February 9 2023 GM

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Glitter Meetups

Glitter Meetup is the weekly town hall of the Internet Freedom community at the IF Square on the TCU Mattermost, at 9am EST / 2pm UTC. Do you need an invite? Learn how to get one here.

Hi Haleb: Mapping Armenian owned shops in Tilel street in Aleppo

We will be introduced to an archival project belonging to and about the Armenian community in Syria, by focusing on Armenian owned shops in Tilel street in Aleppo to apprehend the migration of the Armenian community post 1915 Genocide. The presenter will talk to us about the process of digitization and digital mapping, the different tools used, and the challenges faced when trying to archive digitally what is only available (and understood) physically and offline.

Bio: Houry Pilibbossian is a photographer of Syrian-Armenian origins. She recently completed her MA in social anthropology with distinction at Goldsmiths University of London. Prior to that, Houry received a B.A. in English and Communications from the American University of Armenia. In the past three years Houry has been a TA at AUA for the Oral History: Collecting Life Stories course and a variety of courses at the college of humanities and social sciences at AUA. She is also a research assistant in a collaborative oral history project mapping traces and memories of genocide in Armenia’s urban landscapes. Houry also does research for Dr. Melissa Bilal and Dr. Lerna Ekmekcioglufor their upcoming book Feminism in Armenia: an interpretive anthology.


Our first question would be for you to introduce yourself so everyone can know about your amazing work!

  • Let me start by saying that  I’m Houry (@houry on Mattermost) a photographer and researcher of Syrian-Armenian origins. I’m currently based in Yerevan, Armenia. I recently completed my MA in social anthropology at Goldsmiths University of London. Prior to that, I received a B.A. in English and Communications from the American University of Armenia. In the past three years I have been a TA at AUA for the Oral History: Collecting Life Stories course and a variety of courses at the college of humanities and social sciences at AUA. I’m also a research assistant in a collaborative oral history project mapping traces and memories of genocide in Armenia’s urban landscapes. And the co-founder of Hi Haleb the project we will talk about today.

Can you tell us about Hi Haleb?

  • “Hi Haleb” is a team effort by Saghatel Basil (a writer and activist from Aleppo based in Sweden), Harout Mardirossian (Software Developer, History enthusiast from Aleppo based in Lebanon), Rajni Avagyan (Psychologist, from Yerevan based in Sweden), Hovsep Markarian (MA Cultural studies graduate and writer, from Aleppo based in Yerevan. Hovsep is a founding member but no longer part of the team) and Houry Pilibbossian (MA social anthropology student, researcher, photographer from Aleppo based in London).
  • A couple of years ago when COVID came into our lives we suddenly found ourselves quarantining at home. That’s when new activities started to come to the surface. One of these activities was talking about culture and ethnography. Saghatel and I were part of a Facebook group called “Aleppo Antika”[Antique Aleppo]. It’s mainly people from Aleppo who are on Facebook and the purpose of the group is to collect stories and memories from Aleppo. This is when we noticed the lack of Armenian presence in the group. Saghatel wrote posts about Armenians and made lists of Armenian owned shops but there was no response. After having long conversations, we realized that one of the problems behind the passive participation of the Armenian members in the group was the language barrier. All the group content is in Arabic and most Armenians didn’t feel at ease expressing themselves in Arabic. This is when “Hi Haleb” came to life.  
  • After endless zoom calls Saghatel, Harout, Rajni, Hovsep and I launched Hi Haleb as a Facebook group in May 2020. We have a clear manifesto and a set of rules for the group. The purpose of the group is to create a platform for Aleppo-Armenians where they can share stories, memories, even photos and videos. Through this aspect we aim to construct an archive (I will expand on this later).  A key rule is to avoid talking about politics, especially Armenian political parties in Aleppo, because once this topic comes up people turn on each other and the purpose of the group gets sabotaged. We also don’t accept any religious posts, good morning/good night posts. Basically, our posts are limited to Aleppo’s cultural, social history and present times. Using this mechanism helps us filter out content and focus on the areas of research that we want to achieve.
  • Our field is an unorthodox space, it’s a Facebook group that we control, because we couldn’t physically be with one another due to the pandemic. As admins we each live in different countries just like our group members who are scattered all over the world. The one thing that we have in common is that we are all Aleppo Armenians. We first started making lists among the three of us about Armenian shops (cassette stores, bakeries, publishing houses, barber shops, jewelry shops).  We filled these lists as much as we could, but we needed help. So, we started posting the lists to our group on Facebook and people would interact with comments. In the beginning, we expected more engagement with the posts, however, we barely got any comments. This is where the issue of lack of public discourse came into play. A simple Facebook post unearthed an issue that has been imbedded in the Armenian community of Aleppo for ages. The fear of speaking out, of expressing thoughts and ideas. In this case even something as simple as the name of a shop owner resurfaced even though our methodology was trying to break the modes of silence.

Can you tell us about the process of digitalization and the building up of the archive? What tools did you use and why?

  • ArcGIS is the mapping platform that we are mainly using to archive. The link came to us through one of our members who works in mapping. He donated the link and paid for it so we can add the information.
  • Here’s a link to the “work in progress”
map that we have.
  • Mapping one of Aleppo’s streets that was highly populated by Armenians during the early 20th century. Over the years, that street changed as Armenians started expanding and moving beyond the Jdeideh area. As of today, we have around 150 shops mapped out on one street in Jdeideh called Tilel street. It was a collective effort to gather the data about the Armenian owned shops of Tilel. One of our community members helped us create a map where we mention each shop’s name, the owner’s name, the date of opening and closing the shop, and the story of the shop. Some shops are still up and running until today, others have changed over the years, and some don’t exist anymore. The nature of the map was made to allow anyone who has information to click on it and add their story.
  • However, due to technical difficulties for our community members, many of them were not able to add the information. So, I would have endless video calls with them to accurately place their family business on the map with its story. Some would send me messages of the names of their shops and the shops next to them written on a piece of paper and photographed. This slowed down our data entry process, but it allowed us to be flexible because what we care about is having the information out there. The map only has one street at this point. Its purpose is to visually show the large magnitude of the Armenian presence in the area and to archive and document all these shops that were never recorded anywhere else before.
Why is this work important, in your opinion, for the region and digital rights defenders in the region?
  • The virtuality of this space is what propelled members to drift away from the disadvantages that comes with occupying physical space – in regards to expression and so on - and to instead focus on discourse and knowledge production that takes place on a literal cloud. The gathered data is/will contribute to the creation of a valuable archive that holds the stories of the Aleppo Armenian community. It took the community a Genocide, a war, and a pandemic to realize the importance of having and owning an archive. Adding to that, the martial collected through Hi Haleb contributes to knowledge production in academic settings and beyond. Knowledge that is accessible to the community and contributes to the social and cultural identity preservation - since the community is once again scattered across the world.
  • I say this with a heavy heart. The earthquake that hit the region, specifically Aleppo Hi Hale because of the network through which we are now organizing aid. Because of the trusting community that we have managed to create over the past few years.

What resources do you need for this project? How can we support you?

  • We need to connect with experienced tech minds that are interested in building up archives who can guide us through the different tools.
  • This project also needs a lot of financial resources and human resources. We need to be able to pay for the technology we are using. Be it Zoom, ArcGIS, different cloud services to store the information.
  • I am here to answer all your questions, I will also share my email here feel free to reach out to me at any point ( houry.pilibbossian@gmail.com)