Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bourj Hammoud

Three essential activities for the facilitation of the tourist's "ethical" exploration of Bourj Hammoud

by Hisham Awad

1. The tourist's guide to loyally photographing Bourj Hammoud's Bridge 

  Uncharted territory -ranging from a land ravaged by war to an interior with intimate stories to tell- should always be experienced with new eyes. Historical discoveries of new lands, and re-discoveries of deserted ones, have proved, though, the impossibility of new perceptions, for colonial eyes from one side, and nostalgic eyes on the other, know no better than to look at these territories through eyes that belong to other spaces and different times.

  From grand discoveries such as The New World, to small stumble-upons like an alley in a city like Beirut, one has to create alternative ways to view a space, because every space sets its own set of rules that are neither ignorable nor flexible.

Places like Bourj Hammoud, specifically the region under the colossal bridge, go as far as to redefine relationships that previously seemed trivial, the most important of which is that between light and shadow. 

Going back home with nice photographs taken under Bourj Hammoud's bridge is not an option, at least not an ethical one. Loyally illustrating the uncompromising bridge asks from the tourist to get rid of all quest for estheticism. Proper lighting in photographs should be the least of the your worries, since sufficient light in the actual Bourj Hammoud space was never the bridge's priority either. Upon the entry to Bourj Hammoud, it becomes instantly clear that this place is like no other, since it is big and functional enough to be a space that is independent of adjacent spaces, yet inevitably brings to mind that it is only a sub-space, a sub-entity. Hidden, physically bound by the concrete layer that separates two entirely different views of the city ( that above the bridge, where the mute highway going to Achrafieh hides every residential any social aspect of what lie s beneath the bridge); Bourj Hammoud has small physical expectations, minimal architectural ambitions: a limited volume of buildings so that they don't overlap the bridge, no public space... 

Standing on the either end of the region under the bridge, the concrete horizon is well defined, the expectations are instantly set. In broad daylight, there's more shadow than light. Light penetrates through small divergences between sections of the bridge, gently hinting that the space is almost, but not yet, apocalyptical. The day resembles the night. Dark, sonically industrial, visually residential.

The a guide to " loyally " photograph life under the bridge:

1.Stand at the highway side that takes you to sin-el-fil. You're facing the bridge.

Take out your camera and set your shutter speed to 160. Take a photograph.

2. Start walking under the bridge. Take a photograph, at the same shutter speed and overall settings.

3. Keep going. Take a photograph.

4.Keep on taking photographs with the same shutter speed, no matter the light.

You'll notice that your photos will be sometimes well exposed, sometimes not. Sometimes completely dark. You should compromise your esthetics, since Bourj Hammoud is probably the only street where the light changes that much, where the bridge touches the buildings, then gets away, then gives way to another one. Where in daylight, sun is more abundant than shadow, and at night, the bridge seems to politely disappear into the street.

Yes, you will come back with dark prints, overexposed ones, abstractions of space and experience. It is "ethical", nonetheless.

2. Participating in the imagined inauguration of the transferred Armenian Monument

 As you are walking under the shadows cast by the concrete, you're going to notice groups of people, all heading in the same direction. Follow them.

As the groups start to get bigger and the individual walking faster, your curiosity will be kindled. They are all dressed up, their faces brim with joy. They are impatient.

All gets clearer the moment the traffic becomes overwhelming, the chats between the citizens innumerable. You can feel the hype, even through indiscernible Armenian talks.

There it is, the reason for all the commotion. A block of iron, in the middle of the Bourj Hammoud center place. The nearby shops are closed, the kids and the elderly are witnessing the transfer of one of the most important Armenian monuments for the martyrs of the massacre. 

After considerable controversy and debate amidst Armenian figures and citizens back in Armenia over the necessity of transferring (thus letting go) a monument all the way to Lebanon. The answer was then very convincing, though mute. It was effortlessly manifested by the citizens of Bourj Hammoud, so flawlessly present in their longing, their nostalgia, even in their mundane everyday actions.

The unveiling of the base of the monument (an iron monolith) has been the subject of conversation for around a month, here in Bourj Hammoud. The monument that has long been present in Bourj Hammoud, at least in the form of a printed image on the calendars of the political parties in Bourj Hammoud), has started to occupy actual space, at a time where for an entire hour (that of the inauguration); time was suspended, more like stretched,  75 years in the Armenian past (1915 as the onset of the Armenian Genocide) and one hour in the Lebanese present.

3. Jermuk: The Armenian sparkling water.


The festive inauguration was tiring. It's almost 35 degrees outside. When dehydrated, Bourj Hammoud also offers Armenian sparkling water, of quality that rivals the most well-known of French and American sparkling waters, though exclusive of course.

Jermuk, the brand name of the water is the name of a city in the Southern Armenian province of Vayots Dzor. Actually, if someone would look closely at the names of streets and shops in Bourj Hammoud, he will notice that it looks like an Armenian region, with names like Arax Street, which is originally the name of a river located in and along the countries of Turkey, Armenia, Iran, and Azerbaijan. Shoe shops like "Yerevan"  which is also the name of the Armenian capital also figure.

Bourj Hammoud is a sort of a Lebanese equivalent of America's Chinatown.

To drink a bottle of Armenian sparkling water in a cafĂ© in the center of Bourj Hammoud next to an oversize object/statue of Coca-Cola is not an everyday sight, it is one of Bourj Hammoud's  appreciated offerings. 

While walking to a grocery store, you will stumble upon Armenian posters that fill up the walls, Armenian you heard among the citizens. Bourj Hammoud lives a permanent conflict. It is a desired mutation of Armenia, but it has all the problems any other area in Beirut faces: electricity cuts, water shortage, no parking spaces. This duality destroys Bourj Hammoud's illusion of an alternative Armenia, its harsh realities make it seem no different from Karm el Zeitoun, from Karantina...

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