Beirut: Tearing down Lebanese stereotypes of the ‘Armenian ghetto’

The Daily Star, Lebanon
April 5 2004

Tearing down Lebanese stereotypes of the ‘Armenian ghetto’

Special to The Daily Star
By Houry Mayissian

The discussion revolved around elections in Lebanon. Although the
title of the course was “International Communication,” our professor
never stuck by the book, always trying to stir up discussions on a
broad range of issues relevant to the course. I don’t exactly
remember what point he was trying to make, but he certainly made a
point for me. Turning to one of the students he asked: “Who doesn’t
have the right to vote in Lebanon?” The student looked confused for a
second and then, not so sure of herself, “Armenians?” she said. The
answer the professor was looking for was of course “citizens under

At first I thought her answer was just funny; insulting to a certain
extent, but also funny, because the young lady was a university
student and particularly a journalism student. Then, it struck me. Is
it possible that we’ve been citizens of this country for almost a
century now and yet people know so little about us?

Well, it seems that it is possible. The Lebanese not only know so
little about their fellow Armenian citizens living here, but also the
things they know are solely based on stereotypes. Two main
stereotypes particularly revolve around the Armenians living in
Lebanon: Armenians don’t know how to speak Arabic and the Armenians
live in a ghetto in Bourj Hammoud.

These are the two lenses through which the Armenians are most often
viewed. They are often blamed for living too close with each other,
holding each other too tight. They are even made fun of, supposedly,
because they don’t know how to speak Arabic well or have a funny
accent. While I do acknowledge that there are some elements of truth
in these images, it must be said that they are overly exaggerated and
often insulting.

It is true that most elderly Armenians don’t know Arabic well.

It would be much wiser, however, to try to understand the reason
behind it, rather than use it as a means to mock Armenians. Most of
these Armenians constitute the first generation born after the
survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915 hit the region. Most of
these survivors were orphans when they got here; poor, with no money,
clothes, home or family. Gradually, they started building – building
houses, schools, churches, cultural organizations, gathering places,
sports’ groups, and newspapers: In other words, building a home. The
Armenian community came to be settled mostly in two major areas,
Bourj Hammoud and Anjar, which are to this day mostly inhabited by
Armenians. In these two areas the Armenians established tightly held
communities, in which the coming generation grew up surrounded by
everything that is Armenian. The kids went to Armenian schools, the
youth gathered in clubs, the neighbor was an Armenian family, the
shopkeeper was Armenian.

Taking into consideration the Armenian genocide, the loss of family,
friends and home which had a psychological

impact on these survivors, it wouldn’t be surprising that they held
so tightly to each other, helped each other out and stood by each
other. Their fear of a foreign land, foreign people and foreign
language made them stick to each other and to the community. They
seldom went outside of its borders. Perhaps, they didn’t even need

This is the reason behind the elder Armenians not knowing Arabic
well. This is how the tightness of the Armenian community should be
interpreted instead of being classified as a ghetto.

The younger Armenian generations are past the problem of not knowing
Arabic well. Despite that, the stereotype, sadly, still prevails.
Even as a university student, I’ve had people asking me if I can read
or write Arabic!

Perhaps the media in Lebanon are to a certain degree responsible for
this image, or to be more accurate, responsible for not changing this
image. I remember that a few years ago a certain TV station had a
special talk show on the occasion of the Armenian genocide. The
featured guests were from the Armenian community. The show started
with a discussion about the historical causes of the Armenian
genocide, and its impact. Later, however, the host somehow segued
into asking questions about the “Armenian ghetto.” About why
Armenians allegedly preferred to shop from Armenians and a couple of
other outrageous questions. I, as an Armenian, was deeply offended to
hear a program supposedly dedicated to the Armenian genocide and
meant to be a gesture of compassion or support towards the Armenian
citizens of Lebanon, which was turned into an interrogation about the
so-called ghetto. It was not only rude, but also insulting.

I believe that as long serving and faithful citizens of this country
we deserve more respectful treatment from our fellow citizens.

Houry Mayissian is a journalism student at the Lebanese American