The migration of families across generations, often prompted by violent conflict, has consequences for spatial practices of memory and commemoration. Bourj Hammoud, a Beirut suburb which has long been a hub for migration and displacement, exemplifies how the destruction of cities and communities are remembered in and through urban space. While people commemorate the loss of places to which they may never return, they also creatively rebuild a sense of home where they live today and potentially for generations after. The practice of constructing community in the aftermath of displacement is built into the fabric of cities like Bourj Hammoud, even as the Lebanese war of the 1970s and 1980s brought more displacement to its residents. The city is a palimpsest, with each new wave of displaced people creating their own sense of belonging in its narrow streets and alleyways. The feeling of being home becomes especially important as temporary displacements seem more permanent with each passing year.
Bourj Hammoud is widely regarded as Beirut’s Armenian neighborhood, built by survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915–1919. It is home to a diverse population of migrants and displaced people from within Lebanon and beyond, including waves of displacement from Syria since 2011. Until the early twentieth century, the land just east of the Beirut River was a marshy agricultural area. During a century of war and imperial conquest, Bourj Hammoud evolved into a densely populated suburb built by migration, displacement and movement. The neighborhood is a place where overlapping histories of displacement are made visible in urban spaces, from murals and graffiti with calls for recognition of the Armenian genocide to the enduring presence of the last remaining Armenian refugee camp, Sanjak Camp, with its cinder-block shacks and corrugated metal roofs. Reminders of the humble origins of this neighborhood built to house the displaced are everywhere in the narrow streets and small two-story buildings that were built in the 1930s. Some neighborhoods are named after towns that the displaced were forced to leave behind.
In a city dense with Armenian schools, churches, social welfare centers and clinics, Armenian is heard on nearly every street and Armenian music echoes through its alleys. Some of its inhabitants speak a dialect of Armenian that is unmistakably of Bourj Hammoud, others Aleppine. The sensory experience is an immersion in a visual landscape that evokes memories of displacement and also a rich soundscape. Western Armenian was taught in Armenian schools in cities like Beirut, Bourj Hammoud and Aleppo. It is mostly spoken by the descendants of Armenians who survived the genocide, even though some of their great-grandparents may not have used Armenian in their hometowns. Bourj Hammoud is a dynamic response to those displacements, sustained through informal and formal organizing by town associations and political parties. Resilience, as much as dislocation, has defined Bourj Hammoud across the generations.
A City of Other Cities
The Middle East experienced a wide-scale refugee crisis in the wake of the Armenian Genocide and World War I. In the 1920s, French Mandate officials resettled in Lebanon a significant number of Armenians fleeing genocide. Some refugees ended up in camps like Karantina in Beirut, a place now synonymous with the right-wing Phalangist massacre of Palestinians in that camp during the 1970s.
In the 1930s, French Mandate officials helped Armenian town associations—organized by displaced people from places like Adana, Sis and Marash—to pool resources and purchase plots of land. These plots would later become the municipality of Bourj Hammoud. Many of the area’s neighborhoods still carry the names of the Ottoman town associations that purchased plots, such as Nor Marash, Nor Adana and Nor Sis (New Marash, New Adana and New Sis). In those years, town associations kept Armenian refugee communities together as they resettled in Beirut, enabling refugees to maintain connections with their home cities. In the aftermath of the genocide that left families disconnected by death or disappearance the town associations served as anchors for community, reinforced by new urban developments.
Nearly a century later, descendants of the original inhabitants do not view these names as placeholders. As with other neighborhoods that reference migration histories—for example, Little Tokyo in Los Angeles—the place takes on new meaning through layers of representation and accumulated memories. Armenian schools, political parties and social organizations operating within the confessional political space of the new Lebanese state have shaped notions of Armenian community and belonging. Within the working-class urban space of Bourj Hammoud, these communities slowly fostered a sense of identity connected to imaginaries of a global Armenian diaspora, while also being particular to Lebanon.
More Waves of Displacement
The mid-twentieth century brought more displacement and migration. By the 1940s, many Armenians in Lebanon had answered the call to “repatriate” to Soviet Armenia even though it was not a “return” for people displaced from cities and villages that had been incorporated into the Republic of Turkey. Those Armenians who emigrated to the Soviet Union sold their properties which became available to new migrants. Bourj Hammoud was attractive for its proximity to Beirut and its small factories and workshops. Over the next decades, Bourj Hammoud’s population expanded as Lebanese of various sects and Syrian migrant workers moved into the area. The first wave of short buildings along narrow streets were soon joined by taller buildings and open spaces began to disappear. While some camps were slowly destroyed as Armenian residents were resettled, informal property holding continued. This was true in the recently-dismantled Sanjak Camp, built in the 1930s for displaced Armenians fleeing the Sanjak of Alexandretta. Displaced Palestinians also settled in Bourj Hammoud, especially in the neighborhood known as Nabaʿa, which grew until the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s.
During the 1970s, Bourj Hammoud also became an important site for Shiite political organizing and social welfare provision. The wartime destruction of Beirut and the ethnic cleansing of its neighborhoods affected every part of the city. By 1976, the right-wing Christian Phalange militia and its allies had forced Shiite and Palestinian inhabitants to leave the neighborhood and others moved to the now empty apartments. When the war ended in the 1990s and property owners returned, some squatters were able to buy the properties and become legal title holders. Some of the original owners, however, reclaimed their properties and returned after a generation living elsewhere.
With the restoration of property to original owners, Nabaʿa again has a thriving, but smaller, Shiite community. Many properties became available for rent, creating possibilities for new migrations and social dynamics. Nabaʿa’s relatively affordable apartments favorably located near Beirut have been rented for decades to Syrian and Kurdish migrant workers, with small businesses catering to the growing population. The neighborhood provides a locus of community and access to kinship and hometown networks with other migrant workers from places like Qamishli. Small shops sell mobile phones as well as CDs of Kurdish and Syrian popular music. Occasionally, one might see photographs of Kurdish political figures taped to windows or walls, as well as the flags and symbols of different political parties.
The Syrian conflict created another major wave of displacement to Bourj Hammoud. According to the UNHCR, 5.6 million refugees have fled Syria, 1 million of whom are in Lebanon. Because Lebanon has prohibited the construction of formal refugee camps by international organizations, some displaced Syrians live in informal camps while others have moved into precarious housing in cities and towns.
Syrian Armenians, especially from Aleppo, are also increasingly moving to Bourj Hammoud and elsewhere in Lebanon. In the early twentieth century, Aleppo welcomed Armenians displaced by the Armenian genocide and became an important center of Armenian life, with thriving schools, churches and social organizations. It is also one of the few cities where Western Armenian, the dialect of most Armenians in the Middle East (outside of Iran and the Republic of Armenia), is taught in schools. According to human rights lawyer Harout Ekmanian, Aleppo has been an important center for Armenian language training for teachers serving the entire diaspora.
Because many Syrian Armenians descend from genocide survivors, the loss of Aleppo prompted a double displacement. Strategies to provide assistance for the displaced have re-activated institutional responses by organizations active 100 years ago. The Armenian General Benevolent Union, founded in Egypt in 1906, has established a Humanitarian Emergency Relief Fund for Syrian Armenians and raised $5 million for those displaced. Institutional and organizational echoes also exist in grassroots strategies initiated by the displaced. For instance, Aleppine Armenians living in the Republic of Armenia have established the Aleppo Compatriotic Union. The tradition of organizing by forming town associations is emerging again at a time of renewed violence and the destruction of a city to which their grandparents and great-grandparents were displaced 100 years ago.
In Bourj Hammoud, rising rents and an inability to earn a living wage in occupations such as shoe manufacturing have made life difficult for Syrian–Armenians and Lebanese–Armenians alike. What Bourj Hammoud has to offer, however, is a close-knit web of Armenian–run clinics, schools and welfare organizations. These organizations, like the Armenian Relief Cross in Lebanon, have been operating in Bourj Hammoud and in Lebanon for decades. Still, for many Syrians, Armenians and non–Armenians alike, the journey to Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria has resulted in growing economic insecurity. Many hope to return to cities like Aleppo, but have little sense of when that might happen.
Similar changes affect Kurds in Nabaʿa. Before 2011, most Kurdish residents were single men who had come to work as migrant laborers. Afterward, entire families who would not otherwise have come to Lebanon have migrated. Kurds have felt comfortable displaying expressions of Kurdish identity and posters and flags, because of the presence of Kurds prior to the conflict. Nabaʿa has become a space that represents the diversity of Kurdish communities and movements.
Old Movements, New Origins
For nearly a century, Bourj Hammoud has witnessed multiple layers of displacement. The strategies through which this city was built and the place names that mark its neighborhoods convey how people cope with the destruction and permanent loss of their cities. Physical reminders of the genocide, such as slogans painted on walls demanding recognition of the genocide by Turkey, as well as Armenian flags and flags of the prominent political party Tashnak, make up the visual landscape of everyday life.
Nor Marash in Bourj Hammoud, however, is not only a reminder of the original Ottoman town of Marash. It is also the sound of Armenian music echoing in the streets mixed with servees taxis honking incessantly. It is about the lived experience of walking into stores and being able to speak the unique local dialect of Armenian, of knowing most shop owners personally, of knowing the streets of this small, dense city by memory. The mundane experiences of daily life leave an imprint. As many born in these neighborhoods have immigrated to the United States and Canada, the meaning of these places has shifted again. They are home to people who have always lived there, not just a copy of someplace else. The town associations that built Bourj Hammoud still exist as organizations in cities around the world where descendants of the original inhabitants have moved. At an event I attended in southern California for one of these associations, attendees from Lebanon recounted stories of the original city passed down from parents and grandparents. They often slipped, however, between those stories and their own memories from neighborhoods like Bourj Hammoud, the nor (new) city where those present were born and grew up. These nor places were described in moving terms as places of origin.
The large-scale displacements of the twentieth century have been met with further waves of disruption and loss in this century. Bourj Hammoud is one small city within the region that reflects these waves of displacement both within Lebanon and transnationally. This densely populated city has seen ethnic cleansing, transnational migration, war and displacement. Sadly, the Syrian crisis is a new chapter. Yet Bourj Hammoud has again become a place where people regroup and reimagine home, advocate for their families and wonder whether they might ever be able to return home.
1. Nicola Migliorino, (Re)Constructing Armenia in Lebanon and Syria: Ethno-Cultural Diversity and the State in the Aftermath of a Refugee Crisis (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008).
2. Joanne Randa Nucho, Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon: Infrastructures, Public Services, and Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).
3. UNHCR-USA, “Syria Emergency”.
4. Eric Reidy, “Will Lebanon Force a Million Syrian Refugees to Return to a War Zone?” The Nation, January 12–19, 2018.
5. Discussion via email, May 2018.
6. I owe this ethnographic insight to Jared McCormick.
7. More recently, Armenian–American organizations have led tour groups to Turkey to visit their parents’ and grandparents’ villages and towns of origin. See Sinem Adar and Anny Bakalian, “Armenian Diapora Tourism in Turkey: An Interview with Anny Bakalian,”Jadaliyya, November 17, 2014.