From Exiles to Trailblazers: A Cautiously Optimistic Future for Lebanese Armenians
By Keira Logan
Image credit: BBC News
Lebanon’s carefully constructed multi-ethnic, pluri-religious society offers many of the country’s diasporic communities the opportunity to remain relatively homogenous. One need not look farther than Bourj Hammoud, the traditionally Armenian enclave nestled East of Beirut, to witness the deep intra-communal ties made possible by Lebanon’s confessionalism – a system wherein lead positions in the cabinet, parliament, and other institutions are apportioned according to relative religious populations.
Bourj Hammoud’s annual Badguer festival pays homage to the community’s omni-present Armenian legacy. Despite the presence of cheery celebrations and effervescent folk musical performances, an unshakable aura of sadness permeates the atmosphere. Badguer – the Armenian word for “image” – lives up to its namesake by providing an unapologetically authentic account of the true story of Armenian ancestry in Lebanon. This is a heritage tainted and fuelled by the unspeakable horrors of the Armenian genocide of 1915 – and the ensuing mass exodus of Armenians from Ottoman territories. According to Arpina Mankasarian, a lead organiser of the event in 2009, ‘This is the reality.’
Since the country’s independence from French rule in 1943, Lebanon’s confessional system has in many ways provided for representation of the Armenian community. Armenian citizens have become involved in power sharing, with Armenians today holding six seats in the country’s 128-member legislature. Further, even though Lebanese Armenians form approximately 4 percent of the country’s population, they comprise 34 percent of the East Beirut electorate – making them crucial in securing the seats in that district. Many Lebanese Armenians have held important cabinet positions, and the community has even risen to the country’s highest office, with at least one Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, being of Armenian descent.
Economically, the community has flourished as Lebanese Armenians have become known as reliable merchants and skilled artisans all over the country. Armenian businesses thrive across the country, with some Lebanon-based Armenian businesses even expanding operations across the world. An intriguing example lies in the famed Los Angeles restaurant chain Zankou Chicken. After opening up the first Zankou Chicken in the traditionally Armenian city of Bourj Hammoud, the Iskenderian family immigrated to Los Angeles where they founded several Zankou Chicken locations across the city.
Although the Lebanese confessional system may superficially appear to grant unrivalled inclusion for displaced groups, one would benefit to employ caution in concluding that the country is a regional safe haven for diasporic peoples. Experiences of ridicule, prejudice, and racism are not uncommon amongst members of the Lebanese Armenian community, an unfortunate reality demonstrating that genuine inclusion expands beyond simply political or economic boundaries. As long as the community is painted as possessing some abstract notion of “otherness,” Lebanese society will fail to rightly recognise Lebanese Armenians as dedicated, authentic members of the greater community. Given the abundant political and economic contributions by Lebanese Armenians to their new country, the group deserves no less than full-fledged recognition as integral members of the greater Lebanese population.
Despite – and perhaps because of – their hardships, the story of Lebanese Armenians is not characterized by submission in the midst of crisis. It is a story of stubborn persistence, patience, and prospect in the depths of unimaginable calamity. Ever-present racism and societal adversity have not hindered the fight for survival and acceptance in this pivotal community of the Armenian diaspora. In the aftermath of Beirut’s deadly explosion on 4 August 2020, diligent Lebanese Armenians have taken to the streets to repair the country’s sole metropolis. The efforts of 18 year-old Levon Kalaydjian, who organised interested and able-bodied volunteers into a WhatsApp group, deserve recognition. Kalaydijan and his team of 130 volunteers have helped restore more than 50 residential buildings, shops, and schools in Armenian neighbourhoods of the city. The Lebanese Armenian cohort says that they are willing to do whatever is necessary to repair their home – a bold statement signifying the dedication and patriotism of Lebanese Armenians to their country.
Even though the political, economic, and cultural contributions of Lebanese Armenians have all too often been underappreciated, evidence does suggest that greater Lebanese society is slowly starting to appreciate and value Lebanese Armenians as rightful members of the country. Significantly, this transition towards genuine acceptance has largely been spearheaded by members of the Lebanese Armenian community themselves. Notably, students at The American University of Beirut (AUB) have established the Lebanese Armenian Heritage Club of AUB – an organisation whose mission statement is to promote Armenian culture to the AUB community and Lebanese public at large. The club organises cultural and social events which provide insight into Armenian history, arts, academic contributions, and more. Club leader Narod Seroujian says that the club is united by a passion ‘to promote our culture because of the emotional satisfaction it brings us when we see others become interested.’
This enthusiasm for sharing and promoting Armenian culture appears time and time again when studying the history of Lebanese Armenians. From Bourj Hammoud’s annual Badguer festival, to restorative efforts aimed at the desecrated – yet inexplicably sacred -Armenian enclaves of Beirut, to student activism, the Lebanese Armenian population continuously seems to exist publicly and extend its rich history and culture to the people of Lebanon. This is a country in which Armenians persist and even thrive as some of the most highly respected entrepreneurs, merchants, artists, politicians, and community members. However, full societal inclusion hinges upon broad societal acceptance – expanding well beyond mere political and economic inclusion. One can only hope that the plights of racism and prejudice, which exclude Lebanese Armenians from rightful and complete inclusion, will dissipate as members of the Lebanese Armenian community continue to fearlessly represent their cultural heritage and unapologetically thrive in Lebanon.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.