Armenians in Beirut

Here below is the article I’ve written on Armenian district of Beirut for HDN.

Camp Sanjak

BEIRUT – Hürriyet Daily News
Friday, February 12, 2010

Strolling through Beirut’s Armenian neighborhood in search of Turkish speakers is no easy task but to find out about their lives it must be done. Rumors of bans on Turkish TV in the area attracted the attention of our reporter, who found instead kinship and shared memories of a faraway land as she accepted a familiar-looking Lebanese coffee

Many Turks would expect to encounter hostility in Beirut’s Armenian district, but one who went in search of the truth about Turkish TV being banned in the area found instead a sense of longing for ancestral homelands.

There are many reasons for a Turk to be intrigued by the Armenian district, Bourj Hammoud, because the neighborhood offers up much more than any history book can deliver. Also, there are unwritten and unspoken taboos, such as the unofficial ban on watching Turkish TV soap operas in Armenian Lebanese households. Many happenings in the area are visible only to those who are daring enough to step in themselves.

Turkish soaps are invading prime time slots on many Arabic TV channels, but the residents of Bourj Hammoud are very much discouraged from watching them and from using the advertised Turkish products, according to residents in the neighborhood.

Most street corners in the district, however, are occupied by pirate DVD sellers whose front rows are reserved for Turkish soaps as the “best sellers.”

“It’s not the artificial love stories or mafia-like relations we are interested in in those [Turkish TV] shows, it’s the beauty of Istanbul that we are longing for,” says Rafi, a jewelry shop owner in his 60s whose roots are in southern Turkey.

Apart from the soaps, most of the Turkish singers and actors are also well-known, in particular İbrahim Tatlıses and Kemal Sunal, whose shows have been repeatedly aired on Turkish TV channels accessed through satellite dishes placed on most household balconies.

Unique to Armenians and Turks, the conversation on a combination of İbrahim Tatlıses and arak, similar to Turkish rakı, can easily be shifted to a conversation on Charles Aznavour and whiskey. Beirut’s role in materializing this cultural richness is indeed undeniable.

While sipping the very Turkish-looking Lebanese coffee at a random spot in Bourj Hammoud, it’s either the accent or just a feeling that unveils the Turkish identity among the many Armenians sitting nearby.

“Our history is distancing us, but obviously Beirut is good at uniting,” whispered Sako with questioning eyes as if demanding to know what a Turk is doing in the district.

“I’m from Maraş, well, Kahramanmaraş,” he said before being interrupted by his friend sitting next to him.

“Oh you’ve made a Kahraman (hero) out of yourself now.”

But Sako’s reply comes a second later, “Aren’t we all?”

Unwilling to speak about the alleged ban on Turkish TV soap operas, their soaring words about the images of Istanbul they see everyday seem to smoothly erode the need for any commentary on the subject.

Aromas of grilled chestnuts mixed with those of grilled sucuks and pastırma waft through the neighborhood while its streets, named after Turkish towns, are dominated by the sound of rolling shutters.

The scene is familiar to anyone with origins in İzmir. The narrow streets and the spice shops, complete with dried aubergines hanging upside-down, located next to the jewelry stores, are like a true copy of İzmir’s vivid Kemeraltı district.

There are roughly 150,000 Armenians living in Lebanon, and Bourj Hammoud is known as the “Armenian capital” of the Middle East. Most of the Armenians settled in Lebanon during the 1920s and lived initially in tent camps such as Camp Sanjak next to Bourj Hammoud. The camp is now being demolished to make room for a shopping center.

The bittersweet diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia are indeed reflected in everyday conversations that Turks and Armenians have, even in Beirut, where people live primarily as if there is no tomorrow. But the “love story” shared between the two nations doesn’t allow for simply forgetting the past and blindly moving toward tomorrow.

“We would perhaps be having our coffee in Maraş or in Adana if my ancestors hadn’t moved to Lebanon, and then I would more likely call it Turkish coffee rather than Lebanese,” said Rafi, whose words seemed to invite a political conversation, but committing ourselves not to be victims of the ill-fated political motives of our leaders, silence took over the coffee shop’s atmosphere as the moment passed.

© 2009 Hurriyet Daily News


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Filed under Armenians, Lebanon, Turkey

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