Bourj Hammoud Reclaims Historic Role

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By Florence Avakian

NEW YORK — Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon, the region in northeast Beirut, Lebanon, which Armenian survivors from the Armenian Genocide built into a dynamic center for shopkeepers, craftsmen and artists came to life across the ocean on June 9, during a talk by photographer Ariane Ateshian Delacampagne.

Close to a hundred people attended the event at the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), which was sponsored by the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center, the Department of Armenian Studies of the Armenian Diocese and AGBU Ararat magazine.

In her introduction of the speaker, Gilda Buchakjian-Kupelian, of the Diocesan Armenian Studies Department, related that Ariane Delacampagne studied photography at New York City’s International Center of Photography (ICP), and has worked as an anchorwoman on Lebanese TV. Her recently published book, Portraits of Survival: The Armenians of Bourj Hammoud, has received wide coverage in Beirut and Paris.

Born and raised in Lebanon, the speaker complemented her talk with extensive photographs she had taken since 2006 of this vibrant community which rose from the ashes of the 1915 Genocide. Following a brief history of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian Genocide, and the competition by France and England for a presence in the Middle East following World War I, she explained that starting in 1921, thousands of Armenians poured into Syria and Lebanon, mostly by boat.

These survivors “were looking for ports that were not under Turkish control, and Beirut, in particular, remained the only port that was unconditionally open to the refugees.” Thousands more went to the Lebanese cities of Tripoli, Zghorta, Chekka, Tyre, Saida, Anjar and Zahle. Meanwhile, with the establishment of the State of Greater Lebanon by France in 1920, and with territories taken from Syria, the size of the country more than doubled in size. Through French help, the Armenians were able to obtain Lebanese nationality starting in 1926, when the Lebanese constitution was drafted. 

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Bourj Hammoud Created

Completely destitute, the Armenians had to start from scratch, and several international organizations assisted, including the League of Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Near East Relief, as well as the Lebanese government. The AGBU and other Armenian organizations were active in gathering funds to finance the building of residential areas, and the transfer of the refugees to more permanent structures. They also assisted in the construction of schools, and churches, and gave the refugees food, clothes, and medical care in the camps.

From 1922 to 1924, four Armenian refugee camps existed in Beirut, after which all the residents were transferred to the Greater Beirut camp. Here the Armenians regrouped in quarters “according to their geographical origin”—Adanatzis in the Adana quarter, Marashtzis in the Marash quarter, etc.

In 1930, a special Office for the League of Nations Office for Refugees (the Nansen Office) focused its efforts in a swampy and marshy area northeast of Beirut called Bourj Hammoud. The aim was to build an Armenian city of 20,000 with its own municipality, and transfer the Armenians from the Beirut camps. A new electoral district next to Beirut would be created where the Armenians would be the majority. The Armenians were allowed to build wooden shacks which were followed by concrete buildings that exist until today. Still in their geographical quarters, they created compatriotic associations.

“These associations played a remarkable role in organizing activities in the refugee camps,” the speaker continued. “The refugees would gather a certain sum that the Nansen Office would provide in advance, and the refugees would build hundreds of houses and then reimburse the sum within a few years.” Most of these homes were built from the 1930s to the 1970s.

Because there were few industries in Lebanon in the 1930s, “the only option left for the Armenians was to acquire a craft which did not require a large financial investment, and allowed them to work as independents,” she noted. These first workshops were in the fields of shoemaking, ironwork, and clothing manufacturing—dirty work that was not highly regarded. “The labor division was vertical with shoemakers getting leather from tanners, and shoeboxes to pack the goods, and traders selling the products, etc.”

These trades passed from father to son, from master to apprentice, or within orphanages. “Through the hard work of the refugees, what was first just a tent camp gradually became an urban center, and also one of the most densely populated districts in the Middle East. It was also one of the main centers of economic activity,” she related.

Strong Sense of Armenian Identity

The speaker revealed that she discovered Bourj Hammoud “long after” she had left Lebanon for America. Visiting the area in 2000, she said she found in Bourj Hammoud “a human scale and authenticity that was lacking elsewhere. I was struck by the strong sense of identity, the persistence of everything that was authentically Armenian, from the food and spices to the very warmth of the residents.”

She reported that she started by visiting the Cahl organization, initially an institute for the blind which became a home for the elderly. There she met Rosa Tcholakian born in Dyarbekir in 1914, Zvart Zournadjian born in Kharpert in the1920s, and Ossana Soulian born in Kessab, Syria in 1922, “all of whom spoke very little.” The speaker related that she also accompanied Armenian Red Cross Lokh social workers who helped young students with learning disabilities, and went with church ladies to visit destitute Armenians.

Because she was chastised during her Beirut exhibition for showing such sad pictures, and not focusing instead on successful Armenians whom she was told “rode BMW’s and wore Rolex watches,” the speaker reported that she decided to concentrate on presenting subjects that she “felt had a personal connection” to her.

Among the 21 successful individuals she profiled was Boghos Svadjian with the nickname of Boghos Kalashnikov for using the Russian-made rifle to defend his neighborhood during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. An actor, and a fisherman, he sells his catch and prepares sushi for clients and restaurants. Sculptor Ashod Terzian teaches art, plays the accordion, and has a shop “like a museum” where he has made sculptures of Lebanese politicians.

Then there is 84-year-old Abraham Baklayan who had a men’s clothing shop that was plundered and burnt down during the 1975 civil war. He now sells lace napkins and tablecloths out of a makeshift sheet metal shop. And 40-year-old Jacques Ghazarian whose family hailed from Marash, Turkey, is following the family tradition of baking Armenian specialties. He has turned his family bakery into a flourishing business.

Jeanne Kitsinian, an 80-year-old woman, along with Krikor Kabakian in the US, makes religious vestments, capes, and mitres, and sells them on the internet to Armenian congregations worldwide. Hagop “Jackson” Keshesian, almost 70, follows in his father’s shoe business, making orthopedic and dancing shoes, as well as horseback riding boots to customers who live as far away as Los Angeles. And 29-year-old Krikor Jabotian is a fashion designer who employs 20 people. His award-winning designs are worn by celebrities and brides. A fan of legendary filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov, he also designs stage costumes and jewelry.

During the question-and-answer session, the speaker revealed that though Bourj Hammoud today is still an area of thriving businesses, many of the Armenian youth are leaving, and the area is now mainly inhabited by elderly Armenians. Also, Armenians from Aleppo, Syria, are coming in due to the devastating civil war. But, she declared, as in decades past, with their lives disrupted several times, Armenians, as shown by these portraits “are always able to bounce back, and revitalize.”

The director of the Zohrab Center, the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, expressed appreciation to Ms. Ateshian Delacampagne for her intriguing presentation. Fr. Findikyan, who planned and organized this season’s successful Zohrab Center programs, announced that starting in the fall, the Zohrab Center will present a new series of interesting lectures, poetry and films.