Each year in April, the municipality of Burj Hammoud, a densely populated residential and commercial city just east of Beirut, hosts a three-day festival called Badguer, the Armenian word for “image.” Free and open to the public, the event has variously been staged in an old concrete factory, a blocked-off street and other sites. In 2012, Badguer was held at La Maison Rose, a newly opened cultural center for Armenian artists and craftsmen. Like the annual celebration, La Maison Rose is part of a local effort to promote “our living Armenian cultural patrimony.”

Badguer featured Armenian folk musical performances and exhibitions of local arts and crafts, such as photography, metal arts and paintings. One day was devoted entirely to presentations of university projects completed by Armenian architecture students about problems in the Burj Hammoud area, such as pollution in the Beirut river or the housing crisis in Camp Sanjak, an informal residential district (originally a refugee camp for Armenians displaced from Iskenderun in 1939) that the Burj Hammoud city government intends to redevelop. Promotional flyers sold these presentations as addressing “our ancestry caught between the culture of origin and the challenges of the new country.” By framing development initiatives as part of a project of historic and cultural preservation and by presenting Lebanon as the “new country,” even though most everyone involved is at least second- or third-generation Lebanese-born, Badguer makes explicit what many Lebanese already believe about Burj Hammoud — that it is Beirut’s Armenian quarter.

For most Beirut dwellers, Burj Hammoud has the reputation of an insular enclave for working-class Armenians where little Arabic is spoken. The city is home to the headquarters of the main Armenian political party and is dense with Armenian schools, clinics and businesses. Many signs are written in Armenian script. Stereotypical portraits of Armenians who speak no Arabic and resist assimilating to life in Lebanon are widespread; some Lebanese believe this separation is the Armenians’ fault. As one very liberal NGO worker (who does not work with the Armenian population) declared: “We tried to assimilate them, but they do not want to be Lebanese. They want to be Armenians.” Viewing Armenians as outsiders, as foreigners who should return to where they came from, resonates with anti-Palestinian discourses in Lebanon, though few people make this connection explicit. Though their experiences and histories are very different, most Armenians and Palestinians came to Lebanon as refugees. While Armenians were granted citizenship during the French Mandate era, most Palestinians were not. This, of course, had radically different consequences for both communities. With citizenship, Armenians could work legally and own property, and were able to move out of the refugee camps and more quickly integrate into Lebanese economic and political life. Still, despite gaining citizenship, racist discourses present Armenians as not quite Lebanese, as foreign. These ethnopolitical tensions complicate the widely shared sense — both inside and outside the country — that Lebanon’s conflicts are rooted in religious intolerance or religious difference alone. The fact that most Armenians belong to one of three Christian sects (Apostolic, Protestant and Catholic) has not historically spared them from xenophobic attacks, even from other Christian political parties.

In fact, the stereotype of Burj Hammoud as a monolithic Armenian district is misleading, as the city is quite demographically diverse. While Armenians make up a large portion of the population, recent studies suggest that they are not, in fact, the majority. No official census has been conducted in Lebanon since 1932. But a number of studies conducted by NGOs and humanitarian organizations have reached the same conclusion: Burj Hammoud is not as Armenian as most Lebanese think it is. A study conducted in 2006 by the Christian humanitarian organization World Vision, with the assistance of several local NGOs in Burj Hammoud, determined that only one sector of Burj Hammoud has a majority-Armenian population. In all other sectors, the majority of residents were Lebanese Christians of various sects, Lebanese Shi‘a and non-Lebanese migrant workers. The decline of the Armenian population in Burj Hammoud began in the 1940s, when many Armenians answered the call to settle in Soviet Armenia. Vacancies in Burj Hammoud were then filled by an influx of mainly Shi‘i migrants who had come to Beirut seeking work. During the civil war of 1975-1990, right-wing Christian militias forced Shi‘i and Palestinian residents out of Naba‘a, a neighborhood within the Burj Hammoud municipal district, though some Shi‘i residents later returned. The area is now home to significant populations of Maronites, Greek Orthodox and Shi‘a, as well as migrant workers from Syria (mostly Kurds), Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Nepal. Many of these migrants work in the nearby industrial zone of Dakwana, which developed in part from the growth of small-scale manufacturing among Armenian artisans in Burj Hammoud. Despite this diversity, Burj Hammoud continues to be regarded as an Armenian territory, both by those who disparage its alleged insularity and by Armenians who value living within their “own community” and conducting much of their daily affairs in Armenian.

The story of Burj Hammoud is part of a history of displacement and migration in the aftermath of the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire and, in later decades, within Lebanon. Though Armenians regard the area as an important site for Armenian diasporic cultural production, Western Armenian language and literature, the Armenian identity of Burj Hammoud is made possible by Lebanon’s unique confessional system and its logic of “self-rule.” Distributing power by sect has necessitated the existence of religious communities as the vectors of social and political participation. Separate religious courts govern issues of personal status, such as marriage, divorce and child custody, for each of the 18 recognized sects. Nearly all political parties are organized by religious affiliation and parliamentary seats and other elected positions are governed by a quota system that dates back to demographic data from the 1932 census. Thus the story of Armenians and Burj Hammoud does not fit neatly into any broad narrative about Christians as a minority population in the Middle East or in Lebanon. The Armenian experience in Lebanon stems from the specific experience of post-genocide, diasporic Armenian identity construction in the context of the Lebanese confessional political system, and cannot be collapsed into a “Christian” Lebanese identity. In fact, the concept of a “Christian” identity is a highly problematic one, as the experiences and political mobilizations of various Christian sects (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, to name a few) differ widely. Despite discourses about Armenian ethnic and social insularity, Armenian identity in Lebanon has much more to do with the social and historical construction of all confessional identities in Lebanon than some kind of Armenian exceptionalism.

Becoming Armenian

Burj Hammoud’s reputation as the “Armenian quarter,” though not based on demographic facts, nonetheless reflects the importance of Armenian settlement in this part of greater Beirut since the 1920s. Driven from their homes by massacres and deportations during the genocide of 1915-1919, Armenians from various parts of what is now Turkey were sent on death marches into the deserts of Syria. Survivors eventually settled in a number of countries in the Middle East, including Lebanon, but many ended up migrating to Europe or North America. Many Armenians in Lebanon are from Cilicia, a region in southwestern Turkey. Those who survived deportation found themselves in refugee camps, mainly in Syria, without permanent quarters and hoping to return to their villages and towns. In 1919, in an attempt to bolster their territorial interests in the Middle East, the French attempted to repatriate Armenians to Cilicia in order to create an autonomous region sympathetic to Europe and also to thwart the Kemalist nationalist aspirations to create a Turkish state out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. After more than a year of military resistance from Turkish forces in Cilicia, however, France took a more conciliatory approach in order to prevent Britain from overthrowing the nationalist government and installing a regime more aligned with British interests in the region. In October 1921, the Treaty of Ankara assured French withdrawal from Cilicia in exchange for Turkey’s acceptance of French dominion over Greater Syria.

In November and December 1921, French administrators evacuated the Armenian refugees remaining in Syria by boat. About 15,500 of the 60,000 Cilician refugees landed in Beirut, the only port that was open to the refugees without restriction, though others fled to Syria, Iraq and Greece, and eventually further west to France and the US. [1] The resettlement of Armenians in Lebanon was likely influenced by France’s nation-building project in Greater Syria, which aimed to create a demographic Christian majority in Lebanon. The French hoped that “Christian” Lebanon would be a long-lasting ally in a largely Islamic region. The refugees were deposited at La Quarantaine (still known locally as Karantina), an immigration quarantine area near the port in East Beirut. Many refugees spent years in this village of makeshift shacks, where unsanitary conditions spread cholera and other diseases.

With the help of the French Mandate government, along with Lebanese elites, most of the Armenian refugees were able to leave the camp and settle in East Beirut within a few years. For Armenians, becoming Lebanese citizens meant more than just legal rights to own property and work; they were also officially recognized as a sect with full political rights of participation in government. [2] By the 1930s, much of the then-agricultural district of Burj Hammoud had been purchased by Armenian town associations and subdivided for sale to individual association members and their families, effectively creating distinct neighborhoods that bore the name of the town of origin. Both Armenians and non-Armenians still refer to their neighborhoods by these names. Marash or Nor Marash (New Marash) in the northwestern corner of Burj Hammoud was the first neighborhood to be built up by what is still the largest and most powerful of the compatriotic unions.

Town associations played a crucial role in marshaling resources and establishing the Armenian community in Lebanon in those early years. Among the early obstacles for Armenian refugees in Beirut was the great degree of internal linguistic, cultural and religious diversity. Armenians spoke a number of village dialects or Turkish as their first language, and many of the dialects were mutually incomprehensible. There were also class and denominational differences. None of the Armenian political parties or the church apparatus was able to consolidate a unified Armenian bloc during the first elections in 1934, and many of the refugees remained apathetic about participation in Lebanese politics. [3] While pan-Armenian political parties and organizations such as the Armenian General Benevolent Union organized social and cultural activities as part of an attempt to consolidate a national consciousness and to promote an ethnic identity, many in Lebanon continued to organize themselves according to village and regional ties.

It was not until later that Armenian organizations in Lebanon began to cultivate a unified Armenian identity. The most important vectors of “Armenianization” were the teaching of Western Armenian — the standardized form of Armenian spoken in much of the diaspora — in local schools, as well as promoting the study of Armenian history and, depending on the politics of the school, a sense of connection to Soviet Armenia (later the Republic of Armenia). While this project was not exclusive to Lebanon, and Armenian schools and churches attempted to build this national identity elsewhere, it was incredibly successful in Lebanon because of the specific “confessional” mode of governance. The project of cultivating an Armenian identity became even more crucial in Lebanon, as every sect was expected to have its own politico-religious apparatus for issues of personal status, as well as to elect representatives to serve in Parliament, where seats are based on confessional demographics. [4] Though the cultivation of Armenian national identity was a deliberate project, community leaders at the time portrayed the development of Burj Hammoud as a collection of village-based neighborhoods as a reconstruction effort, whereby the Armenian community was simply resurrected in a new location. This discourse has continued into the present day, as many still imagine Burj Hammoud as an immigrant enclave, despite the fact that most Armenians living there were born in Lebanon. While Western Armenian is the language of daily life among Armenians in Burj Hammoud, most people under 50 are also fluent in Arabic, as they increasingly seek work outside of the neighborhood, learn to read and write Arabic in Armenian schools, and watch Lebanese television programs.

Lebanon is also home to one of the two branches of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Apostolic See in Antalyas, a suburb northeast of Beirut, administers about 40 churches in North America, as well as 11 dioceses in the Middle East. The See also houses a memorial containing the bones of some of those who perished during the deportations. The remains of these anonymous victims were found in the deserts of northern Syria and brought to Antalyas decades later. They are kept behind glass, like relics, as a reminder to coming generations of the events that brought Armenians to Lebanon. The monument ultimately tells a story of survival, and foregrounds the sense of insecurity that Armenians traditionally felt as an ethnic minority.

From Others to Swing Voters

Narratives about the precariousness of the Armenian community have long shaped its political activities in Lebanon, though in reality, the Armenian parties have been involved in larger inter-confessional alliances and factions within the Lebanese political world for decades. There are six parliamentary seats allotted to Armenians by religious sect: five for Armenian Orthodox and one for Armenian Catholics. There are three major Armenian political parties that take up most of these seats: Tashnak, Hnchak and Ramgavar. Officially, the parties have interested themselves solely in maintaining the security of Armenians as a minority, and have remained neutral on controversial political questions. In practice, Armenian political parties have been neither neutral nor united in their alignments. During the first civil war in 1958, the two main parties, Hnchak and Tashnak, who had long been in dispute over the leadership of the Armenian church in Lebanon, among other issues, fought one another on opposing sides of the larger Lebanese conflict. The church was more than just the spiritual center of the Apostolic religion; it was an important political organization whose courts determined personal status laws and whose schools were the backbone of the Armenian education system in Lebanon. The Armenian parties’ participation in the war of 1958 also amplified intracommunal disputes over the relationship between the diaspora and then Soviet-controlled Armenia, local Lebanese politics and alliances with other Lebanese parties. While the Tashnak party supported the pro-Western, Christian conservative Lebanese factions, the Hnchak party supported the national opposition. Since the 1970s, the bluster between the parties has cooled and Tashnak has captured the dominant share of the Armenian vote.

Armenians are now more visible and vocal players on the field of Lebanese politics, though, for many, the goal of political action is still the safety and security of Armenians as a minority group. The two major political parties are on opposing sides of the political spectrum in Lebanon today. Tashnak belongs to the coalition that includes Hizballah and Amal, the two main Shi‘i political parties in Lebanon, as well as some other Christian parties and the major Druze party. Hnchak is currently a member of the coalition dominated by the Future Party founded by former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the most popular Sunni party in Lebanon, but which includes several Christian parties. Much media attention was given in the last few elections to the Armenian “swing vote,” as the one sect that could determine which political faction would become dominant.

A great many Armenians in Burj Hammoud still insist on the notion of Armenian neutrality, at least during times of violence, in order to protect the security of the community as a minority group, as well as to avoid scrutiny or attack by other confessional parties. Many Armenians, however, feel it is a natural step for Armenian parties to be more involved in Lebanese political life, not only in order to “safeguard” the security of the community, but also because “we are Lebanese after all.” While an underlying fear of persecution as an ethnic minority still haunts the political discourse of the Armenian parties, there is increasing movement within the community to regard Armenians’ position as a legitimate Lebanese sect, operating within the confessional political system not as “guests” or “recent arrivals,” but as citizens. While the terms of this citizenship might be particular to Lebanon’s confessional form of governance, an increasing number of Armenians, particularly the generations under the age of 50, are feeling more integrated into this system.

Armenian Roots, Lebanese Lives

Some Armenians who left Burj Hammoud for more prosperous suburbs farther from downtown share the image of the district as an Armenian ghetto and reject attempts to define the area as an authentically Armenian space. Even many of these upwardly mobile Armenians, however, describe a feeling of safety and belonging in Burj Hammoud, though they may feel comfortable communicating in Arabic and work outside of the neighborhood. One woman explained how she felt visiting Burj Hammoud, describing it as “a place where you can belong. It is very special to me, every time I walk there on the streets I feel secure. It’s weird, but it’s true. I feel familiar. As if I’m in my house.” A man who grew up in Burj Hammoud explained that, as a young child, he used to think he lived in Armenia, so complete was his sense of being enmeshed in the linguistic and cultural world of this neighborhood, but that even that aspect of the neighborhood had changed somewhat in recent years. He commented: “Everything around me referenced ‘Armenian’ culture rather than a ‘Lebanese’ culture. From street signs to shop names, everything was in Armenian. Today, most stores in Burj Hammoud have changed their signage to Arabic and English to cater to non-Armenian-speaking customers. But as you walk through the streets, you feel this isn’t like any other part of Beirut.”

For its boosters, promoting Burj Hammoud as an Armenian territory is not about protecting an enclave, but about maintaining a daily practice of communicating in Armenian and having access to Armenian social institutions. Increasingly, this identification does not disavow Lebanese identity, or, rather, the specificity of being Lebanese-Armenian, but provides a sense of origin and rootedness. Lebanon is not merely a container within which one experiences being Armenian, as though there were a kind of floating diasporic identity unrooted in any particular locale. When asked about feeling Armenian and Lebanese, one woman replied: “Wa-law (of course) I’m Lebanese! I love the smell of manqousha in the morning! I feel Armenian, too. That’s different. That’s in my blood, under my skin. Feeling Armenian means being a little bit different.” Being Armenian might mean being “different,” but it is a difference that has room to thrive within a Lebanese context of ethnic and religious diversity where there is no one dominant or normative Lebanese citizen. This same woman described the alienation she felt when she traveled to the Republic of Armenia in the early 2000s. It was an unfamiliar place that made her question her own sense of Armenian identity. Her experience in Armenia helped inform her own sense of rootedness and belonging in Lebanon. Another young man who grew up in Burj Hammoud expressed his own experience of being Lebanese-Armenian as not at all contradictory. In fact, he noted a great deal of fluidity in being Lebanese-Armenian and did not experience it as a negotiation of two separate or distinct identities: “Being born and raised here I cannot separate one [cultural influence] from the other. The line between the cultural influences is pretty blurry most of the time.”

While some municipal actors have genuinely tried to be inclusive in their cultural events and activities, most of the events tend to focus on Armenian cultural production. These events have the effect of overshadowing non-Armenian residents’ belonging and participation in the cultural life of Burj Hammoud. Similarly, the Armenian-dominated municipality sometimes overlooks the parts of Burj Hammoud that have less of an Armenian presence in its plans for infrastructure upgrades. Even simple projects like sidewalk beautification happen more frequently in the commercially viable, Armenian-occupied areas and highlight the class and ethnic divisions among neighborhoods within the municipality. For example, in Naba‘a, the neighborhood at the southern end of Burj Hammoud, there are few Armenian institutions. Most of the apartment buildings are owned by Lebanese Shi‘a, and the district’s two mosques are located here. It is also home to a large proportion of non-Lebanese migrant workers. Armenians often refer to Naba‘a as “not really” Burj Hammoud, precisely because the area lacks a high proportion of Armenian residents and businesses. This uneven development, however, is not unique to Burj Hammoud. Confessional parties often dominate the political leadership of municipalities, and thus manage many of the urban infrastructure projects that create similar divisions in space and social worlds. [5]

Yet as a space largely occupied by low-income Armenians, Lebanese and migrant workers, Burj Hammoud reflects an alternate story of Beirut, one shaped less by communitarian conflict than by shared histories of migration and labor. It is a place where people have, at many times, lived and worked together in relationships that defy a simple confessional reading of urban history and space. In many ways, the story of Armenians in Lebanon is about the production of a national community from a somewhat disparate group of displaced people. It is a nation-building story from within a nation whose governance encourages social and political fragmentation along religious and ethnic lines. The history of producing an Armenian identity is, in fact, a very Lebanese story.

Endnotes

[1] Maud Mandell, In the Aftermath of Genocide: Armenians and Jews in Twentieth-Century France (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
[2] Nicola Migliorino, (Re)constructing Armenia in Lebanon and Syria (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008).
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] See Mona Fawaz and Hiba Bou Akar, “Practicing (In)Security in the City” and Hiba Bou Akar, “Contesting Beirut’s Frontiers,” both in City & Society 24/2 (August 2012).

How to cite this article:

Joanne Randa Nucho "Becoming Armenian in Lebanon," Middle East Report 267 (Summer 2013).
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