New Marash or New Adana.
“The first thing Armenians did here before building their own homes was to erect churches with adjacent schools. In the aftermath of the genocide, Armenians have focused wherever they went on preserving their language and religion that are the pillars of our identity,” said landscaper Sarine Hagopian as she shows visitors Karasoun Manoug — Church of the 40 Martyrs — the oldest in Bourj Hammoud.
Elsewhere in Lebanon old convents or churches built even before the deportation stand as a testimony of Armenian identity.
Armenians, upon the establishment of modern Lebanon, were granted Lebanese citizenship by the French mandate authorities. This helped their integration into the Lebanese economic and political fabric.
They profess a strong attachment to Lebanon but they are also inhabited by their ancient culture and civilization and in Bourj Hammoud many are focused on safeguarding what they consider a unique Armenian heritage. One such place is Badguer, a cultural space in an old renovated pink two-storey house. The project was initiated by Mangassarian, using all the money she inherited from an uncle in Australia.
There are regular exhibitions, there is a restaurant with a bar with rugs hanging from the walls, and a piano. Middle-aged women are seen in the restaurant preparing typical cuisine, including Armenian cinnamon tea and homemade cookies. Old Caucasian carpets, delicate intricate embroideries and antiques, such as the loom of a legendary Armenian carpet weaver, are on display.
Armenians brought with them their craftsmanship such as jewellery making, leather work, carpentry and copper work.
“To me our artisan art is also a pillar of our culture and my aim is to help this survive in an era where challenges are numerous and competition tough from Asian-made cheaper products,” said Mangassarian, who also heads the technical and urban department at the municipality.
Through her work at Badguer, an Armenian word for “image”, Mangassarian recently won a UN grant to develop and pass on the crafts of Bourj Hammoud to a new generation, with a focus on jewellery. Training schools will open and Armenian goldsmiths and jewellers, who are already very successful in Lebanon and Arab gulf countries, will receive technical assistance to meet the demands of European markets.
But Bourj Hammoud is no Armenian ghetto.
Most days this neighbourhood, despite its old decaying buildings, is a busy place with unique shops, the like of which are hard to find elsewhere in Lebanon. It is a favoured destination for many in the country looking for shops to manufacture jewellery, fix or repair almost everything from home appliances to watches, or just shop along the unique streets lined with jewellery and clothing shops, shoemakers, old photographers and seamstresses, spices and leather goods at wholesale prices.
To Beirutis bored with luxurious empty shopping malls in downtown Beirut, Bourj Hammoud offers an exotic and different experience.
Because of cheaper rents and the influx of Syrians in Lebanon, there are many Syrians and Kurds living or working in Bourj Hammoud but the place retains its Armenian identity as reflected by the multiple banners hung across the streets or on walls where one can read: “1915-2015, I remind, I remember and I demand.”