Over the next month, to coincide with our current exhibition My Sister Who Travels, Rachel Dedman is our special guest blogger. She presents a four-part feature entitled ‘My Home Is An Archive’ exploring the history of her apartment in Beirut through the articles left behind by past residents. Part one of the series is below.
Rachel Dedman is an independent curator and writer living and working in Beirut, Lebanon. Rachel is currently curating an exhibition for the Palestinian Museum (Birzeit) on Palestinian embroidery, a Franchise Exhibition of contemporary art from the Middle-East for apexart (New York), and is about to take up the post of Curator-in-Residence at 98weeks (Beirut) for the next year.
My home is an archive.
Never have I lived anywhere so surrounded by stuff; messy, dusty, beautiful and seemingly endless.
My flat is up a small street through the car park opposite Geitawi hospital, in East Beirut. There are no formal domestic addresses in most of the country, and no way of getting post delivered. People develop modes of navigation around the city that rely on language rather than Googlemaps.
Pink bougainvillea pepper the houses opposite, and the flowers drop onto the ancient cars parked beneath. Cats curl up on the twisted cardboard that covers the windscreens. An enormous lemon tree dominates our front garden and extends up to the second floor. It gives the house its name, and us fresh lemons for most of the year, until we can no longer reach them from our balcony.
Inside is a time-warp.
In the living room, two sofas and four armchairs are upholstered in polyester-silk, patterned in a patchwork style with a recurring motif of tulips. The palette includes creams, greens and taupes; once bright, they are now greying and frayed. A low coffee table, glass-topped with four legs – only three of which touch the ground – sits in the corner. Made of dark wood, and chipped a little, it was probably considered chic in the 1960s. On top of it is an old-fashioned telephone, with a dial you rotate with your finger. Black, glossy, heavy; there is a number printed on browned paper and tucked into a slot on the front – 32.59.58. Against a wall squats a ‘Solid State All-Transistor Quick Start’ television, set into a faux-bois casing, gathering dust.
There are three pictures on the walls. One is a faux-Impressionist painting of a city and the banks of its river; Paris, perhaps. It sits in an ugly frame, once bronze, now dusty buttercup. On the opposite wall, in a burnished ornate surround, a portrait of a young boy standing contrapposto in a dark landscape. Someone has added a cigarette to his flaneur fingers in pen. To its left, a cheap print of a Chinese scroll painting of a chase or hunt. Its frame is metallic, the print trapped in the prickly embrace of a chipboard mount.
Two chandeliers of frosted glass are suspended from the ceiling. On the larger, the eight arms are connected by strings of glass pendants, some of which are shaped like daisies. A number are broken, dangling loosely, catching the light. Cobwebs grow between them. Five of twelve bulbs work, one is missing altogether. The bulbs are shaped like candle flames, their holders circled by little impasto plastic drips, neat rivulets of wax held eternally mid-melt.
In the study space that extends from the living room towards the back of the flat, a central desk is littered with objects, including a large clock in dark wood, with an undulating frame around a central face. The numbers are in an art deco font, slender and affectedly curved. It still works if you wind up the back, though the tick is unbearable.
On a sideboard, several souvenirs from foreign travel dot the dark shelves amid piles of DVDs and ancient coffee sets. These include the ultimate paradigm of touristic ephemera: a bottle of coloured sand poured to create an image of a camel in a vast red desert, above which floats the word Jordan. Gold plastic facsimiles of the main sites in Paris sit on a flat pink pedestal – the Eiffel Tower, Arc du Triomphe, Notre-Dame. There is a lumpen candle in the shape of a heart, and a tiny bust of Napoleon Bonaparte.
In an imposing armoire against the opposite wall, approximately 40 copies of La Revue du Liban, dating from 1985 until 1992, are stacked on the bottom shelf. Many covers feature huge colour photographs of military men from the course of the civil war, and occasionally a foreign president. On top of the pile is tucked a table lamp of salmon china, with a white central panel painted with flowers. The double cord is wrapped around its neck, and it lacks a bulb, though its lampshade – white papery parchment frilled with short silk trim – sits nearby.
There are countless books here, but among them are twenty-one volumes of Collier’s Encyclopedia, in non-alphabetical order. The spines are blue and red, with gold lettering. By the same publishers, a set of ‘Junior Classics’ with titles such as Once Upon A Time and Call of Adventure. Predominant themes among novels are romance, whodunnit and science fiction, mostly published in the 1950s and 1960s. Titles include Pillow Talk by Marvin H. Albert from 1959, featuring soft-core sex-appeal caricatures of blond Americans on the cover; Reseau sous-marin by F.H. Ribes from 1965 – this cover features the word ESPIONNAGE emblazoned near a helicopter swooping over frothy ocean – and a collection of new French science fiction stories from 1968, the racy front designed by a Michel Desimon.
Near these are a host of children’s schoolbooks, for Maths, Geography, History, all in French. I find it strange here how demarcated education is along linguistic (and thus broader cultural) lines in Lebanon. Geitawi is a Christian area, where most people still speak French at home, even at the expense of Arabic. The books in the flat are in English, German, Arabic and Armenian, but the textbooks are all French, a relic of the impact of colonial history upon the academic and cultural development of Lebanese Christians, an influence still experienced today.
Picking up one of these books and idly flicking through it, I see a name in blue biro penned in the upper right-hand corner of the first page: Irma Guverdjinian. The book is called Le Francais – LIRE ECRIRE PARLER, a textbook designed for 6th grade children around 10 years old. The book is hard-backed and battered, the spine held together with tape. Printed in 1974, a fact betrayed by period typography as well as the publisher’s frank, the cover inexplicably features two elephants eating hay from the back of a red truck.
I had been living in the flat for many months at the point I found this book, and Irma’s name. I was of course aware, in that time, of the objects that filled the strange space of my home – whose décor and interior were a talking point with visitors – but I had not really thought much about them.
While I had considered these objects dusty novelties in my home, Irma’s book made me realise that, in actual fact, I am a guest in a space which has a long, rich history of its own. I became newly conscious of the things around me and the people once attached to them. A walk through the space felt like archaeology, peeling back layers of time – German magazines from the 1990s, newspapers from the 1980s, curtains from the 1970s, an AUB yearbook from the 1960s, letters from the 1950s. The flat contains multiple strata of time, but so jumbled together, so everywhere, that they aren’t really visible – until a name in a book tugs one layer free.
It struck me that this space, which my housemates and I inhabit as friends, was also for decades a family home. A home where children played and grew up, where teenagers studied for exams, where parents cooked meals and argued and did laundry and talked with their neighbours across the back courtyard.
The more I began to look, the more I spotted things that constituted relics of a family space. At the bottom of a book teaching Arithmetique Commerciale was the carefully printed name Robert Guverdjinian. Practice typing exercises – also Robert’s – slipped from the pages of an old notepad, his signature swirled at the bottom of pretend correspondence for a course in formal French composition. Other names appeared too, all Armenian, embroidered on blankets, scrawled in jotters, printed neatly in ancient birthday cards: Kasparian, Aintablian, Kradjian. The latter, Kradjian, is the surname of our landlord, Leo, who lives downstairs with his family still. This chimes with the palimpsestic nature of the flat’s contents; a space shared over the decades by aggregate branches of a large family, for cousins and aunts and other clans by marriage.
Looking at objects as clues, my housemate Sara and I began to speculate. Two large show-catalogues for German furniture, marked with notes and numbers in Arabic, suggested someone here was once a salesman – we flicked eagerly through both for a glimpse of the strange sofa-set that dominates our living room, but were disappointed. We trawled AUB yearbooks stashed in an old cabinet for mention of a Guverdjinian, scanning the rows of black-and-white ‘60s haircuts and cat-eye frames, our eyes catching at every Armenian surname, marked by the suffix –ian. Our imagination was set in play by the discovery of an incomplete California tax form for the year 1966; a postcard in German from friends abroad; by a self-help book entitled How to organize and sell a profitable real estate condominium. However eccentric and informal this archive – constituted of things left behind, of objects un-taken – it seemed to conjure up a powerful reflection of Beiruti life in the twentieth century: the multi-lingual, middle-class existence of the city’s Christian Armenians. In the books and china, a Franco-European influence is clear, though the practical administrative skills, export documents and foreign income forms indicate travel and connections to the USA.
Tens of thousands of Armenians came to Lebanon following the Armenian genocide in 1915, when millions were killed by the Turkish, expelled from their homeland, and forced to flee. They settled across the country, most in Bourj Hammoud, Beirut, near my home in Geitawi. By 1926 there were 75,000 Armenians in Lebanon, and the population was considered large enough to merit representation in parliament – which in Lebanon is divided strictly along confessional lines, supposedly representational of the country’s different religious demographics. Such a system lies at the root of Lebanon’s contemporary problems: sectarian in-fighting dominates the government, which is nowhere near representational today. Seats were originally assigned on the basis of a census in 1932, which – over 80 years later – is embarrassingly out of date. Another census hasn’t been taken since, for to do so would reveal the dramatic changes Beirut’s religious landscape has undergone, particularly the huge growth of Muslim populations – marginalised in the original parliamentary demarcation – and dramatically undermine the power of the Maronite and other Christian groups. Though integrated within Lebanon, Armenian life and culture is strong and distinct, particularly in Bourj Hammoud – brimming with restaurants, statuesque churches and the Armenian language. Haigazian University is an Armenian institution, located in Hamra, and one of the best in the country. Armenians attempted to stay neutral in Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), though the conflict reportedly fortified Armenians’ differentiation from other groups, and rigidified its ethnic boundaries.
The flat is a touchstone to such histories. Through its objects we have access to glimpses of lives and personalities, told through things left behind. We are not living in a blank space, after all, but in one filled and stretched and defined by previous inhabitants – their things most of all, but beneath those their tastes, their decisions, relationships and ideas.
Who are they? Why did they leave? Where are they now?