ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Little Armenia

Traditions are important to those who settle in a new country.

There is a little bit of Armenia in Lebanon. Armenians, an Indo-European people historically centered in northeastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus, began to settle in present-day Lebanon almost a thousand years ago. What led them there, however, has never been forgotten.

In the 11th century, a Turkish tribe invaded Armenia, a kingdom sandwiched between the Christian West and Muslim East. Many Armenians, including the catholicos, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, fled to Cilicia – in southeastern Asia Minor – where some Armenian colonies already existed. Members of the nobility, with the support of the pope and the Holy Roman emperor, eventually formed an independent Kingdom of Cilicia, better known as Little Armenia. Little Armenia developed into a center of culture and learning, where the Christian East mingled with the Christian West.

Though this kingdom too was destroyed in the 14th century, Armenians in Asia Minor and the Middle East rallied around their ancient church, which preserved Armenian language and culture.

After the near annihilation of the Armenian community by the Turks between 1895 and 1915 (an estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished), survivors found refuge in French-protected Lebanon and Syria. Most of these refugees settled in Beirut, particularly in the suburb of Bourj Hammoud. Those who settled in rural Lebanon, notably in the village of Anjar in the Bekaa valley, arrived more than two decades later.

Determined to preserve their cultural identity, religion, language and traditions, these Armenian refugees established clubs, schools, churches, hospitals and dispensaries. Today they attend Armenian churches and schools, eat Armenian food, speak Armenian and read Armenian periodicals. Whether members of the Armenian Apostolic, Catholic or Evangelical churches, Lebanon’s Armenians live in harmony. Although tight-knit, they too are affected by the specters of unemployment, emigration and cultural disintegration haunting all Lebanese.

Roughly 100,000 people – 80 percent of the population of Bourj Hammoud – are Armenian. One of the most densely populated areas in the country, Bourj Hammoud has become one of the largest manufacturing hubs in Lebanon, a center for jewelry, shoes and clothing, all crafted by Armenians. And while Armenians prefer to work with fellow Armenians, their clients are usually fashion-conscious Maronites, Sunni Muslims and Druze. Yet inflation and regional economic challenges have affected even this affluent quarter:

“I have difficulty earning a living today; there is no work here,” says Armenak Kaiserian, who has run a shoe repair shop in Bourj Hammoud for 40 years.

In the narrow streets of Bourj Hammoud, traffic is so dense even the most intrepid drivers hesitate to venture there. Casting a rather somber pall on the area, five-story buildings border the narrow streets; drying clothes, hanging on lines along balconies, compete with webs of electric and telephone cable. Although it is hard to imagine, everyone in Bourj Hammoud can distinguish his or her own wires among the mess.

“Within five years,” says one resident of the quarter, Andranik Messerlian, “the problem of wires and cables, of drainage and pipes and other problems related to the infrastructure of Bourj Hammoud will be settled.

“Despite their ugly appearance, these cables have their advantages,” he adds, laughing.

“One day a child fell from a balcony, but the tangled cables kept him from falling to the ground.”

But Bourj Hammoud has not always escaped Lebanon’s web of alliances and pacts. Despite the quarter’s neutrality, more than 100 residents were killed during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war (1975-1990). A monument was erected this year in their memory.

“As a defensive measure,” recalls one resident, Haroutiun Tcholakian, “we had 3,000 armed men. While other areas of Beirut were subject to theft and acts of vandalism, we had more security. As a result, many wished to take refuge in Bourj Hammoud, away from the shooting and shelling.

“We transformed one of the schools here into a large dispensary and had doctors and nurses volunteering there 24 hours a day,” he continues proudly.

While most of postwar Beirut has adopted a modern look, Bourj Hammoud has maintained its prewar appearance; it escaped major destruction during the war. Apart from a number of supermarkets, where one can still smell the aroma of soujouks (Armenian sausages), bastermas (Armenian dried meat), herbs, spices and dried eggplant, the flavor of the Middle East is generally absent. In the cafes, handfuls of men gather to play cards or backgammon, drink coffee and smoke narguile (water pipes). Sadly, they reminisce about the “good old days,” before the war.

For the elderly Armenian residents of the village of Anjar, the war they call to mind is not Lebanon’s civil war (Anjar, fortunately, escaped unscathed), but the hostilities inflicted on them by the Turks in 1939.

Overlooking the Mediterranean, on the slope of Musa Dagh (Mount Moses), a stone’s throw from the Syrian border, more than 5,000 Armenians from six villages, were flushed from their homes by the Turks:

“It was in the middle of the night. The church bells started ringing and we were told to leave our village by dawn. We could not take much with us, so we left our yogurt and other winter provisions to our Turkish neighbors. We managed to sell our wheat and our dear goats,” remembers 86-year-old Dzaghik Janbazian.

The inhabitants of the six villages of Musa Dagh, the heroes of Franz Werfel’s 1933 novel, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” were transferred to the Syrian shore. There they spent 40 days in shacks. As a result of these difficult living conditions, 45 people perished.

Finally, in September 1939, with the help of the French Navy, they were relocated to the rugged, dry land of Anjar, in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. While awaiting the construction of 1,000 single-room homes, these refugees lived for two years in tents. During the first months of their exile, malnutrition and malaria caused the death of some 500 Armenians.

“It was terribly cold – we used to warm the quilts on charcoal-burning heaters before covering our children,” says Maria Ibradjian.

Despite the rugged climate of Anjar, the Armenians learned to work the land as they had back in Musa Dagh. In addition to 5,400 square yards of residential land, each family was allotted 9,360 square yards of agricultural land.

“The men were employed for the construction of the houses. The French paid them a few cents a day,” recalls Movses Janbazian, 94.

“Once the lands were distributed, each family received 110 pounds of wheat for planting,” he adds. “We were able to make a living.”

“Today, I am unable to earn a living,” laments Boghos Taslakian, who is 77. “I sell my cabbages for 10 cents a pound at the market. In reality, agriculture has reached a dead end in Lebanon. My children are no longer interested – they don’t even know the exact location of the family farm. The majority of the youngsters are attracted by other activities, such as jewelry making.”

In order to make ends meet, farmers must take on other activities. After working as a farmer for more than 60 years, Assadour Makhoulian was forced to open a small supermarket in the village. Today his son operates it.

Mr. Makhoulian is fortunate to have his son in Anjar. Emigration has affected Lebanon’s Armenian community, both in urban and rural areas of the country. Today, Anjar has 2,500 inhabitants, all of whom are Armenian. Between 1946 and 1947, 530 families, or half the population of the village, left for ancient Armenia, then a Soviet Socialist republic. During the Lebanese civil war, others left for the United States and Australia.

“Our major problem today is the emigration of young people,” says Sebouh Saghian, the Mayor of Anjar. “We do not have local universities, so our youth go to Beirut for further education. Because of unemployment here, the majority do not return. However, thanks to the construction of a new freeway, which will be completed in 2005 and will connect the Gulf countries to Lebanon, we will be 20 minutes from Beirut. We think people will prefer to make the trip rather than settle in Beirut,” he adds.

Yet emigration of the youth continues.

“We have to do our best in order to prevent the departure of the younger generation,” declares Yessai Havatian, an engineer and a teacher at Gulbenkian College.

“For example, we have over 50 apple orchards here, and can consider starting an apple juice factory. Due to Lebanon’s economic difficulties, local employment possibilities are few; nevertheless, thanks to aid received from the Canadian Embassy, a small factory producing tomato juice, tomato sauce and chili paste has opened in Anjar. The factory employs eight women and its products are sold in Beirut. This is a good start toward creating local employment,” he continues.

Another significant problem faced by Lebanon’s Armenian community – an unstable school system – is also taking its toll. A few years ago Armenian community leaders encouraged Lebanon’s Armenian parents to enroll their children in Armenian-speaking schools, even if they could not afford the tuition. This created, however, a huge deficit for many schools.

“Today, even the church has difficulty filling this financial gap,” remarks Bishop Gegham Khajerian of the Armenian Apostolic Catholicosate of Cilicia, which is now centered in the Beirut suburb of Antelias. “A number of schools have been forced to close; a few others have merged with other schools.”

“Despite aid received from organizations such as CNEWA, L’Oeuvre d’Orient, Red Cross and the Gulbenkian Foundation,” states Sister Anais, an Armenian Sister of the Immaculate Conception who directs St. Agnes Armenian Catholic School in Bourj Hammoud, “we have serious budget and cash flow problems. We have students here whose parents are unable to provide them with sufficient food. In these conditions, we don’t dare ask them for tuition. In a few months, however, if the problem persists, we will be unable to pay the teachers’ salaries.”

The Armenian people are a tough lot. Caught between East and West, Christendom and the Islamic world, flushed from their ancestral lands and nearly annihilated, and now confronted with emigration, unemployment and the preservation of their identity, Armenians have nevertheless adapted and flourished. Undoubtedly the Armenian community in Lebanon will survive. But they will have to remember the tenacity and faith of their ancestors.

Armineh Johannes filed this report from Beirut.

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