Amid Burj Hammoud’s narrow alleys – lined with shops and workshops, bustling with pedestrians and children on bicycles, and strung overhead with Armenian flags, electric wires, and washing lines – Badguèr stands out like an oasis. Dating back to 1930, this pink house near the Beirut River is a promotional center for artisans and creativity, the ground floor of which is home to authentic and delicious Armenian cuisine comprised of carefully prepared dishes from traditional recipes.
The two-storey house includes exhibition venues, a boutique for artistic creations and handcrafts, conference and training rooms, a guest room to host master artisan trainers or for residencies, and an outdoor terrace. The dining room is spacious and bright with cozy tables covered with crocheted tablecloths. Rugs are displayed on the walls and on the right hand side is a piano.
In the room adjacent to the restaurant visitors can watch a film about Burj Hammoud’s artisans. Upstairs, exquisite Armenian needlework, crochet creations, knitted slippers and jewelry are on display, some dating back decades.
The house, which functions like a rhizome, is the brainchild of Arpiné
Mangassarian, who is known by everyone as Arpi.
“I wanted to create links,” Mangassian says of her motivation in setting up Badguèr (which means ‘image’ or ‘photograph’ in Armenian.) “Keeping to ourselves will be a disservice; we need to engage, we need to open windows, create passages to make people curious [about Burj Hammoud].”
Badguèr is the result of a long journey. “I had this dream; I knew that this area had big potential socially, and regarding its artisanal work. In our culture we used to feel proud of our accomplishments, including cultural ones. We’ve always been creators and I wanted to demonstrate this creative output.”
The realization of Mangassarian’s dream began in 2009, when she was invited to take part in in a special edition of the Agenda Culturel focusing specifically on Burj Hammoud. She began receiving requests to bring artisans to exhibitions and to do live demonstrations. “After a series of exhibitions, I was lucky. My uncle gave me a gift and with that the family could buy and renovate this house.”
Often hiding behind non-descript shop fronts across the Armenian neighborhood are jewelers, hat and bag makers, tailors, shoemakers, ceramicists, medal carvers, blacksmiths, locksmiths, and setters. The area also abounds in repair shops. “If something’s broken, people tend to say: ‘go to Burj Hammoud, they can fix it,’” Houry Ellezian, a friend of
Mangassarian said. “We became famous for fixing things. We never threw anything away, always kept stuff. We were the early recyclers.”
Once a wetland, Burj Hammoud’s history as neighborhood dates back to the 1920s, when it became the stopping point for Armenian refugees who had managed to survive the genocide and escape its Turkish perpetrators. Mangassian’s 92-year old father Noubar was born in Aleppo, after his mother crossed deserts and plains on foot for seven-months until reaching the Syrian border. A fixture at Badguèr, Mangassarian senior showed NOW a painting he made as a young man of Mother Armenia, which is now on display in the restaurant area.
Carole Corm writes in her book Beirut: A guide to the city that “Burj Hammoud would become the refugees’ enduring home with two-, three-and four-story buildings, planned on a linear grid, gradually replacing tents and wooden barracks…Armenian newspapers, social clubs, schools and political parties developed over the span of a generation. Bustling with activity, it is the industrial heart of the capital.”
The tour Mangassarian and Ellezian gave NOW first stopped at the Aprahamian Factory, which was established 60 years ago, supplying local stores and exporting quality leather shoes to Africa and the Gulf. Ellezian had bought shoes for her son’s prom there.
Vahé Mitilian, grandson of Lido Shoes’ founder, showed NOW a room filled with leather swatches, prototypes and tools, where the latest winter production was lined up. “So many pieces have to come together,” Mitilian explained, opening a tinted glass cabinet filled with a range of silver-studded high heels posing next to vertiginous stilettos in leather and artificial materials. “Designing a new shoe is a long process.”
Nearby a few men, each seated at their workstation, engaged in various stages of this undertaking. Mitilian’s uncle Viken popped his head through the door holding an 18cm stiletto: “The shoe will carry the body and the body will carry the rest,” he said.
Next up was a visit to the goldsmith Kevork Kazanjian, who as the teenage son of a diamond setter was sent to do an apprenticeship with well-known Armenian goldsmith Busant Shublakian. Kazanjian now sells his creations to shops in Lebanon, and works for private clients at home and abroad. He displayed some finely crafted pendants with precious stones inset as well as an antique gold ring on his office desk.
Mangassarian vividly recalls how as children she and her brother would marvel at the giant cinema poster on display at Beirut’s Rivoli Cinema, without fail signed ‘Havarian,’ making the two feel proud.
During Lebanese cinema’s golden age, the three Havarian brothers used to paint large, unique posters for theaters all over Lebanon. Yervant Havarian’s eyes lit up when talking about a 40x10m poster he painted in his small workshop for a James Bond movie, which once complete was mounted on the Concorde Centre in Verdun. “It is due to this poster that they had the best box offices sales ever. It hasn’t been topped until today,” he said. “I loved my job and did it with passion and I loved the cinema.” Havarian now primarily paints religious oil paintings for churches.
Mangassarian currently serves as head of architecture and urban planning for the Burj Hammoud’s municipality. In her office is a painting carrying the dedication: “For Arpi, who carries her name well and illuminates the whole of Burj Hammoud.” Arpi means ‘sun’ in Armenian.
Mangassarian sees her role as an intermediary. “The aim of Badguèr is to make their work known and connect the artisans with people who will appreciate their artisanship.”
Badguèr is window into a world of highly skilled artisans, who gave their families a new life in Lebanon while preserving skills passed down by their fathers and forefathers. It is bound to change the way visitors look at a story infused with trauma, resilience, creativity, and spirit.
Beyond that, it also offers insight into Armenian culture, which to Mangassarian is a component of that rich Lebanese culture in which she firmly believes.
For more information call 01 240 214 or 03 652 235 or consult Badguèr’s Facebook page.