Bourj Hammoud municipality square. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.For Armenians around the world, 24 April is a day of sorrow and reflection. On this day in 1915, Ottoman Turks began a systematic campaign of extermination and displacement of ethnic Armenians. Hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered or evicted from their homes and forced to take on an arduous journey through the Syrian desert, where death awaited. The tragic events have been referred to as the Armenian Genocide.
But 24 April 2018 was like no other. For Karnig Asfahani, a 25-year old teacher in an Armenian school in Lebanon, for the first time in his life the day was full of hope and joy. The day before, Serzh Sargsyan, Armenia’s long-time ruler, resigned from his post as prime minister under pressure from mass demonstrations on Yerevan’s streets. Soon after, Nikol Pashinyan, a former journalist and charismatic protest leader, was tasked with forming a new government that would manage Armenia’s affairs prior to fresh elections.
“It was the first time in 103 years that we felt that it’s not the time to cry and mourn, but to think about the future,” said Karnig Asfahani sitting in a café in eastern Beirut. “It’s time to stand up and heal the trauma.”
Armenians, both at home and the diaspora, which is said to house eight out of 11 million Armenians in the world today, saw the “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia as a triumph of the will of the people and hope for their country’s remaking, free from the corruption and cronyism of the old regime.
In his first days in power, Nikol Pashinyan promised that he would make renewing ties with the diaspora a priority. Diaspora Minister Mkhitar Hayrapetyan proposed creating a chamber of parliament composed of diaspora representatives to engage the Armenian community outside of Armenia. While it is yet unclear if this idea will materialise, many remain hopeful.
But for Karnig Asfahani and many of his friends the hopes have been double. They are not only anxious to see change in their remote motherland of Armenia; they also hope that Armenia’s democratic surge will spill over to their home communities in Lebanon.
A unique diaspora
It is estimated that around 1.5 million Armenians perished in the 1915 genocide. Some were murdered, while others did not survive the death march through the Syrian desert. The genocide has defined generations of Armenians around the world, leaving a lasting scar on the nation’s identity. Even today, with a sovereign state of their own, Armenians are continuously haunted by the past trauma, as Turkey has failed to accept the blame for the genocide.
The “Karabagh shop”, Bourj Hammoud. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.Out of those who survived, thousands managed to find a safe haven in Lebanon, which had given shelter to earlier generations of Armenians. First, in the end of the 17th century, Armenian Catholics settled in areas north of Beirut, and then in 1894 mainly Orthodox Armenians arrived in the country fleeing Ottoman violence – a prelude to the genocide. Following the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which left Armenians without a state of their own, former Ottoman territories, such as Lebanon, were instructed to grant them citizenship.
In Lebanon, Armenians flourished and soon became known as reliable merchants and skilled artisans. They easily integrated in the multicultural landscape of the country, becoming one of its seven major communities. Unlike the rest of the groups forming the Lebanese nation, however, Armenians were the only ethnic minority involved in power sharing, next to Christian Maronites, Sunni, Shia, Druze and other religious sects.
Today, Armenians hold six seats in the country’s 128-member legislature, as the system grants proportional representation to its constitutive groups.
The rules of the game
“The Lebanese confessional system has given the various sects a level of autonomy to run their internal affairs, which gave the Armenians in Lebanon the ability to build, strengthen and develop institutions that are similar to a state within a state,” explains Asbed Kotchikian, professor of politics and international relations at Bentley University.
Thus, although the Armenian community is well integrated into the Lebanese system, it also has a life of its own, speaking its own language alongside Arabic, reading its own press and organising itself via social and cultural institutions.
This system has also created a strong relationship between the Armenian people and their political representatives. ARF Dashnaktsutyun party, or Tashnag, which also operates in Armenia, is the most important one. Founded in 1890 in Tbilisi, the party has been active in Armenian diaspora circles, most notably in Lebanon, where it has operated since the 1920s. In a standard patron-client manner, the party has positioned itself as the sole protector of Armenians’ rights.
“The Tashnag party, like other sectarian parties and regional bosses in the country, encourages Armenians to think of themselves as clients who should be thankful to the party”
“It comes down to the Lebanese sectarian system; religious differences blind your class consciousness and you’re more like a client,” explains Ara Sanjian, the director of Armenian research center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “The Tashnag party, like other sectarian parties and regional bosses in the country, encourages Armenians to think of themselves as clients who should be thankful to the party.”
Sanjian also notes that within the core of Lebanon' Armenian community, people do not think that being in the national parliament makes much of the difference in their daily lives and concerns as a community. Lebanese politics and common national issues have usually been of little interest to Armenians when it comes to choosing their political affiliations and how they vote.
“The parties have been controlling everything, the schools, and the church and the municipality in Bourj Hammoud [traditional Armenian district in Beirut]”, said Nared Aprahamian, a retired Lebanese Army general and the founder of the secular Free Lebanese Armenian Movement.
“Turkey guilty of genocide” written on a wall in Bourj Hammoud, Beirut. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.“All Armenian parties are corrupt. There is no democracy within their structures,” he continued. “If someone wants to be free from the traditional control, they say that this is against the people who sacrificed themselves for Armenia, killed by the Turks.”
The Turks remain an important group defining today’s Armenian identity in Lebanon. Last month, Armenians won an all-Lebanese basketball tournament. During the last match against the team close to prime minister Saad Hariri, the latter’s supporters chanted racist slogans against the Armenians and waved Turkish flags (Armenian fans, in response, paraded with the flags of Hezbollah – the long-time adversaries of Saad Hariri’s party). After the victorious match, the Armenian district of Bourj Hammoud lit up with the flames of burning Turkish flags. “It is still the main thing to burn a Turkish flag,” Asfahani says.
To break Lebanese Armenians’ political inertia and express solidarity with people on Yerevan’s streets, both Nared Aprahamian and Karnig Asfahani joined a protest at the Armenian Embassy in Beirut on 22 April, where close to one hundred people gathered to demand change in Armenia. During this time, the Lebanese diaspora political parties held their breath and silently supported the old regime, not least because Tashnag was part of the ruling coalition.
This was one of the first protests organised by Lebanese Armenian civil society. The attendance, however, was not high. “Armenian society is closed, conservative and traditional. It’s hard for them to accept new ideas,” Asfahani explains. “They fear persecution, that they could lose their jobs, or fall out of the establishment. Plus, they are not used to democratic action. Right now, the leaders make decisions and the people follow.”
A banner with Paula Yacoubian, the first Armenian woman to enter the Lebanese Parliament, Bourj Hammoud. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.In the May 2018 Lebanese parliamentary elections, Aprahamian supported Paula Yacoubian – a half-Armenian, half-Lebanese former TV star who entered the election from the civil society movement list – a new secular political force in the country. Yacoubian was the only candidate from the movement to receive a seat, becoming the first Armenian woman to enter the parliament and a role model for progressive Lebanese youth.
Yacoubian was also the first member of the Armenian diaspora in Lebanon to congratulate Nikol Pashinyan’s new government. In the end, after two of its members received posts in the newly formed government, the Tashang party also ended up endorsing the new rulers. A move which has been seen by many as hypocritical and opportunistic.
“As a diaspora, we should change our mentality, the way we look at Armenia and our community,” Asfahani said bitterly. “I hope that the changes in Armenia will also inspire the diaspora. And I know we can change what is going on here.”
More of the same
Harout, 64, has been running a music shop in eastern Beirut since 1977. Surrounded by CDs and cassettes that no one buys, he explains the ins and outs of the Lebanese political system.
“If you want something from the government, you have to ask your party to help you. When the time comes and the government gives you everything: water, electricity and phone without begging, you will no longer need the parties,” Harut said with serene acceptance.
Armenian flag next to an Armenian jewellery shop in Bourj Hammoud. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.“But I don’t think it’s going to happen soon. Paula Yacoubian does not represent anyone. She is the only one in a 128-people parliament. The power rests with groups.”
Harut admits he votes for the Tashnag party, although he acknowledges that he is not entirely happy with his local representative and the leadership. He is deeply skeptical of the possibility for changes in Armenia to inspire reform in the diaspora. “From my father and grandfather, we’ve been part of this party, even my son, my daughter – they are party members. It’s not easy to change the mentality,” he explains. “The party represents me.”
Ara Sanjian shares Harout’s skepticism. “I would like to see a livelier scene among the Armenians, but I don’t see any direct connection between what is happening in Armenia affecting the events abroad,” he said.
“This idea that we should not criticise what is going on in Armenia is very deep, we should avoid controversy and in that sense a lot of people were not following the problems”
Sanjian also stresses that over the years, the Armenian diaspora in Lebanon has remained largely uninformed of the problems and struggles in Armenia. Positive news dominated the Lebanese Armenian press and therefore, people have developed a romanticised view of their homeland.
“This idea that we should not criticise what is going on in Armenia is very deep, we should avoid controversy and in that sense a lot of people were not following the problems,” Sanjian says. “About a billion dollars were siphoned from the Armenian economy by illegal means into offshore accounts in the past ten years. This information emanating from international organisations monitoring corruption never came up in the diasporan Armenian press. What the Freedom House said, what Transparency International said about Armenia in the past few years – this was never reported in Lebanon.”
What is certain is that Lebanese Armenians, just like the rest of the world, will now be carefully watching the developments in their faraway home. But so far, Turkish flags will keep burning in Bourj Hammoud.