A night in Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian district in Beirut, Lebanon. Interview with Neshan, a History teacher

Scritto da Eleonora

Among all the unusual places one could visit in Lebanon’s bustling and troubled capital, Bourj Hammoud is a journey to another reality. Situated just beyond the city borders in the northeastern suburbs of the city and famous for its overpopulation, the district is the beating heart of the Lebanese Armenian community. While most of the Armenians arrived from today’s Turkey by boat after the massacres and genocide in 1915, some others were already well established in Lebanon decades, when not centuries before. Nowadays, in Bourj Hammoud live Kurds, Syrian refugees, and other ethnic groups too, but it’s normal to hear Western Armenian spoken in the streets, as well as plenty of Armenian signs, symbols, and flags everywhere. Despite the many environmental and social problems, the district is a safe, lively, and incredibly fascinating place to visit in Beirut.

After strolling along the district’s older streets and visiting some of its landmarks, we met with Neshan, a History school teacher. You can read here about our district exploration (in Italian). Neshan took us to get a Beirut beer and to smoke some shisha in his friend Fiesta’s bar. As the conversation got more and more intriguing, I started to record it. Here’s the transcription.

A special thanks to Rebecca, Sara, and Ilyos for all the great help, and of course to our amazing Lebanese Armenian host, Neshan.

The night is thick and dark in Bourj Hammoud, as there are few lamplights in the streets. Scooters keep on passing by, the traffic noise fades away, and the shisha’s smoke takes us somewhere far away, in a remote place, on a warm summer night. A woman sings in Western Armenian, and from a window, the seductive sound of a duduk spreads in the air.

Bourj Hammoud as seen from beyond the Beirut river

R: An Armenian person who works in the city center told us that Armenians of Armenia are stuck in time. Is that true, do you agree?

N: Uhm, I don’t agree, but it’s also not false. Yani, it depends on the generation. Probably the vast majority of the generation that lived during the Soviet times still prefers them, because things were almost free and life was easier, but not the young ones. I’m talking about the ones born in the 80s and later, they don’t, no.

E: My older Armenian friends I think they’re not technically nostalgic, but they still value the Soviet times, and they went through traumatic events like the Spitak earthquake, the demonstrations, the wild 90s, and the war with Azerbaijan. And now, war again. They probably see the Soviet times as better even just because there were way fewer troubles.

Yes, there were certain things that the Soviet government used to save for the people and, they were for free, but it was very simple things. But honestly, I don’t buy it, the Russian themselves hate that era, they were living under horrible conditions. I was there when I was a kid, I saw these conditions. First time I was 4 years old and then 8 years old and 15.

R: What year was that?

You’re asking for my age! Tricky question! 1979 first time. During that time my father used to study theology in the Echmiadzin Cathedral. Yes, I’m a son of a priest, you can see my aura!

E: You’re right, now I see it – very shiny!

I stayed there for a while with my mum, then we went back during the peak of the Karabakh demonstrations. It was in the same year of the earthquake (Spitak earthquake, 7 December 1988, ndr), but it was July, right before the earthquake.

E: My friend from Gyumri lost many relatives to the earthquake, it was a huge trauma for everyone in Gyumri.

Leninakan was named back then, the city of Lenin (Neshan adorably pronounces: /le’nin/).

E: I see you’re very attached to Armenia and Armenian culture, it’s something I was not expecting at all.

I’ll give you a small example: my brother’s daughter and son are born in Qatar. He lives there. And for sure in Qatar there are no Armenian schools and there is no Armenian culture at all, but every time his kids are asking for an iPad for example – you know this generation they’re obsessed with technology and these things – they say «ok, first of all, you have to pray in Armenian, write these two sentences in Armenian letters». If they succeed in that, they’ll get it. They teach them Western Armenian, of course.

R: Is it so different from Eastern Armenian?

Well, the letters are the same, but the pronunciation is different.

R: And can you easily understand Eastern Armenian?

Not everyone speaking and everything they say. If you’re in touch with someone, over time you’ll understand him or her, but if it’s your first experience in Armenia you’ll probably get only 60%. The thing is sometimes they mix Russian words, and sometimes we mix Arabic words. That makes it more complicated. But you know, in Armenian still some words they use are basically Arabic, but they don’t know it. The Arabs during the Mamaliks era occupied Armenia for around 250 years. As an example, for the jam, they say anush, while we say muroppa, but muroppa is Arabic!

Stencils are everywhere in Bourj Hammoud

E: So, where do Armenians now live in Lebanon? Not just in Bourj Hammoud.

A lot of them now live in Bourj Hammoud. They have their shops and activities, while the majority nowadays live in the suburbs of Beirut, but in the past yes. But during the civil war (1975-1990) and later they moved to other areas. There are around 100.000 Armenians nowadays in Lebanon.

R: What did the Armenians do during the civil war in Lebanon? Did they take part, or stayed neutral?

They were neutral. It was a hard choice but it was the best choice back then because, in the end, the civil war finished and everything was counted – who did what, when, how, how much… So, hard choice, but a good choice. There were Armenians in Lebanese parties (fighting, ndr) but under their own choices, not under the Armenian community’s choices.

E: Oh! Power cut!

Oh, very strange… Well, it happens in Lebanon from time to time! (laughs)

R: And do you have a party in Lebanese parliament?

We have 3 parties in the Lebanese parliament: the Dashnak party is the basic one.

E: Oh yes, we saw their flags before in the district. Ok, and which side does it take?

In general, until now they have always stayed neutral, but during the elections because of their benefit, they join a coalition, until the elections are over. So, Dashnak is the revolutionary party. Henchak, they are the socialists. Ramgavar is populist, but they’re the smallest party.

E: Can you tell us the story of this district? Why did the Armenians come specifically here?

The Armenians in Lebanon have existed for hundreds of years. Have you been to Beiteddine? During the Armenian kingdom of Tigran the Great, a very important event happened: for the first time in Lebanon it was allowed to declare a different local currency. The law was promulgated in Beiteddine. And it was the first time in history that a country managed to allow a separate currency within its borders.

So, there were Armenians, but not that many. And most of them were catholic. They came during the Crusaders’ invasions, and they adopted catholicism because of the Crusaders themselves. Originally there were no Armenian Catholics, but Armenians were living in the kingdom of Kilikia, and the Crusaders used to pass through Kilikia to enter the Middle East. Some of them adopted catholicism and they gave them important positions because of that. There was a benefit coming with that. Until 1915, the year of the massacre of the Ottoman Empire, the majority of the Armenian people were Catholics. They were descendants of those who migrated from Kilikia to this site because of the Crusades, but after 1915 things completely changed. Armenians started to migrate from the Ottoman Empire to Syria, to Greece, the numbers changed and the vast majority became the ones following the Apostolic church of Armenia.

So, to sum up, the first Armenians were here because of Tigran the Great, his 35 years of domain on this land, and the privilege of using their own local currency. The second wave came with the Crusaders’ invasions. The third one is the biggest one, of course after the massacres of the Ottoman Empire.

E: And did they settle here from the very beginning?

Refugees came to this area, that was organized in camps, like… I don’t want to say it but I have to say it: like the kibbutz in Israel when they first migrated. You can still see these structures near the seaside (points at the end of the street we’re sitting in, ndr). Do you see the buildings under construction? 5 years ago it still looked like a refugee camp. Just until 5 years ago. The majority of the people came to the refugee camps because they arrived from the sea. So they either found or founded refugee camps always by the seaside, like this one, like Karantina, all of them are on the seaside. After that, the situation changed and they became local citizens. And I’m not exaggerating if I say at certain points they were even more productive than the local citizens. And it’s not something I say because I’m an Armenian, it’s what the locals say.

E & R: Oh yes, we believe you! It’s full of shops, full of shops everywhere. This district is so active.

Up to 50 years ago, this was all like a refugee camp. You’ll find that the refugee camps are close to the sea because people arrived in horrible conditions and settled there. And they were coming from different areas, from everywhere in the Ottoman Empire. I’ll tell you something. Until now, in our generation when we meet someone we ask «your grandparents from where?». Mines were from Musa mountains, Musa Dagh. It’s in İskenderun district, now in Turkey.

E: Ah! Moses mountains. Close to Syria, but in Turkey. It’s that part of Turkey…

Well, that part was Syria, but after WWII…

E: Ah! İskenderun… Alessandretta!

It was the gift that the Ottoman Empire received, not to participate in WWII. There was the French mandate in Syria, and they gave them that little corner of Syria…

E: It’s in the northeast corner.

We still have churches there and there are few Armenians still living there. 150 families or so. If I will ask anyone here around, they will tell me from where.

Neshan asks Fiesta, the owner of the bar, ndr.

«Rasmik? Urdegh en es du Turkia

«Konya, Konya!»

Anyone will say originally his grandparents from where.

R: Wow. That’s very impressive. And are there some special jobs that Armenians do in Lebanon?

In goldsmith and shoemaking, ok, and….

E: Leather maybe?

Leather, yes. But the first two ones in Lebanon are like that. And watches, yes, watchmakers.

E: And all of the people in Bourj Hammoud speak Western Armenian, right?

All of them. Some of the Armenians that live here are even still affected by the local language their ancestors used to speak in the Ottoman empire. People in Anjar, for example, in Beqaa valley, have their pronunciation. People don’t understand them anywhere else in Lebanon. It’s the local accent of their region in the Ottoman Empire.

Beirut as seen from Bourj Hammoud

E: And how are Armenians seen in Lebanon? What do other communities think of Armenians?

In general, they see us as a productive community. But still, sometimes there are some little issues, and conflicts may happen between anyone in Lebanon, but if you will take the majority, they are well respected and welcome here. And if it was not like that, we would have never gotten used to living here for more than 100 years after the genocide. We would think to leave this place. In 1943 Lebanon gave the rights to Lebanese citizenship to all of the Armenians on its territory.

R: Lebanon was even the first Arabic country to recognize the Armenian genocide.

Yes! The very first one instead was Uruguay.

E: Wow!

R: Ahah, Uruguay sounds like that kind South American country being nice to everybody (laughs).

Latin American countries recognized the genocide during the 60s, and it was the time of Che Guevara and the Revolutionary. That’s why during that time Latin America started to recognize it, it was the peak of Castro and Che Guevara.

R: And a similar period was in the Arabic countries. The Revolutionary era.

Yeah, either fake or artificial, it was always a kind of revolutionary era here.

R: An anticolonialist era.

I understand, but I don’t know, they lead us to nothing, they reached nothing, or maybe they even reached the opposite.

R: If you remember Gheddafi in the 50s and 60s, he was anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist…

Yeah, but everything that he said during his speeches is now happening. He was the first Arabic leader that warned us about the dangers of Iran and how they will penetrate the region…

R: How do you see Iran in Lebanon?

Uh… honestly I’m against any nation taking action in Lebanon and I believe that no nation helps you unless they have their benefit. No matter which nation is helping more, I’m talking about governments. Ok, thanks for the food, but they will never support you because you have beautiful mountains, but just because they have a target. Iran or any other country.

E: Who’s doing something for the Armenians in Lebanon?

The diaspora.

E: And what do you know about Tumo? Have you heard about it?

Yes. But tell me, what do you think of Tumo? Any impressions?

E: My friends in Armenia they’re enthusiasts of Tumo, one of them is a teacher and the other one is a coder, she works for the biggest coding company in Armenia. She’s enthusiast because from the Armenian perspective it’s very useful to teach kids how to code and be competitive in the world.

How do you say… In Armenian we say «let me cut your conversation with honey».

Hosme keroptome, let me… yani, it’s a sweet way, let me say «cheers»! Genatset! It means that we’ll live! Always live.

A woman passes by singing alone in the night.

E: So, where were we? My friends volunteer with refugees from Artsakh, they see this desperate need to give kids a better opportunity, some of them are homeless, they faced the war, and they’re still living in hostels in Erevan, so that’s the only chance they have to learn something really valuable and competitive in the world, not just in Armenia. I know Tumo was founded by Armenians from Beirut who then moved to the USA and lived their own life there but then decided to invest in Armenia. But I don’t know about Tumo in Beirut, because I don’t know Lebanon so well.

It’s almost the same situation, like 95%. You know, we have a famous quote in Armenian, it’s something weird. Any Armenian born in a location lives in a different location and dies in a third location.

E: Yeah! Sad but true. So we talked to Boghos in the Armenian center. He told us that he didn’t know about this Tumo. I was genuinely surprised to see Tumo in Beirut. They opened them in Moscow, in Paris, in different cities in Armenia…

Well, I know Tumo. We went on a school trip in 2017 with the children.

E: Honestly, I think it’s nice because it’s done by Armenians – well, emigrated Armenians, but still. It’s not a different nation doing something for their interest. Ok, they’re Americans, but they were born here. Boghos told us they should have built this Tumo in Bourj Hammoud if they wanted to help the Armenian community. It’s too far away from here for very poor kids, there’s no easy and cheap way for them to reach it. There’s no public transportation in Beirut. They should have built it as close as possible, he said. Well, I see his point and he might be right. Plus, the building is so shiny, so new, and so beautiful….

But I’m against this idea.

E: Why?

When you choose to live in a nation you have to come out from your ghetto, by saving your heritage, of course. I think that when you make such a structure or project outside the Armenian community, you’re serving it more than making it inside the community itself. What I want to say is that you’re now living in Lebanon and you’re a citizen here, you have to take into consideration that you’re Armenian and Lebanese, both of them. These people and these governments gave you citizenship 80 years ago. Ok, now you have citizenship, but you have to give something back. When you make a project, it should be for all, not just for the Armenians. And most importantly, if an Armenian has the intention to go to Tumo, he’ll go, no matter what.

E: I agree. When I saw their map I thought they would make it for everyone, although they chose cities with many Armenian people in them, not random ones: Moscow, Paris, Beirut…

You know, in the 17th century lived this prominent Armenian named Israel Ori. Israel back then in Armenia was a very popular name, not nowadays in Lebanon of course. He had a plan to get back all the Armenian lands by paying them with money to the Sultan of the Ottoman empire. It was a secret deal ready to become true. He went around Europe, but they stopped him. They went to the king of France and told him to interfere and stop this deal. They told the king if the plan succeeded, he would become the next king of France. They showed him that by changing the letters of his name, it would turn into a French sentence: Israel Ori, il sera roi, he’ll be king. So they stopped him. In Jermuk, in Armenia, you’ll find his statue. This is his story.

R: Can you write it? Israel…?

If I write Israel Hezbollah will come (laughs)

E: Damn, you all know each other in Bourj Hammoud. Do you have some community activities?

For sure. Culture, sports activities, our traditional dance, our traditional song groups, duduk…

E: can you recommend some music?

Kohar, highly recommend them, they’re my favorite. (Extremely famous symphonic orchestra playing great Armenian classics, founded by Armenian Lebanese, ndr).

R: Are there other communities that live in Bourj Hammoud?

There are Kurds.

E: And are there good relations with them?

Not always. Now we are because the enemy is one, but now and then some conflict happens for different reasons. Because there are extreme differences in the cultures. For example, females. A person is passing by and here no one cares. If you pass in the Kurd area you will feel a difference. You will hear some beautiful words. They live at the edges of Bourj Hammoud. They came with the Ottomans. They were dreaming of a Kurdish state and of course it never happened. And now they’re friendly because the situation changed. But where have you been during the hard times? But listen, some of them saved Armenian families, it’s true. But they’re a minority.

E: Do kids leave the district to go to school, or to attend different activities, like sports?

60-70% don’t. Not because they’re against mixing with a different culture, but because in Lebanon you never know what may happen at any time. So if something happens, they are safe in their neighborhood. They’re scared. The country here is crazy, you never know.

R: Are there frequently mixed marriages outside the community?

In general, Armenians marry Armenians, but in recent years it changed a little bit, not completely, but a bit.

E: In Beirut, we saw many shops and pharmacies with Armenian surnames, like Hakopian, but here in Bourj Hammoud it was such a surprise: literally, everything is Armenian, it feels like you’re in Armenia at times.

And before it was even more. You would see Armenian letters everywhere, now it’s much less.

E: was a bit skeptical about coming because I thought it would be just a distant memory, something somehow artificial – but I see that the culture is so alive and active.

So many families pass the culture from generation to generation. It’s decreasing over time, but not too much.

Rasputin by Boney M plays on the radio, and we start to laugh.

This guy loves 70’s and 80’s music! His name is Eli but he’s titled Fiesta. Nice to meet you!

«Urakh em tsanotanalu, bari egaq!», nice to meet you, welcome!

E: Shnorakalutyun!

Usually, when we curse in Western Armenian, we curse in Turkish. We learned from our grandparents, since they cursed so much, and the first thing that would come out of their mouths was Turkish. Of course, they also spoke Turkish, and that language was the first thing coming out. More than 100 years ago the Armenian mass in the Ottoman empire was in Turkish. That was the policy of the Ottoman Empire, adopted later by British and French too. You have to change the local culture and make them use the local language.

R: Have you ever been to Jerusalem?

Of course not, I can’t. But it’s my dream. I have a cousin there, she’s married there and I have some souvenirs. She’s Jordanian and met a guy from Jerusalem, an Armenian from the old town. They brought me a magnet, I collect them from any foreigner I meet, so I asked here. But she brought me a magnet from Tel Aviv! And I told her she’s been lucky at the airport, no one checked! She had no idea what she was doing. One day I could try to go to Jerusalem with my Armenian passport, but leaving from Armenia. But what if they find out I’m Lebanese too? It’s too risky.

Once, when I landed in Varna, in Bulgaria, in 2019, they put luggage from Beirut and Tel Aviv on the same belt…

R: Bulgarians are crazy! (laughs)

E: Tell us something about the architecture in Bourj Hammoud.

So, over the years, they slowly replaced the camps. If it was in the daylight, I’d show you. They first built refugee camps. Then, they turned them into mud one-floor buildings. Then they added more floors, the center of the district was built, some shops opened, and of course the market. Bourj in Arabic means tower because there was a very rich person when the old homes were replaced from camps to mudhouses, and there were fields and marshes, who built a second floor, and his name was Hammoud. To everyone else, his house looked like a tower!

E: We were surprised to see sidewalks too, they’re so rare in Lebanon! And Araks street, full of shops, so beautiful.

In Bourj Hammoud the names of the streets are the names of occupied towns in Western Armenia: Kilikia, Adana, Marash, Sis, and even entire areas. And in these parts, the neighborhood still looks like a refugee camp because it was all camps. Much has changed, but not there. Right now they’re starting to renovate the mudhouses. They paid people money and moved them to Aragats, an area named after the tallest mountain in Armenia, and they will get homes from here, but now the crisis stopped everything.

Fiesta comes back with a plastic bag packed with fresh almonds, to be eaten the Lebanese way. When it’s early season, the outside green pulpy fruit is so tender one can eat it raw, before getting to the kernel and actual almond. But it’s the late-season now, and the outer fruit is too unripe to my taste.

This guy he’s a master in repairing cars, master Varoush. If you have a car and you have to renew it he’ll f*… Uhm sorry, he’ll renew it. He renewed my car too.

Would you prefer to live here or in Armenia?

I’d prefer to stay here despite all the crises that we’re living in right now. I adore this country. We know the crisis is for the long term, but still, I was born and bred here and I prefer to stay here.

We talked to so many people here and most of them have the feeling of something extremely bad happening suddenly.

Well, there are a few main issues that are trying to be controlled from the outside. First of all, the weapons of Hezbollah. Then, the pressure to make Palestinian refugees Lebanese citizens. Both of them are impossible to be done. That’s the truth, but there’s an agenda and sooner or later it is to happen.

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