Displaced: From Beirut to Los Angeles to Beirut

15 September, 2021
San­jak Camp, Bourj Ham­moud, 2103

Ara Oshagan

I am walk­ing along the nar­row and labyrinthine Armen­ian neigh­bor­hoods of Bourj Ham­moud in Beirut—spaces with names like Nor (new) Marash, Nor Sis, Nor Yoz­gat. These are the name­sakes of towns that hear­ken back to a dis­tant past, to places and lands from which these com­mu­ni­ties, my com­mu­ni­ties were exiled by geno­cide. My friends who live in Nor Marash still call them­selves Marasht­si (from Marash), even though the last time any of us, our par­ents or grand­par­ents saw Marash, was 105 years ago.

Nor Marash is a few intense urban blocks of con­crete, elec­tric wire and rush of life. It was orig­i­nal­ly set­tled by the same refugee fam­i­lies who were pushed to the brink of extinc­tion by geno­cide. They re-start­ed their lives and fam­i­lies in Beirut, Alep­po and oth­er Lev­an­tine cities.

My friends in Beirut and I were born into these and near­by com­mu­ni­ties and grew up in fam­i­lies and spaces fraught with the col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of extreme vio­lence and dis­lo­ca­tion. Such inter­nal­ized his­to­ries of dis­pos­ses­sion per­sist. Across geo­gra­phies. Across gen­er­a­tions. They remain under your skin. They do not leave you in peace.

I was born in the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty of Beirut hos­pi­tal — to Arme­ni­ans par­ents, who despite near­ly 30 years in an Arab coun­try, hard­ly spoke the lan­guage at all. As a child, I knew Armen­ian and French bet­ter than Ara­bic. We looked back in time more than over the fence to our neigh­bors. We lived in suspension.

At the first sign of trou­ble, in 1975, we fled to the States, even­tu­al­ly to Los Ange­les. A dis­place­ment that also accom­pa­nied a dis­so­lu­tion: my par­ents sep­a­rat­ed, and our fam­i­ly scat­tered. I car­ried one dias­po­ra into anoth­er, along a fault-line of dis­rup­tion and dis­lo­ca­tion. I live in hyper­dias­po­ra and as a result, own mul­ti­ple his­to­ries. My iden­ti­ty is flu­id and shapeshifts between Armen­ian, Amer­i­can, Lebanese, always unmoored, oth­ered, ambigu­ous. My iden­ti­ty is a process — in har­mo­ny and con­tra­dic­tion, simultaneously.

Beirut has always occu­pied the spaces on the edges of my con­scious­ness, always a pres­ence. Now, 40 years lat­er, I have returned to photograph.

I am in the moun­tains above Beirut. I am stand­ing at a land­ing, a foy­er, on the sec­ond floor of a stone-built house. Stone tiles and four doors keep watch over this desert­ed space, silent and cold. Here I spent my sum­mers as a child. And here, now, 40 years lat­er, on this same tiled land­ing, I am over­whelmed: in this desert­ed space, among the silence of the tiles, I see myself: a past and a present, inter­twined, inter­rupt­ed, torn, inseparable.

I remem­ber: I am child and I am run­ning. Through woods, among dark thin trees, scat­tered pine cones; I am climb­ing, pick­ing berries from over­size berry shrubs, clear­ing path­ways of thorns, rid­ing bikes on dirt, over hills, into rocks. I am run­ning, always running.

I am run­ning on pave­ment now with my best friend at my heels — we have fled school at lunch and are run­ning down­town to find our favorite com­ic books; we are run­ning past gar­dens with worn fences, strewn garbage, chaos of cars, past the street hawk­ers, shoe sales­men, nail salons, men in neat suits and women in pur­ple hats, past cin­e­mas, restau­rants; we are run­ning, breath­less and obliv­i­ous to the vio­lence brew­ing all around us about to engulf the city.

Now we are run­ning as a fam­i­ly, in a taxi, speed­ing: my father tells us to get on the floor, we hear gun­shots; we are careen­ing down a desert­ed high­way at ungod­ly speeds towards the airport.

I have returned to Beirut to look for what? A begin­ning? An end? What pos­si­ble nar­ra­tive? I peer down an abyss of time deep­ened by war, I bring with me the ruins of a fam­i­ly, a gulf with­in the self. The civ­il war has cre­at­ed a new city yet it seems noth­ing has changed.

I see: nar­row chaot­ic neigh­bor­hoods falling apart, crip­pled by gen­er­a­tions of vio­lence, exter­nal and inter­nal; the rush of life, stench of kebab and trash, noise, dirt, waft­ing music and laugh­ter. I see men, women, chil­dren, ghosts at once famil­iar and utter­ly for­eign; a com­mu­ni­ty, breath­ing and vibrant, defi­ant; a place, an inces­sant undy­ing past.

I see: a com­mu­ni­ty still absorb­ing cas­cad­ing wars, eco­nom­ic col­lapse and dis­as­ters, still con­nect­ed to their far-off home­lands of West­ern Armenia.

I hear: a melo­di­ous res­o­nant language—my own West­ern Armen­ian, a lan­guage on its death bed, try­ing to reach across an even greater abyss to its begin­ning; and an invis­i­ble sub­ter­ranean vio­lence that can rise like a typhoon at any moment.

I see myself.

I try to artic­u­late a response to this space, my space and com­mu­ni­ty through which I move, talk, eat, curse its his­to­ry and mar­vel at its resilience and life, lived as if there is no tomor­row. I try to find a nar­ra­tive. Or per­haps an end.

dis­placed [sic] the book, by pho­tog­ra­ph­er Ara Osha­gan and author Krikor Bele­di­an will be pub­lished by art/photography pub­lish­ers Kehrer Ver­lag in Ger­many, Fall 2021. dis­placed is Oshagan’s third work in a dias­poric tril­o­gy that begins in Los Ange­les, trav­els to Armenia/Karabagh and cul­mi­nates in Beirut.

ArmeniaBeirutLebanese civil warLos AngelesphotographyTurkey

Ara Oshagan is a multi-disciplinary visual artist, curator and cultural worker whose work sits at the fraught intersection of legacies of violence, diasporic identity, narrative, memory, community, and displacement.  He has published two books of photography and created multiple critically-acclaimed public art installations, projects and exhibitions. His works have been exhibited internationally and can be found in multiple public and private collections. Born in Beirut, Oshagan and his family were uprooted by the Lebanese civil war and he grew up in the US. At the core of his work is an exploration of his personal as well as collective history and lived experience of displacement and diaspora. He is currently the curator of City of Glendale ReflectSpace Gallery and lives in Los Angeles with his family.

The series presented here is from his book “displaced” to be released by Art/Photography publishers Kehrer Verlag in Germany. “displaced” is the third work in a diasporic trilogy that begins in Los Angeles, travels to Armenia/Karabagh and culminates in Beirut.


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