Building the Nest
When I arrived in Beirut on the evening of October 27, I took a taxi to Baffa House, a guesthouse in Mar Mikhael where I would be staying for two weeks. The goal of my trip was to become familiar enough with the nearby Armenian neighborhoods of Bourj Hammoud and Nor Hadjin where the characters in the novel I’m currently writing reside so that I could thoroughly inhabit those streets, buildings, schools, and churches in my imagination. I had started writing the novel, but then got stuck. I wrote a scene in which Vera Serinossian, the narrator and protagonist, was walking from her school in the Armenian “suburb” of Bourj Hammoud, a 1.5 square kilometer municipality just outside Beirut city limits, to her home in Nor Hadjin, a small Armenian neighborhood of about four square blocks on the other side of the river within Beirut’s boundaries. As she was crossing the bridge, Vera sees an elderly Arab man lying dead on the pavement. He has a sniper’s bullet hole in his forehead.
After I wrote this scene, during an interview that I conducted at the end of this past summer with someone who had lived the war years within these precincts, I had been told that this bridge between Bourj Hammoud and Nor Hadjin was called “The Death Bridge” because of the snipers that targeted people who crossed it. The Phalangist militia was on the hill of Ashrafiyeh within shooting range, and to the north the Leftists and later Syrian troops posed a similar danger. It occurred to me that my idea of having my family cross that bridge from home to school and back on a daily basis during the war years might make no sense. I needed to go to Beirut to find out.
The guesthouse in Mar Mikhael was a five-minute walk from Nor Hadjin and Khalil Badawi, another Armenian neighborhood adjacent to Hadjin. It was another ten minutes on foot to Bourj Hammoud. So each day of my stay I walked those neighborhoods. Through my network of Armenian friends in Beirut and in America, I had the good fortune to meet and to interview a host of people who had lived through the war years and had stories they were willing to share. I met the editor of the Ararat Daily Newspaper who told me about the night the Phalangists had set off a bomb in the newspaper’s offices in 1978. I visited Dr. Garo, the sole physician in Nor Hadjin, who had treated everyone from survivors of the Karantina Massacre to wounded Palestinian fighters in Naba’a to local Armenians who had been injured during various rounds of shelling. I interviewed the principals of two Armenian Evangelical schools—the Gertmenian School in Nor Hadjin and the Central High School in Ashrafiyeh. I attended Sunday services at Sourp Kevork Church in Nor Hadjin.
My friend Antranig, who grew up in Nor Hadjin, gave me a tour of the neighborhood, pointing out the ironwork on the facades of some of the houses, knocking on doors so he could show me the beautiful original tile work in some of the apartments, and explaining how Nor Hadjin had been a completely self-contained Armenian village within Beirut. “We had everything we needed. There were three schools, a church, a dispensary, grocery stores, a compatriotic union, and all kinds of artisans and craftsmen. The only thing missing in the early days was a confectioner, so the leaders of Hadjin convinced one to move from Ashrafiyeh to open a sweet shop.”
He also told me a story about the Death Bridge. During a ceasefire, Antranig and his friend took bikes and crossed the bridge to Bourj Hammoud. The two teenagers had just made it to Bourj Hammoud when shooting broke out between the Syrians and the Khataeb (Phalangists). The boys ditched their bikes and jumped into a building where they waited out the shooting, which went on for over five hours.
Antranig’s father, who could make out the bridge from his balcony in Nor Hadjin, called a friend in Bourj Hammoud to find out what had happened. There were dead bodies on the bridge, he was told. So he went down to the bridge to check the bodies to make sure his son was not among them.
By the end of my two weeks in Beirut, I had accomplished what I had set out to do. The Serinossians would not be crossing the Death Bridge on a daily basis. I had decided to situate my family in the small, self-contained neighborhood of Nor Hadjin, with extended family living across the river in Bourj Hammoud. I had determined which school the children attended, the church in which the family worshipped, and even the house in which they lived. In addition, like a bird assembling twigs, twine, and grasses for a nest, I had collected dozens of anecdotes, stories, and historical details that would help me in pushing forward with the novel.
December 21, 2017