Can Armenian Crafts Survive Much Longer in Crisis-Ridden Lebanon?

Can Armenian Crafts Survive Much Longer in Crisis-Ridden Lebanon?

For decades, Burj Hammoud has been associated with the Armenian community that settled in Lebanon in the 1920s, especially the wealth of artisanal skills they brought with them.

The quarter’s Marash area (named after the Ottoman city (today Kahramanmaras) where Turkish forces massacred Armenian refugees) became home to woodworkers, jewelers, weavers and other craft workshops.

The years following the Lebanese Civil War saw a rapid decline in the number of practicing craftsmen, unable to compete with the influx of cheaper products imported from Asia.

A 2019 survey and report, conducted by cultural advocacy NGO Nahnoo, highlighted Marash’s vanishing artisanal practices, and encouraged policies that would support small-scale craftsmen. Since then, a deepening economic crisis, anti-government protests and the Aug. 4 port blast, which damaged many properties, has further threatened Burj Hammoud’s already fragile artisanal sector.

“We were interested in mapping the landmarks of Burj Hammoud, and were fascinated with the craftwork there,” Nahnoo director Mohamad Ayoub told The Daily Star. “We looked at their social and economic situation, because they should be a huge benefit to the country, but are overlooked.

“Many of these craftsmen, legally they don’t exist,” he added. “There are no policies that coordinate craftsmen or define what an artisan is, which means they have no rights, incentives, no labor protection from the government or tax exemptions for importing raw materials to work with. This means they lose profit.”

Artisans are not offered health insurance either, which has made the trade more unattractive for younger generations who no longer seek to learn these skills. The 2020 economic crisis has had a twofold effect: People are less willing to spend money on pretty trinkets, and the dollar shortage has made importing materials almost impossible.

“A lot of their shops and workshops were damaged and if we can’t fix them they will be unable to continue,” Ayoub said. “On the one hand, because the country has been unable to import products from abroad, people are buying more local crafts, but the artisans themselves are also unable to import raw materials, and in Lebanon they cannot get the right materials to work.”

Nahnoo’s partner in promoting Armenian crafts is Badguer, a heritage and cultural center housed in a 1930s pastel pink house in Marash, run by architect Arpi Mangassarian since 2012.

Founded in order to keep Armenian traditions and community spirit alive, Mangassarian hosts regular music concerts, traditional embroidery workshops, culinary experiences and exhibitions by local artists.

Products by Marash artisans are often showcased there, hoping to build a larger customer base for them and teach others about Armenian handicrafts. Damaged during the blast, Badguer has recently repaired and started to get back on its feet, and now seeks to raise awareness about shops still in need of aid. An artist residency space on the second floor is also in the works.

“We bought it in 2009 and it was a half-demolished building,” Mangassarian told The Daily Star. “It took about a year and a half to restore and, as an architect, I had a vision of what I wanted to do with the place: Ssomething to bring the atmosphere of our home – the songs and stories my grandmother used to tell, our dances and all the flavors of the home – to a public place, to be enjoyed together.

“My father used to like playing backgammon and I was always looking for people on the sidewalks to play with him when he retired,” she added, “but he was never able to find good partners.”

Mangassarian said her father inspired Badguer café – a place where the community can come together to talk, play games and take part in cultural activities. Children’s workshops and seasonal Armenian events are set up on weekends to keep youngsters busy, in a special crafts room half-buried in embroidered cloth being still worked.

“My aunt was a seamstress and embroidered and I would spend my summers learning how to do it,” she said. “I also saw how important these sewing gatherings were to the community spirit, how the women pass the day and talk about family life and the lessons of our traditions.

“Every region of Armenia has a specific stitch with different patterns … some eagles or dragons. We often have exhibitions of old carpets and we once had an open house from a carpet restorer for people to learn,” she added. “Each time we invite a different type of craftsman for a few days to show their wares or fix things already owned by people.”

Her involvement in the artisan community has made Mangassarian acutely aware of the challenges the artisanal sector is facing. With the state indifferent, thus having to rely on their own efforts, the current crises have hit Marash’s craftsmen very hard.

“Many have had to shut down. They were already at their limit and have been struggling for the last 50 years,” she said. “If people want to import raw hide to make into leather for shoes or bags, all the Lebanese raw hide is being exported with no tax, and then local craftsmen have to import with taxes to buy them.

“The economic crises, followed by the explosion and imports of cheap Turkish crafts which seem similar have been incredibly hard of them,” she added. “Syrian workers, who agree to work for less money, are also taking commissions from them, though the quality is not the same.”

In the coming months Badguer and Nahnoo intend to continue working to promote local crafts through exhibitions, workshops and guided tours of Burj Hammoud.

Nahnoo is currently working on a second report to be released in early 2021, focused on suggesting policies for Lebanon, based on comparative studies with countries that were able to successfully support and protect their artisans.

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