Beirut, Lebanon – It is Sunday afternoon, and Beirut’s traffic-choked Dora roundabout is bustling with activity.
Lebanese and Syrian bus drivers shout out destination names, while Ethiopian women in flowing white scarves make their way home from church. South Asian migrant workers celebrate the birthday of an Indian independence hero in a makeshift banquet hall, while across the intersection, Syrian refugees sip coffee. A couple of blocks further down, Filipina women squat in front of baskets of dried fish for sale, while many Lebanese-Armenian residents spend the day at home with friends and family.
The Sunday scene here encapsulates the surprising diversity of Bourj Hammoud, sometimes referred to as Beirut’s “Little Armenia”. Nearly a century after it was established as a refuge for Armenians fleeing the horrors of World War I, Bourj Hammoud continues to be a place for newcomers and the downtrodden to begin new lives.
This dynamism has resulted in a number of puzzling paradoxes and some difficulties. Bourj Hammoud is a place of prosperity, but also poverty. It is home to large industry, but also to timeless handicrafts. It is the cultural cradle for Lebanon’s Armenians, but most of its population is not actually Armenian. Communal tensions between Syrian refugees and Lebanese Armenians have at times boiled over into violence.
Meanwhile, the first hints of gentrification are beginning to show, with the neighbourhood starting to be considered hip by Beirut’s young creative crowd.