Ghosts of Beirut: a Review of “displaced”

11 April, 2022
In front of Saint Var­tan Armen­ian Apos­tolic Church, Tiro, 2018, from displaced (pho­to cour­tesy Ara Osha­gan).

 

displaced հատում, pho­tog­ra­phy by Ara Oshagan,
with an essay by Krikor Beledian
ISBN 9783969000144
Kehrer Ver­lag 2021

 

Karén Jallatyan


Diasporic In/visibilities
Order a copy.

There are few works in Eng­lish that cap­ture the tex­ture of dias­poric Armen­ian expe­ri­ence in the enchant­i­ng rich­ness of its ghost­ly cre­ativ­i­ty. This is what makes the recent pub­li­ca­tion of displaced հատում remark­able. It offers pho­tographs by the Los Ange­les-based artist Ara Osha­gan and an essay in West­ern Armen­ian — “The Bridge” — by the Paris-based writer Krikor Bele­di­an, along with an Eng­lish trans­la­tion by Taline Vosker­itchi­an and Christo­pher Mil­lis. The pri­ma­ry — in a naïve sense — locale evoked by this vol­ume is Beirut, par­tic­u­lar­ly its Armen­ian quar­ters, which both artists knew as chil­dren. Both left Beirut in their youth — Bele­di­an in the ‘60s, Osha­gan in the ‘70s — before and because of the Lebanese Civ­il War (1975–1990), but have sus­tained cre­ative ties with their birth­place across decades.

To state that Bele­di­an is one of the most sophis­ti­cat­ed and pro­lif­ic writ­ers in the West­ern Armen­ian idiom is to make the read­er in Eng­lish expe­ri­ence very lit­tle. Beledian’s invis­i­bil­i­ty as a major writer is part of the fate and strug­gle of West­ern Armen­ian — a lit­er­ary lan­guage that after an accel­er­at­ing peri­od of ges­ta­tion in the 19th cen­tu­ry, emerged in a dis­cernibly nation­al form at the begin­ning of the 20th in the Ottoman Empire, espe­cial­ly Con­stan­tino­ple, to be for­ev­er cut from its milieu by the 1915 Armen­ian Cat­a­stro­phe; a lit­er­ary lan­guage that since then and for gen­er­a­tions has been sur­viv­ing in Paris, Beirut, Alep­po, Boston, Los Ange­les, Syd­ney and else­where under dias­poric con­di­tions, with­out the usu­al nation-state-dri­ven admin­is­tra­tive and edu­ca­tion­al infra­struc­tur­al sup­port to shape its future. West­ern Armenian’s invis­i­bil­i­ty — lit­er­al­ly and lit­er­ar­i­ly — is par­tial­ly assuaged by this bilin­gual pub­li­ca­tion of Beledian’s “The Bridge ” (Կամուրջը, Gamoorj’) in Europe and now in the US.

A restrained fig­u­ra­tive open­ness — a relent­less exper­i­menter of lit­er­ary form that Bele­di­an is — gives “The Bridge” a rare evoca­tive pow­er. A bridge is ref­er­enced ear­ly in the essay as con­nect­ing The Hill neigh­bor­hood of Beirut, where Bele­di­an was born and grew up, and the set of quar­ters that bear names from the erst­while Armen­ian region of Gili­gia, the bridge being the “offi­cial gate” to these neigh­bor­hoods down The Hill. Bele­di­an writes about how as a child he, with fam­i­ly and peers, would vis­it these neigh­bor­hoods dur­ing sum­mer and fall not by tak­ing the bridge but by walk­ing under it, through the riverbed when the water was low. Regard­ing this “alter­nate route,” Bele­di­an notes:

This pas­sage nei­ther delin­eates a path, nor can it real­ly be regard­ed as a road. Every passer­by who dares to plunge into the unknown departs from desired or pos­si­ble places, does not stop, does not fol­low any prece­dent […] This is a tem­po­rary tra­jec­to­ry, where one who arrives has nei­ther the chance nor the incli­na­tion to stop.

And when the riv­er returns, this unchart­ed path is erased: “When the waters rise, very lit­tle that could have become a fixed point, that could have remained staked, nailed to the soil and inscribed in the shal­lows, can with­stand the eddy’s force.” (11) The unof­fi­cial and tem­po­rary, erased and recur­ring, the secret and trans­gres­sive expe­ri­ence of cross­ing is what displaced հատում inscribes through Beledian’s essay and Oshagan’s photographs.

And yet, dur­ing win­ter and spring, when the riv­er floods, the child recalls enter­ing the Gili­gia neigh­bor­hoods through its “offi­cial gate,” the bridge: “In your imag­i­na­tion, the bridge seems durable, a con­stant­ly busy mass on which the trams, some idling and oth­ers some­times speed­ing seem­ing­ly for a sec­ond sus­pend­ed in mid-air, almost ethe­re­al, prove the struc­ture’s sta­bil­i­ty.” (13) The trans­la­tors choose “ethe­re­al” to ren­der Beledian’s hand-picked word այերային (ayer­ayin) which denotes and declines air. The bridge grounds and is metaphor­ic, is at once real and ethe­re­al. As a fig­ure, it is even ade­quate for think­ing about Vosker­itchi­an and Mil­lis’ trans­la­tion of Beledian’s essay, which takes dar­ing poet­ic leaps.

The world of the child is the lived expe­ri­ence of the cityscape, filled with rit­u­al and sto­ries, inhab­it­ed by and sus­tain­ing kin, friends and co-dwellers: “When you are a child and they bring you to these parts a cou­ple of times a year only, you are almost enchant­ed by every­thing; often you for­get your abil­i­ty to resist such enchant­ment, your eyes focus on the present only.” (15) The child walk­ing on the bridge is tempt­ed to touch the toys for sale, not allowed to do so by his moth­er; passers­by, who stop and fon­dle the mer­chan­dise, are also enchant­ed. (16) He encoun­ters dif­fer­ent Ara­bics spo­ken on the side­walks of the bridge, pass­es by the butch­er shop, remem­bers the men seat­ed at a table on the side­walk around drinks. As for the tem­po­ral shape of enchant­ment: “Oh, hap­py, sim­ply because you had no sense of time.” (17)

 


Displaced: From Beirut to Los Angeles to Beirut by Ara Oshagan


 

Nor Marash, 2018, from displaced (pho­to cour­tesy Ara Oshagan).

Here, the trans­la­tors ren­der into idiomat­ic Eng­lish what in Armen­ian has quite a jar­ring qual­i­ty, which in a word for word trans­la­tion could also be ren­dered in the fol­low­ing man­ner: “sim­ply because time was­n’t.” (16) Then come mem­o­ries of walk­ing into the neigh­bor­hoods, encoun­ter­ing the facade of a news­pa­per build­ing, the swear­ing, lus­cious shoe­mak­ers, movie the­aters with signs bear­ing Armen­ian names but not offer­ing movies in the Armen­ian lan­guage. (18) Bele­di­an remarks iron­i­cal­ly: “Cin­e­ma is the thresh­old to the oth­er world, which is here, all around, but is not revealed. And what­ev­er is not revealed does not exist, for sure.” (18) The oth­er­world approached and missed is a major theme in Beledian’s literature.

 

Giligia
The Paris-based Armen­ian writer Krikor Bele­di­an (pho­to cour­tesy Archives Parenthèses).

What is this Gili­gia? It is the West­ern Armen­ian pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the medieval Armen­ian king­dom of Cili­cia north of Lebanon, at the south­ern Mediter­ranean coast of Turkey, bor­dered by the Tau­rus moun­tains in the north. A king­dom known for its illus­trat­ed man­u­scripts and alliances with the Cru­saders and the Mon­gols alike, destroyed by the Mam­luks of Egypt in the end of the 14th cen­tu­ry. An ersatz king­dom already, one of dis­placed ori­gin, as it formed around the 11th cen­tu­ry with the exo­dus and reset­tle­ment of Armen­ian nobil­i­ty from the Armen­ian High­land. And the open­ing lines of Beledian’s essay: “Down from The Hill, beyond the riv­er, is Gili­gia, as you call it. Nor Sis, Nor Adana, Nor Marash, Nor Amanos, Nor Tomarza, Nor Yozghat — you rat­tle them off in a sin­gle breath. Gili­gia lives again, right here — who knows until when? — in its leg­endary names.” (11) “Nor” is the Armen­ian word for new. When the riv­er returns, it floods into these neigh­bor­hoods: “Theirs is a tran­sient dwelling, always sub­ject to expul­sion or uproot­ing.” (13) One more rea­son for the inhab­i­tants of The Hill to have a con­de­scend­ing atti­tude towards the dwellers below, even though the floods remind the for­mer of their not so recent lac­er­at­ing expe­ri­ence of mass exo­dus from their ances­tral lands. (22)

Enter­ing the neigh­bor­hoods of Gili­gia, the child, Bele­di­an notes, walks into his check­ered pre-cat­a­stroph­ic ori­gins, since among its inhab­i­tants are fam­i­ly rela­tions and close friends of his par­ents who have sur­vived the mur­der­ous mass exo­dus of the Arme­ni­ans. A search for ori­gins that is end­less­ly staged and thwart­ed in Beledian’s lit­er­a­ture. And yet:

“But you all know that these sur­round­ings will not last. The expens­es, untend­ed or cul­ti­vat­ed, will be occu­pied, will be sub­dued by oppres­sive forces, will lose their strange­ness. Fac­to­ries, work­shops, five- or six-sto­ry build­ings will erase that old geog­ra­phy and human pres­ence. The places will be turned to stone, will become small­er, will be spoiled. The war begins slow­ly, with the imper­cep­ti­ble pace of seem­ing­ly almost-invis­i­ble inci­dents, and then the clash­es. But at the moment, there is no war.” (13)

Self-con­scious­ly sit­u­at­ed at the inter­stices of the past and the future, “The Bridge” gives the 1950s envi­ron­ment of the child a dynam­ic vis­i­bil­i­ty, one that is tied with thou­sand threads to the past and the future while ema­nat­ing its sin­gu­lar oth­er­world­ly charm.

Paris — where Bele­di­an set­tled as a uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent and remained after his stud­ies — also folds the spa­tio-tem­po­ral tex­ture of his essay. Here, the child is stand­ing on the bridge in Beirut:

“When your gaze returns to the path opened by the bridge, for a moment you feel as if you are sway­ing on the waters flow­ing from above in the sky and below you. And it’s that ini­tial impres­sion that will return to you, it seems, when you cross the Seine from Pont des Arts whose ethe­re­al course makes for a dif­fi­cult com­par­i­son with your bridge, although both glo­ri­fy met­al. The sen­sa­tions of waver­ing, swing­ing, even oscil­lat­ing, con­tin­ue still, dizzy­ing sen­sa­tions that are, as it were, a musi­cal pre­lude for the dra­ma to come.” (17)

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Ara Osha­gan (self-por­trait).

There is that word ethe­re­al again, in rela­tion to anoth­er bridge. The search for ori­gins, for the “ini­tial impres­sion” is nev­er crowned with suc­cess. The dra­ma to come may also include the build­ings that are going to be built next to each oth­er in these neigh­bor­hoods. To gain a sense of this thick­ly lay­ered land­scape, it is also worth watch­ing Joanne Nucho’s exper­i­men­tal doc­u­men­tary The Nar­row Streets of Bourj Ham­moud (2017). More broad­ly, the future ori­ent­ed shape of Beledian’s essay speaks of the dis­plac­ing vari­a­tions of dias­poric chronotopes.

Pre­cise descrip­tions are inter­spersed with and are set next to four high­ly self-reflec­tive inci­sions — anoth­er word and way to think of the sig­nif­i­cance of the Armen­ian part of the title հատում (hadoom) — that sus­pend the text. The first among such inci­sions: “To describe like this means los­ing a thou­sand and one details; there are, between what is not­ed, expand­ing inter­stices if not out­right cracks — a sur­feit of voice, and call, and scream; above all, the gray, cru­el sur­face of such spaces. What ruins… At the out­set, rec­on­cile your­self to loss, like Gili­gia which is not there; more than any­thing, aban­don any pre­tense of achiev­ing more, any mas­tery, any com­plete­ness.” (15) Here, we can get a deep­er sense of the fig­ur­al open­ness that char­ac­ter­izes “The Bridge.” Through such inci­sions of het­ero­gene­ity Beledian’s text approach­es loss, with­out reduc­ing its expe­ri­en­tial, remem­bered and lin­guis­tic effer­ves­cence into ready-made, easy-to-han­dle abstrac­tions about absence. 

The last of these sus­pen­sions address­es peo­ple and sto­ries: “When peo­ple appear, nar­ra­tive begins. Even if you push it out of your mind, it does not cease impos­ing itself. A city with­out nar­ra­tive is no dif­fer­ent from an abstract build­ing. The more labyrinthine the sto­ry, the greater the need to give it shape. Mazes every­where, of course. Espe­cial­ly when you don’t live their dai­ly lives. You are an obser­vant eye bring­ing every­thing into the depth of its image. Or you project onto this image the shad­ow world of mem­o­ry.” (23) Shape of the city, shape of sto­ries, espe­cial­ly for an out­sider. Re-shap­ing, as an imper­a­tive of writ­ing and a threat to index­i­cal (orig­i­nary) rest­ing place, was already a con­cern in the sec­ond inci­sion. It returns in the pas­sage above in rela­tion to the sta­tus of cities/stories with the last two sen­tences: are we read­ing the tes­ti­mo­ni­al record­ing of an outsider’s child­hood mem­o­ries of a place with its peo­ple and sto­ries or are the lat­ter the result of an illu­sion gen­er­at­ed by hol­lowed mem­o­ries that bar any pos­si­bil­i­ty of tes­ti­fy­ing? Bele­di­an thus chal­lenges the read­er, while inau­gu­rat­ing with this inci­sion the three nar­ra­tives that con­sti­tute the lat­ter half of the text. They are sto­ries of trans­gres­sion, con­sti­tu­tive of the secret world of the Gili­gia neigh­bor­hoods, hav­ing last­ing con­se­quences well beyond them.

Incised sus­pen­sions is what Oshagan’s black and white pho­tographs do, some 59 of them in displaced հատում. Trans­gres­sive, inti­mate, ridicu­lous, out of focus and with curi­ous fram­ings, invok­ing and invit­ing absences, they strug­gle against pho­to­graph­ic regimes that offer un-self-reflec­tive sen­ti­men­tal and melan­cholic ide­al­iza­tions of cul­ture. In a stroke of cura­to­r­i­al bril­liance, the reader/viewer is invit­ed to jump back and forth from Osha­gan’s pho­tographs to Beledian’s essay. The lay­ered­ness of Beirut can thus be gleaned through the pho­tographs, which in turn enrich the detailed tex­ture of the essay by giv­ing it a visu­al aspect that is not mere­ly imag­ined by the reader.

Oshagan’s ver­sa­til­i­ty as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er is seen through the ear­li­er vol­ume Father Land Հայրենի Հող (pow­er­House Books, 2010) ded­i­cat­ed to Art­sakh/­Nagorno-Karabakh (a dis­put­ed ter­ri­to­ry inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized as Azer­ba­jian) — an enclave his­tor­i­cal­ly inhab­it­ed by Arme­ni­ans. Like the vol­ume under review here, Father Land Հայրենի Հող (hayreni hogh) has an essay by a promi­nent dias­po­ra Armen­ian writer, this time by Vahé Osha­gan (1922–2000), the photographer’s father, and is avail­able in an Eng­lish trans­la­tion by G.M. Gosh­gar­i­an. Oshagan’s pho­tographs in Father Land Հայրենի Հող approach the strug­gles that nation­hood entails with­out falling prey to its usu­al sen­ti­men­tal ide­o­log­i­cal framings.

Only one panoram­ic shot of the cityscape is giv­en in displaced հատում. Oshagan’s play­ful rebel­lious­ness is inscribed in the way the shot is not quite sym­met­ri­cal and has a hand pro­trud­ing from the left, mid-air, mid-con­ver­sa­tion, ethe­re­al — the hand of a youth it seems — point­ing with the index fin­ger to the city. The index­i­cal­i­ty of Beledian’s essay revis­it­ed: some­thing hap­pened there, is hap­pen­ing now, a sto­ry. A small cross hangs from the wrist of the per­son point­ing, the bot­tom tip of which almost meets the top of what appears to be the high­est build­ing. The shape of a church is thus sug­gest­ed: sto­ries and cityscapes, infused with faith and rit­u­al, form­ing exclu­sive­ly through the pho­to­graph­ic image. This dis­placed panoram­ic shot is one of the three (four, if we count the cov­er of the book, a pho­to­graph that reap­pears inside the vol­ume) pho­tographs that pref­ace Bele­di­an’s essay.

Numer­ous the­mat­ic and fig­ur­al points of con­tact emerge between Oshagan’s pho­tographs and Beledian’s essay. Images of closed cityscapes and inte­ri­or spaces with peo­ple hard­ly notic­ing the cam­era abound. We are in the dense cityscape evoked as the future in Beledian’s essay. Most­ly men hang­ing around on the side­walks of streets, seat­ed, stand­ing, walk­ing, talk­ing. In one such pho­to­graph, a woman’s pro­file appears in the fore­ground, on “our” side of the side­walk, walk­ing by the men, while a roman­ti­ciz­ing poster of what looks like an Armen­ian church and a panora­ma is hang­ing from the wall across. A con­tained and yet unpre­dictable lived expe­ri­ence is evoked through these photographs.

Peo­ple in church, a close-up of a funer­al pro­ces­sion, a view into a ceme­tery with Armen­ian inscrip­tions on a cross and bul­let shots all around; a close up of an offi­cial list of hand­writ­ten names in the Armen­ian script, the par­tial­ly leg­i­ble title of the doc­u­ment refer­ring to the Bourj Ham­moud ceme­tery; hands going over the list, look­ing for those they have lost. In con­trast, women and men dance in what appear to be pri­vate house cel­e­bra­tions. Some­where out­side, chil­dren play war with what, one hopes, are fake pistols.

Street scenes, some grotesque, some lan­guid, all set­ting up some expec­ta­tion or giv­ing a piece of life. Mer­chants sell­ing pro­duce, ani­mal meat hang­ing for sale; butch­ers cut­ting it in pri­vate. Tran­sience invoked by a dog run­ning and a motor­cy­clist dri­ving through a nar­row street. The hazy pho­to­graph of a child’s face from the side, Beledian’s dream­world invoked. Lots of chil­dren, play­ing in school­yards, run­ning in the streets. A dis­placed and dis­plac­ing pho­to­graph­ic gaze thus emerges, chas­ing after life in its effervescence.