Armenians in Lebanon (II): United by the Sea
By: Joanna Azar
Published Monday, April 23, 2012
The Armenian community in Jbeil are well organized and vote in unison. However, they do not consider themselves as separate from the rest of the local community.
“We are all one.” This expression almost sums up the Armenian reality in Jbeil at important junctures such as the municipal and parliamentary elections. The Armenian vote does not have a strong influence on parliamentary elections because they are held at the district level, but it can change the results in the municipal elections.
In Jbeil, meters away from the sand beach lies the orphanage and school. Across from it is the Armenian club which includes the political party Tashnag (The Armenian Revolutionary Federation), the Armenian Relief Cross Organization, and the Tashnag youth and children’s organizations, as well as other branches of the party.
The real Armenian presence is inside the city. It is true that the Tashnag influence in Jbeil is relatively low compared to in other areas. But Armenians came to Jbeil in 1915, participated in its “industries,” and worked in commerce and trade.
The vast majority of Armenians in different Lebanese areas, including Jbeil, support Tashnag, in addition to their party members, according to the head of the Armenian club in Jbeil, Claude Arijian.
Ethnic and religious connections are enough to mobilize supporters, that is why “we are more united than other groups,” but “that does not mean we live in a separate block in the Jbeil area.”
Arijian adds, “About 1350 Armenians are registered to vote in Jbeil, a large number of them immigrated over the last few years, as have other Lebanese citizens, but immigration is more conspicuous among Armenians because we are few in number.”
Where do Tashnag supporters stand today in Jbeil within the current political alignments?
“Now they are definitely with the parliamentary majority,” says Arijian. He pointed out that the party in Jbeil is part of the Tashnag central committee, but at the same time it maintains a degree of autonomy on matters related to the Jbeil area.
Between Bourj Hammoud and Jbeil
On the distinctions between the Armenians of Jbeil versus their counterparts in Bourj Hammoud, Arijian explains, “The Armenians of Bourj Hammoud live in an almost closed off block. There, the shop-owner, the baker, the butcher, and the businessmen are all Armenian. In Jbeil, however, there is coexistence making the Armenian community part of a mix. They share the concerns of all the people of Jbeil and their daily problems, from electricity to water and so on...”
In the not so distant past, about 10 years ago, Tashnag was part of a gathering of Jbeil’s political parties that met regularly and communicated with each other for the sake of Jbeil. Today, the gathering no longer holds meetings.
Tashnag members in Jbeil say, “We don’t have a problem with anyone, we did not stop communicating with other parties. We invite them every year to the annual event that we organize in Jbeil on the anniversary of the Armenian genocide. It is common in Lebanon to say that Armenians are with the government or with the president. We say it is true that we are allied with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and with Hezbollah, but our alliances have never prevented us from being open to all other political forces.”
April 24 – Genocide Memorial Day – is the most important anniversary for Jbeil’s Armenians. They organize an annual event on that date in which most of Jbeil’s political forces and organizations participate. Last year’s celebration had a special flavor because it was on the eve of the municipal elections.
As soon as the celebration ended, the Armenians of Jbeil through their party leadership, conveyed their decision to support candidate Jean Louis Kordahi against the president of the municipality at that time, Ziad Hawat, while both candidates attended the event.
About 300 Armenian votes form one “bloc” that is able to change the outcome of the municipal elections. Tashnag’s electoral machine is known for its organizational capacity.
Supporters of Tashnag stress that they “come to the club because they believe that the party’s positions express their views and fulfill their interests as a group.”
“All sides and candidates know how Tashnag works in elections,” says Arijian, adding, “we make a commitment, both verbal and in terms of taking a position. Our supporters adhere to this commitment. No one needs to test us.”
Today, Jbeil’s Armenians feel that they are represented on the municipal level “even though we did not give Hawat our vote. But we are part of Jbeil’s social fabric and he deals with us on that basis. Our relationship with him is a typical relationship between Jbeil residents and their municipality.”
They stress, however, that “this relationship is only at the municipal level and does not cross over to the political level. On the political level, our relationship with Jbeil’s MPs remains very good.”
As far as Jbeil politics are concerned, after Hawat’s list won completely without including an Armenian candidate, the goal of Armenians in Jbeil is to return an Armenian to the municipal council so he can convey their concerns and problems to the municipality.
They believe that Jbeil is “beautiful no matter what, because its residents work for it and the city is for all its people.”
Their relationship with the Maronite Patriarch Bishara Rai is good because he was the bishop of the Maronite diocese of Jbeil. They took part in his beatification ceremony and they, like the rest of the people of Jbeil, consider him as one of them.
The Armenians of Jbeil do not believe in the cult of personality when it comes to political leadership. The ideology of Tashnag is based on a purpose and a vision, not on a person. “We don’t follow a leader, but an ideology and a goal. Since its inception, Tashnag has never had just one leader. It was established by three people in 1890.”
In their opinion, the 120 years that have passed since the establishment of the party taught Lebanon’s Armenians and Jbeil’s Armenians a great deal. Even though their party is ideological, it is not sectarian. Although the language is a barrier for others wanting to join, Kurdish, Bulgarian, and citizens from other countries have joined its ranks.
Jbeil’s Armenians commemorate the anniversary of the Armenian genocide, both and Armenian and Lebanese independence days, as well as special Armenian holidays.
What about their language? Do they speak Armenian or Arabic with a Jbeili accent?
“A little of both,” they say, concluding, “we are at peace with ourselves before we make peace with others.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.