As Armenians across the world commemorated the 101st anniversary of the 1915 Genocide, we visited Bourj Hammoud in Beirut, where Armenians fleeing the horrors in Anatolia built new lives.
It is Sunday, April 24, 2016, and Beirut’s chaotic Dora roundabout is at its frenetic best. Lebanese taxi drivers shout destination names, while Ethiopian women in white scarves make their way to church. Diverse groups of women from Ghana, Togo and the Philippines pick through clothing racks at discount fashion shops while a group of Kurdish men sip coffee on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, a Sri Lankan restaurant continues its lunch service unabated, serving up hot rotis and fish curry to its clientele of South Asian migrant workers.
However, on this particular day, an unusually high number of shops are closed. Instead of bustling storefronts, shuttered buildings stand draped in banners with slogans in Armenian, Arabic and English. The banners mark the remembrance of the Armenian Genocide, 101 years to the day after it began. Many of the shop owners, their families and their neighbors are taking the day off to commemorate the horrors of the episode that resonate in their communities and collective memories to this day.
The scenes on the street encapsulate the surprising diversity of the Beirut neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud, sometimes referred to as “Little Armenia.” Nearly a century after it was established as a refuge for Armenians fleeing the Ottoman massacres of World War I, Bourj Hammoud continues to be a haven where some of the most downtrodden have begun new lives: some displaced by war, some who have fled economic deprivation and some who fell through the cracks because the system in their home country failed them. The area’s tradition of relative openness has made it arguably one of the most diverse and dynamic neighborhoods in all of Lebanon.
This dynamism has resulted in puzzling paradoxes and some difficulties in recent years. Bourj Hammoud is a place of prosperity, but also poverty. It is home to large industries, but also timeless handicrafts. It is the cultural cradle for Lebanon’s Armenians, but its Armenian population has been slowly dwindling. Communal tensions between Syrian refugees and Lebanese-Armenians have at times boiled over into violence, especially since longstanding tensions in the Syrian-Lebanese relationship have become more apparent due to the refugee crisis. Meanwhile, the first hints of gentrification are beginning to show, and the neighborhood is beginning to be considered “hip” by Beirut’s young, creative crowd.
If one stands on the eastern slope of Beirut’s hilly Achrafieh neighborhood, they can see the entirety of Bourj Hammoud. One of the most densely populated suburbs in the Middle East, it lies sandwiched by the Beirut River to its west, and the foothills of the Mount Lebanon range to its east. However, if one was to stand in this same spot a century ago, the view would have been little more than marshland sprinkled with a few farm houses.
In the years following the Armenian Genocide of 1915, entire communities of surviving Anatolian Armenians sought refuge amid the Syrians and the Lebanese. Those who made it as far as Beirut settled in makeshift shelters haphazardly built on the marshlands on the city’s outskirts. Aware of the sectarian dynamics of the Lebanese political system, the Armenian Catholic Church lobbied for full citizenship for the refugees, who were then permitted to erect permanent structures.
“Bourj Hammoud is a symbol of Lebanese-Armenian existence,” Vartan Khacharian, one of the organizers of the commemoration ceremony, explains, brimming with pride. After fleeing Ottoman Turkey, he said, “they stayed together in a kind of Armenian ghetto. They built their churches there, they built their clubs and their schools there. Everything was established in Bourj Hammoud.”
Despite incredible hardship, the Armenians were among the fortunate ones in terms of resettlement. Lebanon’s fragile political make-up would mean that subsequent waves of refugees would not be granted the same opportunities. The arrival of 725,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon fleeing the newly established state of Israel in 1948, and later into the 1960s and 1970 due to sporadic conflicts following the Six-Day War, introduced new levels of political and economic pressure into Lebanon. Bourj Hammoud’s low rents and then-unpopulated outskirts provided an area for displaced Palestinians to build their own make-shift homes, and a community was established in the marshlands of the Karantina and Tal-al-Zaatar districts.
As Bourj Hammoud’s economy began to develop in the 1950s and 60s, rampant unemployment and political instability in southern Lebanon drove many Lebanese to Beirut in search of work and safety. Bourj Hammoud’s Nabaa district became home to a mix of Shia-Lebanese and Palestinians who found cheap housing and jobs in the neighborhood’s burgeoning industrial sector.
For Khacharian, the legacy of the genocide and the Armenian experience as a minority – the perpetual outsiders – in Ottoman Turkey played a role in Bourj Hammoud’s openness. But pragmatism was an even bigger motivator. Just as Anatolian Armenians had thrived on strong business and social relations with their compatriots in Ottoman times, Lebanese-Armenians did the same. Municipal officials and local political parties saw economic value in opening the neighborhood to those from other parts of the country, provided those communities kept their political and sectarian ambitions in check.
Sebouh Aprahamian, a 57-year-old teacher and longtime resident of Bourj Hammoud, recalls how a delicate balance of business interests and political security bolstered the neighborhood’s diversity, even in times of national crisis.
“People saw that everybody lived in Bourj Hammoud…. [it was seen as] a community that is open to everybody, where business is open to everybody,” said Aprahamian. “For example, a Sunni sheikh could wear his religious clothing in the street and have no problem [despite it being a predominantly Christian neighborhood] … It was not always like that in other parts of Beirut.”
Aprahamian recalls how, during the Lebanese Civil War that ran from 1975 to 1990, local political parties tried to remain neutral in the conflict to spare Bourj Hammoud. This was easier said than done, and outbreaks of horrific violence did occur, including massacres in the nearby Palestinian camps. However, a relative calm prevailed in the neighborhood for much of the war, and it once again became a destination for businesses and families relocating from Beirut’s decimated city center.
From the 1980s, when the civil war started to subside, to the present day, a combination of lucrative industries and low rents brought eclectic waves of migrants. This time many of the new arrivals came from countries as far-flung as the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia. Many came to work as domestic helpers, sanitary workers or traders in the textile and garment industries. Syrian laborers also took up residence as they sought jobs in the post-war reconstruction of Lebanon. The 2011 outbreak of the Syria crisis saw the Syrian population grow exponentially as refugees crossed the border.
But memories of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon during the civil war, a sense of historic vulnerability due to the Armenian Genocide have stoked a strong sense of distrust toward Syrians from some members of the Armenian community. Overcrowding and poor infrastructure also drove a significant number of Bourj Hammoud’s Armenians to relocate to newer suburbs north of Beirut over the years. The idea of a dwindling Armenian presence and a skyrocketing Syrian population in the neighborhood worries some Armenians. They feel they are losing their cultural cradle.
Aprahamian witnessed how that sense of insecurity sometimes resulted in dangerous consequences. Recalling an outbreak of violence two years ago, he explained how a small dispute was manipulated and treated as an outbreak of communal violence.
“There was a problem, an ‘honor issue,’ between two men [one Armenian, one Syrian-Kurd] and violence broke out. However, it wasn’t until after the problem happened that it became politicized and some more radical people in the community started evoking the language of the genocide and trying to position the event as a continuation of that history.”
Despite these fears, Panos Manjian, a retired Lebanese Army General and Armenian Revolutionary Federation member, feels the Armenian connection to Bourj Hammoud runs deep. “Bourj Hammoud is the heart of the Armenian community in Lebanon,” he says, attending a church mass commemorating the genocide in the northern Beirut suburb of Antelias. “Even if people are moving away because of the conditions, they have their trade there, they have their heart there, they have their soul there.”
Most feel that, despite the new influences, Bourj Hammoud will remain Lebanon’s “Little Armenia,” but with ample room for newcomers.