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Film director shares sights and sounds of Beirut's 'Little Armenia'

From Schams Elwazer, CNN
updated 6:01 AM EST, Mon February 6, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Film director Nigol Bezjian takes CNN on a guided tour of the Bourj Hammoud neighborhood
  • Bourj Hammoud, on the outskirts of Beirut, is known as Little Armenia
  • Bezjian, director of "Chickpeas," says he is Armenian first of all

Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon (CNN) -- Film director Nigol Bezjian was born in Syria, raised in Lebanon and studied in the United States, but nowhere does he feel more at home than in Little Armenia.

Little Armenia is the vibrant Bourj Hammoud neighborhood of Beirut. Bourj Hammoud was developed mainly in the 1930s by Armenian refugees who arrived in Beirut after massacres of Armenians in 1915 and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Armenians and many historians refer to the massacres as genocide, but Turkey has always denied there was a genocide of the Armenian population.

Bezjian, 57, director of the 1992 film "Chickpeas," took CNN on a tour of his favorite parts of Bourj Hammoud, taking in a family restaurant, bookshop, church and art gallery, where he catches up with colleagues.

Film director Nigol Bezjian tours Bourj Hammoud district of Beirut
Film director Nigol Bezjian tours Bourj Hammoud district of Beirut

He said: "If you ask me what I am, I would tell you I'm Armenian.

"Bourj Hammoud has played a significant role especially after 1950s -- this is where the Armenian patriotism was born ... Armenian literature took root again.

"Armenian culture was reborn here in a way."

As he walked down the bustling streets, Bezjian shook hands with people he knew. "This is the thing I like, you run into people and friends without planning," he said.

In an Armenian bookstore, he said: "When I come here, I see lots of acquaintances and friends from all different walks of life, I directly connect to my people and I get lots of inspiration from them."

In 2003, Bezjian made a documentary called "Muron," named after the consecrated mixture of oil, flowers, and scents used in various rituals in the Armenian Church.

Armenian culture was reborn here in a way
Nigol Bezjian

Visiting a church Bourj Hammoud, he said: "Muron is basically used to consecrate icons and also for baptizing, and I wanted to see how this was made.

"When they do a new one what remains from the oil is mixed in the new one so in a way the Muron that is made today is directly connected to what was made in year 301. This sense of continuity is very important."

Bezjian said he is not religious, but loves the church for the silence it provides from the noise of the streets outside.

"Church has always played a central role in preserving the Armenian identity and culture," he added.

Bezjian takes CNN to an Armenian radio station where the news is read in Armenian and where he is a regular guest.

Ending his tour in a restaurant called Baroud run by a father and son, Bezjian ponders the question of identity.

"In this part of the world people don't talk about identity so much, it's a given. Identity is North American invention ... who am I? You are who you are."

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