Photos by Roland Ragi
Bourj Hammoud first started out as a camp when survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide arrived to Lebanon and created shacks on the wasteland to the east of the Beirut river. Over the years, however, it’s evolved into a city on the edge of a city; hidden within its narrow maze-like streets – named after Armenian cities – are the workshops of craftsmen, cultural centers, shops, food markets and restaurants. With Beirut Central District’s post civil war transformation into an exclusive center for the elite, the humble Downtown of the past with its hustle and bustle has essentially been relocated to Bourj Hammoud.
Arpi Mangassarian is head of the Technical and Urban Planning Office of Bourj Hammoud Municipality and is behind the cultural center and restaurant, Badgeur (01 240214, Pink Building, Der Melkonian Street) that has become a hub for the Armenian community. She’s an advocate for preserving the heritage of Armenian culture and reviving its traditions. “[Armenians] transformed Bourj Hammoud over three decades from a camp into a city with all the capacities and facilities. The unique thing about this area is that it’s compact with a mix of functions. It’s very dynamic. We are in the capital not on the boundary; we became part of Beirut.”
The area first flourished with leather and fabric craftsmen and sellers, but later, during the civil war, Armenian jewel traders and craftsmen who had previously been based in downtown Beirut migrated to Bourj Hammoud and thus the sector developed. “Bourj Hammoud has transformed into an artisanal hub where all the craftsmen are based,” Mangassarian says. “With the spread of globalization and Chinese-made products, the craftsmen are struggling but they still continue. You can find hundreds of workshops nestled everywhere. This is what makes the charm and vitality of Bourj Hammoud.”
The Leather Craftsman
An unassuming building on a backstreet in Bourj Hammoud is where 76-year-old master leather craftsman, Garo Panoukian, lives and works. Sunlight sneaks through the barred window from the street, lighting up Panoukian’s work desk; the space is piled high with the evidence of a 60-year-long career, from rolls of different leathers – frog, lizard, crocodile and cow – to ancient machines and tools. “The real craft used to be in Downtown but with the war everything moved here,” he says. “Now people come from everywhere to Bourj Hammoud to trade.” Panoukian, whose clients have included the Phoenicia Hotel and the boutiques of Downtown’s former Souq al-Tawileh, makes everything from Dupont lighter covers to wallets and menu covers. “Before the war, whatever leather items you found in the market were mine,” he says proudly. “These days people buy cheap Chinese-made belts and wallets without knowing that they’re not leather,” he says showing a cheap-looking wallet, which he rips apart from inside with ease. “Recently my nephew brought me a wallet to see if I could repair it. I asked him if he knew how old it was. In fact, I’d made it for his friend 20 years earlier.”
The Fish Seller
Spend a lot of time in Bourj Hammoud and you’ll no doubt run into Ghassan Selehdar, wearing a fishing hat and clutching on to two woven baskets of fish. The 68-year-old from Tripoli comes to the area to sell fish caught in the northern city’s Mina every Wednesday and Saturday. Selling fish since 1963, he has by now become a part of Bourj Hammoud’s landscape. “I love the freedom of fishing,” he grins.
The Brass Monger
On a street parallel to Der Melkonian is located the brass workshop Ets N.H. Eskidjian. First established in 1948, Noubar Eskidjian joined the family business in 1993. Eskidjian is the ghost brass monger whose work ends up all over the world. Inside his workshop are some of his finished products and casts scattered across the worktables, from brass souvenirs and mini army tanks for the Hezbollah museum, Mleeta, to piles of intricate door handles and wax headphone casts for an art exhibition.
The Pipe Maker
On the second floor of an undistinguished building is the workshop of jeweler and diamond setter Peter Khatcherian. Starting his training in interior design, Khatcherian’s daily journey over the border between East and West Beirut to the country’s only interior design school became too challenging during the war, so he retrained as a jeweler. He’s worked within the industry for 36 years, creating custom-made jewelry. Growing up in a “house full of smoke”, Khatcherian inherited the hobby of smoking pipes from his father and is a member of the Pipe Club of Lebanon (pipecluboflebanon.org). After smoking pipes for over 30 years, he decided to experiment making one himself. He now creates pipes on commission. Khatcherian, who grew up in the area, is every bit the Bourj Hammoud native. “I like it because we are used to it,” he says sucking on one of his own wooden pipe creations, and puffing out a cloud of smoke. “Here you can find everything you want. And… you hear every piece of news in Bourj Hammoud before it reaches CNN.”
Building 2, 2nd floor
Ask anyone in Bourj Hammoud where to get the best lahme b‘ajine and they’ll point you to Ghazar Bakery. Founded in 1960 by Ghazar Ghazarian, the furn’s original meat breads, cooked in a special old-style stone oven, have been a staple snack of locals for decades. Every day the family-run bakery has a long line of loyal customers who queue in line for the delicacy.
78 year-old Noubar Der Kevorkyan has been a tailor for the last 65 years, starting out as an apprentice for his uncle. He worked in West Beirut on Mar Elias Street from 1958-75 before the war brought him to Bourj Hammoud. He sits behind an ancient-looking Singer sewing machine from where he makes suits to order; behind him his handmade suits hang from a rail. “Bourj Hammoud is a calm area. I like it,” he says. Though his three children have long tried to convince him to move to Europe, Bourj Hammoud is where he’ll remain. “I was born here. I love it here and I want to stay,” he says, matter-of-factly.
Opposite Patisserie Sarkis
The Head Cook
Khodor Hamadi used to help in his father’s legendary sheep head restaurant next to the Lebanese Parliament before they moved to Bourj Hammoud with the advent of the civil war. In 2002 he opened Nifa House and he counts famous Arab pop singers and ministers among his regular customers who come for his sheep heads and cow cheeks. “It’s completely natural. The secret is I steam the sheep’s head for 5-6 hours with no spices or salt,” Hamadi says from over his small counter. On cue, a smart car pulls up outside and the well-dressed former-minister Edmond Risk comes inside and pulls up a seat to settle down at the restaurant’s one plastic table.
Mar Yousef Street
Facing the dominating concrete Yerevan Bridge that passes over the edge of Bourj Hammoud is The Vintage Shop owned by brothers Avedis and Krekor Der Boghassian. Once working as tailors, the brothers, who have collected vintage items all their lives, eventually decided to turn their passion into a business. “My family all became tailors,” he says. “I quit the tailor business 6 months ago. When you’ve been an employee for 16 years you become a horse, not a horse rider. There comes a time when you have to find yourself, and I found myself in junk.”
Yerevan Bridge Street
The Meat Chief
Located on the main Armenia Street, Basterma Mano has been serving up the Armenian staples basterma (air-dried cured beef) and soujouk (spicy beef sausage) for almost 50 years. Its neon sign acts as a beacon by night drawing in scores of customers for their fast-food fix.
01 268 560
The Record Dealer
A local legend in Bourj Hammoud, the music-lover known as “King” opened his humble music and DVD shop in ’77 and has built a loyal customer base since. A big progressive rock fan, you can often find King sat around piles of vinyl, from Arabic 45s to rock and jazz lps, with a group of friends watching a live concert DVD, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. “It started as a hobby and became a job,” King says. “As for Bourj Hammoud, I like it. I’m used to it.”