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, near the seaside, separated by the Beirut River. Housing a population of roughly 140,000 people, it is a dense working class district extending over an area of less than one square mile (approximately 2.5 square kilometers), within the Greater Beirut municipality.
Until the early twentieth century, Bourj Hammoud was an area characterized by its small, scattered settlements, as it was predominantly known for its agriculture and marshlands. 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 from their original homeland in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), which re-gifted its name to the new quarter as Nor Marash, Nor Adana, and Nor Sis (nor meaning “new” in Armenian).
My parents, both survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide, met and wed in Damascus, Syria, only to relocate their family to Bourj Hammoud in 1949. It is there that I was born and lived for 20 years before permanently moving away at the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.
My childhood was a deposit of many happy memories. I was carefree, as all children should be. In school or on the streets, I learned and played in my native tongue. The first generation of refugees hardly ventured outside of the quarter, for all the living essentials were available nearby. Their command of the Arabic language was rudimentary, even for a basic conversation; most of the store’s signage in Bourj Hammoud were largely written in Armenian. I lived in a diaspora, except did not know what that meant.
The wisdom and tolerance of ancient civilizations prevailed in this quarter. Bourj Hammoud was an amalgamation of diverse ethnicities and convictions, respectfully living side by side. The sound of Sunday church bells and the call of the muezzin at dawn sounded like a lullaby and brought consolation to my innocent ears. It was only after attending middle school that I learned about the significance of maintaining my national identity and culture; that I was not indigenous to this land, that my parents were subjected to pogroms and exile, shattering their dreams of blossoming in their ancestral homeland. My family hardly spoke of their anguished past. Instead, they granted me the prospect of a more promising future. My linkage to this catastrophic past was my maternal grandmother- she was in eternal grief. Nene (as I called her), with her two infant daughters, became a widower on the day her young barrister husband did not return home at sundown. She stubbornly covered herself in black from head to toe till her death as a mark of reverence for the deceased. Despite this, my mother was an optimist. Only on solemn occasions did she break down and reflect on the past through song. She sang about a lost paradise. Before she passed away, she had the good fortune witnessing Armenia’s independence in 1990, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The arts captivated my older siblings, which spread to me. The theater became my faithful sanctuary, a space to reimagine myself. In the early 70’s, the cultural scene reached its pinnacle. Bourj Hammoud buzzed with theater associations, plays and homegrown rock bands. The cinemas, sixteen of them to be exact, offered spectacles from American Westerns to European Avant-Gardes and Asian Martial Arts films. The hustle and bustle of the shoppers in the dizzying traffic from the roaming vegetable vendors screaming at the top of their lungs coupled with the blaring radios of Arabic, Greek, Italian and Armenian music and the sound of shoe workshops hammering away to Turkish tunes was a transcendental experience, much like Fellini’s Roma. Bourj Hammoud was my Roma.
Bourj Hammoud became a safe haven for many Armenians who were forced to leave their homes and subsequently converge into this one square-mile territory to create a home away from home. Erecting schools, churches, cultural centers and supporting political affiliations with concerted national codes were a part of the effort to maintain a level of subsistence. It was also here, 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.
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) who settled throughout the southeastern edges of the district. In the 60’s, an influx of Syrians, mainly from Aleppo evaded political turmoil by settling in nearby Bourj Hammoud.
As a result of ongoing Lebanese Civil War, Bourj Hammoud witnessed drastic population shifts. The inflow of displaced populations from conflict zones and hostile areas, as well as immigrants from rural areas- mainly Armenians from Beirut and Christians displaced from their villages, coupled with the displacement of Shiite inhabitants, progressed the densification of the community's population.
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 ameliorate their social ranking. Today, like many dwindling Christian communities across the Middle East, Bourj Hammoud struggles to retain its Armenian character against a tide of political uncertainty engulfing the region. For more than 50 years, Bourj Hammoud played a pivotal role in the preservation of Armenian national identity. Often called Little Armenia, this important colony is the last bastion in the Armenian collective memory; a consequence of a crime against humanity perpetrated over a hundred years ago against the Armenian population living in their homeland.
I returned to my hometown twice to be with my terminally ill older brother who had lived in Bourj Hammoud. As an amateur photographer, he gave me my first serious toy at the age of fourteen; his Agfa Silette rangefinder camera. He became my mentor. I learned about the narrative power of the image and the significance of preserving a collective memory and cultural identity of the displaced through it. He left behind a legacy of deep empathy.
Over the years, my birthplace has gone through dramatic changes; it has become an important commercial hub and due to the migration of its predominantly Armenian population, its distinctive mark of character is disappearing from the area. It is badly deteriorated environmentally; it is treated by the central government as the backyard of the capital and the surrounding parts constitute a public risk. As the major artery connecting Beirut to the northern coastal cities, it is only a matter of time before Bourj Hammoud revamps itself into a modern municipality, possibly eradicating itself from the collective Armenian memory- the very reason it came into existence.
Each resident of this suburb can offer a plethora of interesting and enchanting stories. In this book, Birds Nest, are only some of the many images captured during my visit to this special place. My intimate relationships with its narrow streets-its sights and sounds, and its peculiar characters have all been an important source of inspiration all my life.
It took me several years to make the emotional journey to complete Birds Nest, an allegorical narrative to those who more than a century ago, were forced to leave behind their habitat in quest for a safer nest. It is homage to their tenacity to survive and to the benevolence they display towards the plight of latter-day refugees escaping war in Syria to reach the safety of Bourj Hammoud- making them feel at home, away from home.
This book is my story, a tribute to all unsung heroes of Bourj Hammoud.