‘The Toxicity of our City’
Little is spoken about the toxicity of the Burj Hammoud landfill and the irrevocable damage it causes to the cultural heritage of its first inhabitants, Armenians. The city of Burj Hammoud is Beirut’s Armenian district, which sadly hosts a massive landfill estimated by environmentalists to release 120,000 tons of leachates annually into the Mediterranean Sea.[i] While various sources present inconsistent statistics on how much waste the landfill accepts daily, the city’s landfill is part and parcel of Lebanon’s waste management debacle, side-lined since the early 1990’s. After reinstating the city’s landfill in 2016, the environmental condition of the city deteriorated tremendously threatening, ‘everything Armenian about the city’.
Now, a constant stench hovers over the city, although this wasn’t always the case, at least for those Armenians who first arrived in Burj Hammoud in 1924 and later transformed the area into a commercial and cultural metropolis. Ethnic Armenians fled genocide and persecution from the Ottoman Empire and the city became a safe haven for Armenian refugees and later for other persecuted people such as Palestinians, Kurds, Assyrians and, since 2011, for many Syrians. Interestingly, out of the 10,000 Syrian refugees who moved to Burj Hammoud,[ii] 4,000 Syrian-Armenians live in the district.[iii]
The Armenian district is not only the most densely-populated area in the Middle East, but also the most ‘Armenian’ in terms of population in the region, especially following the departure of thousands from Aleppo in 2016; previously known as the city with the largest ethnic Armenian population in the Levant. Burj Hammoud is also home to working class Lebanese and a sizeable number of migrant workers giving the city a distinctive and heterogeneous facade compared to Beirut’s other more polarised districts.
In this conglomerate of identities, Hayabahbanum which stands for ‘Preservation of Armenian Identity’ became crucial for a minority who wanted to stay. So the safeguarding of the Armenian language, the establishment of Armenian neighbourhoods, schools and the preservation of Armenian customs, traditions and cuisine became a ‘duty’ for Armenians in Lebanon, and particularly for those living in Burj Hammoud. More importantly, preserving Armenian cultural heritage became a means for Armenians to retrace the footsteps of their forefathers thereby giving the city its Armenian character.
As a result of this strong sense of belonging, Burj Hammoud evolved over the years to what it is today: a cultural cradle for Lebanese-Armenians, their home and a place where they can make a living. However, with Burj Hammoud’s garbage burden, it would be naïve to expect a positive outcome from a waste management project that has not been properly evaluated[iv]. Locals and visitors alike avoid the area. The polluted environment preventing many from considering the district an option for their education, commerce, food consumption and even from just taking a walk through the streets.
Women I spoke to on the streets in Burj Hammoud are sending their children to other schools. LK, a mother of two kids and a resident of Burj Hammoud said, ‘Sending them to a non-Armenian school was a tough decision but it’s a chance for my kids to get away from all the pollution.’ Another woman, Hasmig Krikorian, who was carrying a keychain of the Armenian tricolor flag told me, ‘Such a pity what the environment has become in this city. We’re forcing our kids and ourselves to avoid it, a place where I personally have so many good memories!’
Right at the forefront of endangered cultural heritage are Armenian schools, the primary promoters of the Western Armenian dialect in Lebanon as well as Burj Hammoud’s Armenian food culture.
Armenian Schools Under Threat and the Endangerment of the Western Armenian Language
It is impossible to avoid hearing Armenian while walking in the streets of Burj Hammoud. Armenians of Burj Hammoud and elsewhere in Lebanon speak a unique dialect different to the one spoken in Armenia, called ‘Western Armenian.’ Alarmingly, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) classifies it as a definitively ‘endangered’ language spoken only by 250,000 people around the world, mainly scattered in the Middle East and other diasporic communities.[v] Over the years, Armenian-speakers in Lebanon have declined due to the influences of other languages such as Arabic, English and French used in Lebanese society. While in most cases, Lebanese-Armenians start acquiring this endangered language through their families, they can only become fluent through attending Armenian schools. In this regard, Armenian schools in Lebanon have played a big role in revitalising the Western Armenian dialect and in passing it on to different generations. There are Armenian schools throughout Lebanon and Burj Hammoud has the highest number; with six Armenian schools currently located in its vicinity.
Due to the city’s poor environmental quality and the proximity of Armenian schools to the landfill, the schools in Burj Hammoud have become unappealing to Lebanese-Armenian parents. But getting hold of the numbers between 2016 and now is difficult, as government officials’ environmental assessments are still pending. In fact, Armenian schools are only a 10 minutes-drive from one of the country’s biggest landfill (see map). Characterised as a working-class district, the city is known to have more affordable schools compared to those located in the suburbs, which are more expensive and difficult for low-income families to afford.[vi] However, because of the polluted environment in Burj Hammoud, parents end up sending their children to affordable schools, sometimes public ones, where the Armenian language is not taught. As a result, newer generations of Lebanese-Armenians are hindered from learning to speak the Western Armenian language with proficiency, and many can barely speak it.
LK also stated, ‘We live in Burj Hammoud and my kids go to a non-Armenian school which is outside of the city. At least, they can get exposed to some clean air’, she added, ‘My kids speak Armenian but they cannot write or read it.’
Another mother, Hasmig Krikorian, who has three children and lives in a suburb outside of Beirut said, ‘I always wanted my kids to go to the same school I went to in Burj Hammoud. It has a good reputation and strong education system but the area is so polluted and smelly that I can’t risk sending them there these days, it’s too close to the stink’, she said. ‘I send them to another one.’
Sadly, the general perception amongst parents is that their children would catch ‘a disease’ if they attend school in Burj Hammoud. Overall, Armenian schools in Burj Hammoud endure hard times as the number of schools is declining, and many are shutting down or merging. In 2011, Burj Hammoud had nine Armenian schools operating within its vicinity and many more previously. The number of Armenian-teaching schools stands at six now, with some institutions facing daunting obstacles to survive. Most blame the lack of funds and student enrolment, turning a blind eye to the environmental crisis, which in Burj Hammoud taints the image of a primary institution promoting Armenian cultural heritage and teaching the endangered Western Armenian dialect.
Armenian Culinary Habits and Food Community at Stake: ‘No more Kebab on Sundays?’
But the harmful effect of Burj Hammoud’s landfill goes beyond threatening the Armenian language. It reaches all the way to the city’s most valued cultural foundation: Armenian food culture. This form of cultural heritage is manifested through Burj Hammoud’s various restaurants, food markets and is most evident in Armenian households where cooking has preserved Western Armenian cuisine preventing it from disappearing over the centuries. Known as Lebanon’s ‘Little Armenia’, Burj Hammoud is one of few districts in Greater Beirut that still offers an interesting street food experience, thanks to its spice and dried fruit markets, fresh produce bazars, street vendors and eateries that serve a traditional meat delicacy; Armenians take so much joy in making Kebab. While Burj Hammoud mirrors vibrant culinary cultures, its toxic landfill creates a damaging impact on the ability of many businesses and households to cook their most loved soul food.
Sadly, the air pollution and foul smell in Burj Hammoud have diminished food choices and taint the image of restaurants that promote Armenian food culture. Mr Leon, the owner of a thirty-year old kebab shop in Burj Hammoud, expressed his frustration with the pollution caused by the dumpsite, so close to his business. ‘People think we’re selling garbage here, when we have been grilling since 1989!’, he exclaimed. ‘My place used to be so busy, customers were like ants swarming, but ever since they re-opened the dumpsite, fewer and fewer people have been coming. I don’t know how long I can survive.’ Mr Leon’s shop goes by the name ‘Urfali’ meaning ‘hailing from “Urfa,”’ a South-Eastern village in modern-day Turkey. Like most Armenians in the Levant, Western Armenian cuisine is strongly intertwined with the history and geography of ethnic Armenians who originally came from Eastern Anatolia. ‘My parents journeyed from Urfa to Lebanon during the genocide,’ Mr. Leon said, ‘I remember being inspired by my father who had a passion for cooking. He never wanted me to become a chef though. But I eventually turned out to make the best kebab in town!’ He boasted about his signature sandwich believing it to be the best in Burj Hammoud. When asking him about his customers he said, ‘I totally understand their reasons It would be difficult to enjoy my food when the air stinks because of the garbage mountain over there!,’ he pointed west towards the sea.
The dire environmental situation in Burj Hammoud prevents many residents from grilling food within the confines of their homes; a tradition dearly cherished and associated with Armenian culture. For Armenians, preparing Kebab is a ‘sacred ritual’ that involves family members coming together to cook lunch on Sundays. Though most cultures have their own version of ‘kebab’ (khorovatz), the Western Armenian is closest to the Greek, Turkish, and Kurdish versions, with a lot of flavours and spices.
This centuries old grilling practice, a famous Armenian pastime, is notorious for celebrating holiday events and birthdays. On 8 May after the victory of Nikol Pashinyan, the man behind Armenia’s peaceful revolution, people were seen grilling meat in the streets across Armenia on their metallic square-shaped grillers, dancing and cheering their newly-elected prime minister. Serpouhi Jenanian, a 55-year-old who lives with her family in Burj Hammoud said, ‘I can’t remember the last time we had a barbeque on our balcony. There is always a disgusting smell coming from the landfill that doesn’t allow us to enjoy anything!’
Indeed, inhabitants of Burj Hammoud have long complained about the foul stench coming from the landfill, even before the dumpsite was reinstated in 2016. As recently as May, fishermen of Burj Hammoud’s port, which is Lebanon’s second biggest port[vii], protested that the unbearable ecological state their harbour was in was the result of reckless trash-dumping and a factor in them going out of business.[viii] Jenanian also voiced how her routine visits to Burj Hammoud’s food markets were less enjoyable, ‘I go out only when I have to,’ she said, ‘The bad smell just gives me a headache.’
Recession vs Progress: Where is Burj Hammoud Going?
While talks of building incinerators in the outskirts of Burj Hammoud heat-up, it is important to take a step back and review what has become of the worrying environment in Burj Hammoud.
In 2016, the world, including Lebanon, renewed their pledge to ensure a successful implementation of the New Urban Agenda during the Habitat III vicennial conference, which pushed countries to focus further on Sustainable Development Goal no. 11: ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.’[ix] Despite Lebanon being a signatory of this non-binding agreement, it is not clear whether or not the spirit of this pledge is being respected or even the spirit of any other binding convention such as the major environmental conventions of Basel and Barcelona of which Lebanon is a part.
In the case of Burj Hammoud, the cultural heritage of a minority group, Armenians, is under threat. Burj Hammoud’s landfill makes the city far from sustainable; polluting not only its environment but its economy and society.
Nonetheless, as long as tons of waste continue to be buried on the city’s coast, Burj Hammoud’s problems will continue to increase. The city is in desperate need of sustainable reforms as there is no national waste management policy. Despite a $25,000,000 fund being awarded to the Burj Hammoud authorities, little is being done to improve the district’s market environment, which could attract visitors and, in turn, benefit the economy.[x]
The endangerment of Armenian cultural heritage is an example of just one of the detrimental effects of Burj Hammoud’s landfill but there are many more. A new mind-set is required to tackle the environmental, cultural, economic and social policy issues affecting Burj Hammoud and at the forefront of this agenda should be the interests, well-being and benefits for its inhabitants.
However, the Armenian residents of Burj Hammoud aren't seeing change come quickly enough so all they can do is hope the authorities will pay attention. As they battle the grave consequences of landfill, they continue to hope for change and wait for what may never come.
[i] EJOLT (2016) ‘Bourj Hammoud Garbage Mountain, Lebanon. EJAtlas.’ Available at: http://ejatlas.org/conflict/bourj-hammoud-garbage-mountain Accessed: 16 September 2018.
[ii] Weppi, A. (2016) ‘Syrian Minorities in Lebanon: Between the Realities of Asylum and the Dreams of Immigration, The Peace Building in Lebanon’, Issue no. 13, p.7.
[iv] Azhari, T. (2017) ‘Regulations Bypassed in Burj Hammoud Landfill Project.’ Available at: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2017/Jul-29/414364-regulations-bypassed-in-burj-hammoud-landfill-project.ashx Accessed: 16 September 2018.
[vi] Atarian, H. (2014) Armenian Schools and Education in Lebanon: Fostering a Culture of Learning, Teaching and Practice. Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, p.56.
[vii] Harmandyan, D. (2010) Study on Industrial Zone Planning in Bourj Hammoud- APEC (in Arabic), Municipality of Burj Hammoud.
[viii] Fishermen Protest Pollution at Dump, (2018), The Daily Star. Available at: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2018/May-25/450784-fishermen-protest-pollution-at-dump.ashx Accessed: 16 September 2018.
[ix] New Urban Agenda Report (2016), Habitat III, p.4.
[x] Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Threatens Return in Summer Heat (2016), Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-rubbish-idUSKCN1141SO Accessed: 16 September 2018.