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  • Birds Nest: A Photo Essay of Bourj Hammoud

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    The Bourj Hammoud district in Lebanon is the geographical extension of Beirut City along the Mediterranean coastline. It’s the suburb immediately east of the capital, separated by the Beirut River. Housing roughly 100,000 people in less than one square mile, it is a dense working-class district .

    Until the early twentieth century, Bourj Hammoud was characterized by its small, scattered settlements, 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 different village in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), resulting in Nor Marash, Nor Adana, and Nor Sis (nor means “new” in Armenian). It became a safe haven for Armenians who were forced to create a home away from home.

    My parents, both survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide, met and wed in Damascus, Syria, and then relocated to Bourj Hammoud in 1949. It is there that I was born and lived for twenty years before permanently moving away at the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.

    My childhood was full of many happy memories. I was carefree, as all children should be. In school and on the streets, I learned and played in my native tongue. The first generation of refugees hardly ventured outside 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 stores’ signage was written in Armenian. I didn’t know what it meant then, but I lived entirely in a diaspora.

    Bourj Hammoud
    A bold declaration of Bourj Hammoud’s characteristic, the tricolor flag of Armenia hangs among the wash lines in a typical residential side street.
    Photo by Ara Madzounian
    Bourj Hammoud
    It is not uncommon to come across pastirma or basturma (salted meat) shops at every corner of Bourj Hammoud. Armenians are known throughout the Levant to be the most skilled makers of basturma, a seasoned, air-dried, cured beef.
    Photo by Ara Madzounian

    In this quarter, the wisdom and tolerance of ancient civilizations prevailed. Bourj Hammoud was an amalgamation of diverse ethnicities and convictions, with local Arabs and Armenian refugees respectfully living side by side. The sound of Sunday church bells and the call of the muezzin at dawn sounded like a lullaby to my innocent ears. It was only after 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 had been subjected to violence 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 connection to this catastrophe was my grandmother. She lived in eternal grief. Nene (as I called her) was left a widower with two infant daughters on the day her young barrister husband did not return home at sundown. She stubbornly covered herself in black from head to toe until 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 of witnessing Armenia’s independence in 1990, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    Growing up, my older siblings were captivated by the arts, and it spread to me too. The theater became my faithful sanctuary, a space to reimagine myself. In the early 1970s, the cultural scene reached its pinnacle. Bourj Hammoud buzzed with theater associations, plays, and homegrown rock bands. The cinemas, all sixteen of them, offered spectacles from American westerns to European avant-garde and Asian martial arts films.

    Bourj Hammoud
    A major crossroad in the town center. This motorway is named after Father Boghos (Paul) Aris, a Catholic priest who was the founding father and first mayor of Bourj Hammoud.
    Photo by Ara Madzounian

    The hustle and bustle of shoppers in dizzying traffic, with roaming vegetable vendors screaming at the top of their lungs, radios blaring in Arabic, Greek, Italian, and Armenian, and cobblers hammering away to Turkish tunes was a transcendental experience, much like Fellini’s Roma. Bourj Hammoud was my Roma.

    Armenians in Bourj Hammoud erected schools, churches, and cultural centers. We resurrected a national identity to hold onto what was violently taken away 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-1940s, part of the Armenian population migrated to Soviet Armenia, followed by another influx of migrants from Southern Lebanon—mainly Shiites and some Palestinians—who settled throughout the southeastern edges of the district. In the 1960s, an influx of Syrian Armenians, primarily from Aleppo, evaded political turmoil by settling in nearby Bourj Hammoud.

    As a result of the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990, Bourj Hammoud sustained drastic population shifts: displaced peoples from conflict zones and hostile areas, immigrants from rural areas, Armenians from Beirut, displaced Christians, and displaced Shiites. The community’s population continued to diversify.

    During the fifteen-year conflict, most Armenian inhabitants of the quarter fled the country. Others moved out 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.

    Bourj Hammoud
    A resident proudly displays the photos of his young mother and aunts who were among the first settlers of Bourj Hammoud. The young were taught to value and to protect their national identity, sometimes by any means necessary.
    Photo by Ara Madzounian

    For more than fifty 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. As an amateur photographer, he gave me my first serious toy at the age of fourteen: his Agfa Super 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. It is badly deteriorated environmentally. The central government treats it 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 interesting and enchanting stories. In my 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 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 for a search for a safer nest. It is homage to their tenacity to survive and the benevolence they show to modern-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.

    Bourj Hammoud
    Pigeon hovering throughout the skies at daybreak or twilight are part of Bourj Hammoud’s culture. The domesticated pigeons arrived in the Middle East some 5,000 years ago.
    Photo by Ara Madzounian

    Ara Madzounian is an independent producer, director and cinematographer based in Los Angeles. He has collaborated with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage on My Armenia, a project that harnesses the power of storytelling to strengthen cultural heritage sustainability.

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