Armenians in Lebanon (I): The Republic of Anjar
By: Afif Diab
Published Sunday, April 22, 2012
The Bourj Hammoud district of Greater Beirut is the capital home to Lebanon’s Armenians, however their presence extends well beyond the city. Al-Akhbar looks at the different areas in Lebanon where Armenian communities settled as they fled from Turkish persecution a century ago.
Anjar has been the mystery of the Bekaa Valley since 1939, the year Armenians arrived there. The rest of the valley has not been able to solve this mystery whose legend was built by poor men and women forced out of the Iskenderun. Armenians have since passed this town down from father to son.
“The Republic of Anjar,” which enjoys boundless autonomy under the banner of one-party rule [The Armenian Revolutionary Federation or Tashnag] overcame the surprised and disapproving looks from residents in nearby areas from the moment the first Armenian stepped foot here.
The poor and forcibly displaced refugees succeeded in taming the fields drowning in polluted water and were able to quickly build their own city. The cornerstone was laid down by France, Lebanon’s “compassionate mother,” when it bought, through cajoling and intimidation, about 1540 hectares of Anjar’s agricultural land.
In a short time, the Armenians of Anjar were able to transform the land that had been “discarded” into a commercial, agricultural, and industrial destination.
Mayor Sarkis Pamboukian says Anjar is 100 percent Armenian and adds laughing, it is “24-karat Armenian gold.”
From a Refugee Camp to a City
Anjar began as an Armenian camp established in mid 1939 over swampland. It ended up a city with 1062 houses and 1250 families by mid 1941. It has 7,000 registered citizens today. About 3,000 reside in Anjar on a permanent basis while the number goes up to 4,000 in the summer.
Pamboukian explains that Armenian migration from Anjar happened over two stages. The first was in 1946 when a limited number – about 400 families – left to Soviet Armenia for good. “But the larger migration happened at the beginning of the Lebanese war in 1975,” Pamboukian says, pointing out that Armenians who leave Anjar today come back to “visit all the time,” emphasizing that good relations with neighboring areas has brought about social stability.
“That is why we don’t feel anything here threatening our existence. On the contrary, over the course of seven decades, we have become an essential part of the fabric of this area,” Pamboukian says adding, “An Armenian Anjar is a source of strength for the Bekaa. We don’t feel we’re strangers or that we don’t belong on this land.”
A Headquarters of the Syrian Security Leadership
The Syrian presence in Lebanon played a role in establishing and protecting social stability for the Armenians of Anjar. From 1982 until 2005, the city became a major base for the Syrian security, military, and intelligence leadership.
An Armenian man active in politics and not a Tashnag member confirms that “the Syrian presence helped protect us from repercussions of the Lebanese Civil War.” He says, “We did not ever feel that we are left to an uncertain future here even though we had major political differences with our neighbors.”
He points to the legal dispute between Dar al-Fatwa (the country's top Sunni institution) and the Armenians of Anjar over the ownership of agricultural lands on the outskirts of the town. He says this dispute “took on a sectarian character earlier but cooperation between the two sides prevented a fifth column from interfering in this dispute and today it is being addressed within a legal framework.”
He stresses that the relationship between the Armenians of his city and the people of Majdal Anjar, a neighboring town, is “very good even though there are political differences between them.”
Member of the Tashnag party committee in Anjar, Harutyun Atanas Lakasian, says that their relationship with the town of Majdal Anjar and the rest of the area is “very good. We respect each other and we exchange visits,” he says, pointing out that the Tashnag party “works to keep the relationship with neighboring areas good.”
He believes that the formerly cold relationship between Anjar and neighboring towns was “a normal outcome of the political differences that exist among them, specifically after 2005.”
He explains that the Tashnag’s decision to join an electoral alliance against the Future Movement led to “cold relations with our neighbors but we were able to change this cold relationship to a close one.”
Lakasian stresses that the Tashnag party in Anjar “does not discriminate between the various political parties in the area even though there are political differences at times.”
There Might Be Some Hardships
In 2005, political differences emerged between Anjar and neighboring towns as the city was thought to be part of the March 8 alliance, turning it into a politically isolated island within a popular sea that supports March 14. Anjar paid a price for this isolation and accusation until it managed to overcome this “adversity.”
Pamboukian says the alliance between the Tashnag and March 8 “did not prevent Anjar from building solid ties with neighboring areas whose residents support March 14.” He explains: “We are neither allies nor enemies with anyone. There are political interests and we don’t deny that relationships were strained.”
Pamboukian says that his city has suffered from economic stagnation during the past period because “the neighboring areas boycotted us as a result of edicts by clergymen.” But he affirmed that the relationship today is “very good and we are witnessing economic, commercial, and touristic growth.”
“Chant Represents Himself”
Anjar is self-sufficient and is governed by an independent political and administrative rule, creating a sense of security for a people who succeeded in limiting how much others mingle with them. They have also dealt patiently with the outcome of their political disagreement with their neighbors.
Lakasian says that MP Shant Janjanian “represents himself” and that he does not visit the whole community in Anjar but “visits a few people here” confirming that “Anjar is all Tashnag, 99.5 percent.” He adds, “but Shant is not Tashnag, he belongs to the Lebanese Forces. See how democratic Anjar is?”
MP Janjanian, who does not have the Tashnag stamp of approval, sees himself as a Lebanese Armenian representing the residents of Central Bekaa without exception.
He tells Al-Akhbar: “My relationship with the Armenians of Anjar and the area predates my election to the parliament. I used to have an educational role in one of the schools in Anjar. Membership in the parliament cemented this relationship because of my practical and serious participation in the activities and meetings whether official, religious, or social that have to do with the Armenian community and with other Lebanese communities.”
Janjanian stresses that his relationship with Armenians in the region and specifically in Anjar is “characterized by honesty and transparency, especially after they realized that I don’t make bombastic promises that cannot be fulfilled.”
He is confident that his support among Armenians is “growing gradually because I adopt a policy of realism.”
Janjanian refuses to describe his relationship with the Tashnag as one of “defiance.” He sees the issue as a question of freedom. Freedom to run for office and freedom of expression based on the principle of public freedoms in democratic systems.
He says there are other Armenian political parties and clubs beside the Tashnag, like the Ramgavar and the Hanshak (Janjanian’s father and siblings are members of the Hanshak Party), and they have the right to engage in politics based on their own political views by running for office and voting just like the Tashnag.
Janjanian, who is trying to bring Armenians closer to the residents of Central Bekaa, does not hide the fact that mufti Khalil al-Mais asked for his help in solving the issue of the land disputed between the Muslim Waqf and the Armenians of Anjar.
Janjanian believes that unlike the rumors that have been propagated, this task is an indication that people in neighboring areas want to consolidate the strong relationship with Anjar. It also reflects the significance and role of the Armenian community in the Bekaa.
The Armenians of Zahle
Anjar’s total independence from its surroundings, its transformation into a republic inside the republic, and its stability did not reflect on Armenians in the city of Zahle where al-Midan neighborhood is their major stronghold.
Out of 1000 Armenians registered in Zahle’s official records, only 400 are left. An Armenian activist in the city says that the percentage of Armenians migrating from Zahle is very high compared to Anjar or those who were once in Chtoura (Jalala neighborhood) and left permanently.
He explains that Anjar’s stability in terms of security during the civil war contributed to creating social stability, something that Armenians in Zahle, who left Lebanon for good, lacked.
He says that efforts to reconnect Armenians who left Zahle with their city are “going on around the clock.” He points out that the political loyalty of the Armenians of Zahle is primarily to the Tashnag party. Only a very limited number is committed to the Hanshak and the Ramgavar parties or to political and economic interests with local MPs.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.