post archive

Lebanon


Land of Armenians

 

Lawn sign in Watertown, Massachusetts, 6/16

Last week I returned to my hometown of Watertown, Massachusetts to visit my parents, to do research for my novel in the archives of the two English-language Armenian newspapers, and to attend a board meeting of the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (otherwise known as NAASR). While skimming back issues for articles about the Lebanese Civil War, I found a small item in the Armenian-Mirror Spectator about myself: “Nancy Kricorian, a 9th-grade student at the East Junior High School in Watertown, was the winner of the recent Bicentennial Poster Contest and her poster becomes the official Town of Watertown Bicentennial Poster.” At the offices of the Armenian Weekly I fell upon an absolute treasure trove of reports about what was going in the Armenian precincts of Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.

 

My parents and I had dinner on Friday evening at the Armenian Memorial Church’s annual fair, where I saw some old family friends and classmates. On Saturday when I walked two miles from my parents’ apartment complex to NAASR’s offices in Belmont, I passed a lawn sign that said, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” The message was printed first in Armenian, second in English, and third in Arabic. (I’m happy to report that because of my regular Armenian lessons I was able to read and understand the Armenian text.) On Saturday afternoon I stopped to pick up some fruit at Armenian-owned Arax Market, where I loved the Armenian conversations going on around me, and then I went to Armenian-owned Fastachi (they do mail order!) to purchase some nuts and chocolates for my family. I really hit peak East Watertown nostalgia on this trip, and felt deeply Armenian.

 

My compatriots are in the news lately. The New York Times ran a profile of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, “our midfield Armenian” who plays for Manchester United. Heno (his Armenian diminutive) is also called “the Armenian magician,” and you can see why if you watch this video of his breathtaking “scorpion kick” goal, which was ranked as the number one goal of the season. Forbes Magazine profiled Carolyn Rafaelian, the billionaire founder of bangle brand Alex and Ani. The Ajam Media Collective ran a piece about singer Seta Hagopian, the “Fairuz of Iraq.” Smithsonian Magazine featured an Armenian cosmetics company that is using ancient botanical recipes in their products. The Armenian Weekly posted a beautiful and moving tribute to Sarkis Balabanian (1882-1963), who risked his life to save hundreds of Armenian children during the Genocide. Michael Winship wrote a piece entitled “The Internet Won’t Let Armenia Go Away” that covers the propaganda war being waged by Turkey against The Promise, an epic Armenian Genocide film funded by the late Kirk Kerkorian.

 

Winship also mentions last week’s firestorm over Turkish President Erdogan’s visit to Washington, D.C. The meeting between Trump and Erdogan did not garner much press attention, but Erdogan’s bodyguards’ assault on peaceful protesters sure did. Around two dozen Kurds, Armenians, and leftist Turks, including young women, older people and children, had gathered to protest outside the Turkish Ambassador’s residence during Erdogan’s visit. Erdogan’s security detail with the aid of some right-wing counter-protesters violently attacked the protesters, leaving eleven people injured, nine of whom were hospitalized. There was some speculation, based on several videos, that Erdogan himself had ordered his bodyguards to attack the protesters. Everyone from the Washington Post editorial page to Senator John McCain weighed in. The Turkish government went on the attack, blaming the D.C. police for their ‘aggressive actions’ and demanding an apology from the U.S. government. It is almost laughable that the Turkish government, which spends millions of dollars in the U.S. each year for lobbying and propaganda, a great deal of it focused on preventing efforts at Armenian Genocide recognition and a good part spent on demonizing Kurds, has generated so much ill will in such a short time.

 

On the literary front, the Palestine Festival of Literature has just finished its latest season, and next month its tenth anniversary anthology entitled THIS IS NOT A BORDER will be published by Bloomsbury. Having participated in PalFest in 2010, I was invited to contribute to the anthology and wrote a short piece called “Stories from the Armenian Quarter.” In advance of the launch of her second novel (twenty years after the publication of her first novel THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS), Arundhati Roy was profiled in VOGUE. She will be doing a nine-city North American tour in support of THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS. We will be going to the Brooklyn event at BAM.

 

On the film front, I will shamelessly plug two films produced by my spouse. If you haven’t already, you should watch Kitty Green’s brilliant, disturbing, and moving “hybrid documentary” CASTING JONBENET on Netflix. James has just returned from the Cannes Film Festival where Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s PRAYER BEFORE DAWN, which will be released in North America by A24 later this year, received a ten-minute standing ovation at its midnight premiere.

 

And that’s it for my newsy news report (in which I have not until now mentioned glowing orbs, Russia, or cruelty budgets).

 

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Nancy Kricorian

 


The Birds of Beirut

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Mar Mikhael steps, Beirut

I arrived in Beirut on Friday night, and on Saturday my hosts drove me to the Armenian village of Anjar in the Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border. The women of the ABC Book Club had set up a large television set and thirty chairs on a spacious home patio. Members of the book club made short speeches about the history of their group, an introduction to my work, and a brief reading from my second novel, DREAMS OF BREAD AND FIRE, which they had read and discussed. Then I presented my “Armenian Diaspora Quartet” slideshow, weaving in two poems, “The Angel” and “Homage to Bourj Hammoud.” After the presentation, we ate homemade Armenian and Lebanese desserts in the garden. My favorite was a fruitcake called kumba, a specialty of Anjar (made from a recipe the Armenians of Musa Ler had brought with them in the late 30’s). My hosts insisted that I take home the entire platter of kumba. When I asked, “What will I do with all this?” I was told, “It has no eggs or butter; it keeps forever. Eat what you like, and at the end of the week you can put it in your suitcase.” (Believe me, I did it.)

The next evening was April 24th, and I went with friends to the Armenian Genocide vigil in Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut. After listening to the speeches for a while, we walked around the soulless ghost town that is the Solidere reconstruction of the old Souk area. The following day when I ventured out on my own—trying to get to the Sursock Museum to see the Assadour show—I got horribly lost. When I had showed the receptionist at the hotel a map, and asked for directions from the hotel to the museum, she looked at the map as though she had little idea of what it was, let alone how to read it. People in Beirut don’t use maps, and the available ones are pretty terrible, so for a person such as myself with absolutely no sense of direction, navigating the city was a challenge. A soldier at an intersection noticed my confusion, asked me where I was going, told me that I was very far from my destination (I had walked for fifteen minutes in the opposite direction), and explained that the only way for me to get there was by taxi.

The rest of the week, volunteer guides—old friends, new friends, and an aspiring fiction writer who is a student at Haigazian University—accompanied me. They were all locals who negotiated the maze of streets without maps. After the first afternoon of walking around in Bourj Hammoud, I despaired of ever being able to properly situate my characters in the space. But by the final day of my trip, I had determined the street where the Serinossians resided, the church they attended, the school where the children were enrolled, the father’s occupation, and his place of work. For later reference, I took photos of old wooden houses, mid-century apartment buildings with balconies and awnings, Armenian schools, Armenian churches, streets signs, and old doors. I also identified a few common birds: laughing dove, house sparrow, rock dove, and white wagtail. In Bourj Hammoud and Nor Hadjin I saw canaries in wire cages and zebra finches in wooden ones.

Equally importantly, I heard stories of the war years—the kinds of anecdotes that provide me with the small details I need to create the narrative world of the novel. Here is one line I heard that opened up a universe of feeling: “Sundays were sad days—because the ships took them to Cyprus, and from there they flew away.”

 

Nancy Kricorian

New York City


Homage to Bourj Hammoud

Have you heard a thrush sing while its nest burns in the wind? —Khalil Gibran

Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon, 1930's

Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon, 1930’s

Listen. In the morning you can hear the bright strike of hammers and the rasp of saws. Children carry sand from the riverbanks in their school satchels. First they build the church, then the school, and finally a house for each family according to its means. The tents and shacks are taken down one by one. Each family plants a mulberry tree and tends its garden.

The remnants of Marash create a new Marash. And so also Nor Sis, Nor Adana, Nor Giligia, and Nor Hadjin are made. You can hear the sounds of the trades learned in the orphanage workshops: carpenter’s plane, sewing machine and cobbler’s bench. The sharp smell of the tannery is in the air and in their clothes. All Beirut wears their shoes.

Look at the children outside the church in their freshly pressed clothes, and the girls have ribbons in their hair. Look at the food spread on the luncheon table and the hands that pass the platters. Someone has told a joke and there is laughter. Someone pulls an instrument from its case.

Speak of those times, or don’t, when the parties take up arms against each other. How the women of one church throw boiling water out the window on the men with guns. When all Beirut stops fighting, for how many more weeks do the Armenian men continue to shed each other’s blood?

Speak then of the flowering: the neighborhood children grow tall. Among them are musicians, actors, painters and poets. In this world their parents have rebuilt from ashes, they now believe anything is possible, and everything is new.

Remember this: when the Civil War comes, neutrality is no amulet against the bullets and the bombs. Jewelers flee the downtown souk for Bourj Hammoud, where the militiamen patrol the night and then also the day. So many boats leave the port. Carrying leather suitcases to the airports, so many are exiled again.

Remember Nor Adana, Nor Marash, Nor Sis. Men still play backgammon and grill meat on braziers on the sidewalk. Remember the narrow alleys and wooden houses of Sanjak Camp, razed for a shopping plaza. Oh people of long memory, listen, look, speak, remember: your stories are a homeland.

*

“Homage to Bourj Hammoud” appeared in the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology

http://www.pen.org/flash/two-pieces-nancy-kricorian

Nancy Kricorian

New York City


An Armenian-American Translated Into Arabic

Nancy page

 

This week, because of the interest and good offices of my friend poet and editor Najwan Darwish, Al Araby in London published an interview I did with Elise Aghazarian. I met Elise and her family in Jerusalem and Ramallah during the 2010 Palestine Festival of Literature. Elise also translated my short prose piece “Homage to Bourj Hammoud.” (The English version can be found here.) I wish that I could read Arabic, but I have heard from friends that Elise did a beautiful job with both the interview and the translation. I love the photo of children playing in Sanjak Camp that she chose to illustrate the Bourj Hammoud piece.

Nancy Kricorian

New York City


Fiction and Truth

bourjhammoud

 

The Financial Times recently published an excellent interview (done, of course, by email) with Italian writer Elana Ferrante. There are many insightful and inspiring lines in the piece, but among my favorites is this paragraph:

I grew up in a world where it seemed normal that men (fathers, brothers, boyfriends) had the right to hit you in order to correct you, to teach you how to be a woman, ultimately for your own good. Luckily today much has changed but I still think the men who can really be trusted are a minority. Maybe this is because the milieu that shaped me was backward. Or maybe (and this is what I tend to believe) it’s because male power, whether violently or delicately imposed, is still bent on subordinating us. Too many women are humiliated every day and not just on a symbolic level. And, in the real world, too many are punished, even with death, for their insubordination.

As a novelist, I also felt a shock of pleasure and recognition in this sentence from the Ferrante interview: I have not chosen an autobiographical path, nor will I choose it in the future, because I am convinced that fiction, when it works, is more charged with truth. And Ferrante is not alone in this conviction. Doris Lessing once said, “Novels give you the matrix of emotions, give you the flavour of a time in a way formal history cannot.”

As I’m working on my new novel about Armenians in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, I’m engaged in my typical obsessive research. This is my painstaking path to historical, psychological, and fictional truth. (I once wrote a short talk about my goals in this regard.) People keep asking, how is the novel going? And in truth I haven’t started writing. I’m still in that phase of research and design where I am building the world in my head. Before my characters can inhabit it, I have to fully furnish it. It also feels as though I’m working on a big, complicated jigsaw puzzle. I now have all the edges done, and am piecing together the interior. Then the writing can begin.

 

Nancy Kricorian

New York City


Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris

vosguerres

Your Wars, Our Dead

 

At the end of last week, we witnessed from afar horrific attacks that left scores dead and hundreds wounded in Beirut, Baghdad and Paris. These brutal and unconscionable strikes against civilians have been attributed to members of The Islamic State (ISIS), or Daesh (Da’ish).

Daesh is a loose acronym of the Arabic words that mean the same as ISIS: Al Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa’al Sham. According to The Guardian, the acronym is now an Arabic word in its own right, with its plural daw’aish meaning “bigots who impose their views on others.” The use of this name for the network of extremists who have been terrorizing people ranging from Yezidis in Northern Iraq to Parisians in the 11th Arrondissement robs them of any religious association. It is also a name that they reportedly hate.

But Daesh did not arise out of a vacuum. As Ben Norton cogently argues in his piece Our Terror Double Standard, we in the West must look to our own imperial state violence, including the disastrous, immoral, and illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq, as having created the chaos that allowed the spread of these “non-state” actors who now threaten indiscriminate violence from the Middle East to Europe.

When we mourn the terrible loss of life in Baghdad, Beirut and Paris, we must also mourn the deaths of those killed by the U.S. attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, and by a Saudi-led coalition missile strike on a Yemeni wedding party, or by a month-long Israeli assault, using U.S. weapons and funded by U.S. tax dollars, on trapped civilians in Gaza. All lives are precious.

In response to the recent wave of violence stocks of leading weapons manufacturers have soared, and the U.S. has just sold another billion dollars worth of weapons to Saudi for their bombing campaign that is terrorizing civilians and destroying the architectural heritage of Yemen. And that is why rather than joining the rallying cries for revenge and more carnage, or the xenophobic and racist calls to bar Syrian refugees from our communities, we must redouble our efforts to put an end to these ruinous wars and occupations. As Mother Jones said, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

 

Nancy Kricorian

New York City


Bourj Hammoud: Fiction as Preservation Project

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Sanjak Camp, Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon, 7/12

 

 

My working method as a novelist has become clearer to me with each new book. Like a bird building a nest, I collect scraps and fragments of stories from people who have lived through a particular historical moment. A memory is encoded into narrative, and the narrative is anchored in a specific place and time. The historical moments that fire my imagination are, for better or worse, times of collective upheaval and violence—the Armenian Genocide, World War II, and now the Lebanese Civil War. I’m also always interested in the marginal detail, the outsider’s voice, and the version of the story that calls into question the prevailing narrative. While I love writing, I love even more the research—and the part of the research that is the most completely engaging is hearing from people their individual accounts, and then placing those personal and idiosyncratic stories within a broader historical context.

When I was in Paris researching my third novel, ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS, which is set in the Armenian community of Belleville during the Nazi occupation, my friend Hagop served as my fixer. He arranged meetings for me with surviving Armenian members of the French Resistance, and other compatriots who had lived through the war years in Paris. But Hagop also introduced me to his circle of friends, all of them Armenians from Beirut, most of them from Bourj Hammoud, who had immigrated to France during the Lebanese Civil War.

The novel I’m working on now, about Armenians of Bourj Hammoud who immigrate to the United States during the Lebanese Civil War, was inspired by conversations I heard between Hagop and his friends while I was in Paris. They were the children and grandchildren of Genocide survivors who had reconstructed their lives and their communities in Beirut. Armenians, who benefited from the unofficial Lebanese policy of “integration without assimilation,” thrived in Beirut for several decades. The Armenian community in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in Beirut experienced an intellectual and artistic flowering—a plethora of literary magazines, newspapers, publishing houses, theaters, plays, and folk music. Hagop and his friends were writing, directing and acting in plays; composing and singing songs; and studying painting, sculpture and architecture. And then in 1975 the Civil War erupted tearing the fabric of the Armenian community yet again. (I must say here as an aside, recent photos from the precincts of Aleppo are devastating in the way that they reproduce images from the Lebanese Civil War.)

So I see Bourj Hammoud as one of a long series of places that are not just simply locations, but are also markers of dispossession and exile. For Armenians since the Genocide, it’s a difficult task to preserve a place, or at the least to hold onto some of the public buildings, homes and other landmarks that make a neighborhood or even a city. But it turns out that what preserves those spaces the most, at least for this seemingly permanently wandering community, are the stories that people tell. So I think of my novels as kinds of preservation projects, allowing us to return to those places while acknowledging their evanescent quality. Perhaps by telling stories from their past we can gain the power and consensus to help preserve their present.

In the case of Beirut, when I started asking people about their memories of the Civil War, fully expecting that the narratives would date to 1975, I was startled by the number of people who wanted to tell me what happened among and between the Armenians of Beirut in 1958, as though a comprehension of that earlier conflict was necessary to an understanding of the later one, and the position of “positive neutrality” that the Armenians adopted in 1976. Even people who were too young to have witnessed the events of 1958 told stories that had been recounted to them by their parents—family members and friends who had been killed during that fratricidal few months, women who defiantly defended a church surrounded by militiamen and troops, and a grandfather who was framed and imprisoned for a murder that someone else had committed. Then there were the anecdotes from the early days of the Civil War in the mid-seventies. One man told of watching from the highway during the massacre at Karantina in 1976, and how the scenes he witnessed that day haunt him still.

Sometimes it seems as though my work is to walk among ghosts—the ghosts of old villages, the faded photographs of lost churches, and the long-ago stories of our dead handed down from generation to generation. In July 2012 my guide in Bourj Hammoud led me across the highway overpass to what was left of Sanjak Camp, the last Armenian refugee camp in Lebanon. Half the neighborhood had already been demolished and there were trash heaps in empty lots, but there were also small scenes of nostalgic beauty–on the balconies of the houses that remained there were potted plants and several homes had family altars hanging from their facades. I was witness not only to the lives of Sanjak Camp’s present inhabitants—people without running water, many without electricity—who were being pressured to leave so a new shopping mall could go up at that location, but I could also imagine amidst the narrow streets and crumbling staircases what the place had looked like soon after it was built in the late 30’s by Armenian refugees. Shouldn’t someone save what was left of Sanjak and restore the old wooden houses, making the place a living memorial to those resilient, hard-working survivors? My guide shrugged. Too much money, no interest, and too late. But maybe what we can do is to tell the stories, and in our stories these people and these buildings will be preserved.

 

Nancy Kricorian, NYC, 11/13

 

A version of this piece was presented as a paper at BEIRUT NOW: A PANEL ON URBAN LANDSCAPE’S CONFLICTING DESIRES–on Nov. 7, 2013 at the CUNY Grad Center and on Nov. 12 at the American Institute of Architects.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Building Beirut in My Mind

Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon

Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon

 

When I was in college, I studied with a poet and short story writer who gave me an instruction that still echoes in my head: “Respect your process.” But my “process” has always been a changing one. When I was a young poet, I wrote a poem by hand, then typed it, made corrections on the typed copy, rewrote it long hand, then typed it again. This process was often repeated up to twenty times.

After graduate school, when I started writing fiction, the technology had changed. I was no longer working on my Olivetti Lettera 100 portable typewriter, nor on the IBM Selectric machines I had access to in my administrative assistant jobs on campus. I was now using a computer, which made the drafting process at once easier and yet harder to keep track of.

The idea of writing a novel was daunting so I thought of it as producing interconnected short stories. Going from writing a one- to two-page poem to a ten- to twelve-page short story was tough, but it didn’t seem impossible, and my first novel Zabelle grew out of this endeavor. Having done it once, the thought of a second novel seemed manageable. My first two books required some research, but they were based in family and personal history so the worlds I described were not so difficult for me to imagine and create.

With my third novel, I was no longer writing about family experience, and it took place in a foreign country and in a time before I was born, so the research process was long and extensive, although fully engrossing. I set out to learn everything I could about Paris during the Nazi Occupation, and as much as possible about the Armenian community in France. Slowly, as I read my way through over one hundred books and talked with dozens of people, my characters’ world became a place I went to in my head each day as I wrote. It was as vivid as the world that I myself inhabited. But after ten years living with the Pegorian family in Paris’s Belleville neighborhood, All The Light There Was went to the copy editor and it was time to move on to my next novel, which would tell the story of Armenians in Lebanon during the Civil War.

Last summer I visited Beirut for the first time. I had read a tall stack of books including novels, histories and guidebooks in preparation, but my process works best with immersion and so I went. Knowing no one in Lebanon, I was armed with a list of the names and contact information of friends of friends. They were mostly Armenians, and they without exception welcomed me as though I were a long-lost cousin. I stayed in Dbayah for the first few days to be close to a friend’s sister, and then moved to a hotel near Hamra for the rest of the visit. I spent five afternoons wandering around the streets of Bourj Hammoud with a new friend who had lived his whole life there and who introduced me to shopkeepers, actors, musicians, jewelers, bankers, and array of other local people. Another new friend took me on a walking tour of the East Beirut neighborhoods of Sanayeh, Zokak el Blat, and Watwat. An acquaintance drove me to Ashrafieh for an hour just so I could have sense where the Armenian churches were in that quarter, and what the houses looked like. I took photos and made copious notes.

Since that trip, I have continued researching, and I have started informally interviewing people about their experiences. As I read novels set in Beirut during the Civil War—such as Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game, Ghada Samman’s Beirut Nightmares, Zeina Abirached’s A Game for Swallows, and Mischa Hiller’s Sabra Zoo—I feel as though I am visiting a familiar landscape. Beirut is slowly becoming a place I go to in my head. I have begun sketching out my characters and choosing names for them. The plot is slowly emerging. As I’m working on my fourth novel, I recognize that my current process will require some additional months of research, more thinking, and internal building. But when I hear the voice of Vera Serinossian for the first time, I’ll know it’s time to start writing.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian