An Exceptional Trip to Brussels, Belgium

The Armenian marching band from Yerevan in Brussels' “Grand Place”
The Armenian marching band from Yerevan in Brussels' “Grand Place”

The Armenian marching band from Yerevan in Brussels’ “Grand Place”

BY CATHERINE YESAYAN

“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore.”—Anne Lamott

The quote above resonates with me, because writing is my excuse to travel. For the last seven years, I have traveled and done some exploring with a focus on Armenian culture in different countries. This time my travels took me to Brussels, Belgium.

If it were not for my interest in Armenian culture, I most probably would not have considered a visit to Brussels. I stayed there for four days, and, I must say, it was the most fruitful visit — in terms of gaining knowledge about the Armenian community there — when compared to my previous trips. In Brussels, I connected with several young individuals who were directly involved with the Armenian community.

Catherine Yesayan at the Armenian Apostolic Church in Ixelles, Belgium

Catherine Yesayan at the Armenian Apostolic Church in Ixelles, Belgium

Prior to leaving for Brussels, I contacted the daughter of a friend of mine, hoping to get some leads on the Armenian community in Brussels, where she lives. She explained that, although she has no contact with the Armenian community, she receives a monthly newsletter about local Armenians. She was able to give me an email address from the back of the newsletter, which was incredibly, and helped me plan my trip accordingly.

Before I elaborate further about my trip to Brussels, I’d like to tell you about the remarkable history behind the Armenians of Belgium.

Through preliminary internet research, I learned that, in the annals of history, it was recorded that as early as the 4th century, Armenian priests, merchants, and intellectuals had arrived in Belgium.

Similarly, in the ancient Belgian religious records, there’s a reference to a Saint called Servais, as the first Armenian bishop to visit the town of Tongres, which is east of Brussels.

From the year 1340, Armenian merchants were authorized to sell carpets in Brussels. Armenians had their own trading centers, as well. They imported cotton goods, spices, perfumes, and other materials from the Orient. They also exported European goods to markets in the East. The record of their presence continues well into the 15th century.

Starting from the turn of the 20th century, some Armenians in Belgium were involved in the diamond trade and they were primarily based in the city of Antwerp, which processes 84 percent of the world’s mined diamonds.

Another notable aspect of Armenians in Belgium was that they once held a monopoly over the tobacco industry. Davros, Arax, Marouf, and Enfi were the only cigarette brands made in Belgium. Behind each of these names were Armenian families, mostly immigrants from Turkey, who had settled in Belgium at the turn of the century.

Catherine Yesayan with Harout Chahinian at the Hay Taad office

Catherine Yesayan with Harout Chahinian at the Hay Taad office

Today the exact number of Armenians in Belgium is unknown, but it’s estimated to be about 30,000.

I arrived on a Saturday afternoon by an express train from Paris to Brussels. I had booked a room in Ixelles, where the Armenian Apostolic Church is located.

My host helped me find the exact location of the church on a map, and she gave me directions on how to get there. The next morning, I walked to the church.

The church, which was a 15-minute walk away from where I was stating, was almost full to its capacity — perhaps 200 people. It was a “full throttle” service. There were about six or seven deacons and altar servers. An eloquent choir accompanied the sacraments.

After the liturgy, attendees lined up to share communion and receive a small piece of the blessed bread. To me, the true devotion of the whole parish was evident. Afterwards, everybody was invited to gather at the community room for refreshments.

I had arranged to meet with Karen Tadevosyan, the President of the Armenian Center in Brussels after the service. He arrived as we had planned and drove me to the Armenian Center, called “Hay Doun.”

Karen had arrived from Armenia in 1997 in his early 20s. Now, in his 40s, he’s adjusted to life in Belgium. He’s married and has two daughters.

Catherine Yesayan with Father Zadik Avedikian

Catherine Yesayan with Father Zadik Avedikian

The Hay Doun was located on the other side of the town. It took us a little over an hour to visit the center and return to Ixelles, where we met with the Reverend for a late lunch.

On the way, Karen spoke about the Armenian community and their activities. He explained how, in 1921, a small number of Armenians of Belgium came together and formed a society, unrelated to any political party, but with their own parliamentarian rules. Today, the rules are still in effect.

Among the activities of the Armenian Society is the celebration of the Independence Day of Armenia from the Soviet Union on September 21. Every year, on that day, the Society invites a musician from Armenia to perform in Brussels. This year, Armenian Duduk Master Harutyun Chkolyan is invited to perform. Chkolyan is famous for his stylings on the duduk, and other Armenian and Near Eastern wind instruments such as the zurna, ney flute, and clarinet.

Armenians have had another independence day, which occurred a hundred years ago, in 1918. In fact, that was the first independence of Armenia since the Middle Ages. However, it only lasted two years, until it was overcome by the communist regime in 1920.

To celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the First Republic of Armenia, last year, the Society arranged an Armenian festival, and also a concert at the City Hall — the historical main square of Brussels, the “Grand Place.” As a highlight, they had invited the girls marching drum band from Yerevan to come perform. To facilitate that, they accommodated 18 girls into different homes.

The symbol of Brussels is a statue of a naked little boy named Manneken, urinating into a fountain’s basin. That day, as part of the celebration, the statue of Manneken was draped with an Armenian traditional outfit. Today, the costume is kept at the Brussels’ museum.

“The celebration of the 100th anniversary and the performance of the marching drums were exceptional,” said Karen.

Catherine Yesayan in front of the building of European Commission, which is near the Hay Taad office

Catherine Yesayan in front of the building of European Commission, which is near the Hay Taad office

On our way to the Hay Doun and back, we talked about many aspects of Armenians, which I have narrowed down. I’ll start by stating that today’s Armenians arrived to Belgium in different waves.

The first wave was at the turn of the 20th century, to flee the atrocities of the Turkish government. The second wave was in 40s and 50s from the Middle East. Another surge happened in the 70s and early 80s, which included Armenians of Istanbul. Then, in the 90s, Armenians from Armenia arrived.

The Armenians from Armenia have established several businesses. Among them are five Armenian grocery stores and two pizzerias. The pizzerias are Pizza Sako and Pizza Lilo, which recently was awarded as the best Pizza place in Brussels.

In Brussels and other cities, there are seven Saturday Armenian language schools. In the higher education system, there are about 200 Armenian students.

Although it was a Sunday, and there was no traffic, it took us 20 minutes, to reach the Hay Doun. Karen said the first Hay Doun opened its doors in 1960, in Ixelles.

Catherine Yesayan with Karen Tatevosyan at the Khachkar in Ixelles, Belgium

Catherine Yesayan with Karen Tatevosyan at the Khachkar in Ixelles, Belgium

This new center was inaugurated in 2013. “They had bought the center For 800,000 euros and had spent two years to remodel it. Today, the center is worth two million euros,” Karen said.

The first floor encompasses a small auditorium, a restaurant, and a library with a multitude of Armenian books. There’s also a banquet hall which accommodates about 300 people — a source of income for the center.

The second floor is occupied by the Sevan Armenian language school, which was founded in 1984. The school runs classes on Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The language school has 90 students and four classrooms. The kindergarten occupies two rooms, which are furnished with colorful furniture.

Both Eastern and Western Armenian are taught at the school. Every year, they have their end of the year “handless” concert.

Besides the usual reading and writing in Armenian, the kids learn about Armenian history. The older children have opportunities to learn oratory skills, and they have chess classes, too.

Once a week, Gandzag Armenian dance school uses the Center for their dance practice. There are two other dance groups in Brussels. Also, on Saturdays, Armenians have two hours of radio time in Brussels.

After visiting the Hay Doun, Karen and I returned to Ixelles to meet father Avedikian for a late lunch at a nearby restaurant. I had the opportunity to ask him about the church, which was inaugurated on May 6, 1990.

He said that there are four to five hundred active members at the church. The design of the church is influenced by the Church of Sourp Khach on the Island of Akhtamar, in Lake Van in Turkey.

“For the last five years, the students of Brussels’ architectural school have visited the church to observe the architectural features, especially the exposure of light and the character of the inside arches,” noted Karen.

From l to r: Lori Mahmourian, Nicolas Tavitian, Catherine Yesayan

From l to r: Lori Mahmourian, Nicolas Tavitian, Catherine Yesayan

After a pleasant lunch Karen drove me to the Henri Michaux Square, in Ixelles, to see the Khachkar (stone-cross) that was erected there as a tribute to the Armenian Genocide.

He said, “Every year on April 24, Armenians and some dignitaries gather at that square, to commemorate the Armenian Genocide. After the remembrance ceremony at the square, the delegation meets at Saint Michael Cathedral, one of the most important landmarks of Brussels, and from there with loudspeakers in their hands, and tricolor Armenian flags, they march to the Turkish embassy and demand justice.”

As part of commemoration of April 24, an annual concert takes place at the Hay Doun.

The following day, I dedicated my morning to a walking city tour, which was fantastic. I found myself in the city’s famous square called “Grand Place,” which is considered one of the most beautiful medieval squares in Europe. Since I was a child, I had seen this ornate square in pictures. Being there in person was sensational.

Later in the day, I met with Lori Mahmourian and Nicolas Tavitian. Both individuals are part of the “Committee of Armenians of Belgium,” which runs the Armenian Society and publishes a monthly Newslettter/Bulletin, called HAY. This is the same bulletin that my friend’s daughter referred me to for leads in Brussels.

The Hay Doun plaque

The Hay Doun plaque

Lori and Nicolas are, respectively, fourth and third generation Armenians in Belgium. Lori speaks little Armenian, and yet she’s so enthusiastic about her heritage. She’s an urban planner and works on preservation of historic buildings in Brussels.

She told me that her mother and younger brother are taking private lessons to learn Armenian. Her father was the president of the “Armenian Society” for a few terms.

Nicolas is the current President of the Armenian Society. His grandparents arrived at the turn of the 20th century from Turkey. He talks in the Western Armenian dialect. Very recently, Nicolas visited Turkey, where he climbed Mt. Ararat.

On my last day in Brussels, I went to see Harout Chirinian at the office of “Hay Taad” of Europe which was situated in close proximity to the building of the European Commission. The initials for the office are E.A.F.J.D which stands for European Armenian Federation of Justice & Democracy.

Harout walked from his office to the metro station to greet me. He was born in 1988, in Lebanon, and received his higher education in France.

Before coming to Brussels and becoming the PR officer of the EAFJD (since 2017), he was the President of AYF France, which is called “FRA Nor Seround.”

EAFJD is an advocacy group and the main interlocutor of the EU institutions, promoting Armenian issues. Their main activities are as follows:

1. International Condemnation, Recognition & Reparations of the Armenian Genocide.
2. The Strengthening of EU-Armenian ties.
3. Defending the fundamental rights of the people of Artsakh and their right for self-determination.
4. Breaking the isolation imposed by Azerbaijan to Artsakh / Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
5. Promoting Parliamentary diplomacy between the European Parliament and both Armenian republics, mainly by inviting members of the European Parliament to visit Artsakh.
6. Fostering democracy in Artsakh by organizing, among other things, Election Observation Missions
7. Coordinating the activities of the Committees for the defense of the Armenian Cause in Europe.

Mannekin, the symbol of Brussels, wearing an Armenian costume

Mannekin, the symbol of Brussels, wearing an Armenian costume

The office in Brussels has been around since 2002. Each year, they welcome a number of young interns from Armenia to work at the office so they can learn about the relations of the EU and Armenia.

The Armenian community was beyond my expectation. I was truly delighted to meet all these young individuals who were so deeply connected to their roots and ancestry.

Brussels is the capital of the European Union. In addition to politics, it is also known for its “dreamy” chocolates, warm waffles, and cartoons. Yes, I learned that the comic series Tintin and the Smurfs originated in Belgium, by Belgian artists.

It’s only fitting here to tell you that, while I was in Brussels, I heard that Arman Nur’s sculpture of “The Fly” was touring the world and it was in Belgium at the time I was there.

The massive — human-size — sculpture of “The Fly” made its debut at the 2017 Florence Biennale, winning the prestigious Lorenzo il Magnifico Gold Medal.

Armand Nur was born in 1971 in Yerevan. Today, Nur is widely regarded as one of Armenia’s most innovative artists.

The sculpture was exhibited at Art Nocturne Knocke, in Knokke-Heist in (West Flanders) Belgium, beginning on August 10. The place was about one and half hours outside of Brussels, by the beach. Art Nocturne Knocke is one of Europe’s most important art and antiquities fair.

Unfortunately, I learned about the exhibition on the last two days of my stay in Brussels. If I had only known ahead of time, I may have been able to make arrangements to go see “The Fly!”

This was a rundown of my trip to Brussels, which proved to be more than successful. I hope you enjoyed spending your precious time with me.

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