People and Places
First, it was swampland, then a safe haven, followed by a few decades of being a reservoir for the working class of Greater Beirut, mostly Shiites and Palestinians. During the Civil War people left, while today it has become a meeting-place of a new working class, from Ethiopia to Sri Lanka.
And throughout all these phases, it has been synonymous with Armenians.
The town of Bourj Hammoud sits just east of Beirut by the seaside, bordered by Amarat Chalhoub and Sin al-Fil, and the Beirut neighborhoods of Nahr and Achrafieh. The Bourj Hammoud we know today was founded by Armenian refugees who escaped from the violence unleashed in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. They were given the permission to populate the till-then swampy area, and in the following years, more and more Armenians joined the community after arriving from Turkey, and particularly Cilicia, an Armenian stronghold in southeastern Anatolia.
The original Armenian congregations were refugee "camps" in which people of the same geographical origin generally gathered, such as Sis, Marash, Adana, Tiro and Sanjak.
Shiites started to migrate to Nabaa, the southern part of Bourj Hammoud that is adjacent to Sin al-Fil, in the middle of the 20th century. Bourj Hammoud was at first part of a bigger municipality, together with Jdeideh and Sadd al-Bushrieh, as it was then very thinly populated.
In 1951 it became an independent municipality and during the middle decades of the 20th century, thousands of internal migrants, mainly Shiites from the Bekaa and the South, along with stateless people like Palestinians, began to congregate in the Bourj Hammoud region, filling the ranks of Greater Beirut's working class.
Before the Civil War, the population rose to several hundred thousand people in the wider East Beirut suburbs centered around Bourj Hammoud, but the events of 1975-1976 led to a quick depopulation. Most non-Armenians and non-Christians in Bourj Hammoud left as the Civil War's massacres took place around them in Tel al-Zaatar and Karantina. Imam Musa Sadr finally brokered an exodus from Nabaa, and Bourj Hammoud lost much of its diversity.
The war years took their toll on the Armenian-dominated community, through emigration and migration to other places inside Lebanon. Bourj Hammoud today remains densely populated and has a mixed residential, commercial and industrial aspect. Its goldsmith industry is widely known, but local enterprises also produce shoes, bags and clothes. Not surprisingly, it's the place to visit if you want to pick up imported goods from the independent state of Armenia.
Raffi Kokoghlanian, Bourj Hammoud's deputy mayor, says the Armenian community remains very grateful that Lebanon took in his people. They enjoy religious freedom and were able to build their schools, charitable associations and even a university (Haigazian).
"Lebanon has given us a lot, and we want to give something back," says Kokoghlanian, arguing that the "genocide" has been a reason for Armenians to avoid conflicts and remain a very closed community, at least until recently. In the Civil War, Armenians tried to stay neutral. "Bourj Hammoud was an example for friendly coexistence between the confessions," says Kokoghlanian.
The experience of what most Armenians call "genocide" made them very aware of their identity as a people and of the danger of losing this identity. This is why, until recently, Armenians would avoid renting property to non-Armenians, as they wanted Bourj Hammoud to remain predominantly Armenian. Furthermore, mixed marriages between Armenians and non-Armenians were rare. But this is changing.
Azadouhi Azadian is in her 80s and has lived in Bourj Hammoud all her life. In the old days, she relates, there were no foreigners in the community, only Armenians like herself. After the Civil War, many people left and spread out, to all corners of the world. And in the last decade or so, Lebanese Shiites have begun moving back, joined by the country's foreign workers; Egyptian Muslims, Buddhists from Sri Lanka, and Orthodox Ethiopians. Storefronts with the flag of the Philippines and languages of Sri Lanka are now common sights.
An Armenian high school student who gave his name as Steve says most of his neighbors are Arabs, mainly Christians, while there are also some Syrians living in his part of Bourj Hammoud. Even though the relationships with non-Lebanese are friendly, he remarks: "We don't go to their houses, but we greet them." He personally has only Armenian friends.
Grace Baboyan, a student of Information System Management at the Lebanese American University, who has grown up in Bourj Hammoud, sees the Ethiopians who shuttle daily between their workplaces in wealthier neighborhoods and Bourj Hammoud, where the rents are noticeably lower than elsewhere in Greater Beirut.
She says that nowadays, Arabs and Armenians have a lot of contact with each other, they establish friendships and the number of mixed marriages is increasing, even though these marriages remain limited mostly to those between Christians. "Now we are losing our fear," she says.
Some Arabs have attended Armenian schools and learned the Armenian language there. Earlier generations of Armenians didn't speak Arabic very well, while today's generation knows Arabic much better. Baboyan observed that Armenians have begun to sell their houses to non-Armenians, which is why Shiites have returned in recent years.
Azadian says that the relationships with Arab Christians are very good. After the Civil War when the economy was struggling, the communities helped each other out: "If someone had a bakery, for example, he would bake some extra bread and gave it to the Armenians for free."
For the 80-something Azadian, Bourj Hammoud's services have definitely improved in the last few decades: the shopping centers have become better equipped, the products are of better quality and many people are attracted to the neighborhood's shopping districts, whether they need to pick up a kilo of basterma or a kilo of gold.
The benefits of public works projects and renovated pedestrian streets have helped Bourj Hammoud, whose municipality appears to be ever-present - its uniformed traffic policemen are perhaps the most obvious sign of this, when one drives through the town.
"Every time [the municipality] has money it does something, because everybody loves Bourj Hammoud," Azadian says.