Friday, December 10, 2010

Beirut: Walking in Bourj Hammoud

Whenever I visit Lebanon, I always reserve a day to visit Beirut’s Armenian suburb, Bourj Hammoud. It always turns into an exciting day of endless walking. And I have no one better to escort me there than my friend Zepure Hamparian Mansour.

Zepure, my sister Asma and I set off from Hamra at around 10 a.m. and tried to catch a share taxi (known as serveess) for the journey to Bourj Hammoud. The neighborhood is just off the Autostrade (highway) and is surrounded by the Dora, Quarantina, Sin el-Fil and Ashrafieh districts. For LL 10,000 ($6.67), we had the share taxi to us.

As soon as the driver saw me pull out my little digital camera, he went to explain all the areas we were passing through. He even stopped traffic on the bridge to Bourj Hammoud so I could take pictures of the signpost at the entrance of the northeastern suburb that covers an area of about one square mile.

Bourj Hammoud is colorful and vibrant and a shopping magnet to boot.  A center for crafts and ateliers, it is renowned for its artisanship and jewelry, leather, garments, shoes and mechanical handiworks... It is also the place par excellence for savoring Armenian cuisine.

It is said that this industrious area, where most survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide settled, is one of the most densely populated spots in the Middle East. The Armenians who arrived in Beirut in the early 1900s were given the right to put up shacks in what was then a swamp. They were then allowed to erect buildings and houses.

Bourj Hammoud became an independent municipality in 1952 and is now member of the Metn-North group of local authorities.

Many of the houses have wooden balconies
Unless familiar with the area, it is easy to get lost in the many little streets, lined with two-storied houses, some of them dating back to the 1930s, with the shops at street level. Many of the houses have wooden balconies hanging over the narrow streets. There are also abundant churches, schools, cultural centers and institutions in Bourj Hammoud to complete the dynamism and industriousness of the suburb.

To catch this dynamism, you might wish to walk around with us by looking at the pictures (here) while listening to tunes created by famous Armenian musician and composer Djivan Gasparyan (here). He is the master of the duduk, the traditional double reed woodwind instrument, traditionally made from apricot wood.

The pupils from Karasoun Manoug in Municipality Square
We took leave from our friendly serveess driver and headed to thecentral square or Municipality Park, to be greeted by a group of kindergarten and elementary pupils rehearsing for Independence Day celebrations. They were from the Forty Martyrs Armenian National School (Karasoun Manoug) and had made banners printed with their hands to celebrate “a good future for Lebanon.” A policeman monitoring the children’s activities stopped the traffic for me to take pictures.

Hovig preparing our tahin hatz
We then headed to Hovig bakery in time for some tahin hatz or koubiz tahini – special bread traditionally eaten during Lent because it has no olive or vegetable oil, just sugar, sesame seed oil and dough. Hovig’s tahin hatz are so popular that by 11 a.m. there is none left.
Other items on sale at Geka
Next stop, through the winding narrow streets, was Geka, one of the best-stocked music shops in Bourj Hammoud. Carole greeted us there and advised us on the latest and the best buys – which meant we walked out carrying a few CDs each.

With Mher Krikorian
Meantime, I had called one of my friends on Twitter, Mher Krikorian, who works in Bourj Hammoud. Mher kindly took some time off work to join us.

Visiting our friend Ani Bodroumian, the owner of Yerevan stores was next. All Ani’s goods are imported from Armenia and it is always interesting to hear her explain the origin, history and mythology of the various items.

Pomegranates in all shapes and sizes at Yerevan
Most prominent in Armenian handicrafts is the pomegranate, in all shapes and sizes. The story goes that during the 1915 Armenian Genocide and exodus, the only food mothers had available to feed their babies was pomegranates. Those marching could also count the days with the pomegranate seeds. It is said that each fruit, however big or small, contains 365 seeds! “For the Armenians, pomegranates mean life and survival,” Ani explained. And so, the pomegranate has been adopted as a symbol for Armenians.

I observed items made of a black stone with the wonder of a child. Ani said it was obsidian, a semi-precious stone largely found in Armenia, a country rich in high-grade and semi-precious and precious stones. Among them: obsidian, amethyst, andesine, andelusite, emerald, garnet, beryl, turquoise, several grades of quartz, carnelian, aquamarine, lapis lazuli and diamonds.

Katchkars carved in wood and obsidian
Relics made of obsidian are typically Armenian and can be found in churches and cemeteries. Indeed, Yerevan store has a good selection of Katchkar crosses made in the black stone. This Armenian cross has two triple loops on each arm of the cross. It rarely has a crucifix but rather a rosette or a solar disc below it and the remainder is filled with patterns of leaves, grapes, pomegranates or abstracts.

A few days later, I read that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the Armenian Katchkar (cross stone) an intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding. Armenia’s application traces the history of the Katchkar and its spiritual role, detailing its roots and development through the centuries and into modern times. The report, titled “Armenian Cross-Stones Art: Symbolism and Craftsmanship of Katchkars,” can be found on the UNESCO website here.

The Armenian alphabet or Mesrob-Mashtotz
While admiring a tablet with characters on it, Ani said that this was the Mesrob-Mashtotz, or the Armenian alphabet bearing the name of its inventor. She explained how, in the year 301 (some historians say 314), King Tiridates proclaimed Christianity as a sole religion throughout all Armenian lands. Thus, Armenia became the first Christian State in world history. It is following this event that Mesrob-Mashtotz, revered by the Armenian Church as St. Mesrob, was assigned the task of inventing the alphabet.

Mesrob determined that 36 characters were needed and decided to write the characters from left to right as in Greek. According to tradition, while meditating in a cave near the village of Palu, the saint had a vision in which “the hand of God wrote the alphabet in letters of fire.” The original set of characters is still used today.

Other imported items at Yerevan are the different spirits produced in Armenia, like Cognac, wine and vodka. The famous Mane Cognac, from the Prochian region, is produced in a joint venture with the French who are training locals over 10 years. The wine also comes from Prochian. Ani Bodroumian says there are 38 types of grape and fruit wines, including pomegranate, plum, apricot and apple. Armenian vodka also comes in different tastes from traditional to fruity with lemon, apricot, pomegranate and the most famous, blueberry vodka.

Shawarma and basterma at Bedo
But it was all too soon time to move on from Yerevan and building up an appetite after passing the famous Bedo and Mano snacks. Both are reputed for their soujouk (spicy sausages) and basterma (a seasoned, air-dried cured beef). Mano, in business since 1961, is highly regarded in Lebanon.

Asma and Zepure with Nercess
We then walked along Arax Street, named after the river flowing in and along Turkey, Armenia, Iran and Azerbaijan. We were trying to find Nercess for some grocery shopping and items found only in Bourj Hammoud. Nercess imports his goods from Armenia and Aleppo and is well known, among many other things, for his cheese, dried fruit and cherry (fishneh) jam. Of course, we got lost several times by taking the wrong turn, but were going in and out of little shops, among them Crochet Saro. By coincidence, we passed Forty Martyrs Armenian National School, before reaching grocers’ street. Both Zepure and Asma shopped while I took photos.

Apo preparing the kefta sandwiches
It was finally time for some lunch! We headed to Restaurant Apo, another of Bourj Hammoud’s famed eateries. Apo serves the best kebabs or kefta in town. We were finally able to sit down and enjoy the delicious sandwiches with some French fries and a cold beer while sitting in the sun across the street from Apo’s.

Five hours later, we were on our way back home. Our backs and legs were sore the next day, but it was worth it.