She was still in her early teens when she came face to face with her possible “other self”. Egyptian-Armenian born Nairy Hampikian was waiting at the gates of the Ramses College for Girls (RCG) in Ghamra, Cairo to hear the teacher call out her name to get on the school bus that would take her to her parents’ house in Heliopolis, but her name was not called.
“I thought they had forgotten me, so I went to the teacher to enquire. She told me that she had called my name. ‘You are Naira Harras Karkar,’ she said. ‘You can get on the bus.’”
Up until this point, Hampikian had lived secluded in the Egyptian-Armenian community in the multi-ethnic suburb of Heliopolis. Born as a third-generation Egyptian-Armenian to a family whose ancestors had escaped the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire for the safety of Egypt, Hampikian had long been accustomed to moving strictly within the large Egyptian-Armenian community in Heliopolis.
Like her sister Anaïs and other boys and girls from her community, she attended the Nubarian Armenian School in Heliopolis before moving to the RCG.
For the first 14 years of her life, she did not think of herself as being Harras Karkar, a typically Upper Egyptian family name, but always as Hampikian.
Perhaps until that point she was more Armenian than Egyptian.
Like other families in the Armenian diaspora, the Hampikians, especially Nairy’s father, wanted to make sure that their children did not lose their identity.
“When my father would take me around the Egyptian Museum as part of the many cultural activities he liked to observe, he would not read from any of the many guides written in Arabic, English or French, but instead would read from the pieces that an Armenian historian had collected in a small book on the subject,” she recalls.
Until she joined the Architecture Department of Ain Shams University in Cairo in the early 1970s, Hampikian was very much a reflection of her first name, Nairy, an Armenian name found in “an excavated Mesopotamia manuscript discovered in 1956, the year in which I was born,” she says.
However, once at university, Hampikian decided that she would not accept any remarks suggesting that she was “less Egyptian” than others in her year because of her Armenian origins.
“I had broken out of the bubble, and I thought to myself that I was not just third-generation Egyptian-Armenian but also third-generation Cairene. Some of my classmates, on the other hand, had only come to Cairo from the Delta or Upper Egypt to attend the university very recently,” she remembers.
Having put her foot down and insisted that she was no less Egyptian than the people around her, Hampikian then decided to explore the whole of Egypt with her friends.
In a small, two-door Seat car, she drove to historical sites across the country, and it was perhaps during these excursions that Hampikian further developed the affinity for archaeology that her father had first instilled in her.
After her graduation from Ain Shams University, Hampikian was ready to examine the Armenian part of herself more closely. She went to the Armenian capital Yerevan to do her Masters degree in the early 1980s when Armenia was still part of the former Soviet sphere.
“It was perhaps Soviet rule that made the Armenians feel so very Armenian at that time in a way that was maybe more intense than it is today, now that the country is no longer under Soviet control,” she recalls.
For close to three years, Hampikian lived her Armenian life to the full. She was not only surrounded by Armenians in the streets of the capital, but the dorms of the University were also full of Armenians from the diaspora who had come to Yerevan from all over the world.
However, though she felt very Armenian during these years, Hampikian was not giving up on her other Egyptian identity. “When I decided to do a national dish in Yerevan, it was obviously molokhiya,” she says, laughing. She sips her coffee. “Call it Armenian coffee not Turkish coffee,” she laughs.
Back in Egypt, with a degree in Armenian architecture, Hampikian tended to view her fellow Egyptian-Armenians as “lesser Armenians”.
“I thought that they were not Armenian enough,” she says. She then started her career as a restoration architect and conservator working with leading foreign missions, later opting for further postgraduate studies in Islamic history and architecture.
A few years down the road when she was working on a restoration job in Islamic Cairo in the early 1990s, she stopped in front of a store bearing the family name Karkar, and she started to debate who she was once again.
“I thought to myself that I was enriched by two equal identities that I belonged to equally and in no uncertain terms,” she comments.
She was working on all types of restoration projects at the time, Pharaonic, Coptic, Islamic and of course Armenian, with Italian, German and Egyptian supervisors and mentors, before earning a PhD in archaeology from UCLA in the US.
“When I was doing my application to go to UCLA, I thought I would do a PhD in architecture, but in the end it was in archaeology, and I became as much an archaeologist as an architect, just like I am both Armenian and Egyptian at the same time,” Hampikian says.
As both an Egyptian and an Armenian and as both an architect and an archaeologist, Hampikian was heartbroken to see the demolition of the old Kalousdian Armenian School recently, whose students have been sent off to Heliopolis to what is now the Kalousdian-Nubarian Armenian School.
“This was not just an Armenian piece of architecture that was lost. This was the loss of a piece of Cairo architecture that was used as a school for boys and girls who were Egyptian-Armenians.
This is not the only loss I lament in the destruction of the Maspero Triangle, however. These buildings could have been kept, and there could have been development around them,” she says with a sigh, referring to the development that is taking place in the area around Maspero in downtown Cairo.
To avoid further losses, Hampikian is now working on the documentation of property owned by the Armenian Patriarchate overlooking Ramses Street in the downtown area. “I helped restore this building, and I am currently doing the paperwork to have this building, put up in 1920, added to the list of registered monuments,” she says.
Hampikian strongly believes that the country’s heritage should be conserved. “Ownership doesn’t matter. Property rights should not give the right to destroy heritage.
The heritage belongs to the nation and to humanity as a whole,” she comments as someone, an Egyptian-Armenian, who had been working on the preservation and documentation of Egypt’s architectural heritage for over a quarter of a century.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A for Armenian