A year after devastation, Beirut’s Armenians rise from the rubble

A year after devastation, Beirut’s Armenians rise from the rubble

PanARMENIAN.Net - A year after the deadly port blast which left the Lebanese capital in disrepair, Beirut’s Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud is still feeling the aftermath of both the explosion, and ongoing economic devastation. But the area's unique history has created a vibrant community with a strong sense of their own identity — helping residents to unite in the very hardest of times, The Calvert Journal says in a fresh article.

“Man, I really hate these dollar-stores,” blacksmith George Assarian says. He points at the garish sign that has become much more common in the Bourj Hammoud neighborhood of eastern Beirut recently, with flimsy stands, half-collapsing under the weight of mop buckets and plastic children’s toys, strung along the pavement. “But nobody has the money for necklaces and rings anymore.”

Assarian’s concern is for the future of Bourj Hammoud’s community-orientated commercial life, which has long been a network of mutually-reliant local and independent craftsmen: smiths, cobblers, neon-sign makers, butchers, jewelers, and tailors, with businesses and expertise passed down generations.

Alongside Mar Mikhael, Gemmayze, and Karantina, Bourj Hammoud is part of a network of districts that surround the port of Beirut. These neighborhoods took the brunt of the explosion on 4 August 2021, when roughly 3000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, seized from a vessel in 2014 and subsequently left in a dock-warehouse, caught fire and triggered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. The blast killed at least 207 people, injured over 6,500, and caused damaged reported to be worth around $15 billion.

This turmoil is not immediately evident on the streets of Bourj Hammoud. Unlike the other areas surrounding the port, Bourj is almost completely clear of the physical damage caused by the explosion.

Bourj Hammoud is an adjunct to Beirut, not an organic extension, and was created for a specific reason: a permanent home for the Armenian refugees fleeing the 1915 Genocide. Originally, the newcomers had been housed in temporary camps in the nearby Karantina neighborhood before the granting of citizenship during the French mandate period led to the creation of a lasting settlement.

In the century that followed, the Lebanese state’s light-touch approach and self-determinative nature of its legal system — which allows religious groups control over such things as schooling and marital affairs — created a stronghold of Armenian identity in Bourj Hammoud.

Getting into the place is a little difficult, reinforcing the sense of a place and a people on the margins. Once you’re in the narrow street, the few cars (relative to the rest of Beirut, at least), and increased population density, all contribute to the sense of a fortress or a hideout, or a kind of walled city at one remove from what’s going on around it.

But it is not only the architecture that separates this part of town from the rest of the Lebanese capital. On the streets, Lebanon’s current plight, though definitely not ignored, is treated with less immediacy than elsewhere in the city. Conversations are more likely to turn to potential flare ups of the conflict with Azerbaijan, than to the vagaries of Lebanon’s sectarian politics. Armenian flags, stickers, and stencils declaring solidarity with those fighting the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh can be found plastered among the lower levels of the uniform, mid-rise apartment blocks.

On several occasions, locals tell me that the speed with which the area was cleared was a demonstration of independence and self-reliance — perhaps for themselves as much as for the Lebanese. Residents were simply not prepared to wait for the dysfunctional political system to allocate resources for the recovery.

"Bourj Hammoud may be only a small neighborhood, but for many Armenians, it is a bastion of cultural identity," the article concludes.

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