“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”
― William Saroyan
„So, what did you do during the day?” asked one of my local friends when we caught up for a beer in the evening. “You know”, I said, “I missed home so I went to Bourj Hammoud”. He laughed and so did I.
No, Beirut doesn’t have a Polish neighbourhood.
Bourj Hammoud is, as you might have already guessed, an Armenian quarter. It was founded by survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and expanded mostly during the 1930s. Yes, you hear me right. The houses, churches, schools, and theatres that stand there to this day, the whole densely populated, bustling neighbourhood was created by starving, exhausted Armenians who survived the death marches from their homes in Anatolia and perhaps the terrors of Der Zor camps. They could be starving, sick, exhausted, and grieving, but that wasn’t all. More importantly, more than anything, they were occupied with surviving. Survival didn’t only mean bare existence. For many Armenians that wounded up in Bourj Hammoud survival meant success.
Back in 1915, today’s Bourj Hammoud was nothing more than swamps and marshy lands barely touched by a human hand. Today it’s a vibrant neighbourhood, aware of its history, living in the present, and ready for its future.
I have several Armenian friends in Lebanon. Almost all of them are grandchildren or great grandchildren of the people who survived death marches. I could ask one of them to come with me, to show me around. Yet everything I wanted was to go alone. I walked all the way from downtown, crossed a bridge on the Beirut River and there I was. I had a map but I quickly figured out it was completely useless in a labyrinth of narrow streets with hardly any street signs. Anyway, I wasn’t looking for anything specific. Armenianess was what I wanted to find and it was everywhere, winking at me.
I was in Little Armenia. This Armenia I entered while crossing the bridge on the Beirut River was nothing like the Armenia where I live. There were the same flags everywhere, and the same symbols, but it felt different. Most of the food in restaurants was somewhat new to me. I could hardly make any sense of the language Armenians around me spoke. The history behind the land and the people was not the one that shaped Yerevan. There were memories of the Genocide everywhere, nostalgic chants of the lost Homeland, and thrilling stories of bloodshed that followed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Was it a new land to me? Yes, but I instantly felt home there. I knew some of the foods from few Western Armenian restaurants that have recently been opened in Yerevan by Syrian and Lebanese Armenian repatriates. I hear Western Armenian here and there because this is what most of my Diaspora Armenian friends claim to be their first language. It’s different that the one I’m struggling to learn but it is somehow mine, too. It’s a language of close friends. And for the history, I’ve maybe never felt it, I’ve never come to be so close to it as I was in Bourj Hammoud, but the Genocide stories are heard and remembered in Yerevan, too. Both places share this dark past, just one corner feels closer to it than another.
I was dying to see this different Armenia. I have a bucket list of Armenian neigbourhoods around the world to explore in the future in my foolish quest to understand the nation I live with. Why have I called it foolish?
Because it’s a quest of a single rule. The more I know, the more questions I have.
I didn’t know much about the Diaspora, the Armenian history and the Armenian identity when I moved to Yerevan. Then, out of sudden, it’s come to be one of my deepest fascinations.
My afternoon stroll in Bourj Hammoud couldn’t answer any questions. I didn’t even want it to. It was a purely emotional experience. I’ve read tons of memorials written by Genocide survivors, dozens of history books, and numerous novels based on the massacres of 1915. My attention was drawn to the past, to the pain, to the loss, to the unthinkable. Walking around the dusty streets of Bourj Hammoud has brought me back to the present, to the living. Some Armenians there have very successful businesses. All of them teach Western Armenian to their kids. They keep their customs and religion. Armenianess is flourishing just few miles from the the very places where it was left to die a hundred years ago. And it moved me. I knew it all before coming to this place, but it moved me anyway.
I kept taking photos of random streets and their flags while I noticed a little boy standing in a doorway. He kept staring at me, a little sheepishly, so I smiled at him. It encouraged him to start a conversation. He only asked me one question. He wanted to know if I was Armenian.
I get his logic. Who else would spend a sunny afternoon taking photos of flags along a dusty street of an Armenian neighbourhood in Beirut?
I didn’t want to make him disappointed, so I said I was.
I believe I was. In a very vague sense which I have yet to define, I feel Armenian.