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LEBANON: Photo exhibit captures changing Armenian quarter

August 1, 2009 |  8:29 am

 

 
A rare photo exhibition and film festival explores the ups and downs of Beirut's Armenian suburb as it undergoes a transition that has the potential to either help or alienate residents who have already endured decades of marginalization.

"Badguer," which takes its name from the Armenian word for "image," opened last week with a performance from an Armenian rock band and features a number of foreign and local artists. Babylon & Beyond visited the exhibition on a recent warm evening and found a lively mix of local families and young, stylish Beirut residents. Bits of Armenian, Arabic, French and English could be heard over the strains of a young man's violin. Please watch the video above for interviews and a tour of the exhibit.

Until recently, the quaint streets of Bourj Hammoud, the bustling, mostly Armenian neighborhood just east of Beirut, were practically unknown to the well-heeled Lebanese and Persian Gulf tourists that crowd the capital’s cafes and shops in summer. 

But as Beirut’s galleries, bars and cultural spaces creep ever eastward in the search for cheaper real estate, Bourj Hammoud is emerging as a destination for its distinctive food, bootleg DVDs and fine metalwork in gold and silver.

The municipality, meanwhile, is hoping this new interest will translate into sustained support for local cultural and artistic initiatives.

Lebanon-armenian

"Badguer" is currently being staged on the grounds of an old pipe factory in the heart of Bourj Hammoud, a setting which lends itself well to the themes of memory and transformation.

Arpina Mankasarian, the chief engineer at the Bourj Hammoud Municipality and a primary organizer of the event, said it was important that the show depict the community truthfully.

“People said, ‘It’s a very good project, but it’s very sad -- you have sad pictures,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘This is the reality. Sad, and, the reality.”

Work like that of photographer Sintia Karam, who did a series of poignant portraits of the residents of Sanjak, the last Armenian refugee camp in Lebanon, raise uncomfortable questions not only for the community but also for its religious leaders and politicians. Sanjak is home to about 50 impoverished families who will be homeless when the municipality carries through on its plan to demolish the camp and build a shopping center.

"I just hope the leadership realizes how important this is and allows us to continue," Mankasarian added.

Jeanette Zamaroud, a 32-year-old homemaker who lives in Bourj Hammoud, agreed. Zamaroud, who was accompanied by her young son and daughter, said it was important for the community to be exposed to something new.

“We don’t have exhibitions like this in the neighborhood,” she said. “They should do more so that our children develop and see what is going on in the country.”

For the artists, especially those who grew up in Bourj Hammoud, participating in the exhibition was a cathartic experience.

Tamara Stepanyan's thoughtful installation "My Beiru" deals with longing and emptiness by re-creating elements of the artist's first encounter with Bourj Hammoud after emigrating from Armenia in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"It's very hard to be an Armenian from Armenia in Lebanon, especially the first years," she said. "It's my life I'm presenting here, all the pictures, all the letters, they're very personal things [...] for me it's like a treatment; I'm dealing with my past."

"It had to come out some time," she added, smiling.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Video: A report on an exhibition chronicling Lebanon's Bourj Hammoud, an Armenian district. Credit: Meris Lutz / For Babylon & Beyond

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