The Bourj Hammoud district in Lebanon is the geographical extension of Beirut City along the Mediterranean coastline. It constitutes the suburb immediately east of the capital, by the seaside-separated by the Beirut River. Housing a population of roughly 100,000 persons, it is a dense working class district, extending over an area of 0.96 square-miles or 2.4 km2 within the Greater Beirut municipality.
Until the early twentieth century, Bourj Hammoud was an area characterized by agriculture and marshlands, scattered with individual settlements. After 1928, Armenian refugees who survived the Ottoman persecutions began migrating to the area, settling in compact quarters organized into regular gridiron patterns. Each quarter was populated by natives from a village in their original homeland in Anatolia, modern day Turkey, which re-gifted its name to the new quarter such as Marash, Nor-Adana, and Nor-Sis.
In the mid nineteen-forties, part of the Armenian population migrated to Soviet Armenia, followed by another influx of migrants from south Lebanon-mainly Shiites and some Palestinians, whom settled predominantly throughout the southeastern edges of the district. In the sixties, Bourj Hammoud witnessed an influx of Armenians from Syria, mainly Aleppo, who settled in the area and established their small businesses.
Between 1975 and 1995, the district witnessed drastic population shifts as a result of the Lebanese civil war’s ongoing development. The influx of displaced populations from conflict zones and hostile areas, and emigrants from rural areas-mainly Armenians from Beirut and Christians displaced from their villages, coupled with the displacement of Shiite inhabitants, progressed the continual densification of Bourj Hammoud’s population.
My parents, both survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide, met and were married in Damascus, Syria, only to relocate their family to Bourj Hammoud in 1949. It is here I was born and lived there for 20 years before permanently moving out at the start of the civil war in 1975.
Bourj Hammoud became a safe haven for many Armenians who were forced to leave their homes and subsequently converge in this one square mile territory to create a home away from home. Erecting schools, churches, cultural centers and maintaining political affiliations with concerted national codes were a part of the effort to maintain a level of subsistence. It was here, also, where national identity was resurrected as a means to hold on to what was violently ended in the homeland. From 1935 to 1985 this tiny enclave served as the cultural, intellectual and political beacon of the Armenian Diaspora.
During the course of a 15-year conflict, most Armenian inhabitants of the quarter fled the country and others moved out of the area to better their social ranking. Today, like many dwindling Christian communities across the Middle East, Bourj Hammoud struggles to retain its Armenian character against the tide of political uncertainty engulfing the region. More than 50 years Bourj Hammoud played a pivotal role in preserving the Armenian national identity. This important place-often called Little Armenia-this colony is the last bastion of Armenian collective memory as it is a direct consequence of a crime against humanity perpetrated over hundred years ago against Armenian population living in their homeland.
Between 2008-2009, I returned to my hometown twice to be with my terminally ill older brother who had lived all his life in Bourj Hammoud. The district has gone through dramatic changes; not only in terms of becoming an important commercial hub but also due to the migration of its predominantly Armenian population, whose distinctive mark of character is disappearing from the area.
Each resident of this suburb can offer a plethora of interesting and enchanting stories-in this book are only some of the many images captured during my visit to this special place. My intimate relationships with its narrow streets, the sights and sounds, and its peculiar characters have all been an important source of inspiration all my life.
This book is my story, a tribute to all residents of Bourj Hammoud.