Although Arda Kashkashian has been living in Lebanon for several years and has received Lebanese citizenship, Aleppo still occupies a special place in her heart, and she continues to visit regularly, sometimes staying there for long periods of time.
Arda is from an Armenian family who lived in Aleppo, Arda attended elementary classes at a French nuns’ school. The students there were from Aleppo’s most important families, of all different nationalities and religions. Classes were taught in French and the students also took Arabic language courses.
After the nationalization of Syria’s private schools in the 1960s, foreign missionary schools—including Arda’s—were also nationalized. The Directorate of Education in Damascus took over the school’s administration, applying the official state curriculum, which had Arabic as its official language of instruction. Arda, accompanied by her mother and siblings, moved to Lebanon, while her father remained in Aleppo.
Arda tells the story of her grandfather’s flight to Syria, escaping from the Ottoman Empire’s violence against the Armenian community at the beginning of the 20th century. “My grandfather fled his village, heading for Aleppo,” she says. “Because the city was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time, the Armenians were also persecuted there. My grandfather had to hide out in the home of a Sheikh from Aleppo for a long time, going to work for him.
“My grandfather worked at a number of different jobs,” continues Arda, “and he suffered a lot before he was able to stand on his own two feet and earn a decent living for his family. He later opened a small hotel in the city, and when my father was young, he would help him out, going to the train station and trying to attract customers to the hotel.”
Arda’s father then worked at the reception in one of Aleppo’s famous hotels before being promoted to the manager there. He remained at that job for the rest of his life, outside of the hotel, he succeeded in establishing an expo for selling carpets and antiques in the Bab Faraj neighborhood in the 1950s.
“My father’s shop in Bab Faraj was a beautiful and magical place for me,” says Arda. “It was also quite special, as the location was the former house of the French Consul during the mandate era. My father enjoyed very good relationships with the foreign tourists he’d meet through his work, either at the shop or at the hotel.
“I would visit Aleppo regularly,” continues Arda, “and I’d always stay at the hotel where my father worked. I would accompany him on his tours for the foreign tourists sometimes, visiting different historic sites in Syria like the Krak des Chevaliers Crusader Castle, the ruins of Palmyra and others.”
The Armenian immigrants integrated well in Aleppo and became a vital part of the city’s population.They were famous for their industrial labor and craftwork. Arda talks about how members of the Armenian community ventured into new professions, such as photography, and also became well-known as skilled goldsmiths, mechanics, tailors and other such specialists.
Arda also talks about Aleppo’s demographics. “Aleppo society was made up of a diversity of religions, sects and nationalities. Everyone co-existed in harmony. I never once felt different from the city’s original inhabitants. In fact I only ever felt that I was part of this beautiful fabric.”
Arda then recalls the story of her mother’s Armenian family, who came to Aleppo hundreds of years ago, long before the waves of migration instigated by Ottoman persecution. This was the reason why her mother’s family spoke fluent Arabic, and Arda’s mother had all the old popular proverbs memorized and practiced Aleppo’s customs and traditions.
“At the beginning of summer, in June,” says Arda, “people would spray one another with water, laughing and joking. It was a tradition passed down from an Armenian Saint’s day, but it became something that everyone in Aleppo did as so many traditions had become common among different groups in the society.”
Arda also describes Aleppo’s social life: “Aleppo was vital and bustling, a city that never slept,” she says, “and even visits between families and friends would happen at night. We’d go to a public park called the Mashtal—it was such a beautiful and special place. We’d also go to the Sabil or Aziziya neighborhoods, where there were lots of cafes and restaurants and where we’d spend long and wonderful hours with our friends.”