A Turkish visitor in Armenian district of Beirut

By Cagil Kasapoglu

Special to The Daily Star

Sanjak resident playing "Tavla" (Backgammon)

Saturday, August 01, 2009

French Turks and flip-flopping in Bourj Hammoud

First Person by Cagil Kasapoglu:

“Don’t tell anybody that you’re a Turk,” said most of my Lebanese acquaintances when I asked for directions to Bourj Hammoud, an eastern suburb of Beirut populated mainly by Armenians who settled there during the early decades of the 20th century. Although the conventional wisdom was intimidating, namely that a Turkish visitor could only hope to encounter unpleasantness in the “Armenian capital” of Lebanon, a single excursion was sufficient to prove the opposite. Walking down from Marash Street, named after a city in southeastern Turkey, I noticed a small goldsmith atelier owned by Sako Khatehabourian, a man in his 50s.

“I have a tiny store, but a big heart,” Sako said with a warm smile on his face, after learning where his visitor was from. Excited to talk about history and memories, he first offered a “Turkish coffee,” as he preferred to call it.

“My grandparents moved here from Aintab [the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep] in the 1920s. They left everything and immigrated to Lebanon. Now, even if they offer me money to move back, I wouldn’t,” Sako said. While he’d managed to integrate himself into Lebanese society like many of his fellow Armenians, he continued to live with the dark memories of his ancestry. “I don’t have any problems with the new generation of Turks who want to build peace between two societies, but there are millions of bodies in our history. And, this makes everything difficult.”

Although we were discussing a tense history of conflict, Sako’s older friend Rafi Ourfalian invited me over to meet his family.

As Rafi’s daughter, Betty, unlocked the iron fence of their house, she asked his father in Armenian about the unexpected guest. I could only catch the word “Turk” and was expecting the doors to be slammed in my face, but instead she exclaimed cheerfully in Turkish, “Hosgeldin evimize, [Welcome to our house].”

Camp Sanjak

Inside, three generations had gathered to follow a Turkish soap opera ­– not the version dubbed into Syrian colloquial, but the real thing, in Turkish. Angel Bezdjian, the eldest member of the family, talked about her desire to visit Istanbul, where such serials are often set. “I watch the Bosphorus, the bridges and the mosques of Istanbul in those soap operas. Is it really that beautiful?” she asked, as if missing a home that she never knew.

The warm welcomes nearly convinced me that the tensions between two peoples had melted away. But at another family’s home, there was a warning. “Please tell your friend not to mention her Turkish nationality!”

My new friend Ara’s mother, who had been pampering me with delicious fish and arak only a minute earlier, issued the directive when she noticed an elderly woman at her door, poised for a visit. Without giving Ara the chance to translate, I began to speak French, as we’d agreed to do in “emergency cases.”

“She likes gossiping,” Ara whispered to me as the lady entered the room. “It’s no good for my mother to be known as someone who invites Turks to her house.”

It’s a jarring argument for a Turk to face, but I silently heard out his explanation.

“You have to understand. If Turks hadn’t killed millions of Armenians, she would have been back in Adana now, where she was born. Nobody would be here in Bourj Hammoud, this town wouldn’t exist,” he said.

In keeping with my new French identity, I headed toward Camp Sanjak, the first settlement of Armenian refugees, built in the 1920s.

Camp Sanjak is slated to be replaced by a shopping mall, to boost Bourj Hammoud’s commercial activity. A people that preserves its historical memory throughout the world will lose an important piece of its past in Lebanon, the symbol of its first arrival, as refugees. My nationality made me nervous about asking questions about Sanjak, even though elderly residents around me were playing “tavla” (backgammon), as Turkish words peppered their conversations.

Shopping Arax street in Bourj Hammoud

In the end, Rafi Pamboukian, a 28-year-old shoemaker, agreed to tell me about the history of the place, before asking where I was from. He invited me into his atelier, and I sat in a corner, prepared for the inevitable. “First, tell me what size you wear,” he said, offering a pair of hand-crafted flip flops as a gift. Soon, “the question” was asked.

“Where are you from, by the way?” “Well … I’m Turkish.” Rafi sat in place as if paralyzed, staring at my chair. His eyes misted over as he said that when his shop used to be the family home, his grandmother used to sleep exactly where I was now seated.

The “one who fled from the Turks” was how he described her.

We somehow managed to steer the conversation back to the fate of Sanjak.

“They want to demolish this camp now,” Rafi said. “There’s no doubt, it will be good for Armenians to strengthen the [local economy], but on the other hand the memories will be erased, and we don’t want that.”

He paused, and then asked: “Why did you come to Bourj Hammoud anyway?”

The original idea was to write about the memories of Sanjak, but the memories in Sanjak and Bourj Hammoud proved to be the more compelling story. I left Bourj Hammoud in my new flip-flops, after encountering history and memories that can make Turkish people “French” and the Bosphorus so distant.

Copyright (c) 2009 The Daily Star

2 Comments

Filed under Armenians, Lebanon, Turkey

2 responses to “A Turkish visitor in Armenian district of Beirut

  1. Armen Armenian

    Hey you Cagil , don’t make up stories and names , it is obvious that you just visited Bourj Hamoud and took some pictures and didn’t even dare to mingle with the inhabitants . The names that you have mentioned in the article are fake and don’t exist ,and it is ironic that all these people have welcomed you to their places … Keep feeding your uncivilised people with poisonous garbage , cuz knowledge is power and your people doesn’t possess that .

  2. Cagil M. Kasapoglu

    Dear Armen,

    Sorry to disappoint you but to tell you the truth, all the names and everything that happened are real in this article.

    I also found it quite ironic… I hope you realised that the last person I met Rafi was not really happy to meet me at first sight but it did not prevent him to share his stories with me.

    After this article, I visited Bourj Hammoud several other times as well… Not so different memories I possessed again…

    Months later I was in a coffee shop there, I could see their doubtful and questioning faces to have me in.

    But they obviously realised that holding a civilian responsible for what had happened hundred years ago was not in their interest.

    I also covered a few times the Armenians protesting Turkish politicians’ visits to Lebanon. Absolutely fair… A way of expressing political will and a democratic right… I’d go for it myself as well.

    But relations on societal level are are nothing but humanitarian…

    Best,

    Cagil

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