Fighting to preserve Armenian culture, cuisine and crafts in crisis-hit Lebanon

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In Lebanon, struggling workshops have been forced to shut down as customers are less willing to spend what little money they have on handmade crafts. For ethnic Armenian craftsmen, who are proud of their unique history and space in Lebanon, their art is a dying breed.

“I have a small shoe factory and I manufacture shoes for designers,” Raffi Pamboukian told Al Arabiya English.
Pamboukian, who has been in the business nearly 10 years, took over his father’s business.

“When I was young, after school time, I used to come to my father’s factory and watch what the workers [were] doing. The political crisis here is very bad here now. Plus, we have the COVID-19 situation. Sometimes, you’re closing. Sometimes, you’re locked down,” he said.

Lebanon just exited another lockdown implemented to slow the spread of coronavirus, and such lockdowns can have devastating effects on those who cannot afford not to work, like many in the Armenian traditional crafts community.

A year-long economic crisis in Lebanon has been exacerbated by the novel coronavirus.

The small community in Lebanon is at risk of vanishing, and anti-government protests, ongoing financial troubles and the widespread destruction caused by the August 4 Beirut port explosion have meant that artisans in Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud neighborhood are now struggling more than ever.

“Legally, we do not have a definition for ‘crafts’ in Lebanon, and that means that they are not protected by the government,” explained Executive Director of NAHNOO Mohammad Ayoub. “First, there are the products coming from foreign countries which are cheaper, making them lose their market. Second, the materials that they want to buy to do what they want to do have become very expensive.”

The Badguer cultural center in Beirut, Lebanon. (Courtesy of Arpi Mangassarian)
The Badguer cultural center in Beirut, Lebanon. (Courtesy of Arpi Mangassarian)

A 2019 assessment by NAHNOO – a youth-led NGO working toward a more inclusive society through advocacy campaigns promoting good governance, public spaces and cultural heritage – recommended policies that would help revive the vanishing community.

“Some people go to the Industry Ministry, [thinking that] maybe they’ll give them some help and some protection, but most of the craftsmen don’t have the criteria to register there,” he added. “Others are registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs, and most of them are not even registered with anything. That’s why the craftsmen in Bourj Hammoud are threatened.”

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Promoting and supporting the gradually disappearing skills of Armenian traditional crafts in Lebanon, Badguer is a cultural center and cafe housed in a pink 1930s house in the Marash area of Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud quarter.

“Around 2005, I was planning to have the opportunity to create a local organization that can present the original arts and crafts and cultural heritage of the Armenian community in an interesting, vivid way,” said founder and manager Arpi Mangassarian. “In 2011, I registered an NGO under Badguer, which means ‘image.’ It is the image of the community and the neighborhood.”

The Badguer building, like many in the neighborhoods surrounding the port, was heavily damaged in the explosion.

Fight for survival

Every sector in Lebanon today is struggling, but for those that have been traditionally neglected, things are especially difficult.

“Arts and crafts businesses keep taking hard blows from the economic and public health crises in Lebanon. Restaurants and culinary activities are in a bad situation,” said Mangassarian. “Market retail and local production are victims of a disorganized, wild atmosphere where imports are not regulated. The local industries cannot withstand the competition from imported goods, and all of this has a negative impact on the community.”

Bourj Hammoud has a majority Armenian population, with most of the streets being named for various Armenian cities, mountains and rivers. Others – including Marash – are named after cities and regions in modern-day Turkey that once were heavily populated by Armenians. The municipality is home to a variety of traditional handicrafts, including woodworking, jewelry and weaving.

Supported by several different organizations and institutions – including INTERSOS, UNIDO, and NAHNOO – and dedicated to preserving Armenian traditions, Badguer frequently holds concerts, embroidery workshops and culinary experiences focusing on traditional Armenian dishes, as well as hosting exhibitions by local artists. Items produced by local artisans are also often displayed at the venue in the hope that it will expand their customer base, while also serving to educate others about Armenian handicrafts.

A general view of the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital, Beirut, on Aug. 4. (AFP)
A general view of the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital, Beirut, on Aug. 4. (AFP)

“We believe that the happiness of a community is directly related to its freedom and space for expression,” explained Mangassarian. “Badguer is a platform that inspires our fellow countrymen, both young and elderly. The elderly find the heritage and the old taste [of home]. The youth find a space for expression and communication.”

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After already being forced to slow down activities in March, due to onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown in Lebanon, Badguer suffered yet another setback when their building – along with many others across Beirut – was severely damaged during the August 4 blast.

Trouble back home

Meanwhile, hostilities between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan over the long disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region reignited in September, the worst clashes since the 1994 ceasefire, causing alarm throughout the international community. Hundreds have been killed over the last two months on both sides, including over 100 civilians.

“Armenians around the world feel that the world hasn't changed since a century ago in terms of the fate of small nations,” said Mangassarian. “Many tragedies of the past may unfortunately still be repeated in the new, civilized world, as long as the perpetrators of crimes against humanity are not brought to justice.”
With repairs to damage done completed, Mangassarian hopes she and her team can raise awareness for shops and businesses still in need. An artist-in-residency space is also being set up on the venue’s second floor.

“It is a driving force for new ways of interaction with the local communities,” she said.

Following the Armenian Genocide carried out by the Ottoman government in the aftermath of World War I, large numbers of Armenians were dispersed to other countries across the Middle East, including Lebanon.

“The community started to organize, seeking to preserve their cultural heritage and identity by living together and keeping alive the spiritual richness that they brought with them,” explained Mangassarian. “All of this was impacted by the lived experience of this historic tragedy in our motherland. However, it carried the challenge to keep creating and expressing the love of life, preservation and rebirth.

“For an Armenian, their identity and cultural heritage is a safe domain where they can feel at ease, at home in hope of a safe world,” she added. “Particularly in Lebanon, where society is a mosaic of different communities and minorities, Armenians will feel comfortable, but they are different from the others in their history, culture and aspirations.”

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