BURJ HAMMOUD, Lebanon: On the western edge of Burj Hammoud lies the Marash neighborhood - named after the former Ottoman city where Turkish forces massacred Armenian refugees in 1920, amid Turkey’s war of independence near the end of the Armenian genocide. The small neighborhood was one of the first to be established in Burj Hammoud, which became Lebanon’s aptly named “Little Armenia.”
Those who settled in Marash were largely craftsmen originating from the eponymous Ottoman city.
“When the buildings were first constructed, most houses and apartments incorporated ateliers where people would work,” said Farah Makki, the lead researcher at Nahnoo, a youth-led NGO advocating for cultural preservation.
“Much of the architecture today reflects the old architecture [from the Ottoman Marash],” she said.
But the culture of craftsmanship in Burj Hammoud is not what it used to be. Artisans who have been working for generations in a range of sectors, including textiles, jewelry and woodworking, have started turning to other trades, Makki said, due to a lack of state support for small business.
The Abroyan factory - just a short walk from the Marash neighborhood - is something of a symbol of the changes that are underway in Burj Hammoud.
Once a flourishing Armenian-owned textile factory, it has since been shut down and repurposed into an event space, commonly rented out for parties and art exhibitions, mainly by people from outside the community.
To preserve Burj Hammoud’s heritage, particularly that of craftspeople, Nahnoo has embarked on an initiative with aid from the United States Embassy, working for over a year with local artisans and gathering data on obstacles they face in keeping their traditions alive.
“We’ve identified challenges in Burj Hammoud regarding craftsmanship, to try and understand how to intervene and change policy to save this culture and promote its innovation,” Makki said.
“This could be in the form of economic measures to protect local businesses from foreign imported items, educational initiatives or increased targeted tourism.”
The main outcome of the project, expected to near completion in the next few months, will be a map detailing the locations of the area’s artisans and their trade.
A series of reports will also be issued, elaborating on the challenges in the community and including policy recommendations.
To come up with the recommendations, Nahnoo will consult a variety of stakeholders, including the municipality, the Economy Ministry and the Labor Ministry.
To conduct some of the research, Nahnoo assembled a group of young volunteers at the end of January from a range backgrounds to attend a three-day workshop, to help interview local craftspeople, like Peter Keshian.
The Burj Hammoud resident works part-time creating artisanal briar wood and vulcanite tobacco pipes. However, most of the materials and tools he needs are either low quality in the local market or not available in Lebanon at all.
“The materials I use are from countries around the Mediterranean such as Greece, Algeria, Italy and Corsica. I can get them abroad, but shipments take too much time, as Customs in Lebanon is not fast. Other things I work with, including stains, shellac and bamboo root, are also not good quality here,” he told The Daily Star.
The workshop also provided an opportunity for cultural exchange between locals and the volunteers from other areas in Lebanon.
“There are a lot of perceptions about Burj Hammoud,” said Pia Chaib, one of the volunteers.
The densely populated area has a reputation for being a low-income neighborhood where many of Beirut’s migrant workers and refugees reside. Residents also have to cope with the stench emanating from the notorious Burj Hammoud landfill on the coastal edge of the town.
“As much as you learn about [the area’s] history in a classroom, actually meeting people who have been here for generations is much different,” Chaib said.
Nahnoo’s executive director, Jessica Chemali, underscored that the success of such projects depends on the participation of a diverse cross section of society.
“We should be encouraging everyone to participate in their way, creating spaces for people whether they be craftsmen or in other trades.
“By supporting one another, we’re also fostering toward a greater goal of an inclusive society,” Chemali said. “Part of being in an inclusive society is to allow a diverse group of people to function and contribute to the economy.”