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Bourj Hammoud: Seeing the City’s Urban Textures and Layered Pasts

[Graffiti about Armenian territorial claims. Underneath it: The logo of the Armenian Tashnak political party. Image by Joanne Randa Nucho.] [Graffiti about Armenian territorial claims. Underneath it: The logo of the Armenian Tashnak political party. Image by Joanne Randa Nucho.]

Bourj Hammoud, a municipality just east of the Beirut River, is a densely populated residential and commercial district known as much for its sizeable Armenian population as its jewelry markets, small-scale clothing, and shoe manufacturing workshops. Until refugees of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman lands urbanized it in the 1930s, it had mainly consisted of agricultural fields. Armenian refugees, who had been living in various camps in and around Beirut, organized themselves into village and town associations based on their places of origin. Coming from Adana, Sis, and Marash, as well as other cities and towns, they attempted to reconstitute familial and neighborly ties by pooling resources and buying plots of land, with the help of French Mandate officials. Many neighborhoods within Bourj Hammoud still bear the names of these Ottoman towns: Nor Sis, Nor Adana, Nor Marash (New Sis, New Adana, New Marash).

Despite its reputation as a homogenous Armenian area, Bourj Hammoud is home to a diverse population of Lebanese from various sects as well as transnational migrant workers. Between 2008-11, I conducted fieldwork research in Bourj Hammoud, utilizing a combination of traditional ethnographic methods such as participant observation and interviews. I also used video extensively, with the goal of making an ethnographic film about the various contestations over narratives of belonging through the lived realities of Bourj Hammoud’s residents. My research focused on the ways in which the materiality of the city, particularly urban infrastructures and services, are not only the result of sectarian political formations, but help to reproduce sectarian forms of belonging and identity. The role that everyday experiences of space play in creating a sense of belonging and identity, as well as my own methodology of filmmaking as a collaborative ethnographic activity, brought to light two issues. First, the role that official histories play in constructing narratives about identity in Lebanon, and, second, the persistence of unruly pasts that emerge and cannot be safely classified.

While watching footage that I had filmed with one of my interlocutors and key collaborators between 2010-11, she explained: “The minute I cross that bridge [to Bourj Hammoud], I feel like I’ve crossed over to somewhere safe and secure… Hearing the Armenian language and those familiar sights, I just feel like I am at home.” Another interlocutor, a twenty-five year-old man explained: “When I was a child I used to believe I was living in Armenia.” Bourj Hammoud is a place where layers of pasts rapidly proliferate, accumulating new significances through the everyday experiences of its dwellers. Political leaders, who hope to maintain the “Armenian public sphere” through their substantial influence over municipal governance, are well aware of the importance of urban infrastructure in Lebanon as a means for sectarian organizations to maintain or securitize spatial boundaries between or even within neighborhoods. Urban development in Lebanon can foster a particular kind of milieu that links a sense of identity to geography. The negotiations around urban infrastructures, like the placement of a highway overpass cutting through Bourj Hammoud, or the future of the last remaining Armenian refugee camp, as well as more mundane issues, such as sidewalk beautification campaigns, are important sites for contesting political visions at the level of the municipality and political party leadership. However, it is equally important to pay attention to the affective and sensorial impacts of infrastructure, and the relationship of infrastructure to identity formation and a sense of belonging. In Bourj Hammoud, popular narrations of the Armenian genocide, as well as the less widely discussed stories about ethnic cleansing that occurred in the district during the Lebanese wars, echo through the everyday infrastructures of the built environment.

Despite Bourj Hammoud’s ethnic and sectarian diversity, many of its residents experience it as an Armenian sphere. Many elements participate in this: the prevalence of Armenian signs, the sound of Armenian music and spoken language, the anti-Turkish political graffiti, and the perceived “density” of its Armenian cultural institutions—versus the “emptiness” described by Armenians who move away from the neighborhood. Bourj Hammoud is evidence of the very material ways in which the configuration and management of urban infrastructure helps foster a sense of belonging, and reinforce certain narratives about the past, present, and future. For example, many neighborhoods within Bourj Hammoud are named after Armenian village and town associations that constructed them. However, Bourj Hammoud is more than just an ossified symbol of Armenian nationalism or identity. The urban textures of Bourj Hammoud are a constantly relived, reinterpreted, and creative process of constructing a sense of belonging, identity, and history, that are crucial to understanding the process of producing and reproducing the notion of a unified Armenian “community.”

Armenian sectarian organizations portray Bourj Hammoud as a place where Armenian identity was merely transported, unchanged, and resurrected in a new place. Ironically, the narrative of an unchanging Armenian identity is echoed in racist discourses within Lebanon about Armenians as unwilling or unable to “adapt” to living in Lebanon or learn to speak Arabic. Bourj Hammoud is far from being the kind of neutral ground upon which an existing Armenian identity was resurrected. It was an important site for the construction of new Armenian-Lebanese identity, the standardization of Western Armenian as the primary language of the new generations of Armenians born in Lebanon, as well as the founding of new cultural, educational, and political institutions. Many of my Armenian interlocutors who lived or worked in Bourj Hammoud used the language of authenticity in order to describe Bourj Hammoud as a place where practices, and a specific western dialect of the Armenian language are “preserved.” Such narratives of timelessness and unchanging tradition gloss over the contestations over space and memory that have always been part of the story of Bourj Hammoud. They also do not bring out its role as a hub for migration, both within Lebanon, and transnationally, as it is home to Lebanese of various sects, as well as migrant workers from Syria, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa. Bourj Hammoud is not a mere container for a transported, intact Armenian identity. Rather, Bourj Hammoud has always been an important site for the creation of new social relations, new identities as well as political mobilizations, given it functions as a working class suburb that provides both employment opportunities and relatively affordable housing compared to nearby Beirut. For example, one often-overlooked footnote to Bourj Hammoud’s history is the fact that Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a Shi`i cleric, first began organizing Shi`i residents in Bourj Hammoud. His efforts were part of a movement that would ultimately result in the formation of a distinctly Shi`i form of political Islam in Lebanon.

[Screenshot from video footage of Bourj Hammoud, filmed by Joanne Randa Nucho.]

Despite the prevalence of discourses of authenticity and nostalgia about Bourj Hammoud, there were many times when the practice of looking together through a filmmaking practice helped to open up a space for conversation about displacement, rupture, and erasure in ways that formal interviews could not. The tearing down of the Sanjak camp in Bourj Hammoud, which occurred throughout my fieldwork, brought memories of past destructions and evictions into the present. Built in 1939 by refugees fleeing from the Sanjak (Ottoman administrative district) of Alexandretta after it was ceded to Turkey, the camp consists of small cinderblock houses with corrugated metal roofs. The camp is a stark contrast to its immediate surroundings in the most prominent and affluent sector of Bourj Hammoud’s main thoroughfare. Hidden behind a row of shops to the south, and by giant billboards facing the highway to the north, Sanjak Camp was slowly torn down over the past five years. While some Sanjak residents were paid small fees to relocate, those who are unable to move due to high costs of rental properties are being pushed into a shrinking corner of the formerly expansive plot, as bulldozers destroy their neighbors’ homes to make way for a shopping center called “Saint Jacques.”

Aside from the municipal contestations that have long been a part of urban infrastructure projects in Bourj Hammoud, Sanjak contained within it multiple erasures and forgotten pasts. Most of my Armenian interlocutors were unaware of its particular history, and in fact, gaps, and ruptures characterize their knowledge of their own parents’ and grandparents’ genocide experiences. One woman in her eighties had no idea how or why her father returned to Adana from a refugee camp in Aleppo in 1919. I later read about this “repatriation,” whereby the French, hoping to maintain influence in the region, moved all displaced Armenians back to Cilicia, only to permanently evacuate Armenians in 1921 after the territory was officially ceded to Turkey. Similar gaps haunt the corners of many Armenian stories. One interlocutor had no idea why her family ended up in Egypt before Lebanon, another does not know how it came to be that her grandfather stayed in Marash until he was nearly twenty, only to immigrate much later to Lebanon. The Armenian genocide did not just end with the refugees that were brought to Lebanon in the 1920s. Rather, there are so many ruptures in the stories I heard, that these place names are often all that remain in popular memory. Though not many people can narrate the experiences of their parents or grandparents in any great detail, these pasts remain in the name, and even after the camp is destroyed, the final violence of its destruction will be in the transformation of its name into “Saint Jacques.”

Through my ethnographic engagement, videography emerged not as a tool of passive observation or documentation, but rather as a collaborative methodology by which my interlocutors and I could begin to discuss their sensory experiences of the city. Perhaps most strikingly, the presence of the camera became a locus for discussing the layers of pasts embedded within the physical structures of the neighborhood. By viewing the camera as a tool of collaboration, rather than a recording device, I was able to learn more about my interlocutors’ visual, auditory, and sensory experiences of this space and the memories and associations they attached to them. Not only did I film the city with many of my interlocutors, I showed them my edited footage later on, and we discussed their impressions of what I had captured in a collaborative methodology inspired by Jean Rouch. By looking together, both while filming and, later on, while watching footage, we could, in that instance, have a conversation about what they were seeing, through the camera, of the visual and auditory experiences of the city. For example, while filming a tangle of electricity cables leading to both formal and informal sources of electricity, an interlocutor started unexpectedly talking about the days before the informal electricity appeared, and bemoaned the fact that entire generations of young people had no memory of prewar Bourj Hammoud, linking the broken infrastructure to other nostalgic memories. The presence of the camera made the erasures and gaps in the story just as important as that which was officially explained away. What did it mean for Armenian to be spoken mixed in with Turkish, for the sounds of shoemakers hammering soles and sewing machines whirring on every street corner, for the smell of church incense and the sound of Armenian music echoing around these narrow streets? At the same time, it was about delving beyond nostalgia, and sharing in conversation in those unexpected moments when stories of genocide erasure are embedded within more recent, unofficial histories of displacement and violence. The sight of me filming the bridge connecting Bourj Hammoud to Beirut heralds a never-forgotten memory of a boy, now forty years old, whose father was killed by a sniper on that very spot. Another interlocutor, while seeing me film the outside of an Armenian political party clubhouse, described the ethnic cleansing of Shi`i and Palestinians in Bourj Hammoud and its environs in the 1970s, and quickly added, “we were always neutral.”

The everyday experiences of urban space are crucial in the construction of identity, and a sense of belonging, not only in terms of officially sanctioned histories but also those slippery, not-yet-defined moments, where unruly pasts emerge and cannot be safely classified. Given the experiences of my interlocutors, Bourj Hammoud is an agent on its own, not merely evoking memories, but shaping one’s relation to the past and hopes for the future.

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