This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia.
The Holy Land has been home to a small Armenian community for over 1,700 years. In the 4th century, Armenian Christians and monks settled in Jerusalem after undertaking pilgrimages to the city. Over time, they formed their own neighbourhood, known today as the Armenian Quarter. The Palestinian-Armenian community in Jerusalem grew in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, in which the Ottoman Empire killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923.
In the 1940s, Jerusalem-based photographer Kegham Djeghalian, who had himself fled from Armenia during the genocide, relocated to Gaza, which was then simply a Palestinian city on the Mediterranean coast. Eighty years and numerous wars later, Gaza and its surroundings have become among the most uninhabitable places on earth. The majority of local residents are unemployed and have limited access to water, electricity, food and medication. Plus, of course, they can’t leave.
But before a seven-year blockade brought Gaza to its knees, before Hamas took power, the city had a totally different cultural identity and feel, captured through the lens of Djeghalian’s camera. His 36-year-old grandson, Kegham Djeghalian Jr, an art director, visual artist and fashion stylist based in France, recently found three boxes containing some of his grandfather’s negatives and old photographs at his father’s home in Egypt.
Forty years after his death, Djeghalian’s work is now on show at the Access Art Space in Cairo, the city where part of the Djeghalian family fled during the 1967 Six-Day War. Djeghalian chose to stay behind in his beloved city. His pictures offer a rare snapshot of the comparatively carefree lives of Gaza’s residents from the 1940s to the 1970s. All the dates on the photographs were removed to represent a version of Gaza “suspended in time,” as Kegham junior puts it.
VICE met Kegham junior at the exhibition to talk about his family’s complex relationship with Gaza, migration and identity.
VICE: What does this exhibition mean to you on a personal level?
Kegham Djeghalian: It’s very special, almost therapeutic. When I found these archives at my father’s place, I felt like an archeologist discovering an important historical artefact. It wasn’t immediately clear to me how important these images were, but I knew there was something about them.
I was eager to get to know my grandfather – I inherited my passion for photography from him. That’s why I went ahead with the “excavations”, and as you can see, his photographs are a great discovery. He documented a side of Gaza that’s totally different from that which we see today.
I found the boxes in 2018. Since then, I’ve faced many challenges, including my lack of experience in photographic conservation. Right now I’m trying to retrieve the rest of my grandfather’s archives which remain in Gaza so that I might combine them with what I found in Cairo. I really hope I can make that happen.
What was your relationship with your grandfather like?
I never met him. He stayed living in Gaza and passed away in the early 1980s. Besides our shared passion for visual arts, I also really wish I had known him because of how people from Gaza react when I tell them I’m his grandson. He founded the first photography studio in the city and the mention of his name still arouses strong emotions in the memories of people who were living there at the time.
My father never mentioned the boxes before, he’d forgotten all about them. Finding them changed my life – I’ve become more aware of my family heritage and gained a deeper understanding of my own identity. Most of all, these photos are a way to give back to Gaza – the city deserves to have its story told differently.
What have you learned about your grandfather through these images?
These photos raise more questions than they answer, for me. I look at them and wonder why an Armenian immigrant decided to settle in Gaza and not in Jerusalem. I wonder how a man who barely spoke Arabic earned such a high level of trust and love from people.
My grandfather enrolled his children in Arabic schools where they also learned about the Islamic religion and the Qur’an. He never had a problem with that, despite being a Christian. He even followed the Islamic Aqiqah tradition [of sacrificing an animal] when his son was born. My grandfather loved and belonged to Gaza and its people. He documented the details of their lives both inside and outside his studio.
Do you think your father had actually forgotten about the boxes? Or was he avoiding them?
I think there’s a bit of trauma involved. My family usually avoids these kinds of memories. It’s not been easy for my father. [Despite living in Egypt for over 50 years,] he still has Palestinian travel documents. [Millions of Palestinians are stateless. They do not have passports but laissez-passer documents granting them limited rights.]
My grandfather was himself a genocide survivor. According to the family stories, he fled Armenia disguised as a girl, since the Ottomans killed the boys first. In his early youth, he moved to Gaza to open a studio after being trained in Jerusalem by another Armenian photographer. He documented the Nakba [or “catastrophe”, the exodus of more than 700,000 of Palestine’s population following the 1948 Palestine War], the Six-Day War, the refugee camps and all the tragedies the people of Gaza went through.
My family has bitter memories of the Six-Day War. My grandmother was in Cairo [when the war broke out] visiting my father and uncle who were studying there. They couldn’t return to Gaza see my grandfather for three years after that, and the visits became less frequent from then onward.
In the early 1980s, my father was harassed on his way back to Egypt after a trip to Gaza. An Israeli soldier treated him so badly he vowed he’d never go back to Gaza again – and so it was. This episode has seemingly sealed his emotional detachment from Gaza. Perhaps that’s why he forgot about the three boxes.
What do people think of this exhibition?
Gaza has always aroused people’s curiosity, especially foreigners’, including many diplomats in Egypt. They are often shocked Gaza really used to look like this. Through social media, many people from Gaza have actually recognised themselves or family members in my grandfather's photographs. They got in touch with me and told me more about how the photographs were captured and who the people in the images were. It was almost like a reunion.
Which photograph is nearest and dearest to you?
This one [See photo below].
This is the shadow of my grandfather on the sand, and this is my aunt with one arm around my father’s shoulder. They’re peacefully strolling down the beach barefoot as the sea brushes against their feet.
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