When I first moved to Beirut to start my doctoral research, I would spend hours at the apartment of my mother’s family in the neighborhood of Zarif. Sometimes I would bring work with me and sit on the chair reading as clouds of smoke from my aunts’ cigarettes and nargila varied in intensity around me. My attention would drift between conversing with my cousins and their mothers, and the reading at hand.
I visited them almost daily. I did this, even though I had not grown up with them. I was not one of those Lebanese returnees - I mean I was, but not in what might be termed the traditional sense. I returned, but I was older than most people are when they make that journey, and I was alone. My parents did not accompany me: we never did summers “bi Beirut,” or visited “even though there was war” (two taglines I consistently heard my other Lebanese friends say who grew up outside of Lebanon). Rather, I came to meet my mother’s family and to make her memories of her birthplace my own.
Through my visits and my fieldwork during that time, I became familiar with Zoqaq al-Blat, a neighborhood in central Beirut about a fifteen-minute walk northeast of Hamra, the neighborhood in which my mother was born and raised. I learned that some forty to fifty years ago it had been home to many Armenians, as had been the adjacent quarter of Zarif. During the 1950s and 1960s, most Armenians attended local neighborhood Armenian grade, middle, and high schools until college. If they were able to continue their education, most attended the American University of Beirut and Haigazian University (the first Armenian university established outside of Armenia, in 1952), as their Arabic language training was not strong enough to enable attending the public Lebanese University. Accordingly, many Armenians largely interacted only with one another. Such relationships were bolstered by membership in Armenian scouting troops, political youth groups, and sporting teams, along with the attendance of weekly Armenian Church services that all took place in the area. Additional socio-economic connections augmented these activities, as Armenians in these neighborhoods patronized Armenian-owned bakeries, pharmacies, hairdressers, butchers, car mechanics, and clothing sellers.[i]
The attachments that many Armenians shared with each other may have been connected to the circumstances that brought their families to Lebanon. The vast majority of Armenians had arrived to Lebanon as refugees from southern and southeastern Anatolia in the wake of the Armenian Genocide of World War I. The French mandatory government of Lebanon extended citizenship to these Armenians in 1924 (thereby buoying the Christian population of Lebanon) and by the time the last of the French troops left in 1946, about seventy-five thousand Armenians were recognized within the official eighteen sects in Lebanon (Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholic were each their own category; the smaller population of Armenian Protestants fell under the larger Protestant grouping).[ii]
Yet the relationship of Armenians to Lebanon was also evolving. My mother’s generation was the first generation categorized as Lebanese citizens by birth. And by the time my visits to my family and Lebanon became habitual in the mid 1990s, my family’s daily interactions were no longer as insular. As a result of the 1975-1990 Civil War and other economic hardships, many Armenians had moved away from Zoqaq al-Blat and Zarif to areas northeast of Beirut in the North Metn, to Antelias and Naccache. Others left Lebanon permanently, emigrating to the United States and Canada. For those who remained in Zoqaq al-Blat and Zarif however, like my family, their interactions and relationships with non-Armenians increased. They still frequented their local pharmacy and area clothing stores, but conversed with their now non-Armenian owners in the broken Arabic acquired from such social interactions and television. They began to employ Arabic on a daily level and in situations that used to be conducted in Armenian. My aunts still remained familiar with neighbors, inviting them for coffee from the balcony as they walked by, but the passers-by weren’t their old familiar Armenian coffee partners. These former neighbors (if they even still lived in near Beirut) would arrive at their apartment at a prearranged time by car, on their way to somewhere else in the city. My two aunts, Armenian language teachers in Armenian grade schools, grew accustomed to having non-Armenian students in their classes. Accordingly, the Arabic of my older aunts greatly improved. I noticed my younger cousins spoke native Arabic, often correcting older relatives.
My family adapted to their neighborhood’s shifting demographics and landscape. Yet, given their declining numbers (difficult to ascertain as there hasn’t been an official census in Lebanon since 1932), Armenians in Lebanon continue to be – if not increasingly so – represented in the Lebanese government. Six out of 128 deputies in parliament – up from five during the pre-Civil War period – and one out of fourteen ministers in the cabinet is Armenian. Still, I often felt that my family and other Armenians I interacted with felt that their continued presence as Armenians in Lebanon was under threat. While members of older generations often speak longingly about a romanticized past, my family invoked the past as an era of refuge. They felt shielded from pressures of assimilation and comforted by their insular interactions between Armenians. They also equated this time with a sense of the socio-economic and political prowess of Lebanon’s Armenian community. They reminded me of how the mansion now housing Future TV administration offices on Spears Street in Zarif was once the headquarters of the Armenian Dashnak political party, and that the large community center complex of the Armenian General Benevolent Union on Salim Boustani street was being demolished to make way for a shopping center that would stretch towards the main street of Spears (as went the latest rumor, anyway). Armenian presence in Lebanon, they explained, was literally eroding.
Every afternoon, my family and I would assemble to attentively watch the Armenian news broadcast in between the Arabic language news and other station programming. I quickly noticed, however, that we didn’t seem to watch the Armenian news for content. We already knew the news--we had just watched the Arabic version. Plus, if we missed notice of an important event, we would consistently reconvene during the evening Arabic news hour. In addition, both broadcasts were shown on the same Lebanese channel (presumably forwarding the same political position(s)). They rarely, if ever, differed. The only variance was that the Arabic version went into more detail, as its programming was half an hour longer.
I once asked my family why we were such faithful viewers of the Armenian news after we had, once again, watched both Armenian and Arabic cycles. My aunts and cousins all responded similarly: “If we do not watch the Armenian news, who will? We’ve already lost so much,” they would say, a reference to the diminishing Armenian population and material visibility in Lebanon. They also anticipated a day when Lebanon would no longer broadcast the news in Armenian. “We only get fifteen minutes anyway, and if we don’t watch it, they’ll take that away too.” I never got who this “they” referred to (or what the “too” meant), but I decided not to point out that Armenian news on Lebanese TV was a relatively new development. I also did not bother to correct them that the news program ran for thirty minutes, not fifteen. More significantly, the Lebanese media was increasing its focus on the Armenian community. All of the major Lebanese TV channels covered Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, commemorations on 24 April, and TeleLiban broadcast Armenian Christmas mass on 6 January every year. Future TV began broadcasting news in Armenian in 2000 with OTV beginning in 2008. In addition, all Lebanese news outlets avidly followed the voting actions of the Armenian inhabitants in the Metn district during the 5 August 2007 by-elections that resulted in the defeat of Amin Gemayel and the victory of Camille Khoury, the candidate backed by both the Dashnak party and General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. Lebanese newspapers in Arabic, English, French, and Armenian reacted to the racist statements made by Lebanese politicians Gabriel Murr and Amin Gemayel in the election’s aftermath, when both accused Armenians in Bourj Hamoud of corruption and vote-rigging. The apologies of Gemayal and Murr, along with statements in defense of the Armenian community offered by the Hizballah leadership, resulted in continuous reporting on the Armenian community in Lebanon in August 2007. The press also profiled many Armenians who returned to Lebanon to vote in the countrywide parliamentary election in June 2009.
For my family (and for many Armenians in Beirut as I came to find out), watching the news in Armenian was perceived as a national duty. By watching the program, even when it was a replica of the Arabic version they had just seen, they defended Armenian identity against assimilation into a greater Lebanese identification. Failing to watch the program became akin to forsaking the Armenian nation. This sense of responsibility was also interconnected with a sense of being deserted by the Lebanese government, as many Armenians in Beirut explained to me that they had to protect the Armenian nation, or the Armenian footprint in Lebanon would be gone forever. Having fulfilled our national obligation for the day, we would then continue watching whatever else was lined up on station programming.
Well, almost anything else. Certain Arabic programming was boycotted: my family would never watch the Turkish soap operas dubbed in Arabic. Turkish soap operas became increasingly popular in 2008, especially after the commercial success of Nour (originally Gümüş in Turkish) whose finale drew 85 million viewers, according to surveys by the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) channel.[iii] Watching these shows apparently tested an Armenian’s loyalty. Once the soap operas began, and only when they did, my family changed the channel to the Armenian satellite station. While the soap operas were translated into Arabic, the language change did not offset the “Turkishness” of the program. Arabic acted as a vehicle to translate news to Armenians, aiding in the project to support the Armenian nation, but could not change the Turkish character of an entertainment program. I often heard conversations where people tried to measure each other’s commitment to the Armenian Cause by simply asking, “Do you watch Turkish programs?”
This litmus test took a more public – and oddly enough more serious – tone at the Armenian comedic play “Tshkoh Batal (Unhappy Batal)” that I attended in Burj Hammoud last January. My cousin called me to let me know she had landed one of the leading roles, and I thought I should go and support her. In general, I like the theatre, but I had my doubts about this production. I had seen one of this director’s shows before and found the plot dim-witted and rife with bathroom humor and childish sexual innuendo. Nevertheless, I estimated I could still finish early enough to be back in Hamra meeting friends by 11 pm.
Tshkoh Batal was sexist, shrill, and relied on gendered sexual humor. And yet, even with the cheap laughs, I was grateful that it was at least a comedy. That was a welcome change from my past experiences at the Armenian theatre. From the time I was a child until just a few years ago, going to an Armenian play usually included either a dramatization of the violence during the Armenian Genocide, or (not so oblique) references to the psychological trauma that it left behind.
The focus of this play was family dynamics. Two of the women were sisters, and the third woman was the daughter of the elder sister. Mother and daughter lived in the same house with their husbands, and the sister/aunt lived next door with hers. The story centered on the relationships between the three men who were related to each other through their wives. Being the only commonality that brought the men together, they would gather to complain about the women in their lives – about their stupidity, their incessant whining, and that they either oozed too much sexuality or not enough. The plot of the play was simple and predictable: The woman and her husband who lived next door must move into her older sister’s house temporarily. This upsets the dynamics within the home, as there are already two couples (mother and father, and daughter and husband) living there. They feel annoyed and intruded upon by their neighbors, albeit members of their own family, and spend the duration of the play (in vain) trying to get them out. The show’s writer, comedian Pierre Chamassian, played “Batal,” the star of the show. His grand plan to drive the third couple out of the home by flirting with his wife’s aunt, unsurprisingly, comes to naught.
Yet, within this fairly obvious and slapstick play, Chamassian created a condition to publically rebuke the Armenian viewers of Arabic-dubbed Turkish soap operas. In the midst of an argument between Batal and his sex kitten/idiot wife, Batal goes on a solo rant against the Turkish musalsalat industry, calling its producers manipulative dogs. He criticizes his wife for wasting her time with these television soap opera serials while she should be taking care of him. And in the midst of yelling at her, he shifts focus, and accuses all Armenians who watch Turkish serials of suffering from a sickness that causes them to commit treason.
Via a marital quarrel between Batal and his wife, Chamassian took over the stage, and the play, to address what he considered to be a “social disease” plaguing the Armenian community. As he continued, getting redder in the face along with veins bulging from the left side of his neck, he moved to shout directly to, and at, the audience. Switching from the singular “you” to the plural form, he shouted how shameful and disgusting it was that “you” (plural) watched the Turkish musalsalatner (plural).
The same audience who had laughed playfully at jokes minutes before, was now being accused of a social malady that culminated in treason. I looked around at the audience members who could not have known they would be taking part in some social court in the center of the Armenian neighborhood that evening. But the charged accepted their indictment. The audience, after a few moments of silence erupted into loud cheers, whistles, applause, and many stood and clapped. We (sex-kitten wife and guilty audience) were collectively reprimanded for our crimes, and reminded of the Armenian tragedies perpetrated by the Turks. The now slightly more tempered, yet still outraged, Batal reminded us that whatever ordeal occurred in the Turkish television serials, these were nothing compared to the tragedies “we” as Armenians had suffered at “their” hands. “How,” he demanded to know, “can we possibly sit around and waste hours feeling and crying for them?!”
This last statement was greeted with furious clapping and with many audience members standing up and shouting back to Batal, “You’re right!” Yes!” and “Bravo!” Others looked around at fellow audience members and shouted, “He’s right!” “Exactly!” and accusingly began to shout at each other “You must stop [watching]!”
The transformation from play to court of law took place quickly. The audience became the accused and accepted their guilt, and Batal (meaning hero in Arabic), suddenly personified his name. Through the use of the name and character of Batal, Arabic regained its positioning as a vehicle that assisted Armenians in Beirut in forwarding their national cause. Arabic could not counter the “Turkishness” of the soap opera. However, similar to its role as the source of Armenian news on the Lebanese channel, in the play, Arabic helped preserve an Armenian identification within Arabic and Lebanese society. Batal (he was never called heros, or hero in Armenian) was the hero-prosecutor who was trying to preserve Armenian victimhood by not allowing others, who did not warrant the claim of being victims themselves, to sully it, even from the fictional setting of a soap opera.
According to Batal and the audience members, by watching these shows Armenians collectively diminished the legitimacy of the larger Armenian Cause that fought to honor the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide. In addition, the guilty audience seemed to readily accept that they were represented by the dim-witted sex kitten. Was this to symbolize the audience’s own foolishness, their misdirected sympathy? By following these Turkish fictional stories, they unknowingly challenged their own victimization. The general exclamations of the audience suggested an appreciation for both Batal’s ability to identify their crimes and for his intervention on behalf of the Armenian nation.
Watching this scene, I wondered if the play was a new way to communicate nationalist trope to a broader audience. Chamassian, through “Batal” (be it the character or the Arabic use of the word), rendered fictional Turkish television serials as the latest site of struggle over memory and ownership of trauma. Is this how an Armenian in contemporary Lebanon articulates a sense of Armenianness? After all, these audience members thought they were coming to see a comedy; there was nothing ostensibly political (or particularly real) about the play. There was no hint that acting would suddenly be used to represent a malady (as identified by the director) afflicting the Armenian nation in Beirut. Was performance art, be it the vehicle of the Turkish soap opera or the theatre, the new site to declare positions on Armenian-Turkish relations? Through Batal and Chamassian’s play, watching Turkish serials in Lebanon and consuming them as entertainment became a public measure of an Armenian’s devotion to the nation.
And yet, it was not merely about Turkish serials. It was also their content. The main part of Batal’s diatribe against his wife (representing an Armenian public) was that she sympathized with the tragedies in the television shows, as if trumping them over the “real” tragedy, the Armenian Genocide. And this trauma, Batal seemed to say, was owned by Armenians, as if others, especially Turks, did not have the right to display or represent trauma or tragedy, even in its fictional and entertaining form. His nationalist interjection, seemingly out of place, though entirely expected on some level, was a pointed policing of how and what Beiruti Armenians should watch. The play became a public conversation about owning tragedy. By using the simulated platform of theatre, Batal was critiquing the real-life actions of the audience. And they agreed with him. In fact, I witnessed the battle cry: “we” Armenians are not going to let those soap operas “do” tragedy better than us. Tragedy is ours (and ours alone). Dealing with the legacy of genocide was relegated to a simple action of watching a soap opera or changing the channel.
Then Batal gently smiled and, showing no signs of fury (aside from redness of the face that quickly began to fade), turned and once again began to conspire with his love-struck sex-kitten on how they would get the unwanted occupants out of the house.
[i] Marriage and baptismal records of the era reflect this aforementioned separation of the Armenian community. Marriage records from the 1940s indicate that bride and groom were usually from the same village or town in Anatolia. Similarly, Armenians from specific towns and villages almost always attended the same church: for example, those that were from Sis went to St. Sarkis Church in Nor Sis. It was only in the late 1940s and 1950s that we begin to see “intermarriage” between Armenian villages. The same holds true for baptismal records. Those who were from the same towns and villages were married in specific churches, and attended the same church to baptize their children. In addition, the godfathers and godmothers of the children were more often than not siblings of the parents, maintaining the insular community of these churches. (Source: Armenian Marriage Records, Armenian Prelacy of Lebanon, located in Burj Hammoud.)
[ii] Nicola Migliorino, (Re)Constructing Armenia in Lebanon and Syria: Ethno-Cultural Diversity and the State in the Aftermath of a Refugee Crisis (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), 89.
[iii] Alexandra Buccianti, “Turkish soap operas in the Arab world: social liberation or cultural alienation?” Arab Media & Society, Issue 10 (2010). http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=735