For a long time now, I’ve been wanting to write something about Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian neighborhood in Beirut where I grew up. But what was there to say other than fragments of stories with no punch lines?
Now I know I need to write to say goodbye. This prodigal daughter of yours will not be returning for a new beginning, because all your beginnings have been the beginnings of ends for some time now.
I will not be returning to a place that does not even know of my existence and less so of my absence. And I know my sadness is disproportionate to my loss. You have lost thousands like me, thousands better than me, and never stopped to wonder.
A priest, with two alter boys in full attire, knocks on the door. It’s Christmas or Easter or Merelots* or some other religious holiday. Time for the customary house blessing. They have been going door-to-door for a week now. They come in with protocol, through the heavy cloud of burning incense, mumble a prayer and a sharagan* over a saltshaker and glass of water, then hand my mom a receipt. “I’m so sorry, I don’t have any money now,” my mom says, embarrassed. “Go and borrow some from your neighbor,” the priest says.
We did not open the door the next time they came, and soon enough they stopped coming.
An officer in a Lebanese army uniform knocks on the door. “You owe 500 USD in parking fines. The case has gone to court and the court has added penalties because you failed to show up,” he says. “The tickets are from four years ago.”
But wait, we sold the car two years ago. How were we allowed to if we had unpaid tickets? And four years ago there were no traffic signs or red lines in Bourj Hammoud, what were we fined for? Why did we never get notifications of the tickets or the court date? “Ask your municipality. Also, your mother will be arrested at the airport if she tries to leave the country without paying; the car was in her name.”
After the soldier leaves, I go from the municipality all the way to the office of the Dashnagstagan parliament member at the Shaghzoyan Center demanding answers to my questions. “Whose daughter are you?” asks the man in the meticulously trimmed beard from behind the desk. My father was not a member of any Armenian political party nor a successful businessman. As far as they were concerned, I was no one’s daughter.
I knock at the heavy wooden door of the Prelacy. My father had passed away the night before and I needed to make burial arrangements.
“Sorry, you have no burial plot at the cemetery.”
“But what do you mean? Here are the papers.”
“Oh, yes. See, sometime ago we published a notice in the newspapers saying everyone should reclaim their plots. Your family has not…”
“But here are the papers. My grandparents are buried there. Why were we not notified?”
“We could not find you.”
“You found us fine a year ago, during the elections; you found me in Yerevan six months before the elections.”
“We are happy to offer your father a drawer in the cemetery and give you a chance to re-buy the plot.”
A year and six thousand dollars later, my father was laid to rest next to his parents.
I don’t know who will be knocking at my door or whose doors I’ll be knocking on in Yerevan or anywhere else I go, but it won’t be yours. It won’t be in Bourj Hammoud.
You did not lose me to the civil war, to financial hardships, to changes brought about by the war in Syria, to Israeli attacks, to the garbage crisis, or to the electricity and water shortages. You lost me when you raised a hand on a person who spoke and thought freely.
You lost me when you presumed to have the right to attack a writer in a parking lot because you deemed his words not to be publishable in your papers. You lost me when you arrogantly and savagely attacked someone simply for their thoughts, in my neighborhood, the streets where I grew up, where I was mostly invisible.
I and many others are visible now, whether you want to see or not. Writing and self-expression are funny that way: They can outlast anything.
Bourj Hammoud, you can soon have my cemetery plot. It’s right next to the old chapel. I was told it’s a premium location, but I won’t be buried there.
*Merelots: memorial day for the diseased in the Armenian Church calendar