Photos by Roland Ragi
A wide tree-lined road cuts through the middle of Anjar, leading to the Armenian Apostolic St. Paul Church in the midst of a luscious green garden and neatly trimmed hedges. The only sound in the village is the songs of birds, as the sun shines down relentlessly from a clear blue sky. With its well-kept houses, neat gardens and pristine cars parked outside, this could well be suburban California, though the idyllic bubble of Anjar in the heart of the Bekaa Valley lies only 3km from the Syrian border.
The village, also known as Haoush Mousa, is almost entirely populated by Armenians who arrived as refugees in 1939 from Musa Dagh (Musa Ler in Armenian). But as one of the sites of the Armenian resistance, the region’s history isn’t one marked by sadness. When the Ottoman Turkish forces came to deport Armenians from six villages – after which Anjar’s six districts are named – they fled to the highest mountain and fought back in a battle that lasted 45 days, until they were rescued by French battleships. After four years in Port Said, they returned to their homeland, finding their villages destroyed, and stayed until 1939 when a French-Turkish treaty gave the area over to the Turks. They then began to leave, reaching Lebanon’s Anjar via Syria.
“Welcome to Anjar”, says Vanig Apelian, a volunteer for the Tashnag Party, the main Armenian political party in Lebanon, as she gets out of her 4×4. “It’s very calm here. I couldn’t live in Beirut”, she says, leading the way through the memorial monument, where the ashes of 18 martyrs of the resistance are kept. “Unlike most Armenians here, my father came from Kessab. He studied at the village boarding school in Anjar and stayed. I’ve been to Western Armenia. It’s such a beautiful region, but it’s so sad to go back and see the churches which have been turned into stables for farm animals.” Apelian’s father, George James Apelian, was a renowned author. His novels, which have been published in numerous languages, tell the stories of Armenian families separated during the genocide and the culture of the Armenian people.
Anjar has three churches and schools, Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox. Next to the village’s Catholic school a nun sits in a garden, transfixed on a piece of embroidery she’s working on. Another nun, Sister Theopiste Marie Bedrossian joins, stopping in front of a tree in full blossom. “Look at these flowers. Aren’t they beautiful?” she says. The 81-year-old was just five years old when she made the journey to Anjar from Musa Dagh with her family. “There was nothing here. Not one green tree. The Anjar of the 2000s is the result of the good will of the Armenians”, she says, sitting down in a stark lounge, a wooden cross hanging from its walls. Sister Theopiste has had an illustrative career serving the church around the world. “I became a nun in my 20s because I wanted to stop people suffering”, she says. She’s worked in Rome, Tehran, Manhattan and Sao Paolo, spent 15 years as a principal at the Armenian Hripsimyants Catholic school in Fanar, Beirut, and helped Armenians after the earthquake of ‘88. “Azanor wrote a song about it ‘Pour toi Armenie’ (For you Armenia)”, she says. She returned to Anjar in 2012 to become the principal of the village’s Catholic school, which was at risk of closing.
She’s an educated woman who despite her 81 years has an active mind. Her voice sparks with enthusiasm on the subject of poetry. “It’s the expression of the soul, the heart of the human being”, she says, sharing her love of Shakespeare and Dante. “We hope Turkey will recognize the genocide of Armenia. They have to make justice”, she says.
“She’s an amazing woman with so many stories,” Apelian says, getting back into the car. We pass one of the few remaining original houses that the French built – a basic concrete structure with one bathroom and one living room. Outside in the overgrown garden, an old stone wheat press still stands. Nearby, a graffiti tag that can be seen all over the village stands as a reminder, “Turkey guilty of genocide”. We speed through the small village reaching its perimeter, surrounded by orchards of fruit trees from which, along with other agriculture, the village’s main economy rests on. We slow down to take in the two grand hotels of the village, “We used to get lots of tourists from Syria. But these days there are not many”, Apelian says.
Later at the City Hall, Garo Pamboukian, Anjar’s mayor, points to an old black and white photograph on the wall of his office, showing the village’s first Municipal Council in the 1940s. A group of suited men stare seriously into the camera; one man takes a James Dean pose with a cigarette hanging from his lip. “A friend of mine, the grandchild of Noubar Boghigian came to visit from the United States. His grandfather used to man the semi-automatic phone lines. At the exact moment we were looking at the photograph of his grandfather, he passed away in the US”, he says. Pamboukian sits behind a huge desk in a casual suit with an almost regal salt and pepper moustache. He draws on a cigarette and breathes out a cloud of smoke which lingers in the air above. He flicks through some old black and white photographs on his laptop, showing a blanket of white tents across a barren landscape from when the Armenian refugees first settled in Anjar. The hill they chose to settle on turned out to hide Anjar’s ancient ruins below.
“My grandfather participated in the resistance of Musa Dagh. Thank God he survived”, Pamboukian says. “The Armenians refused to leave their motherland, they resisted for 45 days. That’s the difference between us and other Armenians. We were not massacred. We had heroes who resisted”. He talks of the swamps and wetlands when they first arrived, resulting in the deaths of 950 people from malaria and typhoid. “When our relatives came to Anjar in 1939 the climate was tough. At that time there were only 3000 trees, now 75 years later we have more than seven million trees and plants. That is the character of the Armenians”.
Besides joining in the 100-year commemoration since the genocide, in Anjar they also have their own celebration every 15 September, to mark the resistance of Musa Dagh. These days the population of Anjar faces a crisis of a different kind. With its close proximity to the Syrian border, the effects of the war have been clearly felt. At the main gate to Lebanon from Syria, 1000s of refugees fleeing the regime have passed through Anjar. We have around 3000 Syrian refugees close by, while Armenian refugees have settled in Anjar from all regions of Syria. “The Syrian crisis has had a big effect on our economy. Before we had tourists, now we have zero. There are no work opportunities for our youth”, he says.
Despite the community’s ongoing difficulties, the defiant nature of Anjar’s population remains. “We are here and we will stay here. We have our history, our culture, our character. If we have any crisis, do we go? No,” he says his arms moving animatedly. “There’s an expression we say; a tribute to the resistance. ‘We are still standing on the mountain, awaiting our enemy.’ We don’t know which kind of enemy”, he laughs, “because we have many enemies. But we are waiting”.
Later in a peaceful residential area of Anjar, we reach the house of Sarkis Aintablian. He sits on the edge of the sofa, clutching prayer beads. Born in Musa Dagh, Aintablian was six years old when he left to Anjar. “When we first came here we had nothing – no belongings, no land”, he says. His parents started growing vegetables, which Aintablian continues to this day. “I work a lot. I enjoy working and Anjar is very dear to me. We’re close to each other here. We’ve stayed as Armenians”.
Nearby is the well-furnished home of Jaqueline and Levon Chamasian, with a beautiful view over Anjar, the snow-topped mountains behind Zahle visible in the distance. 92-year-old Levon spent 35 years working for Iraq Petroleum and returned to Anjar upon retiring. His father was a comb maker – one of the original handicrafts the first Armenians in Anjar took up in the ‘40s. “We didn’t want to live under the Turks so in 1939 we left. There was nothing. Anjar didn’t exist”, he says. “Little by little we turned this desert into a paradise”.
“My first wife was killed by a cannon shell in the war, so I found myself another angel,” he says looking over to his wife, a Beirut-born Armenian. “You see how beautiful and peaceful it is here”? Levon continues. “We have the most beautiful scenery and a strong community spirit”. He speaks of the recent rumors that Da‘ish would come to Anjar and the 3000 people who gathered from the village and Beirut to defend them. “After that they never came”, he says, before dictating a poem by French poet Malherbe, which he’s remembered almost 80 years since his school days.
Later on, as the sun begins to drop over the village’s impressive ruins – the Umayyad City of Anjar, built in the 8th century as a summer resort – the long shadows seem to highlight its emptiness. Only one couple wanders around. Nevertheless, Shams, the city’s main restaurant, is almost full with people smoking narguileh and enjoying huge spreads of Armenian and Lebanese mezze. Serge Maloukian, a young waiter in the restaurant, arrived to Anjar three years ago from Kassab. His father was born in Anjar and his mother is from the Syrian port city, Latakia. “We have a small restaurant in Kassab, but with the war it’s not working anymore”, he says. “I studied travel and tourism but came here because there is no work in Syria”.
The stories of the people of Anjar are a reminder of the Armenian community’s resilience. A banner that hangs outside the entrance of Anjar’s ruins with a quote by the Armenian-American author William Saroyan certainly rings true: “Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.”